Interview: Jim Woodring, Author Of 'Jim' As a young man, Jim Woodring was looking for a sign — and he found it in a huge, green hallucinated amphibian. His new book of old drawings, Jim, includes many works inspired by such "apparitions."
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Cartoonist Looks Back On Career Built On Unnerving Visions

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Cartoonist Looks Back On Career Built On Unnerving Visions

Cartoonist Looks Back On Career Built On Unnerving Visions

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Jim Woodring is a true American original. Some people consider him the most important cartoonist of his generation. You can find his paintings and charcoal drawings in serious art galleries today. Like a lot of people, I fell in love with Woodring's cartoons back in the '90s.

A lot of them are drawn in the somewhat abstracted style of the old black and white Betty Boop or Mickey Mouse cartoons. But the world they inhabit is so fantastic, surreal, grotesque and unnerving, it's almost impossible to describe. Woodring bases many of his drawings on nightmarish hallucinations he experiences from time to time. I sat down with Woodring to talk about the visions that have shaped his career and about a new compendium of his earliest work, an autobiographical comic called "Jim."

JIM WOODRING: It's comics, it's tone poems, its charcoal drawings, pen and ink drawing, stories with illustrations. It's just a number of different approaches that I came up with in order to save these disparate but related things that obsessed me.

RATH: I want to talk about your artistic vision because you have visions. You see apparitions.

WOODRING: Well, I did when I was a kid. And I've hallucinated regularly throughout my life, although it sort of tapered off.

RATH: You had a vision in particular that you describe in a junior college class in Glendale.

WOODRING: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, that was a big one for me. I was taking an art history class. And when the screen went white, I hallucinated a huge, green, rubbery, amphibious creature coming up from the bottom of screen. And it shocked me so badly that I can still feel it in the soles of my feet and my hands.

RATH: You'd had apparitions before, but there was something about this that - that set you on the path that you're on?

WOODRING: Well, it happened at a time when I was actively sort of looking for a sign. I needed direction in my life and I didn't have a lot of self-confidence. And this frog provided me with the answers to that by way of making me feel that I had within me everything that I needed to go forth and make myself a productive life.

RATH: It seems that when you're writing these comics that are in "Jim," during your maybe earlier developmental stage, that it sounds like you couldn't support yourself with your work. What were the kinds of day jobs that you did to get by?

WOODRING: Well, for one thing, I worked at an advertising agency. And then for most of the '80s, a good friend of mine got me a job at a studio that made animated cartoons for children. And they weren't the kind of animated cartoons that you could take a lot of pride in.

RATH: Can you say what they were?

WOODRING: Well, I don't want to badmouth my employers. They were awfully good to me. But the company was called Ruby-Spears and the cartoons that I worked on were things like "The Mister T" show, "Rubik, The Amazing Cube," which was launched five years after the fad was dead.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Rubik, the amazing cube.

RON PALILLO: (As Rubik) Hello, my name is Rubik.

RATH: I remember those actually, yeah.

WOODRING: Yeah, yeah. Well, I worked on the storyboards for those things and other things.

RATH: Getting back to the apparitions, do you still see them?

WOODRING: I haven't for a couple of years now, actually. The last one I saw, I came up the stairs of my house to the second floor landing and I saw a guy standing at the end of the hall - at the end of the hall wearing a leather harness on his face and grimacing and staring at me. And at first I thought it was my reflection in the mirror until I realized there is no mirror there. And then I just - it lingered long enough for me to scrutinize it. And as I usually do, I drew it. I made a picture of it. And it's a scary image.

RATH: And when you're actually seeing it like that, are you frightened, or how does it feel?

WOODRING: It isn't frightening because something in me knows that it's not threatening. I don't know what it is. It's hard to explain how easily I can accept these things even though they're completely irrational. The one that I had before this, which was about four years ago, I looked out my window and I saw Thomson and Thompson from the Herge stories, the "Tintin" stories, in black and white, walking down the street behind a nine-foot-tall hooker in red hot pants. And when I - when it resolved into what it was, it was just a woman and her two kids walking down the street. But for about 10 seconds, I saw the aforementioned group in sort of completely lifelike detail. It was as if they were really there.

RATH: What do you think that it means that they're happening less and is that a good thing?

WOODRING: I hope. I hope. I've waited all my life to be an old man. And now that I am one I find it suits me. And I'd hate to think that it's really the beginning of something terrible.

RATH: Jim Woodring is a cartoonist and writer. His latest book is a compilation of his earliest comics called "Jim." Jim Woodring - love your work and it's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.

WOODRING: Thank you, Arun, always a pleasure to speak with you.

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