Woodring Returns to the World of "JIM"

Jim Woodring has become known in recent years for his "Frank" books. The wordless comics are among the most innovative and fascinating comics of recent years, but before he started making them, there was "JIM." There were three different "JIM" series, beginning as a self-published zine that Woodring created when when he was working in animation at Ruby-Spears before it was picked up by Fantagraphics.

Jim Woodring Gets Frank About "Fran"

In the new "JIM" hardcover collection, also from Fantagraphics, all of this work is assembled in one volume and it's possible to see it as a portrait of a young artist who has found his voice and is in the process of developing his own style. Like many artists, Woodring has a complicated relationship to his early work, but the book remains a powerful and striking work of art and he was kind enough to talk about the book and what he's working on now.

CBR News: This is a collection of your early work, so I'm guessing you have complicated feelings toward it.

Jim Woodring: I do. In a lot of ways I think "JIM" is the best work I've ever done. It was my first sustained outpouring of work and I took the doing of it very seriously. Ideas and obsessions that I had been unable to express up to that point came pouring out. I was bold in ways I haven't been since.

I typically like an artist's early work more than the later work for the same reason -- because you can frequently see their raw impulse revealed in a way they learn to smooth over and professionalize later on. But it's hard to be objective about my own old work, since so much time since then has been spent trying to improve upon it. And of course I'm a different person than I was thirty years ago. Occasionally I'll meet a young man who reminds me of myself at that age and I'll think, "Christ, what a magnificent saphead." Naturally enough revisiting "JIM" makes me see my former self in a similar light. That's not entirely pleasant.

What exactly does the book "JIM" consist of?

There were three different publications called "JIM." There was a self-published pamphlet that came out between 1981 and 1986. There was a magazine-sized series that Fantagraphics put out from 1986 to 1990. Then there was a comic book sized "JIM" that they put out between 1992 and 1994. "JIM" staked out it's own territory during the "alternative comics" thing in the '89s and '90s.

Each series is different in some ways. The first self-published ones didn't have any comics in them at all. The second series was more of the same but with comics. The third series was mostly comics and was more polished and refined than either of the previous two and I think more acceptable in a way. There's different work on display in each of them but I have them all jumbled together in this book because the impulses that lay behind the work was the same in every case.

As for what it is, it's mostly comics but also stories, pictures, essays, ad-forms, real ads -- a real grab bag of stuff.

It feels like a zine.

It started out as a zine. One of the early zines. In 1980 there weren't a lot of them.

Woodring Chronicles "Congress of the Animals"

Why would you describe your later "JIM" work as acceptable and accessible. I'm curious why you would phrase it like that.

In the early "JIM" I was going for the jugular, the source. I didn't care if people didn't want to wade through fields of hand-lettering; I didn't care if people thought I was a narcissist, or infantile, or a weirdo. I got some negative feedback from family and friends who thought was embarrassing myself and that just made me lay it on more thickly. I had no expectations that it would turn into or lead to anything larger; all I wanted was to express myself in the most direct and sincere way possible.

Later on I began to think a little bit about the needs of audience, and began to tailor the material to be easier to consume. I felt I had established my bona fides and that it was time to see if the work could be a little more integrated into the world at large. I ditched the hand-lettering and tone-poems and concentrated on comics.

I remember the last time we spoke, you mentioned how when you were in school your teachers would say that you didn't understand drawing and weren't any good and you didn't care.

Oh, I cared all right. It just didn't stop me. It bothered me that I couldn't draw well and it bothered me that others couldn't see what I thought was good about my work. I saw myself as an artist and I was completely determined to do this and so my near-total lack of talent didn't deter me. Well-wishers were telling me to pick a different profession. My father -- until his dying day -- thought I'd made a mistake by being an artist and that I should have become a blacksmith. Literally. Even when I was supporting my family by drawing professionally, he thought it was a fluke that couldn't last. He thought I belonged in the back of some filthy shed pounding on an anvil. I think that a lot of people who knew me when I was young would have understood his point of view because I was such a feckless kid. People were surprised that I grew up to be capable of supporting a family and having a job and conducting a normal conversation and doing the things ordinary people do because as a youth I was such a mess.

I misspoke when I said you didn't care, but the important point is that this wasn't going to keep you from doing what you wanted to do and what you felt you should do.

What I wanted to do was make pictures that had the same charge that the pictures I liked had. I'd seen some strange art that happened to wander into my parents' conservative household. Magazine illustrations by Artzybasheff and Pierre Roy, Brueghel's "Land of Cockaigne." These things mesmerized me. To make work like that has has been my only artistic and vocational ambition for my entire life. That is all I have ever wanted to do. I've never considered trying to do anything else as a life's work.

There's that truism that all children draw and at a certain point they stop.

That's true. People ask me when did I start drawing and I say, 'When did you stop?'

You mention in "JIM's" introduction that your work started to click when you were 26 with this piece "Barnyard Trouble" that's included in the book. What was it about that piece that clicked for you? Do you even know?

It's such a hard thing to quantify. You can look through a book of surrealism, for example, classical surrealism, and some images are famous because they're so potent and some images are less famous because they're not so potent. They're both unprecedented, irrational images. Why some should be so powerful and others not? I don't know. Why should Dali's "Persistence of Memory" be his most famous painting? Why is that the one everybody knows when all of his pre-1940 paintings are just as crazy? There must be something in that picture that points more directly at some hidden truth. Or some hidden reality. Some hidden thing that's being reflected by that painting that makes people go "jeepers!" when they see it. Whatever that is, that "Barnyard" picture was the first thing I ever did that reflected my own frequency back at me in such a way that I could feel it. The first few pictures I made that worked, I could sit and stare at them for hours. They just fed something inside me. They were doing something to me that I liked -- but I could not tell you why or how. There was no formula for it, so I couldn't produce that kind of work at will, but I got to recognize that glow in the ideas before I drew them and that was what I started to do after that point. It was a breakthrough.

You had this idea and put it down but somehow what emerged on the page was more than the sum of those elements you were conscious of.

Exactly. A writer or an artist trying to put together a composition, I think, will typically go through a number of ideas. They'll say I should put this here, no it looks better over here. It's hard to tell when these things work, but you can just tell when they do. In the realm of symbolic drawing you can tell just as strongly when something is a cliche or something is weak as you can with any other kind of art, but I think it's much more difficult to say why the things that work work.

I often have conversations with artists where I'll ask about a certain design or composition and why they made that choice and so often their answer is, "I tried it other ways and it was always wrong."

Right. It works. That's a terminology everybody understands, but if you're called upon to explain what that means, it's hard to put your finger on it.

You said that, in general, you like early work from artists.

In general -- not in all cases. David Galenson wrote a book called "Old Masters and Young Geniuses" that is full of interesting food for thought. In his view young geniuses are people who do their best work when they're young and never quite regain that level again. Like bands whose first two records are great and then you never like anything else they do. Or writers whose early work has this incredible buzz and they spend the rest of their lives trying to equal that. The young genius types are the ones whose early work I like -- everybody likes it. Young geniuses can show mastery at an early age but what I really enjoy are people whose work has not even reach the first flowering of young genius. It's in the groping dilettante stage. They don't speak with such clarity and they make beginners' mistakes, but they have something they are determined to convey and you can see the impulse through all the rough edges and that's what I like.

That time when people have the impulse to make art, but they haven't developed a style.

That's it in a nutshell. You don't have a style. Your stuff is attaining expression just through will. Naive artists never outgrow that stage.

All the work in the new "JIM" has been reprinted before, is that right?

It's all been printed before somewhere, except for the covers and endpapers.

This may be something you can't answer, but that idea of what in the early work in the later work becomes style. When you look at "JIM," do you see that?

The truth is that I haven't been able to look at this book very carefully. In fact I proofread it so fast and so carelessly that I allowed two pages to be printed out of order. Like a lot of artists I'm not crazy to revisit my work. Mostly what I can see is what's wrong with it.

As for style -- there are a lot of styles, or variations of several styles, in "JIM." I don't have a set style of drawing except for the Frank story style. In "JIM" I frequently came up with a new style for a story. I guess the common denominator in my styles, the recognizable thing, is the strangeness. It's all strange. That's the point. That could be the slogan. It strikes people differently. I remember someone telling me about "JIM," "There isn't a single good, healthy, positive thing in any of your work." Dolt. As far as I'm concerned people who think my work is not only weird and quirky but negative are completely out to lunch. People have told me my work helped them get through a hard time. Last time I did a signing someone came up to me and said,"Your work made me a better person." You can't say fairer than that!

I would have said this work is weird and quirky, but I mean that as a compliment.

That's exactly how I feel. Of course a lot of people don't. People have written to me telling me I need to get help, offering to provide that help. People have written to me to say that they can't stand my work and they wish I would stop doing it because it's such a display of self-obsessed creepiness that it makes them literally nauseous to see it. [Laughs] As far as I'm concerned, that's good.

In the past we've talked about Edward Munch and trying to craft an image that gets a visceral reaction.

Yes. Part of what I do is to try to create images that do that, but the major part of it is trying to express things that I experience -- to just record them. There's a lot of actual straightforward documentation in these comics. Literal retellings of dreams, things that actually happened. None of it is pure fantasy, it's all coded. I don't sit down and think how can I write a story about a weird kid in a weird house. I think, 'How can I capture this experience that I had in some form that will be palatable to people who are looking for a reading experience.'

I suppose that's the challenge with surrealist work, especially, because reducing it to a psychoanalysis of the artist isn't very interesting or enlightening, but thinking of it as fantasy misses the point.

I'm glad you feel that way, because that's a strong concern for me.

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The problem is that then we're left with how do we talk about it besides this image blew me away, or I hated this story.

I think that's the way of modern art in general. It's a game you can play -- or not. Sometimes you get as much pleasure out of hating a work of art as you would by enjoying it. Sometimes you see something that bugs you and sticks under your skin and blossoms in understanding later on. I offer a similar game. It's not like a romance novel or a self-help book or a war story or a crime thriller. It's about things which can only be talked around and hinted at. It's not a game everybody likes to play. I know that some semi-tragic people are immune to the charms of my work, but for people who enjoy this kind of puzzle -- there it is.

You mention in your introduction to the book about your years working in animation at the time you were working on the early "JIM" work and how you had a very famous group of coworkers. What was it like? And did working in animation affect your work?

What was it like? It was fun. Too much fun, maybe. I have a novel's worth of anecdotes from that time. We pulled some magnificent stunts and some really beautiful drawing came out of our department. Of course the resultant cartoons were terrible. My standard line is that they acquired racehorses to grind into dog food.

The effect working there had on my own work was nil. Aside from the technical information and drawing practice I acquired by drawing storyboards and rendering pitch art, that job influenced my personal work not in the slightest. Thematically and spiritually there is zero overlap between the stuff I did for TV cartoons and my own work. What that job gave me was enough money to buy a house and then move away from Los Angeles, and the memories of working with those people. Besides the famous cartoonists that I worked with -- Doug Wildey, Jack Kirby and Gil Kane -- there were other artists who were unknown at the time, who have all gone on to occupy stellar positions in the industry. It was a very talented group of people. John Dorman, the boss, was responsible for that. He put that department together, hired everybody, and he made it a joyous place. He was a fantastic cartoonist. God could that guy draw. He was great. He's no longer with us. I have to say he hired me because we were old friends and I needed to make money. I wasn't qualified either temperamentally or professionally for that job.

Besides just getting to draw, it was just a question of learning enough and then moving onto something else.

Actually it was a matter of supporting my family while I developed my real work. Doing storyboards was useful; I learned a lot about staging and it helped my drawing in general, but artistically I got bupkis from that job. It was just a support system. If I were the kind of artist whose work was influenced by working on "Turbo Teen" or the "Mister T" show, I would be a different artist than I am.

Yes, we would likely not be having this conversation if "Rubik, the Amazing Cube" was a big influence on your work.

Probably not. I hope not.

What are you working on now? Are you painting?

I'm doing nothing but paintings and charcoal drawings, preparing for a huge show at the Scott Eder Gallery in Brooklyn on January 10. Some of the work I've done for this show is posted in various stages of completion on my Facebook artist's page. After doing comics for the past few years opening up to larger anecdotal drawings and paintings is like climbing into the sunlight.

But eventually I need to do two more 100-page Frank books; a book to continue, sort of, the storyline of "Congress of the Animals" and "Fran," and then a final Frank book. And on and on 'til something happens to stop it. It's a strange thing. The life of a day-in, day-out artist is the life I always wanted, and I got it -- and I like it.

The "JIM" hardcover collection is on sale now from Fantagraphics.

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