For three years, without even knowing it, I lived a few blocks from Jim Woodring. Both of our homes sat on the border of Seattle’s old-growth Ravenna Park, a wooded gorge that has now been immortalized in comic history by Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole. During that period, I spent a lot of time wandering through the park and, coincidentally, discovering Woodring’s surreal comic narratives, which could easily be interpreted as guides for the wandering mind.
His Frank books follow the eponymous main character, a “generic anthropomorph” (not quite a cat, a mouse, or any other kind of animal), as he explores a world that is vaguely similar to early surrealist paintings and Disney cartoons. Since 1980, when Woodring self-published his “illustrated auto-journal,” JIM, he has developed the “Uni-factor” (as he calls it) or “Frank-verse” (as his fans call it) into a fully realized dreamworld that seems to stretch far beyond the page. In the introduction to The Frank Book, Francis Ford Coppola describes this world as “wordless, timeless, placeless.” The cast of characters who inhabit it have also grown, and include Pupshaw (Frank’s pet), Man-hog (a snarling, naked fat man), a vast array of frogs, and all sorts of unnameable phantasmagoric bystanders, each of which serves its own tiny purpose in Woodring’s expansive, ineffable vision.
Woodring’s artwork has never fit into common categories of comics, fine art, or graphic novels. His narratives are slow and silent, with the arc of a calm spiritual quest or an introspective acid trip. Despite the utterly abstract nature of his stories, they seem to follow a consistent visual logic and somehow evoke the menial actions of our everyday lives. In addition to his Frank and Jim books, all released by Fantagraphics, he has collaborated with the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to make musically inspired images and multimedia performances that have been presented at Carnegie Hall, among other places. He seems to be in a constant state of creating toys, drawings, and paintings, all of which he sells at galleries and on his website, sometimes to private collectors. Recently, he learned to read and write a little Sanskrit.
This interview was conducted in Jim’s home in the summer of ’08. He looked bearded, wild-eyed—a self-described “bear of man.” When I arrived, he was in the middle of the Antonio Gaudí documentary by Hiroshi Teshigahara, an unhurried tour of Gaudí’s otherworldly architecture, released by the Criterion Collection. While we talked, Woodring let it play with the sound off. Sometimes he interjected, pointing at the screen, saying, “Did you see that?” His wife came and left as we talked. We sat in his living room, among his handmade artifacts and his character dolls proudly displayed on a mantel that serves as a shrine to Woodring’s spiritual and artistic heroes.
THE BELIEVER: In your bio it says that you “enjoyed a childhood full of apparitions, hallucinations, and paranoia.” After reading some of the JIM books, I have a vague idea about what these were, but can you talk about what exactly would happen? Would they hit you in the shower? Do you remember them pretty clearly?
JIM WOODRING: I can remember many of the bizarre delusions I experienced as a child very well, because they were big events in my life and I thought about them a lot. Most of them occurred when I was in elementary school. By sixth grade, they were less clamorous and I stopped being so confused by them. When I was four or five, I spent a horrible year convinced my parents were going to come into my room after I went to sleep and kill me. Every night I tried not to fall asleep. I thought I could hear them standing outside my door, plotting. Lying in bed at night, I saw glowing faces and shapes hovering in the air over me, and sometimes an enormous eye. One time I was sure there was a lion in the house—I heard it roar and I could see its shadow. I barricaded myself in my room and cried hysterically. Another time I saw a big party horn with teeth and a tongue and wings flying around in my room. I told my mother about it and she got very upset.
Sometimes I heard voices saying my name. Sometimes they said, “No.” Sometimes they said vaguely parental things, like “Don’t be ridiculous.” Sometimes they seemed to speak about me. I remember being in my second-grade classroom and hearing a voice say, “He’s breaking everything,” and I shouted out, “I am not!” Everyone, including the teacher, seemed to think it was funny, and I remember feeling very pleased at what I perceived as warm, appreciative laughter.
BLVR: So the hallucinations were sort of a good thing?
JW: Good? Who knows. But I came to regard them as not only a part of life but the most interesting part. Consensus reality seemed like a dull, dead-end street compared to the intense, mutable reality of those visions or whatever they were—neurological misfires. I expected life to be full of sudden, inexplicable surprises. When these things didn’t happen for a while, life seemed dull and painful. I loved the strangeness, the mystery they presented, and I searched for more of the same everywhere. If I was going up a staircase in the dark, I would dance with anticipatory excitement, like I did when we went to Disneyland. I called that prevision state a “sticky mood”—that sense that I was approaching knowledge. I loved it.
BLVR: The “big party horn with teeth and a tongue and wings” sounds like something that might fly through one of your drawings. Does much of your imagery or style derive from these hallucinations?
JW: A lot of imagery from those old JIM comics and stories, such as “Dinosaur Cage” and “Screechy Peachy,” came directly from delusional episodes, and the big green frog on the cover of the first Fantagraphics JIM is something I hallucinated in my late teens, which has remained an important presence in my life. I’ve drawn it dozens of times, and it always gives me a wave of pleasure to contemplate it. The first successful drawing I ever made was Barnyard Trouble, when I was twenty-six. It was heavily laden with images from the flying-horn era. One of the best memories of my life is contemplating that first finished drawing and realizing I had cracked the code, that I could make drawings like this whenever I wanted. My ego went supernova. It was one of the strongest highs I ever experienced: a radiant, full-body, full-mind ecstasy.
BLVR: I’m sure many artists are making art from this childhood imagination, but you seem to acknowledge and embrace it in a way that most people don’t.
JW: Yeah,well, I’m sure many people’s childhoods are filled with these neurological misfires and misperceptions, but since they’re not planning on making a career out of examining and exploiting these experiences, they have no reason to keep those memories alive. For me, nothing else seemed even remotely as interesting. There’s a Robinson Jeffers poem about a guy who has made wounds on the back of his hands and keeps them fresh by cutting them over and over again with a sharp piece of clean metal. That always struck me as being akin to what I do. I wouldn’t let those childhood wounds heal. The tunnel kept trying to close behind me, and I kept forcing it open so I could remember those primordial things, the way that the world seemed to me as a child. It’s been a vocation for me to keep that view intact.
BLVR: I imagine, for most people, that kind of thing could be detrimental to their lives.
JW: It certainly has been for me, socially. I’ve sacrificed a lot to maintain that way of seeing things. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate how much I’ve missed by being so focused on the bizarre. If I had learned how to get along in the quotidian world while keeping up the search for the hidden realm, I might have gotten more out of life. But I believed I was doing hugely important work. I was elitist about it. I wanted to be a pariah, because all my heroes were cult artists, people who devoted their lives to poking into very narrow, very deep corners—Erik Satie, Alfred Jarry, Malcolm Lowry—people who suffered in order to express their vision of life.
BLVR: You’ve had some experiences with hallucinogens and, particularly, the plant salvia divinorum. Would you connect any of these experiences to your early hallucinations? Did they affect you in the same artistic way?
JW: Well, salvia divinorum is in a class by itself. I’ve heard it’s the most powerful naturally occurring hallucinogen, and I believe it. The effects of a medium-strong dose are violently disorienting and not fun in the slightest. I never experienced anything in my natural state that was as shocking as its effects. The condensed extract is murder. I’d smoked some plain leaf and experienced a very alien, very physical sensation, like wheels grinding against each other all over my body. Odd, not pleasant, but not overwhelming. Someone sent me some extract, and I took a big lungful, started counting, and before I reached twenty I was suddenly and without preamble in a completely altered state. I’d heard that you shouldn’t take salvia without having a minder, but I figured that was for green kids. Well, that was wrong. There was no transition, just a sudden and total change of reality. I was completely disoriented, couldn’t remember that I had smoked anything, had no idea what was happening to me. I panicked and jumped to my feet. I thought I was dying; I was convinced I was dying. It was familiar, unwelcome, and very heavy. Fortunately, my wife happened to be in the room. She saw me staggering around, totally uncoordinated, and eased me down onto the floor. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her voice, which sounded like thousands of voices. Ten minutes later, it was over. No residue, no hangover, nothing. But the experience stayed with me in a very creepy way. I’ve never had LSD flashbacks, but I have had spontaneous resurgences of that experience. I highly don’t recommend it.
BLVR: Did it have an effect on your work?
JW: It did. Some pictures I’ve drawn, like the big charcoal drawing called Life After Man, express ideas that were influenced by those few minutes. The question of what is happening, things we can’t perceive but which concern and affect us—what the atman is, that sort of thing is of paramount interest to me, and some chemicals do seem to whip the tablecloth off the surface of consensus reality. Whether the insights they provide are valid is another question.
BLVR: You have a classic cartoon vocabulary in your images.
JW: Well, I think that cartoons have a lot more power than they’re given credit for. I have a personal definition of cartooning, which is, simply, “imaginative drawing.” Anything you’re drawing that is not in front of you but is a mental construct that you want to express in a drawing is, to me, a cartoon. To my way of thinking, the concept drawings that Rembrandt did, the drawings he made that he used to model his artists, to work out the compositions of his paintings: those are cartoons. They’re drawn with cartoon shorthand vocabulary. Look at his sketch for the return of the prodigal son. The expression on the angry younger brother’s face—it’s a classic cartoon expression. The head is down; the eyebrow is just one curved line over the eyes. It communicates in a very shorthand way. It’s beautiful, expressive, and, in a peculiar way, it’s more powerful than the kind of stilted, formalized expression in the final painting. Or look at the engravings of Blake, or The Scream, by Munch, or the faces of Christ’s tormentors in that Bosch painting of Jesus carrying the cross. Those are cartoons, in my book.
BLVR: Or what about those da Vinci drawings…
JW: Those grotesque heads? Love ’em!
BLVR: I’d say there are only a handful of books that can successfully and coherently tell stories with pure pictures. Your stories somehow accomplish that, and yet the images in your books are about as abstract as narrative images could be. How do you go about accomplishing this?
JW: The first time I describe a situation or implement a scenario, I don’t really know what’s going on. I come up with a story line that I can sense has something in it. I write it line by line, and if every line resonates…
BLVR: You write it out with words?
JW: Yeah. I say, “Frank does this. Frank does that.” And I choose what stays and what goes. I have a criterion. You know how with surrealism certain images are stronger than others? Well, why is that? Why is it that of two unprecedented, irrational, seemingly incomprehensible images, one will knock people out and the other leave them cold? I think the powerful one must have an actual, relevant meaning, even if nobody can ever say precisely what it is. Anyway, that power is what I’m after. I depend on a certain little frisson that I get when I hit upon a valid idea, relationship, event, or image. The thing shimmers in my mind, gives me that sense that it is glowing with unseen energy. “Fluorescing” is the way I think of it. I reject dead ideas and keep live, glowing ones until the story resolves itself and I have a script. Then comes the process of depicting the action, which is tedious and a bit of a chore. Not knowing what the story is about until it’s finished is essential for my continued interest in the process. If I suddenly comprehend the underlying significance of the story while I’m working on it, I can barely force myself to continue with the drudgery.
BLVR: Have any writers influenced your process?
JW: The fiction I tend to like is nothing like my own work. I like the kind of writing that shows me things I don’t know about, and what I don’t know about is the everyday, normal world. Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Lautréamont, I enjoy them, but I can only read so much of that stuff without losing interest. I can’t get through Les chants de maldoror or Les fleurs du mal, because they describe things that are already more or less familiar to me; they’re preaching to the converted. But if I read a book like Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin sea novels, or something else that tells me about normal people and the regular world, which I don’t really understand, those things interest me a lot. Anna Karenina. I’ve often thought I would like to try to write a conventional novel, but I just don’t know enough about the real world to write one.
BLVR: What do you mean, you don’t know enough about the real world?
JW: I don’t! I could never write about the sort of people John Cheever or John Updike or even Margaret Atwood write about. I don’t mean I couldn’t write as well as they do, which of course I couldn’t; they’re great writers, and I’m no writer at all. But I couldn’t even write badly about normal, neurotic people. I don’t know that world from the inside. That’s just not my orientation.
BLVR: What is your orientation?
JW: Well, it’s a state of continual rejection of consensus reality, of trying to glimpse what lies beneath, to try to see beyond the tenacious illusion of maya. I could never convincingly describe the everyday activities of a normal group of people, let alone develop a story about them. The normal world is an alien environment for me.
BLVR: So is Frank a manifestation of that exploring aspect of your character?
JW: That’s exactly what he is. He’s an agent representing my interests, my perspective. The world is never a settled matter to him. He’s always trying to discover what is really going on, and when he does find out, he gets a terrible jolt. Sometimes he is driven beyond the limits of sanity. As William Burroughs said: a schizophrenic is a guy who has just discovered what is really going on. That’s a paraphrase.
BLVR: You just tell Frank to go look at something and then he does?
JW: Right. I set the stage, bring the forces together, and then what happens happens, and I record it. And though Frank has amazing and terrible experiences, he never learns anything. It would be a catastrophe for the story line if he did. Basically, he’d stop acting like a child. Knowledge extinguishes the flame of curiosity, as the saying goes. He makes things happen, but he’s also protected from the consequences of his actions. Me, too. The karmic hammer has spared me many times when I should by rights have been walloped good. I’ve come to believe that the way I am is the way I’m meant to be.
BLVR: Was there ever a moment or episode in your life when you decided that you needed to start acting “normal”? Do you ever attempt to make yourself “normal”?
JW: Yeah, in high school. I was having a terrible time of it, and I asked my parents to let me see a psychologist. I saw him for half a year, and all he did was ask me innocuous questions and drowse with his lower lip stuck out during the many prolonged silences that ensued. He also showed me poetry he had written under the influence of LSD. I guess he was suggesting that I should drop acid, which probably would have put me in the loony bin, I was so messed up at the time. What a jerk. I remember one session he had a gob of mayonnaise on his cheek—at least I hoped it was mayonnaise—and I was too self-conscious to tell him about it. Strange to say, I just saw a film in which that exact scenario occurred. Maybe it’s some standard psychologist ploy. Anyhow, it was a total waste of time and my parents’ money, except that it convinced me that help was not to be had from the outside. And then in my thirties I became aware that there was a chunk of my past that was hidden from conscious memory, and that it probably contained repressed or forgotten events that were too painful to confront. So I went to see a Jungian analyst, but after our initial interview she declined to treat me. That was it, as far as getting professional help went. Oh, look, it’s the Sagrada Familia! [Woodring points to the television screen at some slow-moving images of Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.]
BLVR: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I able was to see it a few years ago.
JW: Really? Lucky you! That’s a real work of art. I wish I had the balls, I wish I had the audacity to do something anywhere near that grand. The books that I do, the stories I write—I’m glad I’m able to do them, but they will quickly be swallowed up by the sands of time. Sometimes it frustrates me that I’m not able to do bigger, more important, more significant things. I guess you have to be content to do whatever it is you can do.
BLVR: You feel that your books and your Unifactor aren’t enough?
JW: Well, I have to be satisfied with it, and I do sort of feel like I’m building my monument with what I do, but it’s pretty small and inconsequential compared to real works of genius like this, which are giving vast inspiration to humanity. But I guess I shouldn’t even say that. It’s ridiculous to say that. You are what you are. My stature suits me.
BLVR: But you just said that comics and cartoons were an inspiration to most people.
JW: Well, yeah, cartoons are perhaps a bigger part of art than is generally realized, and they influence people in ways that are not always recognized. But creating a monumental work of architecture, or writing a great symphony, is something else. It’s a higher order of creation. I love Polly and Her Pals, but compared to Beethoven it’s trivial. Then again, they say that on his deathbed, Beethoven pathetically asked a friend, “I did have a certain talent, didn’t I?” So maybe it’s just something artists feel—that they could have done more, whatever they’ve accomplished. Maybe Gaudí at ninety years old, before he got hit by that trolley, felt that he had yet to prove himself.
There’s this spooky little parable I heard somewhere. There’s a young boy who hears the sound of a horn—maybe he hears Miles Davis—and he realizes that all he wants to do is play the horn. So he looks to the sky and says, “Please, please, please, make me a great horn player.” And the voice of the universe says, “Yes. Become a great trumpet player.” So the guy does that. He plays his horn. He devotes his life to it. He succeeds. He does all the things a usual obsessed person does, all the highs and lows. And at the end of his life he says, “I spent all my time playing the goddamned trumpet. That’s all I did, and I missed so much because of it. What a tragedy.” And the same voice of the universe speaks to him and says, “Yes. What a tragedy.”
BLVR: That reminds of me of the Upanishads.
JW: It makes the hair on my neck stand up. It resonates, but the exact meaning is a little elusive. To me it means you should set your sights as high as you possibly can. When I was setting out to be an artist, I said: If I can just produce one work that some people think is good, if I can become an obscure cult artist, that’s all I want. Well, I attained that. I’m an obscure cult artist, and I think now, Why didn’t I say I want to be another Picasso or something? What other options were open to me? But I was convinced I couldn’t achieve great things because I don’t have a steady-state mind.
BLVR: What do you mean by that?
JW: My mind is a will-o’-the-wisp. It’s like a runaway horse, and that has caused me untold grief. It’s a serious defect, though some people have a much worse case than I do. You see them sleeping in doorways all the time. Great souls like Swami Vivekananda, or the best artists, like R. Crumb, have great steadiness of mind, tremendous ability to concentrate and retain control. Crumb has a conspicuously steady-state mind. If you look at his sketchbooks you can see it. There’s an incredible evenness of quality to all his drawings, even his quick sketches. If you look at my sketchbooks there’s this fucked-up jumpiness. My mind jumps around like a frog.
BLVR: Do you think that’s always a bad thing?
JW: Yes. A mind in control is always better than a mind out of control. For one thing, a controlled mind can learn much better and go much further than a chaotic one. A person with a steady-state mind has the potential to exit this life with a much greater understanding than someone who is continually learning and forgetting, gaining and misplacing knowledge.
People for whom art is religion can say, “What I love about art is that it points to a higher reality.” Well, fine, but the time comes when the smart thing for such a person to do is to let go of the fun of the art and get into the hard work of attaining and understanding that higher reality, unmixed with worldly games.
I think that’s an appropriate goal for anyone, whatever their vocation. I don’t believe in art like I used to. I believe in something beyond it, something that contains art and everything else. But I just don’t quite have the nerve to chuck drawing and painting. Part of it is that I enjoy it too much, and part is that I don’t have the courage to renounce the world. I don’t want to move out of this nice neighborhood so that I can live in a shed and devote myself to meditating and touching something I can’t feel. I’m addicted to the fun of playing in the world.