An interview with Jim Woodring
conducted by Ross Simonini
(Read Part I here)
THE BELIEVER: You use a classic cartoon vocabulary.
JIM WOODRING: Well, I think that cartoons have a lot more power than they’re given credit for. I have a personal definition of cartooning, which is, simply, “imaginative drawing.” Anything you’re drawing that is not in front of you but is a mental construct that you want to express in a drawing is, to me, a cartoon. To my way of thinking, the concept drawings that Rembrandt did, the drawings he made that he used to model his artists, to work out the compositions of his paintings: those are cartoons. They’re drawn with cartoon shorthand vocabulary. Look at his sketch for the return of the prodigal son. The expression on the angry younger brother’s face—it’s a classic cartoon expression. The head is down; the eyebrow is just one curved line over the eyes. It communicates in a very shorthand way. It’s beautiful, expressive, and, in a peculiar way, it’s more powerful than the kind of stilted, formalized expression in the final painting. Or look at the engravings of Blake, or The Scream, by Munch, or the faces of Christ’s tormentors in that Bosch painting of Jesus carrying the cross. Those are cartoons, in my book.
BLVR: Or what about those da Vinci drawings…
JW: Those grotesque heads? Love ’em!
BLVR: I’d say there are only a handful of books that can successfully and coherently tell stories with pure pictures. Your stories somehow accomplish that, and yet the images in your books are about as abstract as narrative images could be. How do you go about accomplishing this?
JW: The first time I describe a situation or implement a scenario, I don’t really know what’s going on. I come up with a story line that I can sense has something in it. I write it line by line, and if every line resonates…
BLVR: You write it out with words?
JW: Yeah. I say, “Frank does this. Frank does that.” And I choose what stays and what goes. I have a criterion. You know how with surrealism certain images are stronger than others? Well, why is that? Why is it that of two unprecedented, irrational, seemingly incomprehensible images, one will knock people out and the other leave them cold? I think the powerful one must have an actual, relevant meaning, even if nobody can ever say precisely what it is. Anyway, that power is what I’m after. I depend on a certain little frisson that I get when I hit upon a valid idea, relationship, event, or image. The thing shimmers in my mind, gives me that sense that it is glowing with unseen energy. “Fluorescing” is the way I think of it. I reject dead ideas and keep live, glowing ones until the story resolves itself and I have a script. Then comes the process of depicting the action, which is tedious and a bit of a chore. Not knowing what the story is about until it’s finished is essential for my continued interest in the process. If I suddenly comprehend the underlying significance of the story while I’m working on it, I can barely force myself to continue with the drudgery.