From the TCJ Archives

The Jim Woodring Interview

GROTH: Did the people you worked with share your contempt for this thing?

WOODRING: Oh yeah, we all did. But they were able to work on it better than I was. I was just depressed by the stuff all the time. My job was to do storyboards for these things. I actually worked very little, I goofed off a lot — that's when I started doing Jim in fact, when I was working at Ruby-Spears. The presentation things were better, because one of my jobs for a couple of years was to ink in and color Jack Kirby’s drawings. He’d walk in with a big stack of Crescent board under his arm and they were his show idea drawings. I think he drew them with a lumber pencil, because there were these huge, wide strokes of the pencil. He'd bring in 20 or so of these things every week and none of them were used for shows — they were all used to pitch shows. He must have done hundreds of them over the years.

GROTH: Now, these were huge.

WOODRING: Well, they were half-sheets of Crescent board.

GROTH: How big is that?

WOODRING: That's about 20" by 30". They were big. And they all had to be inked in with nothing but the best Series 7 brushes, $75 dollar brushes. It destroyed the brushes inking them. And colored with watercolor. And I used to do that day in and day out. I didn't know who Jack Kirby was because I didn't read comics when I was a kid. I mean, I knew he was a comics figure, but I didn’t realize what a big deal he was.

GROTH: Did he start working there when you were already there?

WOODRING: No, he'd started working there before I did.

GROTH: You know why he was called in to do this sort of thing?

WOODRING: Just because the company had lots of money and no idea what to do with it, basically. And that's where I met Gil [Kane]. John was responsible for getting Gil hired. The social aspect of that job was great — that's why I stayed on for so long. We had long lunches, we had a bowling team at one point that we set up because the writers had a bowling team. We formed a bowling team called "The Dizzy Toilet Devils," which is what Koko the talking gorilla would call her trainer when she was mad at her. We would go and bowl with the writers and do things like push the reset button while they were bowling and fall down laughing and everybody would get drunk. The writers just hated our guts.

GROTH: Writers of Saturday morning cartoons?

WOODRING: Yeah. These very pretentious, self-important guys.


WOODRING: And the stuff they produced was the most debased, sub-literate drivel, just the most stupid, empty-headed crap I have ever seen in my life. And they were so fucking proud of it, so full of themselves, such incredibly pompous windbags. I remember I was at a studio Christmas party and one of the writers there organized this little Broadway musical-type song-and-dance type of thing, and he got some of the secretaries to get up and perform it. And these poor, shame-faced women got up and na-na-na-na'ed their way through the song and everybody was turning away in shame, it was such an awful fucking spectacle. At the end this guy rushed over to them like Billy Rose and gave them each a little gift, a bottle of perfume or something. Opening night largesse. It was just beyond belief.

GROTH: Wow. They were actually proud of what they did?

WOODRING: They seemed to be. They seemed to feel that they were underemployed, that they were just marking their time until they wrote the next Birth of a Nation.

GROTH: Where did they come from? Were they Hollywood hangers-on?

WOODRING: Yeah. Gil, who knew more about these matters than I did, said that they were people who had failed at other careers — low-level careers like working at the Kinko's — and so they became writers. There was one guy there who actually started out in the Xerox room, if memory serves, who rose through the ranks. One of the big bosses had a chronic bowel irritation and he was always running to the bathroom and people would leave the bathroom and he would enter the stall and cut these obscene, volcanic grumblers, “AAARGGGH!” It sounded like he was suffering, but our man contrived the brilliant idea of going and hanging out in the bathroom with him and talking to him and lighting his cigars and making him feel like he wasn't some deplorable piece of shit. So the next thing you knew, the guy was a writer.

GROTH: [Laughing.] That's what it takes! A little networking.

WOODRING: Yeah, exactly. And he would write scripts that were more lamentable than almost anybody else's. He would do things like have the characters on opposite sides of a deep chasm and then the next thing they’d be walking away together. [Groth laughs.] And as storyboard guy you'd say, "Hey, how's this going to work?" and he'd go, "I know, it's a cheat. Let's cut to a cloud and then we'll see them walking away together." Stuff like that. He really tried to be our benefactor. He tried to tell us to cheat and fake it and to light cigars and then we'd get to be rich too. He went on to write for TV and he's doing films now. A complete no-talent guy who didn't take himself seriously and was just milking the system and knew it, so I sort of respected him for that. When he moved on, he was replaced by a woman who was much worse. Just imagine this stupid, semi-attractive blonde dip-shit sitting at her computer in a gown, drinking white wine and writing the latest Rubik the Amazing Cube scene out on the balcony of her Hollywood Hills apartment as tears of joy at her own brilliance drip off her face.

GROTH: Jesus, God!

WOODRING: Yeah, it was very bad.

GROTH: Sounds like Norma Desmond.

WOODRING: Yeah, well ... A really, really unhealthy and unwholesome situation. And working with these deformed walruses and jelly giants and cripocrats was bad enough, but to see them fruggin' on the dance floor at the Christmas party was soul-turning.

GROTH: Those people are invariably ungraceful.

WOODRING: Well, for the most part. At least I had the decorum to stay the hell off the dance floor. A lot of comics writers worked there, and you know what? Occasionally there would be cute girls who would be hired there, usually secretaries, and they usually became writers too. [Groth laughs.] There was one girl who had the “recently raped” look — you remember the “recently raped” look? Clothes torn off the shoulder? Well, she combined the "recently raped" look with the “Catholic schoolgirl” look and she had these really beautiful heavy-lidded eyes and she and this other woman, who was a Grade A sex bomb, evidently got into a competition with each other to see who could bag the most writers. So I'd be working there late at night and I'd see these dishes tip-toeing into some blubberball's office where he'd be hammering away at his keyboard, and my head would be spinning. I just couldn't believe what was going on right before my very eyes! [Groth laughs.]

GROTH: Well, were those particular writers — what was their attitude toward doing this?

WOODRING: With the exception of the cigar-lighter, all the very worst writers in that place thought they were hot-shot writers ... real artists.

GROTH: Jesus. That's almost beyond belief.

WOODRING: Yeah, it is beyond belief.

GROTH: I've never reconciled what's better or worse: the person who is doing the best he can and puts as much effort into it as he can but it turns out shit, or the person who simply knowingly and happily and cheerfully turns out shit and knows it's shit. Can you reconcile this philosophical conundrum? The end result is shit in any case.

WOODRING: I guess I prefer the guy who knows that he's turning out shit, because he's not going to have an artistic crisis and beat his wife and kids over Turbo Teen like I imagine some of these guys did. The guys who take themselves seriously do bad for the world. Most artists I think are anxiety-ridden types who strew a bunch of misery around.

GROTH: But, conversely, the artists who drew all the material pretty much had their heads screwed on straight and knew all of this stuff was garbage and accepted it as such and accepted their role in it as such?

WOODRING: Well, my perception is that's the case. But I had far and away the worst attitude problem of anyone there. I mean, I was a bad co-worker.

GROTH: Now, was this because of your greater sensitivity?

WOODRING: No, it's just my personal problems, the fact that I didn’t want to be there and I didn't want to be doing it and I didn't have the balls to just shut up and do my work and try to make something better occur on the side. I bitched and moaned and griped the whole time and I would have been fired early on in the game if I hadn't been working for my friend John, who was bound and determined to keep me working there because John is a demon and one of his first priorities at bastard central was to work with the people he wanted to work with. So that's how I kept that job.

GROTH: Do you have any great Kirby anecdotes?

WOODRING: Oh yeah, I have a lot. One of my favorites is there was a man who would show up without any arms — they were amputated at the shoulders. He would come in and for some reason he would wait until Jack came in because Jack was approximately his age, and he would ask Jack to take him to the bathroom down the hall and unzip his fly and take his cock out so he could pee. And Jack would evidently do it. You'll have to ask Jack about that, I never saw it actually happening, but I was told by other people that it happened more than once. [Groth laughs wildly.]

GROTH: Was this person an ... Well, this person couldn't have been an artist, I guess ...

WOODRING: [Laughs.] I shouldn't think so, unless he was ...

GROTH: But he could have been a writer. I mean, was he just a person off the street? Did he have any connection to the studio?

WOODRING: He wasn't a bum, he was just someone who knew there was a bathroom in there and knew there was a 60-year-old man there who wouldn’t try to rob him or something and would help him do what he had to do.

GROTH: Did you talk to Jack?

WOODRING: Oh yeah, I talked to him all the time. He was fun to draw out in conversation because everything he said was unpredictable. I remember he told me a war story. He told me he was in Italy in WWII and that his division was being hemmed in by some Axis affiliate and they were all going to die, it was obvious. There was one little skiff that was reserved for the officers, so Kirby crawled through the mud to his commanding officer and he said, “Listen pal, I'm afraid I'm gonna get shot.” His CO said, “We're all going to get shot!” And he said, “But I'm Jack Kirby.” The CO said, "Who?" "I'm Jack Kirby. I invented Captain America." And the guy said, “Oh, really? Well look, that boat is supposed to be for me, but you take that and you row over to that village across the land and you'll be safe.” So Jack got in the skiff and rowed across the water while the rest of his division get slaughtered over there. He crawled into a barn and peasant women brought him breadsticks and cold consommé. At least that's how I remember him telling it.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Did you get the impression that Jack was a little pixilated?

WOODRING: Meaning what? Drunk?

GROTH: A little bent, not all there.

WOODRING: Oh yeah, he was definitely ... My understanding is that he couldn't drive a car. He'd get behind the wheel of a car and he'd think he was in a jet plane or a rocket ship or something. That's what [his wife] Roz told me. So he never drove.

GROTH: What did you think of the work he did?

WOODRING: I was always amazed by his invention. His work seemed sort of like something a computer would do because a lot of times it didn't make any sense at all. And he would keep doing these drawings, but they never got used for anything. So I think he got kind of bent out of shape about that. He also taught me something about fame. Because at the height of the Jack Kirby “God Save the King” kind of thing, when the Journal and I think Amazing Heroes did a big thing on him and Jack was the talk of the town, while all this was going on, we had gotten an assignment to do some character designs for a client. So Jack went and did some and I went and did some and some other people went and did some, and we all brought them in on Monday and Jack had done 15 or 20 drawings, naturally, and he was showing them all, and he showed his first. The guy looked at them, “Oh yeah, this stuff is great, this is great.” And then I was next and I brought my drawings out and the guy was looking through and he picked up one of my drawings and said, "Oh, this is good, I like this one." And Jack took the drawing out of his hand and put one of his under the guy's nose instead and said, “You don't want his work — this is what you want! This is the real stuff! I learned my trade on the editor's floor!" And what that means exactly, I don't know. [Laughter.] I don't like the sound of it. But what he meant to say was that he wasn't some young upstart like me. And this is a guy who was having accolades dumped on him by the bucketful. He didn't like the idea that this guy liked my drawings as well as his.

GROTH: I have a feeling we're going to just skim the surface as to which shows you worked on. You worked on Superman, didn't you?

WOODRING: Yeah. Worked on Superman with Marv Wolfman, the story director.

GROTH: And was that an enjoyable experience?

WOODRING: You know, I can't remember that much about it. I don't think it was. Mary was OK, but he kind of breezed into town and took over in a way some people resented, especially since he didn't have anything fresh to bring to that project. So no, that wasn't very enjoyable.

GROTH: What was working with Gil Kane like? Or did you work with Gil?

WOODRING: I didn't really work with him, I just mostly hung out and went to lunch with Gil. We became good friends. He's a great guy.

GROTH: Now, you didn't know who Gil was before he showed up there?

WOODRING: I actually knew who he was better than I knew who Jack Kirby was.

GROTH: Oh really?

WOODRING: Yeah, because John had given me a big stack of John Carter of Mars comics and I looked through those and was impressed with his drawing ability. So I sort of knew who he was. Yeah, it was great going out with Gil, going out to lunch and hearing him talk about life and about cartooning's past. He really made me feel like I missed out on just about everything good that the cartooning industry had to offer, because he would describe these meetings and shows at the American Cartoonists' Association, gatherings where Rube Goldberg and Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff and other luminaries would absolutely scintillate. And he would describe these parties that cartoonists had at their houses back east, and the way he described 'em just made my glands swell. He would say, “My boy, you simply had to be there. It was a time when the sap gushed forth, when men and women were bursting with raw animal intensity that could not be held in check, and when diners in heavily curtained restaurants would succumb to the musk-laden atmosphere and copulate joyfully on the tables among the radishes.” He'd say, “My boy, I remember going to parties in the winter, and beautiful, beautiful women with deliciously overripe bodies and roving eyes, and men with cocks like crowbars. We cartoonists were all like lust-crazed bulls, and the sweet nerve of life throbbed in us until we were all driven out of our minds with passion, which we satisfied with these gorgeous women in languorous, salacious couplings in the snow.”

GROTH: Yeah, he definitely saw that period as like the last days of the Roman Empire.

WOODRING: Oh man, it made my mouth water to hear about it.

From "Hell in Helium" in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter Warlord of Mars #6 (November 1977) written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Gil Kane, inked by Rudy Mesina and lettered by Joe Rosen

GROTH: So what did Gil do for Ruby-Spears?

WOODRING: He did character designs, primarily.

GROTH: And he was he good at that?

WOODRING: Yeah. He was great at it. Then again. he'd produce great drawings that were unusable as character designs because they were too complex. But what the hell? They were beautiful pictures.

GROTH: And you inked and colored Gil’s work too.

WOODRING: Gil preferred inking his own work, and I preferred to let him. So I colored in a lot of his work but I didn’t ink practically any of it.

GROTH: Did you enjoy inking Kirby’s stuff?

WOODRING: Oh yeah, it was fun. It was a ton of fun. Like I say, I had the best materials, a Windsor-Newton #8 Series 7 brush and fresh India ink, and I could just stick that brush in that ink and zipp! make a line three feet long and half an inch thick with one stroke and then start doing the details. It was a lot of fun.

"Big Red" is in The Book of Jim

GROTH: How long were you in animation?

WOODRING: About six years.

GROTH: What did you learn during that period, if anything?

WOODRING: I learned a lot of unpleasant things about human nature. I mean, I used to see Telly Savalas and Angeline driving around.

GROTH: Telly Savalas and who?

WOODRING: Angeline. You don’t know who Angeline is?

GROTH: Mmmm ... Some hot babe?

WOODRING: Sort of. She cuts records that are unreleasable and has billboards put up about herself. She’s famous for doing nothing. John Waters called her a female female impersonator.

GROTH: Yeah, you know, I think I saw a billboard of her which is why I didn’t know who she was, but thought she must be somebody who is on billboards.

WOODRING: Yeah. Big, pink billboards. Big, pink knockers.

GROTH: Yeah, on Sunset Boulevard.

WOODRING: Yeah. Telly Savalas has evidently got a restaurant on the Universal Studios lot now. One of the guys I used to work with, Brian Chin, went up there for the express purpose of getting his autograph on a magazine article — it was one of those “Where Are They Now?” things! “Where is Telly Savalas? Remember him?” So he got his autograph. This was typical of Brian’s cruel sense of humor, incidentally. Another time ... You know Doug Wildey, who draws that beautiful Rio book?

GROTH: Right.

WOODRING: Well, he also used to do work for Ruby-Spears, presentation art. He had this cool cat persona ... He used to heckle Brian, call him The Yellow Peril and other hilarious things. One time he came sauntering into Brian’s office where Brian was working on a board in his cold, methodical way, and Doug said, “Hey, The Yellow Peril! Y’know, I wish I had a job like you where I could just dress snappy and relax all day!” And Brian said, without looking up, “Well, Doug, maybe you could be a model for an iron lung catalog.” You could see it went right through Doug’s sensitive ego like a howitzer shell. Another time Brian walked into John’s office while John was listening to the Grateful Dead and said “Say, John, when the Grateful Dead open up their golf and retirement community in Laguna Hills nest year, are you going to go there to live?” Oh, he had a knack for inflicting pain.

GROTH: So what else did you learn at that job?

WOODRING: I learned how to storyboard. And I learned there were lots and lots of cartoonists around who were really good but not doing much with it. And I learned some things about staging.

GROTH: Did doing all those storyboards help you with the compositions of your comics?

WOODRING: Yeah, it did to a certain extent. I still try to adhere to the world of cinematic storytelling. When I’m drawing I have a camera line that I try not to cross over and I try to manipulate time in the same way. I try to use establishing shots in the same way. Yeah, I did learn a lot. It’s been useful.

GROTH: Why didn’t you write the stories?

WOODRING: I tried. But the writers didn’t want anybody else to cash in on it because that was where all the money was.

GROTH: The writing?

WOODRING: Oh, yeah. Those guys made lots of money.

GROTH: More than the artists?

WOODRING: Oh, much more.

GROTH: Well now, that seems a little backward.

WOODRING: That’s the way it was. The writers were all closer to the heads of the company.

GROTH: And that’s what dictated the pay scale. How weird.

WOODRING: Yeah, it was weird.

GROTH: Was it deadening in a certain way? Did you feel after a while you were treading water and had to get out?

WOODRING: Yeah, there were times when I’d come home and just be loaded up with despair because it all seemed so wrong and so futile.

GROTH: And it clearly wasn’t what you wanted to do.

WOODRING: No, not at all. I hated it. Towards the last years I was living and working there I would just be driving everywhere saying “I hate this town. I hate this town! I hate this job, I hate this work! I hate this life, I hate this shit.” Like a mantra.