From The Comics Journal #164 (December 1993)
I was first introduced to Jim Woodring by Gil Kane in 1986. At the time, Jim was a storyboard artist at the animation studio Ruby-Spears, where he worked with Gil. Gil, who can be a relentless proponent of discoveries, insisted that I meet Jim, whom he told me was a great artist as well as a great human being. Against my own better judgment — why would a great artist, much less a great human being, work for a second-rate animation studio, I wondered — I got together with Jim and discovered that Gil was, as usual, a fine judge of art and character. Like many people who complain of intense alienation from their fellow man, I learned that Jim navigates better than most in our dog-eat-dog world social order, and like many artists who profess modesty, falsely or otherwise, Jim is indeed a virtuoso artist and craftsman.
In order to maintain his creative sanity while working in animation, Jim published a little Xeroxed “autojournal” titled Jim, a fabulous showcase for his idiosyncratic and visionary comics. I immediately inquired about publishing Jim as a comic, and the first of four issues, comprising new and reprinted work, came out in 1987. Subsequently, Jim’s work appeared in Weirdo, Prime Cuts, Whole Earth Review, and The Kenyon Review. Tundra published six issues of Tantalizing Stories, which was half Woodring and half Mark Martin. In February of 1993, The Book of Jim came out, collecting the best from the four issues of Jim, and a brand new quarterly Jim comic debuts this month.
All this publishing activity would seem to indicate that Jim is swimming in fame and wealth, but Jim appears to be very much an acquired taste. I have been told that Jim’s work is disturbing, which may account for his cult status, but it is also, paradoxically, likable. Alan Moore may have put it best when he referred to Jim’s work as “unsettlingly alien and intimately familiar.” And as if Alan Moore weren’t authority enough, I recently read an observation by Eliot that is uncannily applicable to the work of Jim ring, and that, I think, nicely summarizes his place in comics. Eliot is describing the “peculiar honesty” of genuine poetry: It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the world conspires because it is unpleasant … nothing that can be called morbid or abnormal or perverse, none of the things which exemplify the sickness of an epoch or a fashion, have this quality; only those things which, by some extraordinary labor of simplification, exhibit the sickness or strength of the human soul. And this honesty never exists without great technical accomplishment.
All images ©Jim Woodring unless otherwise noted
GARY GROTH: I’d like to start early and ask you what your upbringing was like. You grew up in California?
JIM WOODRING: I was born in Los Angeles in 1952. My father was an engineer and my mother worked at the L.A. County Coroner’s office as a toxicologist. She did a lot of morbid things at that job, a lot of forensics. I recall her telling me how one of her jobs was to examine the brains of dead animals to see if they were rabid. She described peeling off the skin and putting the raw skull in acid which dissolved the bone and left the brain.
WOODRING: But my parents were actually kind of secretive, and I never really knew much about them … still don’t. After my father died a few years back, my brother and I found in his house a huge cache of family documents — magazine articles about my mom, letters, photographs. It was very eerie, ’cause it made my folks seem about 10 times more real to me than they had been before. When they were young and vital they rode the crest of that post-World War II optimism. They were always going to cocktail parties and going out to plays and movies and things. They had a rich social life in our neighborhood in Burbank. In fact, my father invented an electronic babysitting device, a huge beacon which he attached to the roof of our house and which was activated by my sounds and movements in my room so he could go somewhere in the neighborhood at night and if I woke up the beacon would go off and my father from anywhere around would see it and go and check on me.
GROTH: So your father was something of an inventor?
WOODRING: Of sorts. He was very creative, very clever at making things. Our house was cluttered with cool devices of his own manufacture. His father was a bona fide inventor. He invented a lot of electrical hardware that is still in use. He invented a gopher trap you can still get in most hardware stores.
GROTH: Do you get any royalties for the gopher trap?
WOODRING: No, he sold the design and the machine that made them outright. He designed and built a tractor that hinged in the middle and had controls at each end.
GROTH: That could go both directions?
WOODRING: Not at the same time. I never understood what the purpose of it was. [Laughter.] My grandfather had a small farm in the San Fernando Valley on Magnolia near Woodman. Well, not a farm, but a small field. He raised crops, peanuts and potatoes. When my father was about 16 my grandfather gave him an 8mm movie camera for a present, and the first thing he did with it was to take the two-headed tractor out in the field, start it up and put it in gear, and put a small weight on the gas pedal so it moved very slowly forward. He then lay down in front of it with his camera so he could film the thing rolling over him; there was just enough clearance, he thought. Well, there wasn’t, and the oilpan began to press his head down against the ground and his father just happened to come along in time to prevent his skull from getting crushed.
GROTH: Do you have the film?
WOODRING: No, it was thrown out — considered, I guess, too much of a reminder of a deed too shamefully stupid to go documented. But I’m proud of him for it.
GROTH: Sounds like a true Woodring.
WOODRING: Proto-Woodring. I think he had a nature similar to mine, but his was a very supportive, straight, conservative family; very hard to rebel against. I think he felt there was a straight and true path that was worth sacrificing everything to.
GROTH: So what was your childhood like? Was it entirely typical?
WOODRING: I guess not, because I recall being a child and discussing my experiences with my friends and finding out that they weren’t having … I hallucinated when I was a kid. I saw apparitions when I was a child. I’d be lying in bed and I’d see large, silent, rotating faces hovering over the foot of my bed, faces that were very cartoony, actually. Big, horrible, grimacing, deeply-lined faces with their mouths open, yelling at me silently, moving their mouths rapidly. I could make these things go away very easily. There were also things that I saw when I closed my eyes that I couldn’t make go away. Like a staring eyeball that I would see with my eyes open or shut sometimes. It would scare the shit out of me and I would leave my bed running to the living room, I’m sure my folks had no idea what was going on with me.
GROTH: How old would you have been when you started seeing these apparitions?
WOODRING: Three or four. I can also remember back to when I was under a year old. I verified this. They say you don’t have a memory of things until two. But I can remember crawling around before I could speak. My memory started at the point where I could start understanding what people were saying to me. I can remember that. I can remember seeing my father coming into a room and saying words to me that I could understand and then him coming and picking me up and having my first sense of the world as normal, that there was order to it. And that’s when I started remembering things.
GROTH: These apparitions weren’t just dreams.
WOODRING: No, no, they were hallucinations. Actually they were apparitions, something different from hallucinations. They were always threatening but they became so commonplace that they didn’t frighten me any more. And like I say, they were easy to get rid of — I would just turn my head and shut my eyes and look back and they’d be gone.
GROTH: How are hallucinations different from apparitions?
WOODRING: Apparitions are usually presences that come to people, usually at night, and they have a really vivid decal-like intensity, and they are people. Hallucinations are a much wider, more loosely defined spectrum of phenomena.
GROTH: You must have given this some thought. Do you have any ideas as to what you attribute these apparitions to?
WOODRING: Nope. Just some people get ’em.
GROTH: Are these purely constructs of your own mind, or do they exist?
WOODRING: No, I’m sure that they were just constructs of my own mind.
GROTH: If someone walked in the room, he wouldn’t see the same thing you saw.
WOODRING: No, no. And if someone else who saw apparitions was in the room with me, they wouldn’t see the same one. It’s a form of hallucination.
GROTH: Have you investigated this at all?
WOODRING: Not really. But for a long time I just assumed that was part of life, that everyone had them. But aside from these visions … I guess I’d say my childhood wasn’t entirely typical because I was in a state of great fear or anxiety a lot of the time.
GROTH: More than most children, you think?
WOODRING: I think so. For one thing, I was obsessed with death at a tender age. I can remember the moment when I was about 4 when I first understood what death was … at least that it meant that life would end, and that in particular my life would end and that there was nothing I or anybody else could possibly do about it. From that day until now death has been the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I think of when I go to sleep. Every day.
GROTH: You must have been a gloomy child.
WOODRING: Not gloomy, but desperate. I’m still looking for a way out of this. It still doesn’t seem fair that we are born to die, but I’ve learned to live with my anxiety and only seldom do I get deeply upset at the thought of death. But in those days I used to lie in bed thinking about death until I would throw up. And at one point I was convinced that my parents were going to kill me.
GROTH: Because of something you’d done?
WOODRING: No, just because … I didn’t know why. I was so afraid all the time, and the world did not make sense to me. I would lie in bed and wonder when my folks were going to come in and do it. This went on for months and I just … I figured they weren’t going to do it after all, so I stopped worrying about it. But the fear of death persisted. I was a driven boy. I spent a lot of time looking for clues. I looked behind things, around things, into things … I was searching all the time.
GROTH: Well, you can see the connection between that and the work you’re doing as an adult.
WOODRING: Yeah, well, it was also a piece of the rest of my life. I was really alienated as a kid and I didn’t get along well. I was really high-strung, really self- conscious, and I just didn’t have any sense at all of what was normal. I would be told how to curtail my behavior and I just couldn’t do it.
GROTH: What kind of behavior couldn’t you curtail?
WOODRING: I couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t stop myself from wandering around when I was not supposed to. I couldn’t stop myself from doing things that I was not supposed to do. I remember one day my mom bought me a new pair of blue jeans and told me that since we had very little money these pants were an extravagance and I should consider myself lucky to have them. She walked out of the room and I picked up a pair of pinking shears and just cut big, jagged holes in them. And while I was doing it, I was thinking, “This is going to get me into a lot of trouble!” And it did. It was something my mom reminded me of until her dying day. It really, really made her unhappy. It was a symbol of all the trouble I caused her, and I did cause her a lot of trouble.
GROTH: Well, this alienation apparently manifested itself in rebellion. Do you think that’s accurate?
WOODRING: No, not conscious rebellion, just inappropriate behavior. I just did screwy things without knowing why I was doing them and without being able to stop doing them. It’s a difficult thing to describe.
GROTH: Do you think it was compulsive? You needed to do it?
WOODRING: Yeah, I would say it was compulsive; although it wasn’t like ordinary compulsive behavior that has got a sort of definite theme.
GROTH: There was no design to this.
WOODRING: Yeah, It wasn’t like oral compulsion or hand-washing or anything like that. It was just a real inability to bring myself in line.
GROTH: Did you ever bring yourself in line at some point?
WOODRING: Yeah, after I got married I decided I sort of needed to change the way I was living.
GROTH: But it took you that long?
WOODRING: Yeah. And it’s still an ongoing process. I’m still not comfortable around people, I’m not comfortable with myself, I’m not comfortable in the world at all. [Pause.] That’s not true: I am comfortable when I’m alone, when I’m in a setting that I really like. Then I’m completely comfortable. I really feel at home in settings and places where there are shadows and enigmas and certain natural aspects, if not almost all natural aspects. Going to a redwood forest doesn’t mean anywhere near as much to me as going down an alley that has the right configuration of things. If I’m in a setting that has the kind of props and elements that lend me my life I can burst into euphoria, which used to be something I did all the time when I was a young adolescent. I would just trance out constantly.
GROTH: Does what gives meaning to your life have some sort of rational or coherent design that you’ve been able to determine?
WOODRING: Only to the extent that it may point to something intangible that I’m seeing through symbolic or reflective means. Fluorescent waves are a big symbol for me because you can’t see them but they make some materials fluoresce. And the quality of light that is produced when they fluoresce is different from regular light. And I feel that in a lot of things in this world, mostly things that are out of the consensus reality, you see the reflection of things which are invisible and intangible, but which are forces that govern us. And I’ve always, I guess, had the instinctive feeling that the closer you can get to those forces, and the better you can understand them, the better one can govern one’s life in certain essential, fundamental ways.
GROTH: Can you elaborate on these invisible forces that govern our lives? I suspect most people assume that what governs their lives are just necessary day-to-day obstacles that they have to get through — jobs and work and marriages and relationships and so on. I think you’re talking about something that transcends all that.
WOODRING: Well, I guess I am, but I can’t say what that is. If you look at religion, for example, you find that one thing that is common in all religions is the state of super-consciousness, whether you call it Christ consciousness or samadhi or nirvana or whatever you call it. There’s evidently a state that human beings can experience where they see completely beyond this skein of unreality that we’re all trapped in and it’s something that people devote their lives to attaining. And they do it without knowing that it’s there. So they must have a hint that such a thing exists before they undertake a lifelong practice of devotional work in order to attain this. On what level it’s perceived, I don’t know. I think we get a closer glimpse of it in dreams. I believe in a collective unconscious and I believe that we are all connected mentally on some level — psychically or otherwise.
GROTH: Earlier you said you felt so alienated from other people, and now you’re saying that you feel that there has to be some kind of powerful spiritual connection.
WOODRING: I feel alienated because I don’t understand the social order. I don’t understand why the people who are top dogs are top dogs and I don’t understand why certain traits are considered admirable, and I don’t understand why practically everything I like and am interested in is practically valueless in this culture.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Well, all that seems pretty understandable to me.
WOODRING: But just in terms of what’s interesting to me, I grew up with kids who all wanted to play baseball and what I wanted to do was go look at a lizard for three hours, and there wasn’t a lot of camaraderie.
GROTH: Did you become a juvenile delinquent when you were old enough to become one?
WOODRING: No. In fact I was a really good little boy. I went around and un-did crimes, if you can believe that. I did do a couple of irrational, destructive things that I was just moved to do … Moral judgments, I guess you could call ‘em.
GROTH: How did you segue from being a difficult child to a good kid?
WOODRING: It’s the same thing. When I was a difficult child I wasn’t bad or rebellious or evil or destructive, I was just out of it. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing any of the time. I wasn’t an incorrigible criminal by any means, I just didn’t understand the social contract. I wasn’t a part of it. I didn’t know how to behave, what was right, what was wrong.