“The Mind of a Worldly Man Is Like a Fly”: A Jim Woodring Interview

RUDICK: Did Patchen’s poetry influence your work?

He meant so much to me when I was younger that I’m sure he did get into my work—some of his specific passages and phrases and the way he worked with words. In that introduction I refer to his title See You in the Morning. It’s amazing how you can take a phrase, which everybody has heard a million times, and imbue it with an intense beauty, just by virtue of the fact that you feel that way about it. Again, that’s something that comes through in art all the time: the authority of the artist. There’s an Indian man here in Seattle, a swami of the Ramakrishna order. I was sitting with him at breakfast one morning, and as he put some sugar into his tea, he said, “Whenever you open little packets like this, don’t tear the strip completely off, leave it attached. It makes it easier to get rid of it because it’s still only one piece.” I can’t think of anything more trivial or more mundane than that, but for him to say that imbued an almost silly little suggestion with real profundity. Patchen affected me by virtue of the fact that he showed me you could take very simple words and phrases and load them with meaning.

RUDICK: How did you discover comics in the ’60s?

WOODRING: I had a friend who was a lot more clued in than I was. He showed me a copy of R. Crumb’s Head Comix, which was not a comic book but a paperback collection. That was my introduction to Crumb, and, as he did with so many other people, he astonished me by being so plugged in to this electric current, which sizzled through his work. All my friends were smoking pot and I was not, but we would go down to head shops I’d buy all the comics with Crumb in them. And I discovered the work of Justin Green, who is still my favorite underground cartoonist, and Robert Williams and all those other guys who were doing what I wished I could do—this no-holds-barred, imaginative drawing, exploring everything fearlessly. I’d never seen that kind of range of expression before.

RUDICK: You recognized in some of that work the same perspective of the world you had, that there’s more going on than we often perceive.

WOODRING: Justin Green’s work struck me as being especially simpatico in terms of having a slightly crazy but clear-eyed vibe to it. I was still struggling to do my own work back then, so I didn’t have work of my own that I could compare theirs to. But there was a lot of work I loved because it had a certain charge. The illustrations of Boris Artzybasheff, for example, meant a lot to me when I was young, and things like "Bimbo’s Initiation"—just oddball things that seem to be freighted with a lot more significance and depth than they would ordinarily be credited with having. Justin’s work had that vibe, that helpless love of life, that searching and yearning quality that meant a lot to me.

Did the Surrealism exhibition that you saw in 1968 have a similar effect on you?

WOODRING: That hit me harder and lasted longer than anything else I’ve ever seen.

RUDICK: What was it about that body of work that had such an impact on you?

The Song of Love (1914)

WOODRING: I was still in high school. I didn’t know Surrealism existed. I just went with some people I knew down to the L.A. County Museum of Art to see this huge Surrealism and dada retrospective. I had no expectations. The first thing that I saw when I walked in the door was The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico, with the plaster cast and the red rubber glove. I saw that and my mind just started racing, trying to understand it because it had such a mood of such intensity, and I was thinking, A red rubber glove? Why is that affecting me like this? What is going on here? It’s like magic.

It was really an all-star show, and they had the crème de la crème: Dalí’s best paintings, Max Ernst’s best paintings, Victor Brauner, Magritte, Hans Bellmer. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I went back to see it a second time and realized, God, this stuff is just bristling with sex energy. These guys must’ve thought about sex all the time. Dalí’s Great Masturbator was there, and various libidinous Magrittes, Max Ernsts, and especially the Hans Bellmer stuff. It was just so heavily erotic that I, virgin that I was, thought, Sex is magic. It’s where all this hallucinatory power comes from.

My parents were very conservative, and all their friends were conservative—it was a very unresponsive, unnurturing environment for me. I learned from that show for the first time that there were adults who worked hard at unraveling those mysteries and capturing and putting them down. I had no idea. I just thought that I was stuck off in a corner of the universe by myself, and I’d never find a tribe of people to relate to or people to confirm what I was believing. It was like being reborn, seeing that this world of possibilities existed, to say nothing of the work itself, which was so heavy and intense and enjoyable. The pleasure I felt from seeing that stuff lasted for weeks afterward—years, really. I still get a frisson thinking about it.

What prompted you to make the giant pen?

WOODRING: I draw with a pen and ink, and the pen is kind of a fetish item. In a way, it may stem from that Surrealism show. There was a painting there by Magritte called Personal Values, which showed a room that had a giant comb and a giant shaving brush. I think that might have been the first time I’d ever seen huge, outsize objects. Of course, it’s a very attractive idea. I had thought for a long time how nice it would be to have a seven-foot dip pen in my living room that I could actually draw with.

RUDICK: Do you still think about Surrealist art when you’re doing your own work?

Sometimes I do. I’m always interested in seeing it, if ever I can. Salvador Dalí meant an awful lot to me after I discovered him, and he still does. I was really unhappy that I never got to meet him while he was alive. I tried but it just never worked out. He was my role model. He made his weirdness a virtue. When I was young, I bought the whole act. I didn’t realize it was an act. I think it was real and true for his early work, but I didn’t realize the extent to which he became a charlatan after about 1950, and in truth I don’t really care now that I do know about it. But when I was young I thought he was master of the universe, and that’s something I couldn’t find—the key to myself.

The Great Masturbator (1929)

RUDICK: You’ve described horror as a sacred thing.

WOODRING: It used to be that way for me. When I was young, being frightened was so intense and interesting that I thought it must be good, that it must have some valuable significance. So I was always into things that were scary, because they were pleasurable to me. I felt that it brought you close to something real. I guess I don’t feel that so much anymore.

The creatures in the Unifactor often resemble Rorschach patterns. Is that effect intentional?

WOODRING: Not that they resemble Rorschach patterns. But there’s an ongoing theme, a squaring the circle question, of whether features are radially symmetrical or bilaterally symmetrical. I’ve got both in the Unifactor. The jivas are radially symmetrical and the others, that I call bilats, are bilaterally symmetrical. It’s sort of a minor preoccupation of mine: the question of whether there can be middle ground between the two, or if they’re irreconcilably different. It seems like the radially symmetrical creatures are all very primitive. The bilaterally symmetrical creatures are more advanced. They are intended to have a visual language. Their shapes can be friendly or off-putting or frightening in the same way that animal markings will tell you whether they’re poisonous. I do try to build those emotional cues into the shapes.

RUDICK: Does the idea of transmogrification interest you?

It interests me tremendously. The possibility of transcending limits is something people have to contend with. One of the symbols that is always appearing in religious and metaphysical thought is the wall, the wall you can’t see over, the wall some people can climb over, the wall you can drill a hole through and see a portion of what’s on the other side, the wall you can break down. The question of whether a dog can understand that it’s not as smart as a human being, the question of whether a human being, who is capable of realizing that there are shades of consciousness and intelligence greater than his own, can, through an effort of will, push himself or herself into a higher state of consciousness.

RUDICK: How does that relate to scenes in which Frank uses the whimgrinder, and it morphs his body?

WOODRING: Whim is the political creature in that story. He’s interested in holding creatures captive. He’s got rows and rows of cells in his cave. The creatures he keeps all have divided brains because he’s caught them and performed reciprocal brain-looting on them with the whimgrinder. That makes it so their brain is divided into two, and the person is in a constant mental-feedback loop that renders them helpless. I made a machine called a looty once, which made it so that when you looked into it, your eyes looked directly into each other, and it did something like that to you. It was very bad. It convinced me that the bridge of the nose was an evolutionary device intended to protect human beings from looking into their own eyes. The brain is divided for a reason, but it’s also connected. If it’s too divided, then you lose everything. That’s what the whimgrinder does—it puts people in a state of mental helplessness so that they are easily kept captive. That’s what Whim would like to do. He’d like to enslave everybody.

RUDICK: What about Manhog?

WOODRING: Manhog is just unfortunate. He’s born into that world and is ill-equipped to get along there. He can’t really do the right thing, even though he’d like to. He doesn’t have the ability to live a productive life or make a good world for himself, so he just scurries around in a constant state of shame and disgrace. He has to make the best of this wretched life, but he also has a potential for change in a way that none of the other characters do. He could be absolutely demonic or absolutely angelic—that range of potential that people have.

RUDICK: Is he the closest thing to a human being?

WOODRING: Yes, definitely.

RUDICK: Do you feel empathy for him?

WOODRING: Oh yes, tremendous. He’s not really a bad guy. One of his problems is that he’s so physically repulsive. If he looked like Cary Grant, his whole life would be different. He could have exactly the same personality that he has now, but if he was attractive and didn’t look like a big fat pig-man, then people would treat him differently, opportunities would come his way, the whole universe would smile on him. But he is repulsive, everyone thinks he’s repulsive, he knows he is repulsive, and it’s like they say, anatomy is destiny and it’s destroyed his life.

RUDICK: One of the most troubling stories is in Weathercraft, when Manhog lives with the shadow man and achieves an enlightened state of being. At the end of the story, he engages in an act of pure retribution. It’s so disappointing to see him revert back to a low state.

WOODRING: Very few people are able to climb to a high level and stay there. It’s always disturbing to meet somebody who has advanced really far on a spiritual path and then given it up.

RUDICK: Is that what’s most troubling about humans?

Yeah. There’s a saying by Sri Ramakrishna—the mind of a worldly man is like a fly, because it’ll land on a festering sore one minute and a flower the next. Essentially, an ordinary man will put flowers on his altar, bathe, put on white robes, burn incense, and devote his mind to God for an hour, be completely immersed in holy activity, and then two hours later he’s watching Internet porn or something. I find that extremely disturbing—that people cannot manifest their higher natures and hang on to them.

When I began to realize that people could change and grow and be better than they were, it disturbed me tremendously to realize that, in my own case, I couldn’t be better and stay better. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t maintain a more exalted state. I’d like to put aside everything that I know is bad and wrong and destructive and hurtful to others and unpleasant and unattractive and never do it again. That’s something I really want strongly to do, but I cannot help myself. I just have a mean streak in me. I’ve got a vulgar streak in me. I don’t do anything absolutely terrible, but it upsets me that I couldn’t just decide to be good and then stay good. I think that’s true of humanity in general. Some people can attain it, but I think they have to work really hard or have an innate tendency, or both.

RUDICK: Are those ideas that you’re intentionally working through in your comics?

I’m dealing with it in my life. I’m not really deliberately exploring it in my work the way you would select it as a theme and then expound upon it. It does appear in my work because it’s something that I think about a lot, something that preoccupies me, so naturally it comes out when I’m gathering up material for stories. When I think of a dilemma or a situation that somebody could be in, a problem that somebody could be having, then naturally those sorts of things occur to me.


18 Responses to “The Mind of a Worldly Man Is Like a Fly”: A Jim Woodring Interview

  1. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Marvel’s ‘fathers of invention’; Gaiman, Tan win Locus Awards | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  2. Zak Sally says:

    holy shit does this man give good interview.

    i thank you.

  3. patrick ford says:

    Woodring is one of the most eloquent writers to have ever worked in the medium.

    His early text pieces in Jim are treasures, and everything he writes or says to this day sparkles.

    Yet his comics have been mostly silent pictures. Someone should ask him if he has suggestions for appropriate musical scores. There have been live shows accompanied by Bill Frisell.

  4. Andrew McIntosh says:

    If only Fantagraphics could manage to keep his books in print (The Book of Jim, The Frank Book), or bring some of his miscellaneous stuff out in book form (especially the non-Frank stuff from Jim Vol II).

  5. i always looved JW, but hearing him reference Kenneth Patchen, my favorite poet and an often overlooked genius, makes me warm all over.

  6. Bob Rini says:

    A wonderful, eye-opening interview from a true visionary cartoonist. Funny, too. The Congress of the Animals is one-of-a-kind.

  7. This really enabled me to resonate with the man behind the comics, thanks! Such an awesome interview!!

  8. Pingback: Carnival of souls: Jim Woodring interviews, various creepy and lovely images, more « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

  9. michael L says:

    isn’t manhog’s encounter with the sophisticated shadow man not from Weathercraft, but an older, shorter story?

  10. S Hanselmann says:

    yeah. ‘Gentlemanhog’ in Frank issue one.

  11. Andrew McIntosh says:

    It’s a story called “Gentlemanhog”. You’re right, it’s not from Weathercraft, it’s from the 1990s.

  12. Kim Thompson says:

    THE BOOK OF FRANK will be back in print in two months, in both soft- and hardcover editions; we always intended to do that, but wanted to give demand the chance to grow a little. THE BOOK OF JIM has remained out of print for this long because Jim wants to make it more of a “super-edition” that includes, yes, the post-BOOK OF JIM “JIM” material and at least one new story — and for the last few years he’s wanted to focus on his new work like WEATHERCRAFT and CONGRESS OF THE ANIMALS. (In any event there’s at least a half-dozen copies of THE BOOK OF JIM available on Amazon.com at less than $20 a pop.)

  13. Jeff H says:

    I’ve read several previous interviews with Jim Woodring, but this is the best of the bunch. He seems to finally be describing the same comics that I have been reading these past several years, and there’s a lot of thought behind his answers this time around rewards the reader’s close scrutiny. In any event, thanks for publishing this one – Woodring’s work deserves much reflection and discussion, and this interview is a excellent contribution to the larger narrative.

  14. Pingback: Carnival of souls: Grant Morrison’s Watchmen sequel, Dave Kiersh, more Jim Woodring, more « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

  15. Andrew McIntosh says:

    Well, that’s good news! Is the new story in the Book of Jim the one he talked about in this interview?

  16. ignus says:

    Very nice interview. I don’t know if this is the appropriate place to ask, so forgive me if I stray too far off-topic.

    These was a long Groth-Woodring interview in The Journal at the beginning of the ’90, it can be found in PDF format I think. At some point the mp3 file of the interview was available from TCJ website, and it was absolutely awesome. I lost it somewhere, and it disappeared from the net as well. Does anyone know if this can still be found somewhere? Does anyone have it?

  17. Pingback: The Comics Podcast Network » #293 Jim Woodring and the Sydney Graphic Festival

  18. Pingback: » #293 Jim Woodring and the Sydney Graphic FestivalDeconstructing Comics: A podcast about the craft of comics

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