Thursday, December 8, 2011

Interview: Frank Woodring

Jesus and the Bear
Earlier this year I was given the opportunity to interview Frank Woodring, and after the initial shock and disbelief had passed I thought “who?” I knew he had something to do with comics and did some hunting around and quickly came to the conclusion that he was a bit of a revered figure in the underground comics scene (correct) and that his stuff was psychedelic acid-y trip-out art (incorrect). The first was enough to beat down the second, so I started researching the fellow further.

Turns out that Woodring is one of the most compelling artists working in any medium today. It's impossible to translate the experience of reading one of his full-length books into words, and it takes quite a while to begin to comprehend the vast and complicated visual vocabulary he has developed. His art often seems like random squishy shapes and organic scenery and crazy fractal patterns, but there is an immense level of highly developed symbolism in every frame; if there is accident, it is measured accident.

Frank Gets the Joke
An excellent starting point for novitiate is Weathercraft (2010): it's in black and white, there's not a word of text, and yet by the end I realised I could hear the voices of each character and had begun to see the panels in full, vibrant colour. His panels hum. Woodring's aesthetic is almost synaesthetic, and at his Melbourne Writers Fest panel this year the fans in attendance all seemed to have the same response. One asked about the omnipresent squiggly lines which are such a prominent feature in Woodring's work and it was noted that, subliminally, they make his universe seem to “vibrate”. Bang on, said the artist, that's exactly what I hope they do.

What's surprising is that he describes his art as autobiographical – not just the older work which featured a Jim Woodring-like guy called, er, Jim – but the outrageously fantastic stuff that seems pure imagination. I think the key may lie in a fascinating refusal to cordon off the subconscious and let the ego do all the talking: Woodring's art is autobiography of the imagination and the id, a portrait of interiority so rigorous it can border on the terrifying. As a child he was subjected to what he now calls “apparitions” - distorted, disembodied heads which would float above his bed. With typically dry wit, he characterises the time as “exciting”, full of “poetry and paroniria” (the medical term for excessive, morbid dreaming). His art, then, seems the result of a life spent in conversation with, not retreat from, these confronting experiences of the self.

Woodring in person seems anything but the intrepid explorer of the far reaches of consciousness – he describes himself as an “inquisitive bearlike man” and his acute turns of phrase suggest a fascination with language itself. This makes it all the more peculiar that the Frank series is almost entirely wordless, though he has said that this helps prevent the work from being bound to a particular place and time. Why is that a goal?

“Because the stories are about forces, morals, dilemmas and transformations,” he says, “and I wanted to convey those things without any kind of cultural markers. The last thing I want is for these stories to be perceived as referring to any specific culture, person or situation.”

For this reason Frank is set in a universe Woodring calls The Unifactor, a place governed by a particular dream logic. The Jim stories, on the other hand, seem to bring us back to a world more recognisably our own. The relationship here between 'reality' and what at first glance appears surrealism is complex: “Well, I wouldn't call the Frank stories 'surreal'; they are more like deliberately constructed caricatures of our world. They can be understood in a way surrealism cannot. I think the Jim stories are more illogical and obscure, and full of non-sequiturs. I love Surrealism – that mid-20th century movement – but there are a lot more categories of spooky, obliquely symbolic art than 'surrealism'.”

And so the vibrating Unifactor and the cartoonish Frank and Woodring's amorphous landscapes are elements of stories firmly rooted in 'real' experience: “Well, they usually do turn out to be autobiographical; sometimes embarrassingly so. Part of the game for me is to concoct stories that I can sense have meaning without my knowing what that meaning is. And of course aspects of my life appear in the stories. I don't really have any other source material. My new book Congress of the Animals is the most overtly autobiographical Frank story I've done... partially intentionally, partly not.”

Woodring has said he won't draw himself (as Jim) any more: “For one thing I've gotten so old that if I draw all the wrinkles I look like a desiccated turnip and if I leave 'em out it doesn't look like me. But mostly it's because the autobio stuff is the work I have most trouble showing around. Once it's done I feel like hiding from it, pretending it doesn't exist.”

Though he's usually associated with “autobio” comics, he calls the genre “tricky”: “For the same reasons that talking about oneself or describing one's dreams is tricky. You have to find a way to make it interesting to people who don't necessarily find you as fascinating as you find yourself. Also it's difficult to strike the right balance between sincere self-adoration and false humility.”

Autobiographical comics have been a major component of underground and independent comics since at least the 70s, and Woodring points to just one example as an influence on his own work. “Justin Green is the great progenitor of the autobio comic. He showed everyone the way. A lot of people, including me, think his 1970 Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary is the greatest underground comic ever made. After Justin there was no need for any other comics autobio influences as far as I was concerned.”

I tell Woodring about a thought I'd been tossing around before our interview, comparing comic studios such as Marvel and DC with classical and Renaissance art, whereas independent and underground comics seem closer to modernist visual art. In both of the former you have artists working with an accepted array of iconography and visual styles and the individual's signature is less important than their role in a workshop (I know superhero artists can have their own style but for argument's sake...) And then with the emergence of underground comics you have artists presenting their own unique take on the world and the possibilities of cartooning, much like the modernist movement in which an artist's distinct voice became integral to the work they created.

“I think you nailed it,” says Woodring. “I never cared for superhero comics precisely because they are too obviously product made by teams of interchangeable craftsmen at the behest of businessmen. R. Crumb changed that with ZAP. He was the first great artist to make comic books that were also pure self-expression.”

People who haven't engaged very deeply with comics often see them as frivolous or lacking any kind of seriousness. Is Woodring's work serious? “There have always been serious, talented, even great artists who have chosen to work in cartoons and there have always been connoisseurs who have appreciated them. Heinrich Kley, Thomas Nast, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Cliff Sterrett... there are too many great cartoonists to name. But if you send someone who knows nothing about comics into a comic book and ask them to root out the good stuff they'll find it a daunting task. Of course I consider myself a serious artist. Don't we all? Yes, I want my readers to feel things and think things when they look at my work, but I don't try to tell them what to think or feel. I concern myself entirely with how clearly I express my ideas and not at all with how they will be perceived.”

For the most part, making independent comics is a solitary pursuit – there's this image of the artist working alone in their bedroom or garret painstakingly crafting these tiny windows on their mind. “Unfortunately, yes, and it really bothers me sometimes. The sense that the world is passing me by as I spend day after day alone, hunched over the drawing board, is quite oppressive to me. There are times when I wish I worked in a bullpen or group studio. But then I'd probably want to get away from the people around me... it's a pickle.”

Woodring did work in an animation studio for a while early in his career, but it was one of the less reputable ones that churned out Z-grade kids' cartoons such as Mister T. It's hard to reconcile that stuff with the work he produced afterwards. “Socially it was great,” he says. “I worked with some great artists. Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Alfredo Alcala all worked at the studio when I was there, as well as a lot of lesser-known but tremendous cartoonists. Why Ruby-Spears hired such good people only to have them produce such dreck I don't know. It paid well and it was fun but it was impossible to take any pride at all in the cartoons we produced. When I would run into cartoonists who worked at good studios - Richard Williams was just up the street - it was mortifying. I felt like such a whore. Then again, I couldn't have gotten a job at a good studio, so what the hell.”

In one interview he described the age between 12 and 40 as 'the age of Jim' because it was all about his ego. “What I mean by the Age of Jim is that period when I was entirely focused on myself, my interests, my perceptions and my work. There's a Hindu admonition: 'Dwell, O mind, within yourself; enter no one else's home'. My goals were only partially spiritual but that was the approach I took. It wasn't a choice, it just happened. Things are different now because the intensity of that drive has diminished somewhat and I'm more engaged with the world. Still learning to be, actually.”

"Why is Pupshaw smiling at the likely catastrophe awaiting her chuckbuster? Because she is only a witness, in the enlightened sense of the word."
In the same interview he said that art and drugs (and religion) are similar. “Art and drugs are similar because they both show you places but can't actually get you there. If I ever included religion in that category I misspoke, because the truth is I believe that religion can get you there.”

Here's an anecdote from the Writers Festival discussion: along with everything else, Woodring invents contraptions. If you step through the front door of his home you'll be confronted with one. It came about due to an unusual circumstance. The artist had a bunion on the sole of his shoe which he used to absent-mindedly scratch while otherwise occupied, and it got to the point where he was using the ring-pull of a soda can to dig at his foot. He'd heard that one symptom of schizophrenia is the cutting of ones feet with metal, so he did what any of us would do: he made a casting of the afflicted foot (almost frying it in the process) and built an enormous device around it – by squeezing a lever the foot would be lowered onto a spinning grind-stone which would shoot sparks from the friction, and beneath which was a metal tray containing unpopped popcorn kernels; sometimes the heat will cause them to fire off. Now he can spend hours letting off steam by squeezing that lever.

I ask Woodring about the recurring significance of frogs in his work – this is only due to my personal fascination with the symbolism of morose banjo-playing frogs in American history, and I wouldn't normally include that part of a conversation in a published work, but his answer really tickled me: “As Little Lulu said, there's nothing prettier than a frog. They lend themselves strangely to anthropomorphism, hence the banjos. They sit stock still for hours but they are always alert and can move like greased lightning in an instant. They live in two worlds. They metamorphose. Your frog has a lot going on. You could do a lot worse than to spend some time with a frog.”