This is it folks, the very last “Palmer’s Picks” cartoonist profile written without an interview. A momentous occasion to be sure. There would still be a few Year In Review and Top 10-style installments to come, but this column about Jim Woodring would mark the end of an era.
Compared to some of the other profiles I put together, this one isn’t half bad. I avoided the trap of writing too much about Woodring’s publishing history and instead focused on trying to explain what makes his work worthwhile. I think a lot of the appeal of some of these earlier “Palmer’s Picks” was that I treated them like what I would say to a friend to get them to try an indie comic. Some of my attempts might have been better than others; sometimes a different approach was needed, and other times I needed to step up my writing in order to get my point across. I think my description of Woodring’s work is pretty accurate and would give a new reader a good idea of what would be in store if they decided to try an issue of Jim or Frank.
By this point in the Wizard timeline, the design of “Palmer’s Picks” was great, but there were still a few strange choices being made. For example, I’m not exactly sure why Mark Martin‘s Montgomery Wart (taken from Tantalizing Stories Presents Frank In The River) was used on the second page. It’s a nice image, but this whole write-up was about Jim Woodring so it makes no sense to have someone else’s artwork shown. And there were more than enough pieces of color art of Woodring’s Frank to pick from. In fact, there were a ton of black and white drawings by Woodring that would have done the job too!
Woodring is one of those artists that is equally adept at both black and white and full color art. If I was pressed to pick a favorite, I think I would pick his b&w work just because of the vibrancy of his line. One of the things that makes his various Frank comics so mesmerizing is the undulating waviness of his inks. You put a few of his sinuous lines together and they start to wiggle and jiggle just like a piece of op art. It’s a unique effect and something that really makes his work come alive.
If all of this talk of the greatness of Jim Woodring has you itching to check out some of his work, now is a good time. Fantagraphics has published a series of recent graphic novels featuring Frank, and all of them are must-buys: Weathercraft, Congress of the Animals, Fran, and Poochytown. What are you waiting for? Go buy them now and start reading!
I Dream of Jim
By Tom Palmer Jr.
While most comic books simply ask their spectators to read their story, the comics of Jim Woodring engage the audience in a truly unique experience. It’s impossible to “just read” Woodring’s work; you have to immerse yourself in it in order to uncover meaning. Flip through Woodring’s comics and you’ll find yourself floating in a puzzling world full of nightmarish visions and beautifully spiritual apparitions.
Woodring has led quite an interesting life. Now a preeminent alternative cartoonist, he at one point or another worked as a garbage man, lived a bohemian lifestyle in the woods, and designed animated characters for Ruby/Spears Productions. While at Ruby/Spears, he produced Jim, a unique journal of dreams and personal experiences. In 1987, these comics led to a Jim magazine, which showed off Woodring’s talent for transcribing dreams and writing stream-of-conscious narratives.
After four issues of the Jim magazine, Woodring went to Tundra Publishing to start Tantalizing Stories with Gnatrat and 20 Nude Dancers 20 creator Mark Martin. The series began with a dazzling full-color special featuring Frank, an anthropomorphic cartoon creature from Woodring’s warped mind. Martin added his Montgomery Wart stories to round out one of the few comics that could be enjoyed by anybody at any age. Even though Woodring and Martin earned industry-wide accolades for the color special and the subsequent black-and-white series, Tantalizing Stories was abruptly canceled after Kitchen Sink bought Tundra in mid-1993.
Despite the premature end of the collaboration between Woodring and Martin, there’s recently been renewed interest in Woodring’s comics. His work from the Jim magazine has resurfaced in The Book of Jim, probably one of the most beautifully presented reprint books available. New material from Woodring is available in a second volume of Jim from Fantagraphics. This new series combines the full-color adventures of Frank with dream-inspired short stories and advertisements for Jimland Novelties, a collection of homemade knickknacks that includes hand-bound books of poetry and comics, masks made from Jim’s face, and other assorted peculiar playthings.
It’s difficult to describe Woodring’s work. On the surface, his comics are readily accessible. His black-and-white illustrations range from rich ink-wash renderings to meticulously formed line drawings. Woodring’s color paintings are accomplished depictions of hauntingly familiar images that draw you into another world, one full of unreal objects and creatures.
Woodring’s stories are like his paintings: inviting at first glance, they’re full of hidden meanings that will often leave you puzzled and frustrated. But these contradictions are what make you want to return to Woodring’s work. You have to figure out what a certain symbol means or uncover the importance of some throwaway background object.
Woodring has managed to recreate complex unconscious experiences on a simple comic page. The images in his comics are like the dreams that flash across your mind just after you wake up but before you fully regain consciousness. His autobiographical dream comics flow like stories, but they’re built on the inexplicable transitions and vague figments that are characteristic of dreams. Woodring’s Frank comics are more linear, yet they’re still full of indescribable events and bizarre creatures.
Most of Woodring’s dream comics feature Jim himself, but his most popular and endearing creation has to be Frank, an innocent character who wanders through lush, vibrant, fluid environments in numerous wordless comics. Frank’s adventures and his attempts to thwart the plots of his archnemesis, Manhog, are simultaneously frightening, humorous, whimsical, and baffling. A “typical” Frank story reads like a Saturday-morning cartoon on acid. Characters replicate without explanation, mutate into grotesque mockeries of themselves, and generally abuse and annoy one another.
The Frank stories and Woodring’s dream-inspired work are loaded with concealed symbols and meanings. Woodring’s comics are populated by “souls” or “angels” that resemble multilayered, brightly colored tops. The architecture in the Frank comics and in some of the dream narratives is inspired by the curved vaults, domes, and minarets of Islamic and Arabian mosques and palaces. These and other symbols can be interpreted in many different ways. There’s a deep, personal meaning behind Woodring’s work, and deciphering his comics is a truly unique experience.
If you’ve particularly liked something I’ve recommended recently, or if you want to tell me that you think I have no taste in comics, feel free to type or neatly scribble your ramblings and send them to me at Palmer’s Picks, c/o Wizard Press,
151 Wells Ave., Congers, NY 10920-2064.
Pick Of The Month
Hepcats #12: This is the 10th chapter of Martin Wagner’s “Snowblind,” a powerful comic novel detailing the nightmarish trials of Erica and the shocking secrets of her past. Wagner masterfully combines detailed art and crisp writing and plotting for a truly unsettling and gripping story.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer based in New Jersey who hates coffee and likes to sleep late.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Jim: Issues of the original Jim, which Woodring produced himself, and the magazine-sized Jim, of which Fantagraphics published four between 1987 and 1990, are not available. In December ’93, Fantagraphics launched a new comic-sized Jim series. To order the first two issues, for $3 each, or a four-issue subscription, for $12, write Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way, Seattle, WA 98115. The Book of Jim, a softcover volume, reprints highlights from Fantagraphics’ first volume of Jim. It includes a color section reprinting the cover paintings and “Screechy Peachy,” a new fully-painted story. The Book of Jim is available for $18 from Fantagraphics at the above address.
Jimland Novelties: Woodring’s strange creations are featured in this 24-page catalog. Some of the more conventional items include the Jimhair Paintbrush (made from a lock of Jim’s hair), the Jim Dream-of-the-Month Club, and an assortment of T-shirts. For a free copy, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Jim Woodring,
5736 17th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98105.
Tantalizing Stories: Tantalizing Stories presents Frank in The River was a full-color special featuring the title story and an eight-page Montgomery Wart story by Mark Martin. This was followed by a six-issue black-and-white run of Tantalizing Stories featuring Frank and Montgomery Wart. Frank in The River costs $2.95, the first four issues of Tantalizing Stories cost $2.25 each, and the last two are $2.50 each. Order from Kitchen Sink Press,
320 Riverside Dr., Northampton, MA 01060, and include $5 for postage.
Miscellaneous: Woodring’s comics have popped up in a variety of anthologies. The first issue of the short-lived Buzz contains a Woodring strip featuring a character named Pulque, while #2 has an early Frank story. #1 is sold out, but #2 is available for $2.95 from Kitchen Sink. Issues #1 and #4 of Mark Martin’s Hyena feature a Frank story, and #2 has a Pulque strip. All issues are $3.95 from Kitchen Sink. Frank has also popped up in full color and black and white in various issues of Heavy Metal. Woodring illustrated Scott Deschaine’s Blue Block, available for $2.95 from Kitchen Sink, a full-color story depicting one man’s resistance against a repressive futuristic society. Woodring also wrote Freaks, an adaptation of Tod Browning’s 1932 film illustrated by F. Solano Lopez, published by Fantagraphics, and Aliens: Labyrinth, with art by Kilian Plunkett, for Dark Horse Comics.