Cartoonist Jim Woodring is the creator of the surreal landscape starring characters Frank, Manhog and Pupshaw. Judging from Jim’s prolific blog, he shouldn’t have time for anything other than drawing. Yet, somehow, he graciously made time for an interview where we discuss the risks babies face in his house, missed opportunities for intercourse, and Garfield.
Rumpus: I discovered your work when I heard about the giant, six-foot-tall dip-pen you built. Do you regret creating such an impractical pen, and don’t you worry about the stain it could create if it leaked?
Jim: I have been thinking and thinking, trying to imagine any reason I could possibly have for regretting that I caused this pen to be made, and the only possible scenario I can envision is its falling and hurting an infant or small animal. It is somewhat dangerous; as my wife says, this machine really could kill fascists. But far from regretting that it was made I revel in it. I admire it every day, when I see it standing up in a corner of the living room. As soon as the weather gets warm I’m going to set up an oversized drawing board outside and really learn to use it properly. As for leaking, it does drip if it’s overfilled, like any dip pen. As long as it is properly charged it’s safe as milk
Rumpus: Will you use the giant drawing board to draw a giant comic that will be published as a giant book? If so, will the foreword include a warning about the potential for the book to fall over and hurt infants and small animals? Furthermore, do you mean to imply that you can not be harmed by the giant pen?
Jim: Truth to tell I have no idea if I’ll ever get good enough with the pen to make drawings that are worth looking at. I figure I’ll have to put in as much time learning to use it as I did to learn to use a regular pen with any dexterity at all… that is, hundreds of hours. It’s very difficult to control. I can’t imagine drawing comics with it… that sounds like pure torture because of the need to draw the same things over and over and keep them on model. And if I did draw comics with it they would be reproduced at normal comic size, so the book couldn’t hurt anyone larger than a nematode. Sure, I could be injured or even killed by the pen. Anyone could. You could.
Rumpus: Are you threatening me?
Jim: No, of course not. I’m just telling you to be careful if you are ever in the vicinity of the pen. If you were sleeping next to it and there was an earthquake… well, God forbid.
Rumpus: I’ll admit, seeing you with that pen is pretty intimidating. If I saw you walking down an alley with it I would steer clear of you. Speaking of which, you were a garbageman once. Do you find that people avoid more or less than they did then?
Jim: Well, as it happens I have walked down the street with the pen on my shoulder a couple of times and I can tell you it brings people out of their houses. It’s a fantastic fetish item. People who use a pen want to hold it and once they have it in their hands they don’t want to let go. It’s a weirdly sensual experience.
Yes, I was once a garbageman, praise be to God. Um… do I find people avoid WHAT more or less than they did then? ME? People sometimes avoid me but not because I am or am not a garbageman. I really have no idea what you are asking. Do people avoid garbagemen? Not in my experience. In fact I learned that some women simply cannot resist a man in any kind of a uniform. I’m not kidding.
Rumpus: In my experience I have always avoided garbagemen. At least my garbageman, because I can’t bring myself to make eye contact with the person who sees the things I throw away. So did you have many lovers as the result of being a garbageman, or simply many admirers?
Jim: Well, a garbageman is on a tight schedule; he must learn to move as economically as possible, shaving fractions of seconds from his many well-orchestrated and repetitive movements in order to finish his route on schedule. There was no time at all to act on the the brazen come-ons that we received in certain neighborhoods. But of course I was very fit and healthy, and that translated into a robust social life. I could get off work at two in the afternoon, be hopelessly drunk by three and maintain that condition until 2 in the morning, then rise at six fresh as a daisy. It’s wonderful what clean living will enable you to do.
And don’t think your garbageman hasn’t noticed you slinking away from him and despised you for it.
Rumpus: Oh gosh, I hope he doesn’t despise me. That would really hurt my feelings. It sounds like you had a thriving life as a garbageman and you gave it up for artistic pursuits. Why?
Jim: My artistic pursuits predated, coincided with and postdated my garbageman job. Being an artist is all I’ve ever seriously devoted myself to.
Rumpus: That devotion certainly shows itself in your work. The main character in your Frank comics is a beaver or something and his sidekick is a mailbox. This doesn’t sound scary, but it’s actually quite terrifying. Do you ever get scared by them?
Jim: Scared by my own comics? No, never. I’d be surprised if anyone was really scared by my comics in the way we can be truly and deeply scared by nightmares, or by thoughts of disease or loss. There are shocks and unpleasantries in my work, but they are just for fun.
Rumpus: The world you’ve created is a fascinating one. I had a dream I had been transported to it and my likeness was drawn not by you, but Jim Davis. Do you think you would be scared to be transported to that world? And if you could plan ahead, what would you bring there?
Jim: Jim Davis… you sadist. I’d do just fine in that world since I make all the rules there. I wouldn’t have to bring anything.
Rumpus: Well, I had been reading my Garfield collections when I fell asleep. Speaking of Jim Davis, have you ever considered abandoning Frank for more mainstream and lucrative pursuits like Garfield? You could have your work on beach towels and cereal boxes!
Jim: What makes you think I could attain Garfield-like popular success? I could not. The common touch is something I don’t have.
Rumpus: I’m a firm believer that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it! You’ve done popular commercial work before, like the cover you did to Soul Coughing’s El Oso album. How did that come about?
Jim: That El Oso cover was so long ago I don’t even remember. I think someone in the band knew of my work and forced their label’s art director to use me. I’ve actually done a lot of commercial work in my time and hope to do more.
Rumpus: That brings me to the toys you designed for Strangeco. They are unmistakably yours. I bought one for my nephew’s three-year-old daughter, and when she saw it she cried and ran away. As the designer, can you offer some words to calm her down? It’s been weeks.
Jim: Strangeco only made two toys from my designs, the Dorbel and Mr. Bumper. Frankly I’m glad to learn that they frightened your niece; harmless childhood scares are among life’s greatest condiments. Either she will feel compelled to return again and again to whichever toy it was that scared her (I’d bet it was the Dorbel) until she ultimately decides she wants it in her life or she’d rather not know it exists. Every so often I meet someone who absolutely cannot stand my work and perhaps she is one of those, in which case it’s best to drop the matter entirely.
Photo by Matt Tamaru. Artwork by Jim Woodring.