From the TCJ Archives

The Jim Woodring Interview

GROTH: When you were in your 20s — and I guess they were pretty tumultuous 20s, since you were an alcoholic and struggling ...

WOODRING: And a roister.

GROTH: And a roister  ... What's a roister?

WOODRING: It's a roistering joyboy, basically.

GROTH: And yet you’re incredibly knowledgeable about the history of cartooning and illustration and art and so forth. When did you find the time to refine your tastes and educate yourself? Was it during this unsavory period?

WOODRING: I wouldn't say I'm “incredibly knowledgeable” about anything, but sure, I've studied and sought out and tried to learn about drawings all my life because I have an abiding interest. There's no innate reason. I was attentive to drawing even in my marathon cups.

GROTH: So were you simultaneously unruly and disciplined?

WOODRING: Well, I wasn't disciplined in the manner of someone who goes to school and does a lot of exercises and really teaches themselves the fundamentals so that they become second nature and then goes on to apply them. I just always drew because I wanted to draw. So I was not disciplined other than I worked at it. In a way I really wish that I had learned some technique early on so that I could be applying it to myself now. But then again, on the other hand, to get back to T.S. Sullivant again, he didn't turn into what he ultimately turned into until he was in his early 50s and 60s, I believe. And I've seen some people become hamstrung by what they've learned early and they don't break out of it. So it may be that by not teaching myself anything solid at the outset, it made it more possible for me to use different techniques and different styles of expression — which is important to me, for what I do. But l would like to know how to do things better than I do.

GROTH: So how did you learn your technique? Was it sheer repetition, or did you study certain artists carefully?

WOODRING: Well, I would study artists carefully, but then I would try not to copy them. I realized early on, for example, that R. Crumb's invaluable draughtsman asset was his wavery line. Using that line he could draw anything, and if it came out looking tight, it was a miracle, and if it came out looking sloppy, what could one expect? The line was so wobbly. So I immediately started making all my lines really smooth and straight because I didn't want to rip him off, and I tried to get some of his effects anyway. Sounds masochistic, doesn't it? But that has been the way it worked all my life — and now my own line getting wobbly, organically.

GROTH: You went into animation. When was that?

WOODRING: 1979. I was living in Santa Barbara and I had just gotten married; I moved to San Francisco because I thought I could work there, but the work didn't materialize so I moved back to Santa Barbara and it was just impossible for me to find any work in that town. My friend John Dorman was working in the animation industry and he said, “Hey, if you move to L.A. I'll give you a job and you can make $12.50 an hour,” and I said, “Sure!” So I did. Because I felt desperate about not having any kind of a way to make money, really. So I moved to Los Angeles and the job did not materialize right away. [Chuckles.] So I got a job as the in-house production for a little public relations firm, working for this horrible little bug-eyed sleazeball and his rapacious, thin-lipped, ball-cutting partner and bitch. Speaking of the bug-eyed sleaze ball, he really was bug-eyed. His eyes bulged so far out of his head that when he got excited and opened them wide I reflexively put my cupped hands under his face to catch them. So I did that for a while, and then I started working at Ruby-Spears, working on the most egregious shit the world has ever seen, the crappiest, most horrible cartoons.

GROTH: Just to skip back for a minute, you graduated from high school in 1970?


GROTH: And immediately segued into garbagehood and stayed there for a year?

WOODRING: A year and a half.

GROTH: What was your life like between then and when you got married?

WOODRING: Chaotic. I made no provision for the future, just got drunk constantly and took drugs and devoted myself to having fun. I shudder to think of those days, 'cause I was really out of control. I permanently alienated a lot of my friends by acting like a total asshole. But it was during that time that I began to develop what has become my functional persona. I read a lot — Henry Miller, Malcolm Lowry, Knut Hamsun, Camus, Kenneth Patchen, Victor Hugo, Max Shulman ... I went to museums and staggered around ail over the landscape ... got myself beat up a few times  ... had some desperate love affairs  ... hopped trains  ... slept in the dirt  ...

GROTH: Sounds chaotic all right.

From "Frank" in Tantalizing Tales #1

WOODRING: Aye. Of course, there were moments, sometimes seasons of great happiness, bliss even. I had a sense of expanding, exploding even. I couldn't control myself.

GROTH: What was your parents' reaction to all of this? Did they know that their son was a runaway train?

WOODRING: Well, yes and no. They knew I was plenty screwed up, but they had problems of their own and didn't look after me much at all. My mom was dying  ... God, the regrets  ...

GROTH: So you moved to Washington state and then  ...?

WOODRING: Then I moved to Santa Barbara, took up again with my long-time, long-suffering girlfriend Meredith, and then moved by myself into a great little shack on Anapamu Street.

GROTH: I assume you were something of a free spirit then  ... you were single, you didn't have too many obligations, not much overhead.

WOODRING: Right. And those were the days! Santa Barbara was an idyllic place then. Everyone in town was tan and healthy, and sex was almost impossible to avoid, so I didn't try. There was this incredible atmosphere of promiscuity. I remember going to a wedding and being only mildly surprised when the bride and groom each picked up someone else at the reception and went home with them.

GROTH: Holy Toledo.

WOODRING: It was during this time that I began to bring my drawing together in a way that made me realize I could be successful at it, but even so I didn't draw much then.

GROTH: Is that because you were taking part in the promiscuity and good times?

WOODRING: As much as I could be. Being somewhat socially backward and not a natural-born charm boy it was hard for me to derive maximum benefit from this Garden of Eden, but I managed to have a good time.

GROTH: What convinced you to settle down with Mary?

WOODRING: We just had a really deep rapport. We hit it off right away and it seemed like the only thing to do.

GROTH: Did you meet her in Santa Barbara?

WOODRING: Yeah, I was going out with a friend of hers actually, as part of the ongoing hand-off from person to person, and it sort of stopped with her.

GROTH: Was that an immediate recognition?

WOODRING: Pretty much. It wasn't love at first sight, but it was definitely deep mutual intrigue at first sight.

GROTH: So you were living in San Francisco, moved to L.A., and ultimately wound up at Ruby-Spears?

WOODRING: Yeah, Ruby-Spears.

GROTH: Did you have any goals at this point? Did you want to become a comic artist, or were you reasonably content to do animation work?

WOODRING: No, I wasn't content to do animation work. I wasn't good at it, I did storyboards mostly. Storyboards during the production season and presentation work during the off-season. I wasn't good at doing storyboards. I learned how to do cutting and staging and all that kind of stuff, I can still produce storyboards that work, but I wasn't a virtuoso by any means. I had a terrible attitude about that job and I'm sure I was a real pain in the ass to work with — I'd drag down the whole operation with my constant whining.

GROTH: Define your terrible attitude.

WOODRING: I hated the industry, I hated the shows, I hated the fact that everyone I worked with could draw better than me. One of the problems I had was I worked with these tremendously talented individuals and I was envious.

GROTH: Technicians?

WOODRING: Yeah, technically excellent people. It was a little bit exasperating. This one guy I used to work with, Thom Enriquez, is now head of Special Projects at Disney and this was a guy, I mean, he was a lady-killer, he was a great guitarist, and a fantastic cartoonist. He derived all of his technique from copying Wallace Wood and Disney comics and so forth, so it was a constructed style, but it was just slick as grease, and he was really good at it and he applied it beautifully when he did his own original work. So he was an intimidating guy to work with. My friend John [Dorman] is also a natural born genius when it comes to drawing. He never practices but just manages to get better and better all the time anyway. And I worked with a guy named Duncan Marjoribanks who's now a directing animator at Disney Features. I worked with a woman named Kathy Alturi who is now head of Background at Disney Features. I worked with a guy named Tom Minton, who is the most hysterically funny person I ever met — he looks sort of like Edgar Allen Poe — he'd sit in the corner and mutter. If you got close enough to him to hear what he was saying, it was always just devastatingly funny stuff. He was incredibly funny. I remember one time I was on the phone to Bill Hanna's secretary because Hanna-Barbera was having a picnic that we hadn't been invited to — there was no reason for us to be invited, but I was high or something so I decided to call up and ask why we weren't invited to their parking lot party. And this woman was patiently trying to explain it to me and Tom Minton was sitting over on the extension phone kind of glowering to himself, obviously getting more and more fed up with her unwillingness to comply with my unreasonable demands, so at one point he said, "Hey!" The woman said, "Pardon me? Who's this?" He said, "This is Ken Spears, and you know what?" (Ken Spears was one of the co-owners of Ruby-Spears). And she said, "What is it, Mr. Spears?" And Tom said, "If Bill Hanna gets another facelift, his penis is going to flop over his collar and everyone will be able to see his swastika tattoo!" [Groth laughs.] And this woman was just completely flummoxed by this, she didn't know what to say or think. Another time a new restaurant opened up down the street and they had Xeroxed menus written in felt pen, so Tom took one and made up his own and Xeroxed a bunch of copies and went up there and switched them, and there were things on the menu like, “Mule chops” [laughter] and “Bacon crucified on a hard-tack cross,” and all this great stuff. He was a laugh riot, still is I'm sure. It was great working with these people, and the atmosphere was very loose. I used to come home every night and regale my family with outlandish tales of hi-jinks at work.

GROTH: Such as?

WOODRING: Oh  ... One time there was this fellow named Kurt, a great cartoonist and sculptor — he designed the “Slimer” character for the first Ghostbusters film. And one day he said he was not going to come in because it was his birthday and he was going to go fishing. Well, it wasn't his birthday and everyone knew it, but what we did is we trashed his office and made it look like an apocalyptic blowout birthday party for him had occurred there while he was out fishing. We had a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner half tom off the wall, we emptied every ashtray in the building into one overflowing ashtray on his desk, we took Polaroids of employees simulating sex on a mattress in the comer. There were buttock prints in Thousand Island dressing on the walls, half-eaten food and booze everywhere. It stank to high heaven and was totally convincing. Then we all stayed home the next day and let Kurt discover the wreck himself.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Did he fall for it?

WOODRING: Yes! And we had snitched Ken Spears' executive tiki mug from his office and filled it to the very brim with whiskey and left it on Kurt's desk. Then in the morning we called Ken and told him Kurt had taken the mug. Ken angrily called Kurt and said, “Do you have my coffee mug down there?” Kurt was just standing amid the ruins when Ken called; he looked for the mug, saw it on his desk, and grabbed it and sloshed whiskey all over himself, and in that condition he had to go up to the third floor and return the mug. There were many other memorable events; somebody ought to write a book. I had a reunion with these people last year or so and the success quotient was unbelievable. They had all gone on to these stellar things.

GROTH: Including yourself, eh?

WOODRING: No, I was the odd man out. They were all high rollers, they're just up to their eyeballs in filthy lucre and prestige and hot tubs and Sunset Boulevard at twilight and palm trees and sweet winds and all the rest of it.

GROTH: But you recognize that all of that is bullshit, right?

WOODRING: Well, personally speaking, I couldn't be happier that I moved away from L.A. I just despise Los Angeles, not just because it's a stinking cesspool like everybody knows it is, but just because the Hollywood ethic is so fucked, it's such a worldwide corrupting influence. They say you can smell Calcutta from 12 miles away, but you can smell Hollywood all over the world. It represents something that is just absolutely ignominious, the propensity for putting entertainment at the top of your list of priorities. So I say, fuck all that shit! Fuck it! That's what I say!

GROTH: How do you account for its worldwide influence if it's so degrading, stupid, and idiotic?

WOODRING: Because the people in Hollywood are all racing each other to see who can come up with a new and improved method of appealing to our base instincts so they can extract money from us. They work like beavers at figuring out how to get us to surrender our virtues and notions of what's high-minded so that we will be susceptible to some new degraded form of entertainment. Hollywood is a hive of skilled social scientists trying to get behind our humanity so they can manipulate us and make themselves rich.

GROTH: You mean you don't believe the ultimate consumer reductio ad absurdum, that if the people didn't want this they wouldn't accept it? In other words, people do want this and therefore that’s why they accept it? That Hollywood is simply catering to people’s needs?

WOODRING: That is an odious rationale. It's true enough that people are panting for the shit that comes out of Hollywood, but that's because we've been skillfully manipulated into wanting it. We have to fight the natural tendency to degenerate; Hollywood encourages it. It's exactly like R.J. Reynolds going to Indonesia and having cute girls in cowboy outfits give packs of Marlboros to young concert- goers. That's criminal, in my opinion, and just because these kids will end up “wanting” cigarettes doesn't make R.J. Reynolds an innocent supplier of their needs.

GROTH: Why should Hollywood want to condition people in one direction rather than another, an ignoble direction rather than a noble one?

WOODRING: Because that's where the money is. What are they going to do, try and persuade people to stay home, save their money, and better their minds? Come on! The goal is to create an addiction.

GROTH: So what people prefer is a matter of conditioning?

WOODRING: I think so. What would people 30 years ago have thought of a film like The Killer? They'd have been horrified! Now people just lap it up.

GROTH: There's a very respectful piece on John Woo [director of The Killer] in the latest New Yorker. How do you account for this?

WOODRING: I don't know. Maybe he's a great filmmaker. I can't see it. Personally, I think he falls into that category of “someone had to do it eventually.” You know ... someone had to be the first to make a painting that was solid white, someone had to be the first to make music that was silence, someone had to be the first to write respectable literature that used the word “fuck” freely. Someone had to be the first to make a film that is wall-to-wall gunplay. I don't know. I'm obviously not a sociologist, but I do feel that this is a culture in decline and that it's going to end in catastrophe or revolution.

GROTH: Or both.

WOODRING: My fear, a lot of people's fear, is that we're really opening things up for the ultra-conservative element to take over because common sense is looking more and more attractive even if it' s coupled with the worst kind of fascism. I mean, even though my parents were not particularly morally minded, they did offer me the kind of consensus views on what was noble and what was right and what we were obligated to do as human beings in America pursuing our life, liberty, and happiness, and I think that's largely disappeared. There isn't any standard social contract anymore that you should be upright and forthright and honest and hard-working.

From "Too Dumb to Die" in Big Mouth #1, drawn by Pat Moriarity

GROTH: Right. The new social contract is basically whatever you can get away with. How would you define what you referred to as a social contract, or the ideal social contract?

WOODRING: I don't know of an ideal social contract — mine would be something unrecognizable, I think, for most people. It's different for every culture and it's always changing. It has changed a lot in this culture. But a social contract is what people agree is acceptable, what they agree is not. For example, a clause in the current social contract says that if you feel you are being discriminated against in any way at all, you are justified in going to the ACLU and having them instigate a lawsuit on your behalf. Whereas 30 years ago everybody would have said, “Fuck you! Don't do that! What on earth are you trying  ... Just shut up, quit whining and accept your lot. If you're a 40-year-old man, don't try to get into the Girl Scouts. No, you can't pass a law making it illegal to tease the obese.” But nowadays people have gotten used to that kind of completely selfish society-corrupting action. I really don't think that there is very much that's good or bad per se in a culture; it's just what people think is good or bad. I think changing a lot of that without substituting something solid can be tremendously destructive.

GROTH: What's the distinction between what is good and bad, and what people think is good and bad? I mean, are you saying they are not absolutes?

WOODRING: I would guess that in any culture, murder is bad.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Right!

WOODRING: But in some cultures, killing a slave isn't murder. In some cultures, killing a woman or a child isn't murder. So you got this free-floating absolute that takes a few vaguely recognizable forms — whether or not pornography or child marriage or incest is bad varies from culture to culture. Those are not absolutes. Or cannibalism. Stealing I think is regarded as uniformly bad throughout cultures. There is no culture that says, “Hey, pick up anything you want, it’s ours,” as far as I know. There have to be laws like that in order to maintain order.

GROTH: It seems to me that you've done what you ought to do to cultivate your talent and your skill. Do your friends in Hollywood recognize that they're part of this huge amoral machinery?

WOODRING: I don't think they feel that way about it; it is, after all, a matter of opinion. Because for the most part they've succeeded at it. And also I've run into a lot of cartoonists who didn't want to put their skills at the service of anything higher than the creation of sub-standard cartoons. I could never understand that. Even going into a woebegone chamber of horrors like Hanna-Barbera, I'd see these cubicles that were decorated with, for example, incredible caricatures, really wonderful drawings. But all these guys did with their lives was they drew for Hanna-Barbera during the day and they went home to highballs and barbecue at night. For them it wasn't a tool to use for creative expression. But then again it's not so easy to say, “I’m going to be an artist and I'm going to make my ideas my stock in trade and that's what I'm going to offer up to the world.” I sure can see why people don't do that, because it's shaky ground.

GROTH: Well, it's difficult.

WOODRING: It's also hard to feel justified. Even for oneself. There's a large tendency to frown on that. A real willingness to not try and find value in art and to not let people get away with doing what they want to do. That's something that exists.