GROTH: I read an interview with James Dickey recently and he said that the kind of poets he admires are “Incredibly strong people who will drive headfirst through a steel wall to get their work done.” I think by that he meant that there were a lot of obstacles to being a good poet that anyone striving to be a good poet has to overcome. I tend to think our culture creates ease as an end in itself, and teaches people to follow the path of least resistance as long as they don’t have to compromise their material comfort.
WOODRING: That’s true. This culture has really isolated and hybridized the entertainment aspect and the aesthetic experience and made it a raison d'etre for creating anything. In other countries, a poet can fill up an auditorium, and over here you can't get people into your living room to hear poetry, even if you offer them food - "stuffies," as Charles Krafft calls such enticements.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right ... So how do you think you surmounted your success, in effect?
WOODRING: The sort of thing that I do is really the only thing that I can do. I don't have any other skills, really. And also I set myself this task — it's important for me to learn how to draw well at some point in my life. It's important for me to communicate certain things. And I realize I can only do it piece by piece and the only hope I have to achieve what it is that I want to achieve is by doing a lot of work, because I'm never going to be able to draw like I want to, I don't think. I'm never going to be able to produce work that is as eloquent as T.S. Sullivant's work. I just don't think I'm ever going to be able to do that. He could do a humorous cartoon that had as much meaning in it, as far as I'm concerned, as an illuminated manuscript of devotional work. And I just don't think I have it in me to do that. But I think I can, by going about it roundabout and through piecemeal efforts, create a huge mosaic mount of the terrain I want to chart. Because I've noticed it's not easy to talk about a lot of this stuff. But by learning to talk about it, I teach myself more and more about it. I have an idea that at some point in my life, when I'm an old man, I'll be able to withdraw from work and devote myself to contemplation, which is what I would really like to be able to do at some point. When my hand is shaking and my eye is dim, that's the time to immerse myself in meditation and contemplation.
GROTH: To what end?
WOODRING: Self-liberation. Samadhi. Nirvana. Transcendental experience of some sort. And even if that doesn’t happen, meditation's minor benefits are still very great. So my personal feeling is that to not give some part of one's life over to the pursuit of the great intangibles, it's a wasted human existence. And I'm haunted by my father's death, which was so wretched and so pointlessly ugly and miserable.
GROTH: How do you mean haunted?
WOODRING: I'm reminded. His death didn't inspire me to want to devote my life to contemplation, but it reminded me, it reinforced it. He basically drank himself to death. And it was just such a stupid, ugly waste of a good life. His last decade was just for shit. But it was an attitude problem, you know? I feel like there should have been some little switch that he could have turned and made everything better. And also I’m sure that a big part of his problems was me. I mean, I'm one of the major things in his life that didn't turn out the way he wanted.
GROTH: Are you an only child?
WOODRING: No, I have a brother. He's six years younger than me, a classical musician.
GROTH: Did your brother turn out more like your parents wanted?
GROTH: [Laughs.] So you were both —
WOODRING: Yeah, we were both a couple of misfits. We're really close, actually. Still are.
GROTH: Does your brother understand your work?
WOODRING: Oh, yeah. He's one of the few people I can really communicate with about this kind of stuff. And he turns me on to classical music that I would never run across otherwise that almost always becomes my favorite stuff. So he's invaluable to me that way also.
GROTH: You wrote an Aliens series for Dark Horse, didn't you?
GROTH: It's hard for me to imagine you writing an Aliens story. How did that come about?
WOODRING: Well, thanks to you, in part. I worked with Ryder [Windham] on that Freaks series for Fantagraphics, and after he went to Dark Horse he invited me to do an Aliens series.
GROTH: Did you jump at the chance?
WOODRING: Pretty much. I loved the first Alien movie and I really enjoyed working with Ryder on Freaks ... he does what I imagine an editor ought to do, which is deal with the structure of the story as it relates to the requirements of the project, and he introduces a lot of elements. He provided the title, “Labyrinth,” and the maze idea ...
GROTH: I assume it paid well.
WOODRING: By my standards, yes.
GROTH: Did you enjoy writing it?
WOODRING: Pretty much. I was really gratified to be having the opportunity to sort of take up my tool kit, like a plumber, and go do a job of commercial work. And I was looking forward to seeing the artist's version of what I'd written. His name is Kilian Plunkett and he's real young. In fact, I think this is his first comic book. He can draw like a house afire.
GROTH: Are you happy with the work he did?
WOODRING: Well, I'm not entirely happy with the series as a whole, but for the most part I'm pleased. The writing isn't the best stuff I've ever done, parts of it really embarrass me, and Plunkett's storytelling skills aren't as good as his drawing, but all in all I think it's worth tearing down a few forests for. I did try to make the book extremely disgusting, just so people would notice. It's just a snot nightmare.
But I teach a cartooning class on Saturday mornings to kids through Coyote Jr. High, and I was becoming alarmed at the comics these kids were all flipping out over — the level of violence and depravity in these things were very great, and these guys were just lapping it up like poteen in the dungpit of the yard. It made me want to write a comic that would make them shudder in revulsion rather than lick their lips and go, “Oh, yeah!”
GROTH: These are Image comics I assume.
WOODRING: I'm afraid so. The other thing that disturbs me about these guys' approach to comics is the speculation horseshit. It makes me see red to hear an 11-year-old say he spent all his discretionary income on a comic he didn't want 'cause it would appreciate.
GROTH: In spite of this mercenary attitude, are there any budding Alex Toths or Gil Kanes in your classes?
WOODRING: Oh, a lot who could be, I think. But it seems like what most of them want ... who said it, someone told me that what kids like this want is to get to be almost as good as, say, Rob Liefeld, 'cause then they'll be almost as rich and powerful, they think. It's a strange idea, but after observing some of these kids with this assessment in mind I think it's true to an extent. It's an ugly, alien way for a young cartoonist to be, as far as I'm concerned. When there are standouts ... in the class that's going on right now there are three or four really outstanding cartoonists, and they seem to be self-motivated. That's great to see, obviously.
GROTH: There's something I’d like to follow up on ... earlier you made reference to samadhi, or nirvana, saying that there is evidently a state that human beings can attain in which everyday life as we all experience it is seen to be an illusion. And you refer to a life-transforming LSD experience which made you believe that life is an illusion, and this seems to me to go to the heart of your aesthetic, the idea that we’re living in a non-reality. Can you tell me what you mean by that? How do you differentiate reality from unreality if we're living in an unreality?
WOODRING: I feel that anytime you're having a philosophical discussion about morality, religion, or metaphysics, you first have to determine whether you believe the universe is a machine or an entity. If you believe it's a machine I can't really discuss life with you because I don't believe that. But a lot of people do. I believe the universe is alive, that matter is alive, that everything is made up of the flesh of God and that everything in the cosmos has personality. Obviously a chunk of stone isn't organically alive like a mouse, but our perceptions are limited, to say the least. The universe may be impossible; that may be necessary to explain it.
GROTH: Impossible how?
WOODRING: Impossibly complex. We perceive so little, and so much of what we perceive is only our minds playing back our models to us. When we enter a new situation or meet a new person, we experience them only as much as we want. The mind starts to build models instantly and they can become everything. It's possible to be cut off from the cosmos by the mind. It's a filter, after all, and it can get so gummed up nothing can pass through. Contrariwise, you can keep it open, and even open it more. Spiritual discipline does that; keeps the mind fresh and open to the universe.
GROTH: What sorts of spiritual disciplines do you practice, if any?
WOODRING: Unfortunately for me I haven't been doing anything much recently, but when I'm on top of things I meditate, do hatha yoga, read about Ramakrishna, things like that.
GROTH: And all this does what for you?
WOODRING: It makes me feel clean, sane, and in touch with reality.
GROTH: I wanted to get back to when you were in animation. I met you in '83 or '84, and you were at Ruby-Spears then. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like? The day-to-day routine and who you worked with, what shows you worked on, how truly horrible it was, and so on?
WOODRING: Yeah. I worked on Mr. T. The big gimmick there, the crazy capper, was that the kids, Mr. T's sidekicks, would cartwheel instead of walking whenever possible. Great stuff. Also I worked on Rubik the Amazing Cube, based on the Rubik's Cube. Ruby-Spears wisely waited until the Rubik's Cube fad was dead as a manhole lid before dragging their mutant hybrid onto Saturday morning TV. It was a lamentable piece of shit. The main characters in this cartoon were a Hispanic family, and, having struck this bold blow for cultural relations the show's creators tread eggshells to not have them say or do anything that might be even remotely construed as stereotypical. So the mother would say, “And now let's have a plate of nice, fresh tacos!” because if she just said, “Lunch is ready, we're having tacos,” viewers might assume that these people were eating old, stale tacos. It was pathetic.
Then I worked on one of the masterpieces of shit — it was called Turbo Teen, about a guy who turned into a car. Not just any car, it was a big muscle car. And the people who wrote that show were such jackasses that ... I remember there was one character who was dancing at a dance in one scene, and this guy called out, “Get it down, Jack!” — the writer evidently couldn't quite remember if it was “Get it on” or “Get down,” and then to just give this ‘80s show an authentic '50s touch, “Jack!” It was just so sad! [Laughter.] Somebody brought in an anti-drug pamphlet that showed on the cover a horribly deformed baby whose head looked like a wad of silly putty that had been mangled, and John hung it up on the door and had it saying, "Oh no, I'm turning into Turbo Teen!" That summed it up nicely.