Interview – Jim Woodring (1993)

Originally published in The Comics Journal #164, November 1993

{mosimage}I was first introduced to Jim Woodring by Gil Kane in 1986. At the time, Jim was a storyboard artist at the animation studio Ruby-Spears, where he worked with Gil. Gil, who can be a relentless proponent of discoveries, insisted that I meet Jim, whom he told me was a great artist as well as a great human being. Against my own better judgment — why would a great artist, much less a great human being, work for a second-rate animation studio, I wondered — I got together with Jim and discovered that Gil was, as usual, a fine judge of art and character. Like many people who complain of intense alienation from their fellow man, I learned that Jim navigates better than most in our dog-eat-dog world social order, and like many artists who profess modesty, falsely or otherwise, Jim is indeed a virtuoso artist and craftsman.

{mosimage}In order to maintain his creative sanity while working in animation, Jim published a little Xeroxed “autojournal” titled Jim, a fabulous showcase for his idiosyncratic and visionary comics. I immediately inquired about publishing Jim as a comic, and the first of four issues, comprising new and reprinted work, came out in 1987. Subsequently, Jim’s work appeared in Weirdo, Prime Cuts, Whole Earth Review, and The Kenyon Review. Tundra published six issues of Tantalizing Stories, which was half Woodring and half Mark Martin. In February of 1993, The Book of Jim came out, collecting the best from the four issues of Jim, and a brand new quarterly Jim comic debuts this month.

All this publishing activity would seem to indicate that Jim is swimming in fame and wealth, but Jim appears to be very much an acquired taste. I have been told that Jim’s work is disturbing, which may account for his cult status, but it is also, paradoxically, likable. Alan Moore may have put it best when he referred to Jim’s work as “unsettlingly alien and intimately familiar.” And as if Alan Moore weren’t authority enough, I recently read an observation by Eliot that is uncannily applicable to the work of Jim Woodring, and that, I think, nicely summarizes his place in comics. Eliot is describing the “peculiar honesty” of genuine poetry:

It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the world conspires because it is unpleasant… nothing that can be called morbid or abnormal or perverse, none of the things which exemplify the sickness of an epoch or a fashion, have this quality; only those things which, by some extraordinary labor of simplification, exhibit the sickness or strength of the human soul. And this honesty never exists without great technical accomplishment.

GARY GROTH: I’d like to start early and ask you what your upbringing was like. You grew up in California?

JIM WOODRING: I was born in Los Angeles in 1952. My father was an engineer and my mother worked at the L.A. County Coroner’s office as a toxicologist. She did a lot of morbid things at that job, a lot of forensics. I recall her telling me how one of her jobs was to examine the brains of dead animals to see if they were rabid. She described peeling off the skin and putting the raw skull in acid which dissolved the bone and left the brain.

GROTH: Jesus.

WOODRING: But my parents were actually kind of secretive, and I never really knew much about them… still don’t. After my father died a few years back, my brother and I found in his house a huge cache of family documents — magazine articles about my mom, letters, photographs. It was very eerie, ’cause it made my folks seem about 10 times more real to me than they had been before. When they were young and vital they rode the crest of that post-World War II optimism. They were always going to cocktail parties and going out to plays and movies and things. They had a rich social life in our neighborhood in Burbank. In fact, my father invented an electronic babysitting device, a huge beacon which he attached to the roof of our house and which was activated by my sounds and movements in my room so he could go somewhere in the neighborhood at night and if I woke up the beacon would go off and my father from anywhere around would see it and go and check on me.

GROTH: So your father was something of an inventor?

WOODRING: Of sorts. He was very creative, very clever at making things. Our house was cluttered with cool devices of his own manufacture. His father was a bona fide inventor. He invented a lot of electrical hardware that is still in use. He invented a gopher trap you can still get in most hardware stores.

GROTH: Do you get any royalties for the gopher trap?

WOODRING: No, he sold the design and the machine that made them outright. He designed and built a tractor that hinged in the middle and had controls at each end.

GROTH: That could go both directions?

WOODRING: Not at the same time. I never understood what the purpose of it was. [Laughter.] My grandfather had a small farm in the San Fernando Valley on Magnolia near Woodman. Well, not a farm, but a small field. He raised crops, peanuts and potatoes. When my father was about 16 my grandfather gave him an 8mm movie camera for a present, and the first thing he did with it was to take the two-headed tractor out in the field, start it up and put it in gear, and put a small weight on the gas pedal so it moved very slowly forward. He then lay down in front of it with his camera so he could film the thing rolling over him; there was just enough clearance, he thought. Well, there wasn’t, and the oilpan began to press his head down against the ground and his father just happened to come along in time to prevent his skull from getting crushed.

GROTH: Do you have the film?

WOODRING: No, it was thrown out — considered, I guess, too much of a reminder of a deed too shamefully stupid to go documented. But I’m proud of him for it.

GROTH: Sounds like a true Woodring.

WOODRING: Proto-Woodring. I think he had a nature similar to mine, but his was a very supportive, straight, conservative family; very hard to rebel against. I think he felt there was a straight and true path that was worth sacrificing everything to.

Continue reading this interview by downloading this PDF (58 pages, 620 KB).

Books mentioned in this article (click cover images for more details)

{product_snapshot:id=273,true,false,true,left} {product_snapshot:id=10,true,false,true,left} {product_snapshot:id=680,true,false,true,left}

All books by Jim Woodring