Jim Woodring is alternative comics’ latest casualty. Despite the consistent brilliance of the artist’s work, throughout titles such as The Book of Jim and his most popular creation, Frank, Woodring is leaving the comics world behind—at least for the time being—instead focusing on his largely charcoal-based paintings, of the variety found in the recently released Fantagraphics collection, Seeing Things, as well as freelance design for Japanese toy firms—a country far more attuned to Woodring’s dreamlike and borderline psychedelic imagery.
We spoke to Woodring, and did our best not to cry for the sad state of underground comics in contemporary American society. Oh, also we talked about Star Wars a bit. All that and more, after this here jump.
How difficult is it to convey character without the use of text?
It’s more work, because you can’t have a sign that says, ‘later, at the store.’ You have to show him going to going to the store. There’s a lot that you can dispense with, if you’re using words. It can also be difficult to convey certain emotional things.
Are you mapping out these stories, graphically?
Yes. I do a lot of preliminary work. Every story introduces a new character, and I plot out the pacing and everything fairly quickly. My comics are pretty conservative, in terms of page layout. I work hard to make sure that the page breaks come where I want, and that the timing is what I want.
Do you have people look at you work, before it goes to press?
Oh no, no. Well, I’ll show them to my friends or family, just to see if they can see anything glaring, but I don’t have an editor.
Do you ever listen to people’s feedback and their interpretations of your work?
Do they help you uncover things that you didn’t intend?
Oh, very often. People are more perceptive about my work than I am.
The Frank books have really taken on a new life in Japan. I don’t know how much participation you actually had in them, but there was that series of short cartoons—
I had nothing to do with any of that. Presspop [Woodring’s Japanese publisher] contacted the animators, and handed out the assignments, and coordinated the whole project.
Were you happy with the way the final product turned out?
Would you say that there’s a strong following for your books, over in Japan?
There seems to be. I’ve been over there a few times, and done signings at Tower Records, where so many people showed up that they had to take a number to get my autograph—that’s not the normal run of things. I don’t know if it’s still this way, but the graphic novel section of Shizuoka used to have construction around it that looked like one of my temples, and it had my characters flying in the air, so the whole department had kind of a Frank theme to it.
Can you put your finger on what it is that translates so well, over there?
I think it’s maybe because they have more strange work in their mainstream of art than America does. Maybe there’s something about my work that’s Japanese in nature—I don’t know. I’m guessing that there are qualities to my work that are qualities that they like. There are countries that I’m liked, and there are countries that I just don’t catch fire at all. I wonder why that is…
You did some work with Darkhorse, penning scripts over there.
Yeah, I wrote some Alien scripts and I wrote some Star Wars scripts for them. It was work I was thrilled to get, because it paid well. And I was an Aliens fan. I liked the movie when it came out, so I was happy to do that. I like Star Wars well enough, too, so I certainly didn’t mind doing that.
So you don’t dislike doing a dialogue driven, standard story?
No, I actually enjoyed it. It gave me the chance to see if I could be a professional.
But you ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right path for you?
Really, the offers stopped coming. And I probably wouldn’t do it now, because I’m doing well enough with my drawings. When I was doing those writing jobs for Darkhorse, it was like finding an oasis in the desert. I needed money so desperately, and that was an easy way to make it. I tried to make the scripts good. I didn’t just rattle them out.
Is there a reason why they approached you specifically?
Oh, nepotism, I think. I have friends over there.
Do you still read comics?
Oh no. I almost never read comics. I never really read them as a kid, except for Mad Magazine and The New Yorker cartoons, but I never read superhero comics. I never enjoyed them. I didn’t read comics much until the whole underground thing in the 60s. I loved those things, and I loved all of the comics that were being published in the 80s, the Pete Bagge comics, and the Hernandez brothers, and all of those guys. The recent crop of comics has less in it that interests me. I look at them occasionally, if I hear that somebody is really great. If some book is making waves, I’ll look at it, but I seldom see something that intrigues me.
Is there anything happening in the art world at large that’s caught your interest?
I’m a big Matthew Barney fan. I think he’s wonderful. I just saw an exhibit of painting here in Seattle by a bunch of German artists that studied in East Berlin after the demise of the German Socialist Republic. Neo Rauch is one of those painters, and I love his stuff, and I like all of the artists in the group. There are some artists here in town that I like a lot. Charlie Kraft is one—Bruce Bickford, the claymation guy, is someone that I love a lot.
Do your comic characters end up showing up in your paintings?
Sometimes. I’ve done a couple of painting that have Frank in them, but not as a general thing, no.
Is laying out one of those pieces similar at all to creating a comic?
It is. It takes more time to plan it out, because I only have one panel to tell the story in, but my techniques are fairly elementary. My watercolor technique is not very sophisticated. My cartooning technique isn’t either. I don’t take very many chances and I don’t try to experiment very much. I just try to put everything down as best as I can, and try not to have the characters bump into the furniture.