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“Lit By an Invisible Source”: Briefly, with Jim Woodring

From Poochytown.

Surely, Jim Woodring requires little introduction. A mainstay of Fantagraphics Books since 1987, Woodring is the rare cartoonist to inspire revelatory experiences by several distinct methods — I am a great admirer of his extraordinary autojournal comics, which demanded parity between the conscious and subconscious mind in their recounting of life as truly lived, but he may be best known for the Frank stories: dialogue-free adventures of an inquisitive cartoon critter who explores the myriad terrains of his world, the Unifactor, in the company of a vivid cast of characters. Know that Frank is not a funny-animal version of a cat, or a mouse; rather, he is a 'funny animal' as a distinct being, so that he might seem deeply familiar as a character, yet remain beholden to nobody's expectations, much as the surreal environment of the Unifactor itself purrs below the grass with an unsparing logic that anyone who has seen enough in the way of those gags and stunts that have powered the newspaper strips and beloved animation favorites of a century and change of entertainment will recognize as intuitive, even if they boggle at the details.

But the Unifactor is not merely a cartoon home in which we can observe Woodring's characters. It is the means by which the artist himself witnesses them, a pulsing and bloody arithmetic so deeply understood that Frank's exploits are less willed into being than ascertained by Woodring, who has learned to trust in the voice of this place. As such, Woodring stands close beside the characters he draws: as the wrinkled, porcine Manhog succumbs over and over to his consumptive desires; as the demigod pets/lovers Pupshaw and Pushpaw scamper, lick and serve; as Frank returns from another journey, having yet again become himself. Already, I fear I have described this too rationally; pedagogic and inaccurate. Woodring is a virtuoso, but not a dictator. As in every true collaboration, he and the Unifactor have endured creative struggles.

Poochytown is the newest story to feature Frank, and the fourth in a line of dedicated hardcover books, following Weathercraft (2010), Congress of the Animals (2011), and Fran (2013). Readers of those books will by struck by how this latest tome begins with events that Woodring has drawn before; indeed, parts of the book purposefully recall some of the earlier Frank shorts from the 1990s. Yet Poochytown is distinct from everything prior, as characters warp through panoramas of death and rebirth -- some aboard the cosmic bliss train, with others left in a lost and littered land -- where a dialectic manifests between the desire to cope with the present situation and the longing to restore order. Or, that's my interpretation for now; as you will learn, the context of these recent works is soon to shift. First by phone, and then by email, I asked incorrigibly fannish questions of Woodring, and he responded emphatically about a living process.

--

JOE MCCULLOCH: I guess I'll start at the beginning-- or maybe we need to go before the beginning to get to the beginning. I think you started this book a few years ago, even before Fran? Is that correct?

JIM WOODRING: I started a story that I called Poochytown in 2014, I think. No, it was earlier than that, it was-- oh gosh, I can't even remember now what year it was, but the book that I started that was originally called Poochytown became Congress of the Animals.

Yeah, okay.

So whenever that book came out [2011], I started that the year before, I guess.

And, I think while you were working on that, it was sort of affected by stories you came to draw in its place?

Well, what happened is... by that point I had come to realize that the Unifactor, which is where the stories are set, was calling the shots and dictating the stories to me, and that all I had to do was take them down and work them up into comics. Drawing Frank stories had always been an easy gig for me, because all I had to do was do what the Unifactor told me to do, and I had these nice enigmatic comics that were as interesting to me as they were to anybody else, since their origin, unlike the rest of my other art, didn't come from my conscious mind saying 'I would like to see this image in the physical world.'

Yeah.

Virtually every other thing I've done besides Frank has been consciously constructed, but with Frank, it was a matter of listening to this silent voice and writing down the scenarios it fed me. I mean, I know the Unifactor is a part of me, but it really seems to me to be a separate entity that provides concepts, characters and events which I write down as they come. The important ideas, the ones essential to the story, have a kind of charge to them-- I usually say they "fluoresce” as a simile, because they seem to me to be lit by an invisible source. I would compile these glowing ideas as they came and when that was done I had a bare-bones storyline that I just needed to flesh out and draw, the meaning of which was as mysterious to me as it was to anyone else. It was the easiest work I ever did.

After I had gotten a few pages into Poochytown, I had a really terrible idea which I mistook for a really great one, which is that Frank ought to have a life partner, a mate. The Poochytown story had come so easily that I was a little suspicious of it. It all just came in two or three sittings without any major structural editing required. I was looking at the prospect of drawing 100 pages of a comic which looked kind of weak and tedious to me, and I just persuaded myself that I should drop the original storyline and have Frank find true love.

And so I broke with precedent and started writing that story, and the Unifactor stopped cooperating with me. It took me almost a year to hammer out even a workable story, and I should have grabbed the old clue train and gone back to the original story; but I stubbornly forged ahead. When I had that finally worked out and was preparing to draw it, the Unifactor came back into my life and made some heavy modifications to the storyline, all of which I liked better than what I had come up with.

Mm-hm.

The Unifactor's ideas were that Frank would lose his beloved comfy house and get a new, less satisfactory one, for which he would have to pay by going to work at an awful job; and then he would commit a bad crime, flee the Unifactor as a fugitive, and go to another place where everything was frightening, alien and hostile to him, except for, he thought, this one creature who looked like a female version of himself. That was Fran. And he brought her back to the Unifactor, and I thought that now she would be in the stories from then on, sharing his life and adventures. The Unifactor renamed the story Congress of the Animals, and I was pleased with it for about two weeks.

Then I started to work on the sequel, and I went to gather information, and there wasn't any, and I realized that it was because I had killed the franchise by making Frank domesticated.

[Laughs.]

No, I mean it. In all the other stories, a big element of what charged things up and made things happen in the previous stories was that Frank had this vital lust for life. The minute his eyelids snapped open in the morning he was up and outside and running around in a frenzy of appreciation for his life. He was just thrilled to be alive and wanted to find out about it all, and that was the impetus that made things happen. Also, I realized that an important aspect of the stories was that the opening balance, the situation, the moral algebra, was restored at the end of the story. Even if it was not restored in the same way, there was an essential harmony, a balance, that had to be reset at the end of every story, so that the basic setup would never evolve. It was a good formula, and I had just destroyed it; because now that he had a girlfriend, his motivation to explore the Unifactor was badly diminished. And what were Frank and Fran going to do henceforth? Go out and do things together like the Bobbsey Twins? No, the delicate arrangement had been destroyed by my stupidity.

The Unifactor was happy to show me how to deal with this. Fran, it turned out, was not like Frank. She was a vast cosmic creature, a slumming goddess. And unbeknownst to me, in Congress of the Animals, the Unifactor had laid the groundwork for this revelation. There are all kinds of clues.

Yeah.

So, what happens is that the first time Frank is mean to Fran she leaves without a backwards glance. Frank's heart is broken and he is overcome with remorse. When he finally tracks her down and he sees her in her true form, it's a total nightmare for him. She makes him suffer the torments of the damned but as sort of a final parting act of grace, she restores him to his life before any of this- Congress and Fran- happened. His house is back, his old life is back, and as far as he's concerned, the whole traumatic thing never happened.

Mmm.

So that's the long answer.

From the title page of Poochytown.

Not long ago, I think in a Guardian interview, you had stated that I think this next work was going to connect with those two prior works, but now the book as it exists states that it's “Discontinuing” the prior two works.

Right. Well, that's because the only context in which these stories exist is one that requires that those two books not be thought of as a prequel to what follows. But there is a way of contextualizing it with other material, and putting those three books, Congress, Fran and Poochytown together with like 100 more pages of material, that will not only unite them but change the entire aspect to which they are seen, while maintaining the old one. So you'll have this kind of dual lens, or-- no, that doesn't make sense. Two ways of looking at it simultaneously.

So it's more that the book is still in-- it's still in the midst of being born? Is that why?

Not exactly. I mean, as things stand you have to take these stories at face value without any sense of-- you know, context. I don't know how else to put it. It's like when you're watching a movie, and you're watching some action, and you pull back and you're actually watching a movie within the movie. The camera's in a movie theater.

Yeah.

So the action of the movie-within-the movie suddenly has a completely different context. It's not quite like that, but it's that kind of thing. A way of re-framing it that increases the perspective and sort of undoes the problems the Unifactor has with it, by putting everything in a larger context, basically so you can see that the Unifactor hasn't lost control in any significant way. Which is what it's concerned about. It doesn't want to be blamed for my sloppy workmanship, but if I put it in a larger context then there'll be plenty of room for the rest of everything.

So did the Unifactor reconfigure Poochytown after you'd finished Congress of the Animals and Fran?

Yes. Well, it kept parts of it. It kept the basic storyline, and it kept the basic idea of what a Poochytown is, but it upped the stakes within the story. Hmmm. I don't even know if I should broach this topic, but-- people used to ask me if my non-Frank work was therapeutic; or more often they'd ask me if it was cathartic for me.

Yeah.

And I would always say no, it isn't, it's self-expression. I want to see these ideas, so it's gratifying, but I'm not working out any demons or anything. But I have to say that when I stated to do the Frank stories, I thought, this is sort of almost a Wittgensteinian aspect of my psyche, these stories where you're compelled to examine things closely and be aware primarily of what you don't know about them. You're not able to really understand what you're seeing, so your mind is engaged but your intellect is not. For me this creates a kind of lacuna where I feel this-- empathy for all kinds of things that are part of me that I'm ordinarily unaware of. I don't know how else to put it.

Let me ask you this. In reading through Poochytown, I found a lot of resonances with the earlier Frank stories, where, you know-- he finds Manhog unexpectedly in his house, and he buys something from the Jerry Chickens that they have laid out on the rug, and I'm wondering: do you go back and look at your older comics and reflect on them in making new things? Or is the transmission from the Unifactor something that just goes?

There was a deliberate choice to put in those things as kind of reminders to longtime readers that they were in a familiar place that they knew, you know?

Yeah.

In seeing the Jerry Chickens and the garage sale again, I thought it would be comforting, somehow, for people who might feel that things were all at sea in this story. So that was a deliberate choice.

Okay.

And that thing that happens where they get the object that looks like an old Polaroid camera, but that kind of corpse flower comes out of it? That was a piece of open-ended business that I basically-- provided. There are holes in these stories where I just have to put in a piece of business that shows something. In this case it had to show that Manhog was saving Frank from something dangerous. Like a watchful parent. Frank's like a little kid, and Manhog is watching the situation so closely that he sees a danger Frank doesn't see. The way of arriving at that was my contribution.

From Poochytown.

I really, um, relate to Manhog? I, uh--

So do I.

I like him a lot. I think he's maybe the character in the Frank stories that seems to have changed, maybe the most, as time has gone by, in that-- there's a thing that happens with him where he's often trying to adopt more human or more refined characteristics, and there was a time where he would use that as a means of getting money or getting revenge on something, but it seems in the longer stories there's more a sincere desire to love and be loved? Do you see a change in Manhog as time goes by?

Well, I think your assessment of him as somebody who just wants to be loved, and who is basically good at heart, is 100% correct. I think the bad things he does he does out of pain and frustration. And-- there's a scene in Weathercraft, where's he's already attained this very sattvic state, and he actually has the opportunity of leaving that vale of tears, of giving up his body and ascending, and he doesn't do it, because he's become so exalted that he has that kind of all-sacrificing sense of super-altruism that saints have, and so he turns his back on this opportunity to be liberated so that he can go and help the Unifactor deal with this demon that he's unleashed in the place. Or, at least, that's what he thinks he's doing, because really he's been hornswoggled into staying by the Unifactor. His new, higher nature could be appealed to and it was, in the most cynical and manipulative way. And so he was robbed of something glorious, just so he could be a perpetual player on that miserable little stage the Unifactor has set up for everybody.

Do you think of Frank in the same way? Because I see Frank as kind of a character who-- not necessarily the thing everything revolves around, because that's not true, but he's the one that always returns to the mean, so to speak. He's, you know, reading the book at the end or going to sleep. But in this book, in Poochytown, he does a fair amount of lamentation over death? Maybe that's just my interpretation. Or, over things in the world-- he seems frustrated? Do you see Frank as a changing character, or is he more of a constant?

I see him as necessarily being consistant. In fact, I think of his personality as being really the only constant thing in these stories. He has temporary changes, but they never last very long. He's occasionally corrupt, but that only lasts as long as the situation lasts. When it's over, he's over it. Everybody else in that world is capable of change, capable of learning, capable of evolving. The odds are stacked against them, but they can all do it in a permanent way. So he's like the speed of light. He's like the fixed feature, and everything else is relative. That's why he's the man.

[Laughs.]

Detail from Poochytown.

The Unifactor itself in Poochytown-- maybe this is a consequence of where Frank and Manhog are going, but there's a lot of scenes of things that seem abandoned. Or, not so much without beings in them, but sort of run down with debris laying around, and I wonder-- does the Unifactor resonate with the state of the world? Is there an anxiety in there about how the world is going, or am I just way up the wrong tree there?

I don't think what's going on in this world affects the Unifactor. I don't know if the Unifactor is at all displeased with itself. It seems to me that it likes what goes on there.

But you know, again, it's silly because-- I know, I'm talking about it as if it were a completely separate entity, and I know that it isn't. And I know that I could probably get in there myself and figure it out, but-- there's no incentive for me to do that, it's better for me to just kind of keep playing this game where this part of my mind is presenting itself to me as if it were a separate entity. I'm getting something out of it, so I'm doing it, but I can only push it so far.

Yeah, yeah.

I can't really pretend it's a different place with different rules and if something happens there it's unrelated to me. It's self-reliant, but it's also kind of-- it's like a dream, you know? A dream will seem very tough, and everywhere is a strong, hard texture, but then again, you can make one false move and it's all gone.

Did making Poochytown give you a particular sensation? For me there's a lot of strong, ominous images of death, and also rebirth. Was there a sense of comfort to you in making this?

Well, it wasn't exactly a sense of comfort, no. But there was a sense of satisfaction, I guess, that this story did touch on those things. Because, there-- well, I don't want to be too opaque about it but I don't want to lay it all out either. Suffice it to say that Poochytown represents a deepening of my involvement with the work.

Detail from Woodring's contribution to MAD #2 (Aug. '18).

I noticed recently you were in MAD magazine. Could you tell me a little about how that came about?

I was contacted by Susie Hutchinson, the art director, who is a friend of my friend Larry Reid. She knew my work, and maybe he also suggested me to her. They were looking for new people to contribute when they relaunched out of Los Angeles. And so she called me and she asked if I had any cover ideas, and I drew a pen and ink MAD magazine cover, which they were going to use as a variant at one point, when they were going to do variants. But they ended up not doing it, so I've got this MAD cover that I poured a lot of time into, and which I like, sitting around, which-- maybe they'll find a way to use it someday.

And then she said they doing this feature called The Wisenheim Museum, in which aged MAD readers would reminisce about their love of the magazine, and asked me if I'd like to contribute. I said sure, and that's how I finally got into MAD. It was a big deal to me.

Let me see-- I guess I have a general question. Are there any comics that you're reading right now? Any art that you're looking at?

No, there really aren't any comics that I'm looking at now. I don't actually see comics unless I go to an event, and then I see so many, you know-- there's so many interesting-looking comics now. And it used to be if I'd go to a comics convention or something I could sort of immediately tell which ones I liked and which ones I didn't, but now I can't tell at all. They all look interesting, and there's too many, and there's so many good artists out there. They quadrupled! At least. In the past five years.

I think a lot of cartoonists these days-- I mean, maybe it's been the same all the time, but a lot of cartoonists struggle with getting things done, and struggle with having so little money. Do you have any advice or any words of encouragement for them, to drive them forward?

Gosh, you know-- that is really a tough one. I can tell you that it's a question that plagues-- there are very few established pros of my acquaintance who don't have to worry about exactly that. Including myself. How do you keep making money? Very few of us have been able to go on to a dependably lucrative career doing multiples or fine art or-- you know, like that.

Yeah.

So, it's an ongoing question, and I think the only solution that I have to it is a psychological one, and that is to say that if you're going to be an artist, you have to pay the price for doing something that courageous and noble, and that is to be able to live in poverty, if you need to. And, conversely, if you're going to live in poverty to make art, you should pour everything you have into making that art, so that's it's as good as it can be, and it makes the struggle worthwhile. I see people sometimes getting into a trap, where living in poverty wears them out so much that they just can't put that much into their comics, and the pendulum loses its momentum. I think to make it as an artist you have to have an almost superhuman faith that what you're doing deserves to live. And if your family, if you have one, has to suffer because you're going to do this, then that's just the way it is.

Other than that, I think that the thing to do is to hustle. Just go out there and get every little job you can think of. If there's a dollar sign attached to it and it's not immoral, grab it and do your best work on it. I think that if you've got a respectful attitude towards money, it comes your way. I'm always amazed when I hear somebody, who's not getting along, turning down small jobs because they think they're beneath them or something like that. It's an opportunity to draw for money-- why would a poor cartoonist pass that up? That's how I see it, anyway.

So what are you working on right now? What's in your immediate or not-so-immediate future?

Well, I'm finishing up a big oil painting, that I did as a commission, that I've been working on for a couple of years now, intermittently. I'm going to finish up an enormous pen and ink drawing, it's five by seven feet-- it's not done with the big pen, it's done with a small pen, but it's also a commission. And then I'm going to start on the contextualizing material for the omnibus book, which will come out in a year or two. Two or three years, I guess, is more realistic.

So that's what I have on the horizon, and after that-- I don't know. I have no plan.

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