“My personal symbolic language doesn’t have meaning for everyone, not by a long shot; but when someone on the same wavelength does feel connected to my work, well, it’s a goddamn love-feast.” ~Jim Woodring
“There’s a guy named Jim, who has an affable, bearded face and draws charcoal renderings of uneasy dreams. He doesn’t draw real things, but most of the drawings are suggested by real things. This is a partial list of what seems to haunt him: frogs, chess pieces, deep-sea creatures, pigs, beetles, fetuses, early Mickey Mouse, wattles, coats of arms.” ~ Jim Ratcliff The New York Times
“Frank will take you to another world, re-arrange your consciousness and reprogram the inside of your head…” ~ Neil Gaiman
The intangible and ephemeral cosmos of Jim Woodring resides in its own private psychedelic-encrusted wonderland, and after peaking through a few pages, you will gladly be jumping down the rabbit hole, hungry for more. Woodring began self-publishing his amazing work in 1980, and was quickly discovered by the ubiquitous Fantagraphics Company. His collection The Frank Book, was a 2003 “Booksense” top 10 Award, a Village Voice Best- of-the-Year, and has received standing ovations and raves from both the fine art world and the back streets of Japan.
Woodring’s voluptuous and visionary work has been adapted by serious Japanese animators and “Frank” groupies, see: Visions of Frank, a collection of the best shorts based on Woodring’s strips. The kawaii toy craze has also infiltrated Woodring and are now collectable small vinyl toy creatures that include ; “Dorbels, Jivas, Pupshaws” and tiny “Crazy Newts” popular in Japanese vending machines. His massive 350 page collection The Frank Book has an introduction by Francis Ford Capolla, in which he says, “It offers vivid tableaus of tenderness and bloodshed, cruelty and sacrifice, love and betrayal, terror and bliss; and it offers them wrapped like candies from another planet.” The Frank Book has become a psychedelic cult bestseller worldwide. To behold a copy is alike to discovering the bible of an exotic galaxy.
There’s an atomic time fracture and beatitudness that infects the reader of Woodring’s fanciful yarns. One’s position in a cosmic comic-world is never sure or safe. The true nature of animals and vegetation is open to question in these brilliant overflowing and lurid, colorful forests of Id. It’s an organization of utter chaos but with a structure of weird disciplined ethics at work. Creatures kill, explode, melt, eat each other, merge into one another or become buildings, machines or sculpture. Thought machines control dreams and future events. Machines can also give birth and be divine. Time and reality dance and merge in a way that can only be addressed in the kingdom of Woodring. Flowers, food, monsters and flesh are interchangeable and liquid visions. One becomes another, spirits and bodies transform, performing dark rituals where material and spiritual planes merge and recreate themselves in an eternal, playful and psychedelic dance. Authority on planet Woodring is shamanic, mischevious and often subverts itself. There are no word panels, which give it a more interpretive and exotic feel. The only sound is in your minds eye where multi-dimensions are twisted like an alien pretzel factory. Woodring’s art is the perfect foil for a time of uncertainty and illusionary lifestyles. Frank is emblematic of the next-generations visual iconoclastic nature. It is purely a visual improvisation. It both cushions and comforts us with its lovely “cuteness” (a cuteness the Japanese identify with as kawaii in Ni-hongo speak) and simultaneously “disgusts” and revolts the viewer with its often sinister malevolence, and gut-wrenching deflowerments.*
Beside the obvious attractions to surrealism and dadaism, Woodring works in a kind of nostalgic memory vacuum. In this vast flowery comic-land of petrified innocence (or experience regained) we’re knowingly riding on waves of 60s style psychedelia, the kind of paradisical landscape that old diehard LSD fans still wax poetic about. Frank’s homeland is Uncle Walt’s untouchable disneyana, made pop-art hallucinogenic and liquid in the mind’s eye. Is Frank part Goofy? His Mickey-mouse hands and bewildered expressions make him an “everyman”, an endearing folk hero who becomes a legend. Who dosen’t remember watching Fantasia blasted on brownies or mescaline cocktails? Frank is the idyllic and wasted part of us that remembers when nothing was everything, a knowing commentary on the stoner psyche.
Another enjoyable feature about Woodring is his edgy Buddhist worldview that turns into “minstrelsy.” This eternal performace of the instructive and subversive, reveals itself as a low-class minstrel, a special journey-offering for Frank-o-philes. Frank is a flat hatted Buster Keaton, an open-mouthed Harold Lloyd and an umbrella twirlling Charle Chaplan. As physical comedian, Frank darts through panels as a sleepy-eyed sideshow vending-machine artist, a tightrope skywalker dancing through black-holes and time warps. Devoid of language the silent-screen panels are universal acid tinged fables of love, death and survival. Frank is the wandering buddha minstrel who instructs on how easily any world can be broken and consumed by other worlds. This is dharmic law, where the Universal Truth is manifest. Kali Ma lurks just around the corner, always present and near to Frank, ready to destroy or create, but simple tales of friendship, sharing and loyalty are made equally important. The Booksense citation of 2003 said, “Frank is an anthropomorphous character living in an alien landscape, who seeks out whatever curiosity awaits around the next turn. Like a mixture of dreamscape and nightmare, these comic strip stories can be disorienting, but learning to adjust to Frank’s world is part of the fun. The best advice is to treat the stories like a dream — they make sense in nonlinear ways. Give it 20 pages and you will be hooked.”The settings in the Frank stories are akin to the fantastical and imaginative settings for fairy tales or children’s literature. There are tunnels, odd shaped houses and weird animals and vegetation aroud around every turn. Anything can happen in this world (and it usually does) where the usual laws of right and wrong are blurred beyond recognition. -a comicsworld.com review
In 1968, at age 13, two revelations occured that changed his life and led him down the thorny path of artistic no-return. One was the discovery of the intense 40s and 50s era graphic designer Boris Artzybasheff and the other was an exhibition in Los Angeles on Surrealism.
Woodring said, “I wanted to know what made Surrealism tick, to understand why one drawing had a lot of power and another didn’t. What was the ingredient that made these things run? I came to feel a good piece of Surrealism was like something that phosphoresces under ultraviolet light. You can’t see the rays, but they make it glow. I knew when that light was shining in my own head, it was just a matter of learning how to capture it.”
Opening the strange doorway of Jim Woodring is a simple joy. It can be experienced on many levels. Join us in the land of Woodring, you’ll be glad you did. For advanced fanatics and knowledgeable whims, check out the Jim Woodring Monitor a blogspot by the keen “Dutch Uncle of Dreamland.” It can often be tough to follow, but its payoff is worth the trouble.
A Publisher Weekly review of Frank stated: “Woodring, a modern master of hallucinatory cartoon fables, specializes in comics that look normal but aren’t. Woodring’s hallmarks are inventive, often bizarre creatures who inhabit otherworldly landscapes and dreamlike narratives. This book’s hero, Frank, is a catlike anthropomorph who lives in a surreal, exotic world. Woodring uses cartoon grammar brilliantly: within a single panel, he captures the round, loose style of classic animated cartoons and conjures the best of early Disney, while simultaneously acting as master engraver, with a quality of line work and elegant shading reminiscent of Gustave Dore. (ed notes: sorry to digress here, but what kind of drugs are the folks at PW taking?)… Many of the stories are in b&w, but when color appears, the palette is a cheerful kaleidoscope. For director Coppola, Woodring’s work is magical and “maliciously oblique.” While innocent Frank is principally defined by his curiosity, he isn’t without guile. The mostly wordless vignettes chronicling his misadventures are actually meditations on friendship, fear, consequence and cruelty, with a mixture of pathos, humor and gore that is often disquieting. His escapades also include a recurring parade of characters: Pushpaw, Frank’s faithful pet; the repulsive Manhog, perennially unlucky liege of Whim (a sinister figure with a devilish barbed tail); Faux Pa and Real Pa; and the Jerry Chickens, geometrically shaped fowl who play cards. Woodring’s talent is finally captured in a definitive collection that lives up to his genius. The production and design make it an outstanding gift for enthusiasts, and it assembles all the Frank material since the 1991 debut, including covers, illustrations, trading cards and ephemera for the completist.
* for more on the the topic of Kawaii and the Aesthetics of Cute check out “Speak Up”.