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Comic Artist Jim Woodring

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By David McDaniel

Editor’s note: Even a comic art dummie can appreciate the surrealistic splendor of Jim Woodring’s art. Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Woodring describes his childhood as “made interesting by frequent hallucinations, apparitions, disembodied voices and other psychological malfunctions.” After stints as a garbage man and animator, Woodring capitalized on his childhood “malfunctions” in his “illustrated autojournal,” JIM, eventually published by Fantagraphic Books. Woodring’s work has been featured in publications as diverse as Kenyon Review, World Art Magazine, and Zoetrope journals to the well known Frank comics.

To learn more about Jim Woodring and his art, visit www.jimwoodring.com — mag

David: Do you like Ernst Haeckel? I’ve got a book of his that is mostly sea life, but it reminds me a lot of the kind of shapes you use in your comics and the kind of ornamentation you use.

Jim:I have the big Ernst Haeckel book and turn to it frequently for inspiration and solace. I borrow motifs from it all the time; sometimes transmuted, sometimes directly. I just finished a big picture called “The Holy Land” in which I directly copied a shape from Haeckel. It has always looked to me like a natural warning sign: danger, it seems to say, or keep out, or approach at own risk. That’s how I used it in the drawing. It’s a plaque on the side of a pedestal of an appalling artwork.

David: Other influences? Both in and out of comic world.

Jim: Oh, too many to mention. Almost everything.

David : I would like to hear a bit about your process. Especially about how you come up with your stories for Frank. Is it an as-you-go-along thing or do you plan them out? And what is your objective with there being no text, nor any fancy image-text concepts?

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Jim:I write the stories out in prose form, one line at a time, checking each one as soon as it is written to see if it has that peculiar un-definable resonance that tells me that there is something hidden behind the ideas expressed therein. If that invisible glow is there, I continue. If not, I cross it out. I continue until thestory ends; then I draw it up and, if I’m lucky, discover the meaning of the story after it is completed. When the meaning becomes clear before it is drawn, the process of finishing it can be very tedious. Fancy image-text concepts? My, yes. The Frank stories are intended to be beyond specific time, place and culture. That’s why there are no spoken words.

David: What is your opinion on the future of the comic world? There has been a strong urge to take comic artists more seriously. I was thinking of the McSweeney’s all-comic issue and of gallery shows like the Comics on the Verge show. With comics being both drawings and writing (stories at least) and all, do you see comics moving more towards a gallery or mainstream publishing setting?

Jim: Comics as the world has known them are disappearing. “Graphic novels” are where the money and prestige are. Comics that retain the lighthearted goofiness that endeared them to sub-literates and intellectuals alike are being starved out, while the big self-consciously literary works are being lauded in the mainstream press. New cartoonists will, I think, strive to produce comics that are Serious, Serious Art About People, Not Cats. This means more gallery shows and more comic artists making the jump to the fine arts world. Comics will lose their distinction as they become just one more malleable form to be picked up, mangled and abandoned by restless creators searching for the right combination of surface effects appropriated from genuine innovators to forge into something they can call their own. In other words, it’s the beginning of the end.

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David: And lastly, what advice would you have for aspiring comic artists (creatively, work ethic, publishing, etc.)?

Jim:Ten years ago I could have answered that question, but everything has changed since then and is continuing to change so rapidly that even if I could give cogent, informed advice about how to break into comics today, it would be hopelessly obsolete by the time the aspiring practitioner was able to act on it. Online comics, print on demand, books replacing pamphlets, cheap color printing, the recent acceptance of graphic novels by the NY Times Book Review… all these things have changed the field to something I barely recognize.

But if a cartoonist is serious about achieving something great, the time-honored advice to artists applies: keep your entanglements to a minimum, embrace the struggle, avoid greasy food, and work like hell.

March 2005

Illustrations by Jim Woodring

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