Jim Woodring


Jim Woodring (b. 1952) is an American cartoonist, fine artist, writer, and toy designer. He is best known for the dream-based comics he published in his magazine ‘Jim,’ and as the creator of the cartoon character Frank, a bipedal, bucktoothed animal of uncertain species with a short tail, described by Woodring as a ‘generic anthropomorph’ and ‘naive but not innocent,’ ‘capable of sinning by virtue of not knowing what he’s really about.’ The character design is reminiscent those of old American animated shorts from the 1920s and 1930s, such as from Fleischer Studios.

Since he was a child, Woodring has experienced hallucinatory ‘apparitions,’ which have inspired much of his surreal work. He keeps an ‘autojournal’ of his dreams, which have formed the basis of some of his comics. His most famous creation is fictional—the pantomime comics set in the universe he calls the Unifactor, usually featuring Frank.

These stories incorporate a highly personal symbolism largely inspired by Woodring’s Hindu belief in Vedanta (the self-realization by which one understands the ultimate nature of reality). He says, ‘Meditation is the uber-skill. It ought to be taught in elementary school.’ He also does a large amount of surrealist painting, and has been the writer on a number of comics from licensed franchises published by Dark Horse and others.

Woodring was born in Los Angeles. As a child he described his ‘apparitions’ as floating, gibbering faces over his bed (among other visions), and ‘was obsessed with death at a tender age.’ He had an irrational fear that his parents would come into his bedroom and kill him. He had behavioral problems, finding himself unable to stop himself from doing things he knew he should not be doing, which he says he did not resolve until he got married. He graduated from high school in 1970 and went to Glendale Junior College for about two months.

While there, ‘I had the most significant hallucination of my life in this art history class. I took it as an omen that I should just get the hell out of school and stay out! [Laughs.] This hallucination was so much more interesting than the class — it seemed to have forced its way into the classroom and jumped out of the screen where these slides were being projected in order to tell me that I should be somewhere else. I felt that this image had gone to a lot of work to get into the building and get into that room and wait for the screen to turn blank and then appear at me to honk at me to go. So I did.’ He dropped out of college and spent the next year and a half as a garbage man. During this time he developed a serious drinking problem, which lasted about eight years. He eventually quit drinking because he felt it was interfering with his growth as an artist.

In 1979, he was persuaded by his best friend John Dorman to take work as an artist with the Ruby-Spears animation studio. He did ‘[s]toryboards during the production season and presentation work during the off-season.’ He did work for the cartoon shows ‘Mister T,’ ‘Rubik the Amazing Cube,’ and ‘Turbo Teen,’ and he has often said that these were the worst cartoons ever produced. At that time, he formed friendships with and was somewhat mentored by celebrated comic book artists Gil Kane and Jack Kirby, who were both disgruntled with the comics business and were working in animation at the time.

While working at Ruby-Spears he began self-publishing ‘Jim,’ an anthology of comics, dream art, and free-form writing which he described as an ‘autojournal.’ In 1986, Woodring was introduced by Gil Kane to Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books. Jim was published as a regular series by Fantagraphics starting in 1986, to critical acclaim if less than spectacular sales, and Woodring became a full-time cartoonist. ‘Frank,’ a wordless surrealist series which began as an occasional feature within Jim, became his best-known work, eventually spinning off into its own series in 1996. Most of the content of the first of the two volumes of ‘Jim’ were collected as ‘The Book of Jim’ in 1993.

According to Woodring, ‘There are a lot of elements in the stories that mean something to me that shouldn’t mean anything to anybody else, though of course I hope they do. I use these radially symmetrical shapes and bilateral symmetrical shapes and those have both got a different import to me. They stand for different specific qualities. So if Frank cracks open a jar and a bilat comes out, that means one thing. If he cracks it open and a jiva comes out, that means something else. It’s like saying a stench came out or a mouse came out. I have this symbolic language worked out.’

Jivas (the spirit of a living being in Hindusim) appear frequently in Woodring’s autobiographical dream comics and in ‘Frank,’ where they appear as floating, flexible, colorful, occasionally radiant bulbous spindles resembling children’s tops, and are both cognizant and motile, and neither vaporous nor altogether benevolent. Woodring has occasionally referred to them as ‘angels’ and ‘conditioned souls.’ In some ‘Jim’ stories the Jivas can speak, and in one he accidentally pierces one’s skin and it deflates like a balloon. For a time, Woodring was sending his readers free drawings, his ‘jiva portraits,’ of what he imagined their souls looked like.

Woodring created a short-lived comics series for children, ‘Tantalizing Stories,’ with Mark Martin. This was the place in which his character, Frank, first featured prominently, in stories that ‘have a dreamlike flow and an internal logic to them’ written in a ‘symbolic visual language’ that is ‘defined by thick, unforgiving cartoon lines that marry Walt Kelly with Salvador Dali.’ Most of the Frank stories have been done in black and white, but a number are notable for being in (usually painted) full color. He has also worked as a freelance illustrator and comics writer, adapting the film ‘Freaks’ with F. Solano Lopez for Fantagraphics and writing comics based on ‘Aliens’ and ‘Star Wars’ for Dark Horse. Woodring produced a new Frank book in 2005 (‘The Lute String’) and in 2010 his first graphic novel-length Frank book, ‘Weathercraft,’ which was followed up by his second, ‘Congress of the Animals,’ in 2011.

When developing projects from his dream journal, ‘he tr[ies] to make it as verbatim as possible.’ Most of these were in published in ‘Jim.’ Since the mid-1990s he has turned away from stories explicitly based on real dreams, later saying: ‘I got sick of drawing myself. I don’t ever want to draw myself again.’ He has since focused primarily on stories based in the Unifactor, the surreal Frank universe. It is ‘a world where concepts like justice and logic read as alien,’ ‘a picturesque but occasionally sinister world inhabited by alien plantlife and mischievous creatures, dream-logic, and unknowable forces.’

The Unifactor functions under its own internal logic; death, destruction and mutilation in one story do not necessarily have any bearing on subsequent stories — Manhog removes the skin from his own leg in Manhog Beyond the Face,[13] which seems to leave no mark on him in other stories; and in a single issue of Jim, he has all his limbs, skin, and most of his facial features removed, becoming a mutilated jiva-like figure in one story, only to reappear later on in a separate story, apparently “normal”, only to be killed, stuffed and sewn back up again.

Frogs feature prominently in Woodring’s comics, and their symbolism seems to change from story to story. Often they are spiritually-minded but rather pompous creatures, but they can sometimes be sinister and alien. At other times, they are ‘average joes,’ struggling to protect their homes or their families from predators. A giant cartoon painting of a frog leaning against a wall made up the cover of the first issue of ‘Jim’ in 1986, and frogs framed the cover of ‘Weathercraft’ in 2010. According to Woodring, ‘It’s tough to beat a frog for animal symbolism.

When they’re still, they’re completely motionless, sometimes for hours. When they jump, they fly like greased lightning. They metamorphose, and ultimately live in two worlds. They are weirdly anthropomorphic, and of course they are beautiful to look at and fun to draw. I’ll never tire of or be ambivalent toward frogs.’ For years, Woodring ran ads for ‘Jimland Novelties’ in the back of his comics. These toys, books and oddities included a kit to make a frog’s (severed) legs swim by hooking them up to a little motor, and another kit for leaving Woodring’s own fingerprints around your home.

Woodring’s work often has a nightmarish surreal quality. Woodring told ‘The Comics Journal’ that under the right circumstances he is capable of ‘hallucinating like mad.’ The desire to draw something that ‘wasn’t there’ was always of ‘paramount importance’ to Woodring. His drawing style in the black-and-white ‘Frank’ stories has often been mistaken for brushwork due to the greatly varying thickness of the linework typical of brush cartooning, but he has insisted, and indeed demonstrated, that it is done with a dip pen. He has said, ‘pen and ink for me is the ne plus ultra of drawing.’ In his ‘Frank’ stories, Woodring employed a style that combined 1920s–30s Fleischer Studios-like character designs with an Eastern architectural and design flavor. He also makes heavy use of a distinctive controlled wavy line that adds contour and texture to the backgrounds, which has become his trademark.

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