From the TCJ Archives

The Jim Woodring Interview

GROTH: During that period, what did you want to do? What would be your ideal?

WOODRING: To do a comic book. To do some hybrid blend.

GROTH: Were you paying attention to comics then, on what was coming out and who was doing what and so forth?

Cover to Tantalizing Tales #1

WOODRING: Yeah, I was paying attention to your comics, specifically. And I was paying attention to a few underground comics that were still coming out. But Love and Rockets was a revelation to me, and even Neat Stuff when it first came out, even though it was a pale foreboder of what it became. I mean, I could just see something there that was so unique and so driven that it was great.

GROTH: Those were the days.

WOODRING: Yup. Those were the days all right. And there was other interesting stuff happening all the time — Kitchen was putting out good stuff ...

GROTH: Yeah, ’84 to ’88, something like that. And there was Raw.

WOODRING: Yeah. And then there was Weirdo. I read Weirdo religiously.

GROTH: Did you read Raw pretty religiously?

WOODRING: I bought it. I haven’t read all of them yet, I mean I haven’t read every story in all the Raws. Not all of them grabbed my interest. But I bought them all.

GROTH: Was your interest in Raw as great as your interest in Weirdo?

WOODRING: Oh no, no. Weirdo I thought was a terrific magazine. I thought it was great.

GROTH: What was it in Weirdo that appealed to you? The anarchic quality?

WOODRING: No, Crumb. I didn’t think it was anarchic at all, I thought that it just acknowledged that there were informed tastes that were out of the mainstream and that Crumb was a connoisseur of such things and he was bringing them together for like-minded people. I always thought that Weirdo was very, very calculated and specifically driven.

GROTH: And a great showpiece for Crumb.

WOODRING: A great showpiece for Crumb, who really seemed to give it his all.

GROTH: Now, you met Crumb at some point.

WOODRING: Yeah, I met him about 1982 I think, in Los Angeles. Somebody had made a film on him that premiered down there. So we went to this premiere and he was there, which surprised me. I was there with Mary and her sister. I was too tongue-tied to really talk to Crumb. I tried a little bit but he completely discouraged me from being friendly with him and glommed onto Mary and Nora and jumped up on Mary’s back and said, “Come on, girls! Let’s go!” and of course played around with them and so on and so forth.

GROTH: How did you react to that?

"Frank in the Wilderness"

WOODRING: Mary is a fan of Crumb’s, so she was hugely flattered and being cute about it, you know, putting her hand to her face and going, “Oh, my!” So that was fine with me. I had figured he was a skinny, gawky kind of guy but I didn't realize how insubstantial he really is. He looked like he was made out of green bamboo. I'm sure you or I could kill him with one hand. So there was absolutely no physical threat from the guy. I didn't feel like some guy was hitting on my woman — Mary said it was like having a huge grasshopper jump on her back, moaning and vibrating. [Laughter.] So after that, Pete [Bagge] started editing Weirdo and I sent him some stuff and he accepted something, so I wrote a letter to Crumb saying, "Hey, I'm in Weirdo, I'm really pleased and I'd like to know if the cover to #11 is available because if it's affordable I'd like to buy it." He sent me this postcard saying, "Yeah, you can buy that drawing if you want, but it's real expensive and you can't afford it. I hated you when I met you ... But I'm sure crazy about your wife! I was in awe of her! And I'll tell you what, I'll give you that cover if you bring your wife up here and let me have my way with her for a few hours." So I wrote him an angry letter back and he wrote me an apologetic note back. That pisses me off in a way because I really do have an almost unbounded respect for Crumb as an artist and he's in town occasionally and I run into him occasionally and I feel like my relationship with him is completely fucked up because of this and I can't just relax and chat with him. He's always giving me that ... He does this thing with his eyes where, I don't know if he's sizing somebody up or assessing his chances or thinking of some horrible scheme, but his mouth kind of hangs slack so you can see his teeth and his eyes get squinty and he has this reptilian, unpleasant quality when he does that. And he's always giving me that, "Don't talk to me! Just get away from me!" kind of a look. So what the fuck? I don't know what to do about it. Except ignore him. I try to stay out of his way.

GROTH: Was that disappointing? Did he live up to your expectations? You know what they say about "Never meet your idols."

WOODRING: Actually, he came over here that evening after we went to dinner and he seemed pretty relaxed and we just hung out and talked. I read that great interview that you did with him, and just hearing him talk was a treat because he's informed and he's smart and he knows how to turn a phrase. So from that standpoint, no, and he is such a strange-looking individual, he wasn't disappointing from that standpoint either. So no, he didn't disappoint me as a person. I'm just disappointed that I can't relax in his presence and have him relax around me.

GROTH: I remember the first time I saw Crumb, I drove up to his house with Jaime [Hernandez] and it was late at night. He gave me these directions on how to get to his place, which went something like, “You go down and turn left at the oak tree and right at the gravel pit and proceed down a dirt road ... “ So I was doing all that and I came up to his place and it was dark and I had the high beams on and I guess he was in the front of the house and he walked into the street to wave at me, so I caught him in the high beams, and it struck me at that moment what a living cartoon character he was, because he draws himself so perfectly. I didn't even realize what an icon he had become. There he was with his hat on, looking exactly like how he draws himself.

WOODRING: Yeah, he dresses the part. For which I salute him. Not enough people are willing to work that hard at making themselves personalities. But he's a great artist, I feel privileged to share the world with him.

GROTH: Do you keep a sketchbook?

WOODRING: Yeah, I do as a matter of fact.

GROTH: I've never seen anything like that from you. Do you sketch in it every day?

WOODRING: No, not every day. Actually I just started another one. I just got this sketchbook in Pasadena and I have exactly one drawing in it.

GROTH: So what do you do in your sketchbook? Do you work out problems?

WOODRING: Yeah, I work out problems, I do diagrams for things. Not beautiful, pristine works of art like Crumb's.

GROTH: Do you sketch in ink without penciling?

WOODRING: Yeah, I do both. It depends on what's at hand mostly.

GROTH: Were you somewhat surprised to learn that Ralph Steadman doesn't pencil?

WOODRING: No, I wasn't surprised. In that interview you did with him he said he doesn't pencil because that would be like drawing twice. I saw in that remark the kind of ignoble thing that certain cartoonists, probably all cartoonists, are tempted to say at one time or another in order to injure their peers. I was talking with Jaime and he said that he never uses any reference at all, that every so often he'll discover that he is drawing people in the same postures more than once so he will go out and look at a crowd of people for a while until he's assimilated enough information to revivify his style and then he'll go back to drawing. But he never, ever uses reference. 'Course, I suspect that he and Gilbert are bullshit artists, or so I've been told. They told me that they had absolutely none of the comics that they wrote and drew when they were kids, that the one that's in the new Love and Rockets was a sole survivor of a large batch and that all the others were gone. Then Dan Clowes told me that when he was at Gilbert's house, Carol brought out a huge stack of things they had done when they were kids.

GROTH: Is that right? Because Gilbert told me that too.

WOODRING: Yeah, I think they're deliberately misleading. I think they like to fuck with people's heads. But that's OK, I think that's a valuable thing to do. I like to make up rumors about myself and put them out there just to see how far they'll go, like those colored smoke weathered balloons that they send up to watch the way the air currents make the plumes drift. I told Ed Brubaker that I like to go walking around the neighborhood at night, go down to Frat Row and look in the sorority windows. It wasn’t true, I just said it for effect, but almost immediately I began to hear that I was a peeping tom. The speed with which that rumor got spread is astonishing.

GROTH: The grapevine is potent.

WOODRING: Yeah. Well, he's a mighty vine.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Ed Brubaker?

WOODRING: A mighty vine at the mighty rock.

GROTH: Imagine what he'd be like if he put that in his drawing.

WOODRING: Yeah, well, he's an assiduous worker, I think.

GROTH: Is he? Because he comes out with a book every 18 months.

WOODRING: Well, I think Ed's working at his life, which is the stuff of legends. His actual cartooning is only a small part of it. Actually, I thought he stated his case really well at that party for Chester Brown at Russ' house. Ed got three sheets to the wind and confronted Kim [Thompson].

GROTH: I wasn't there for that.

WOODRING: He said, “You know Kim, I've got to tell ya. I wouldn't be drawing these comics if it weren't for Fantagraphics probably. I've given up the idea of getting a regular high-paying job so that I can draw self-expressing comics. I work really hard at my work and I make it as good as I can and when I bring it around to show it to you, it really hurts me when you give it a glance and then cut me down. I really expect some kind of support because you guys are sort of advocates, and I feel like I'm working in an art form that you helped to foster and it's surviving against all odds, and I don't see why you have to be so brutal to me when I'm trying so hard to do something that I know is meaningful to you.” And I thought, “Well, that expresses it quite well.” Kim said, “Well Ed, you're just going to have to learn to live with the fact that not everybody is going to like your work!" And I thought, “Well, that expresses that standpoint pretty well. We've got a classic stalemate here.”

GROTH: Did you get out of animation when you moved to Seattle? Or before that?

WOODRING: Before that. The company I worked for was I think a victim of all that strange, corporate takeover stuff that was happening during the Reagan financial riots. It was bought by a larger company which just siphoned off all of its resources, cut everybody's pay, and ultimately ran the company out of business. At least that's my take on what happened. So I started coloring that 200-page Ring adaptation that Gil did and that was the job that I used to finance our move to Seattle.

GROTH: Right. That almost broke your back, right?

WOODRING: No, it was a long job and a lot of work but the money was reasonably good, I could live on it and I was glad to have it. I was glad it was such a big job because I needed it for that transition.

GROTH: Let me skip back as far as I have to skip back —

WOODRING: Let me say also I have no great love for animation per se. I go to these animation tourneys and I occasionally see something that I like by Sally Cruikshank or somebody. I'm not an animation aficionado.

GROTH: You aren't?

WOODRING: No. Not really. I like old cartoons.

GROTH: You like Tex Avery ...

WOODRING: Yeah, and the old Fleischer Betty Boops with big bands in them. But I'm not very interested in animation.

GROTH: I would think that old Fleischer cartoons would be your meat and potatoes, because he did some stuff that was not Betty Boop you probably have seen that are just completely outrageous. I mean they're imaginative beyond anything else I've seen in animation.

WOODRING: Well, one actual Betty Boop cartoon, or a Bimbo cartoon, Bimbo's Initiation, is one of the things that laid the foundation for my life's philosophy.

GROTH: Which specific cartoon was this?

WOODRING: It's called Bimbo's Initiation. There are strong echoes of it in a film made by Richard Elfman called Forbidden Zone, a live-action film that harkens back to that cartoon. It's just a very potent, inspired cartoon.

GROTH: But you're not an aficionado per se.

WOODRING: No, I'm not an animation buff exactly. I love some animated cartoons. And there are some cartoons that will completely stand me on my ear, like Akira, and My Neighbor Totoro is my new favorite cartoon, a kids' movie. It's great.

GROTH: And you like Akira?


GROTH: Why'd you like that?

WOODRING: Because it's such a tour de force, it's such a spectacle, it's so prodigious it's flabbergasting. And the ideas behind it are interesting. It has a lot of vague, hard to grasp ideas. I mean, the idea of a huge power represented in forms that are hard to grasp is enticing. A good subject.

GROTH: How did you see Jim when we published that? You probably didn't have any idea that this would be huge-paying work, but did you see it as a sideline activity?

WOODRING: No, I didn't expect it to be a huge high-paying work, but I expected it to do better than it did. I guess I was surprised at the amount of interest it did not generate. No, I actually thought that if somebody could sell 250,000 copies of a superhero comic, I could sell enough copies of Jim to get by. I figured there were enough people in the world with similar interests who would want to buy it. That I could at least make a meager living off it.

GROTH: I see.

WOODRING: And also I started up that line of goods that I advertised in the back of the book as a supplement to my income which it has been and actually still is. No, I knew it would never be a big mainstream hit. Most of the artists that I really like and identify with were not hugely popular. People I like, like Malcolm Lowry and Alfred Jarry and Rimbaud and Herriman were not raging successes in their day, but they have a small, ever-changing devoted audience. I figured that's what I would have, if I had anything.

GROTH: I wanted to skip back: you have a terrific command of language. It's probably one of the most distinctive prose styles in comics. How did you formulate it? How did this come about? Did you work as hard at writing as you have with drawing?

WOODRING: No, most of the things I write are written really quickly and not edited at all. But it's kind of a nasty little ivory tower thing, I have to be in a certain kind of a mood, I have to be relaxed and receptive. And since moving into this house with this big ravine nearby, I go down into the ravine and I write as quickly as I can. Every so often I will have a project that I have to finish no matter what, and I can't let it go if I don't catch it. So then I'll have to drag the thing back in its unfinished state and hammer it out and that can take days. Or I try to simulate the feel of something quickly written. But for the most part I write my stories in five minutes and spend two weeks drawing them.

GROTH: You write the finished version?

WOODRING: Yeah. Well, actually, I did that for the Frank stories because I would just write actions. When I'm writing the text, it takes longer to write them, a half an hour or 45 minutes, but I write them lickety-split.

GROTH: I wouldn't have guessed that. They don't seem labored exactly, but they seem very carefully constructed. You've written prose stories too. Are those written as quickly?

WOODRING: Yeah. Generally, by and large. I'm supposed to write something for the upcoming Whole Earth Catalog, a long story with illustrations, and it makes me somewhat nervous because I have no idea what I'm going to write about, but at some point when I get Jim #5 finished, I'm just going to have to sit down, get ready, sort of like what I understand Zen painting and writing is like, where you just sort of do it. But you have to know when to do it. And you have to not know that you know. It's hard to explain, but I know when the mood is there. The sticky one.

From Tantalizing Stories #1

GROTH: Can you trace back where you picked up your particular style of putting words together? Are there influences? Because it's incredibly distinctive. Nobody writes like you do.

WOODRING: No, that's something that's pretty organic.

GROTH: Your art is also unique. There is no one drawing like you.

WOODRING: I'd say my art is more synthesized. It's something that I really had to work at. I've always been able to write like this, for what it's worth. I've always been able to just sit down and turn on this faucet and have this stuff come out. In fact, I've got ... I guess you can call it a novel, or at least it's a book that I've just been working on in longhand when I’m in that mood and I don’t have a specific project and I'll just catch it in this book, and it's a few hundred pages long. I haven't even read the whole thing through yet, it just goes all over. I actually kind of like it, I think.

GROTH: Why were the Frank stories in Tantalizing Stories wordless? That was obviously a deliberate aesthetic strategy.

WOODRING: Just an exercise. Actually Mark Landman, who was editing Buzz, asked me to do a three- or four-page comic for his magazine that was sort of like a regular comic, but with unfamiliar twists. I thought that in order to make it unfamiliar, it would be best if I avoided language because when you use language you necessarily get culture-specific somehow unless you just strip it down until you're communicating essentials. There are clues in there that tag it and tie it in time and I didn't want to do that. I thought it would be more timeless and more enigmatic. And as an exercise, like writing the novel without using the letter “e,” an obstacle or handicap to work against. On the other hand, it was just a good idea, I really liked those stories a lot. I was really, really pleased I was able to do them. They obviously wouldn't have worked as well as they do with words in them.

GROTH: Your work has shifted a bit — you did several autobiographical stories in the initial Jim magazine, and then I think you segued into Frank, which is presumably about as non-autobiographical as you can get.

WOODRING: Yeah, that stuff was completely contrived. But this [pointing to “Quarry Story” in Jim vol. 2, #1] is an autobiography.

GROTH: Oh, really?

WOODRING: Yes. It's a dream. It's a verbatim retelling of a recurring dream that I had in which I was the central character. I didn't know whether to identify it as such. It's a 10-page story, and I actually like the story a jot.

GROTH: Do you wake up and then write these dreams down?

WOODRING: Yeah, I have a dream journal.

GROTH: My dreams are not coherent enough to make into stories. They aren't stories, they're bits and pieces and fragments. Are your dreams coherent, linear?

WOODRING: Yeah. They're irrational a lot of the time, but they're linear.

GROTH: When you do something like that that's from a dream, how much of it are you filling in after the fact?

WOODRING: When I retell a dream as a comic I try to make it as verbatim as possible. If I can't remember a certain phrase or conversation, I try to come as close as possible. I try to keep the setting and the props as accurate as I can because these things almost always have ... editorial meaning. Frequently I'll dream a dream as a comic or a picture and then I'll notice a rebus in objects, or a pun, or some other coded message from my unconscious to me, and usually they aren't very nice and I hope nobody will notice it. Jim is full of these. Of course I can't draw these things with the richness of a dream, but I do try to capture the feeling.

GROTH: It seems like you draw to a certain extent on childhood memories and impressions.

WOODRING: Yes, that is important to me.

GROTH: Does that get more difficult as you grow older and childhood becomes more remote?

WOODRING: Not really, because ... I spend a lot of time mining my memories of those days for information and sensations. I can remember looking long and hard at a light bulb for the first time, thinking it was a natural object like a flower, or being very young and watching an airplane, a Constellation, cross the sky without understanding how big it was, how far away it was, that there were people in it ... Knowledge extinguishes the flame of curiosity. I'm always on the lookout for new mysteries that will shine like the old ones. I still find them in the old areas: corners, spaces behind couches and under shrubs, around walls, in inaccessible recesses ... "The black paper between a mirror breaks my heart 'cause I can't go," as Captain Beefheart says.

GROTH: Doesn't it get harder to maintain that point of view with age?

WOODRING: Well, I work hard to retain it. Did you ever read The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll?


WOODRING: Well, there's a refrain at the end, "I just want to stay pure, I just want to stay pure." That's essentially what I've prayed to myself over the years, because the only way I can redeem my life's errors is to maintain my relationship to the, as I see it, divine.

GROTH: Are there any childhood influences that have stayed with you?

WOODRING: Yes, particularly The Golden Book of Science, illustrated by Harry McNaught. His drawings gave me all the basic information I still draw on about rendering, color, mystery, melancholy, sound in drawings, and the beauty of science. Strangely enough, I was visiting Paul Mavrides last year and he has the same book in his work area. He told me it had a similar value for him.

GROTH: Really?

WOODRING: What do you think, I'm making this up?

GROTH: No, no, I believe you. Any other early influences?

WOODRING: Boris Artzybashef hit me like a ton of bricks and is still an all-time favorite. And I remember seeing a picture in a book of oil paintings that has stayed with me, though I haven't seen it since and haven't found anyone who knows it.

GROTH: What was that?

WOODRING: It was a painting in the Italian style of a group of psychotic-looking musclemen cowering, drawing away in abject terror from an egg with feet coming out through the bottom of its shell. I'd love to know what it was. If anyone out there has any idea, please drop me a line in care of this magazine.

GROTH: You mentioned surrealism as something that had a big effect on you


GROTH: Is there anything else in the realm of fine art that has influenced you?

WOODRING: 17th century Dutch painting ... the attempt to convey spirit through pure technique, as I see it.

GROTH: Is technique important to you?

WOODRING: Yes, because great technique can be not only a raison d'etre but a medium of impartment. Look at Vermeer, or Ingres. There's something mystical about that level of perfection. But then again perhaps I admire technique so much because of my own lack of mastery in that area.

GROTH: It seems to me that your technique is just improving by leaps and bounds.


GROTH: Yeah. And it seems to me that the black and white patterning is far more sophisticated than it was in the Jim magazine.

WOODRING: I guess it is. I have that wavy line, that chaotic line that I use in “Frank” that I hung onto because it's distinctive. I spent a lot of time avoiding doing things that I would ordinarily do because somebody else does it. When I was in high school I had this obsession with lobsters and I did lobsters all the time, I was just crazy about lobsters. When I found out about Salvador Dali and that he had an obsession with lobsters, I quit doing them because I thought people would think I was ripping him off. So I've tried to find the basic shading element that I can cultivate into something distinctive.

GROTH: Speaking of dreams, have you read Sandman?

WOODRING: No, I haven't. I've seen the covers of it and it looks interesting. That's just one of a lot of things that I haven't ... I avoid looking at things that I think are going to strike me as being really good and in some ways similar to what I do. I didn't look at Yummy Fur for years after I was aware of it, just because I thought, I mean, I could look at it and I knew this guy is really good, he's inspired, he's brilliant, this is great stuff, he's weird, it's autobiographical — I was afraid in some ways it might be similar to what I do. I didn't want to deal with that somehow. So I just avoided it.

GROTH: But you eventually have looked at it?

WOODRING: Yeah, eventually I gave in. But I was steeled at that point, I gradually let myself in so that it couldn't make any inroads into my consciousness and take me over.

GROTH: So ultimately what did you think of Yummy Fur?

WOODRING: Oh, I think Yummy Fur is great.

GROTH: You’ve drawn strips for Harvey Pekar, so I assume you like his work?

WOODRING: Oh yeah, I like his work a lot.

GROTH: What's working with him like, and drawing his strips? Does he give you a full script?

WOODRING: No. What he's given me to work with, and what I assume he gives everybody, is a piece of paper that has got hieroglyphics on it, stick figures that look like children's drawings, standing with their arms out and their feet are parted whether they're walking, running, sitting, or anything. Then all the text is hand written and there are some notes. It's all crammed onto a page, divided up into little boxes, doesn't reflect the page break up. He would send that to me and then he'd call and go through it with me step by step and make sure that I did a few things right. There was one I did about one of the black guys he works with in the hospital and he was afraid I wasn't going to draw the guy looking black enough. He gave me a little talk about how people shy away from making black people look like black people. In fact, he told me he was working with Michael Gilbert on one of those things and he sent one of Gilbert's drawings back saying, “This guy doesn't look black enough. Make him look more like a negro.” So Gilbert colored it in with a brown felt pen and sent it back and said, "How's that? Black enough for you?" [Laughter.] That's what I heard. Probably another one of those unfounded bullshit stories.

GROTH: A wonderful apocryphal story. And you've drawn Denny Eichhorn's stories.


GROTH: What's the difference between drawing for Denny Eichhorn and drawing for Harvev Pekar?

WOODRING: Denny’s stories are typewritten and they’re kind of brisk, they don't have that tortured quality that Harvey's do. And Denny's a lot more easygoing. I don't think he takes what he's doing seriously. It's strange, because I don't really think of them working in the same field, they're so different somehow even though it's a similar thing.

GROTH: Does he break down the panels?

WOODRING: No. It's written like a regular story.

GROTH: So you have much more latitude with Denny.

WOODRING: Oh yeah. He's a lot more easygoing about it. I never know how to deal with Pekar when I talk to him on the phone. He always sounds like somebody put a gun to his head and told him to call me.

GROTH: Right. To me he always sounds like he's chasing a bus.

WOODRING: Yeah. He's rushed and he's gotta go. That kind of “I’m outta here” quality that Steve Gerber developed so perfectly.

GROTH: But he also made me feel like I should be in a rush for some reason.

WOODRING: Yeah, right. Like, “What's the matter, slowpoke? Get on the ball! Time's a-wasting, time's running!” In a way I feel really nurtured by having Denny nearby because he's so avuncular and he's seems sort of like a spiritual godfather of this burgeoning Seattle cartooning scene to me.

GROTH: Is that right?

WOODRING: Yeah, he's got such a commonsense way of putting things in perspective. I liked one of the things Pete wrote in one of his recent editorials which was that you'd never believe alternative comics were such a low-stakes game considering how worked up the participants get.

GROTH: So true.

WOODRING: I can understand why people are so worked up about it in this town because the Seattle cartooning scene is so vibrant and so full of really, really good aspects, like being able to go over to Pete and Joanne [Bagge]'s house for dinner. That's a great experience!

GROTH: Does that mean you feel less alienated in this environment?

WOODRING: Yeah, I think that must be a function of getting older, too. I still feel like a fifth wheel on the wagon. I went out with Pete and Charles Burns and Larry Reid over to SubPop and met with Bruce Pavitt and went out and had a drink, and I just felt like I didn't belong in that group. It wasn't because I was dazzled by Burns' prestige and presence, or by Pavitt's, I was just in my usual, "Oh, I don't belong here, I don't belong to the human race" feeling that I've always had. It's become a habit more than anything else at this point. But I still feel awkward in almost all social situations. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to converse normally with the Hernandez brothers.

GROTH: [Chuckles.] Is that right?

WOODRING: Yeah. And it's hard for me to talk to Pete sometimes, too. Sometimes we'll just be chatting and then I'll think, “Yaw! This guy is one of the greatest cartoonists nature has produced!” And I'll get tongue-tied, I won't know what to say.

GROTH: You don't seem to me to do that.

WOODRING: I don't?


WOODRING: Oh shit, I was counting on communicating it so people would cut me a little slack.

GROTH: I think you’ll have to work on that.