It’s a crime that in this world one of the comics medium’s true geniuses is unable to make a living creating sequential art. Since the turn of the millennium, Jim Woodring has focused the majority of his attention to his painting and charcoal drawings, largely abandoning the work with which he made his name.
During the decade or so that Woodring attempted to support himself by drawing comics full time, his books, such as Frank and the semi-autobiographical dream-art book, Jim, Woodring proved himself capable of fully re-imagining the universe in ways very few of his peers could.
We spoke with Woodring, on the heels of Seeing Things, Fantagraphics’ new anthology, compiling some of the artist’s best non-comics work.
I was reading an interview that you did with Gary Groth a while back—I believe it was for The Comics Journal—and one of the things that you kept coming back to was how much hard work goes into making one of your comics. Do you consider making comics work in the same way that most folks sitting miserably in their cubicles consider their jobs work?
Really? Did I harp on it that much? Well, when I was doing comics, it was the way I made my living and supported my family, so, yeah, I did work at it like a 9-5 job. I guess talking about the work that went into it, my feelings would fall into two categories. One, it seems to me that a lot of people find it easier to draw comics than I do, I guess because I’m not a natural draughtsman. I have to plan everything out very carefully. I go through a number of drafts, and frequently throw pencil pages away and redo them. And the other is that the money that I got for doing them was barely enough to live on. I was in a state of continual financial turmoil when I was making my living doing comics. So I guess that if the money had been better, I wouldn’t have complained about the hard work.
Where you still deriving any pleasure at all from drawing them?
Oh yeah. I enjoyed doing them, but it was offset by the incredible struggle with one financial crises after another, which I connected with them.
You’re speaking about all of this in the past-tense. Are you not drawing comics at all anymore?
Well, I actually have two small comics projects that I’m working on, at the moment, but I’m certainly not doing them like I used to. I’m hoping I get the chance to do one of those Ignatz books, and I have that all written and drawn and laid out, so it would just be a matter of doing the final comics, based on all of the preparatory work, which is done.
So what is your main source of income now?
Drawing. Making pictures and selling them.
So it’s along the lines of what we see in that new Fantagraphics book [Seeing Things]?
Yeah, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of pictures that I’ve done that haven’t gone into that, and I’ve also been doing toy design, which is lucerative, and I’ve also been doing a certain amount of commercial work, mostly jobs I’ve gotten through Presspop, my Japanese publisher.
Is it just that the nature of doing an alternative comic isn’t all that lucrative?
Well, that’s what all of the alternative cartoonist I’ve talked to have said, with the exception of someone like R. Crumb. He obviously makes a fantastic living at in, and people who are able to take it into more exhaulted realms, like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. People who are able to get the brass ring are able to make a living at it, but I was never able to.
How many years were you doing comics full-time?
Say from 1989 to 1999. So, ten.
And the works you’re doing now are being sold mostly to private collectors?
Are these people know you through your comics work?
In some cases. In some cases not. Some people like my charcoal drawings and don’t like my comics, and some people like my comics, and don’t care for my charcoal drawings. It’s all the same, in terms of the gratification that I get from it, because I’m exploring exactly the same subject matter, whatever medium I’m using, and it’s looking into that and making discovers that makes the work worthwhile.
Abstractly, what would you say the subject matter is that you’re covering in all of your work?
It’s just the strangeness of life. The realities underlying this one. It’s this sense that I’ve always had that what we see is not only a tiny fraction of what’s to be had, that’s illusory to boot, and that there are bigger things to be seen than are readily apparent.
So you see your own work as being less surreal than most people interpret it?
Well, surreal—that’s a hard word to define. It’s definitely not fantasy-based, lets put it that way. It portrays some things that exist, and which are relevant to our lives.
That goes for the Frank books as well?
Where is this inspiration coming from? Do you think that you see things that most people don’t?
Well, I don’t know what most people see, but I certainly—the world has always been very hard for me to focus on. I’ve never been able to take it at face value. I know a lot of other people feel that way, and maybe most people feel that way, but for most people there’s no percentage in really worrying about it that much, because they have lives to get on with, but I really don’t. I’ve just devoted myself to recording my feelings about all of this, and that’s what I do for a living.
How autobiographical is a character like Frank? Is there a lot you in him?
In terms of the events that he experiences, I wouldn’t say they’re very much like the things that I’ve experienced, but the stories are intended to convey things about my life that I have experienced, but not in a way that could be considered autobiographical. More philosophical, I would say.
[Continued in Part Two].