Stranger Genius of literature Jim Woodring is best known for his series of books starring Frank, a cartoon character who lives in a dreamlike world called the Unifactor. In these books, Frank—a “holy fool,” to use Woodring’s description, who resembles a mouse, a cat, a dog, or a perverted miscegenation between Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny depending on which way you squint—bumbles through adventures often involving nightmarish menaces who come to the Unifactor and threaten to upturn the placidity of Frank’s life. They’re entirely wordless; Frank is a Chaplinesque mute, and the vocabulary of the Unifactor is either pre- or post-literate, depending on whether you suspect Woodring considers his characters to embody a vocabulary of their own, spelling out a mysterious grammar on the page.
So the most surprising thing for fans of Woodring’s work when they open up a copy of Jim: Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal (Fantagraphics Books, $29.99) is that it’s packed full of text. There are words everywhere, filling word balloons and thought balloons, packed into pages of Woodring’s cramped handwriting so densely that if you stare at the letters for too long, they almost seem to crawl and pulse in front of you. It’s a little jarring at first, a corruption of the familiar, like hearing a wordless TV theme song (Star Trek, The Office) performed with lyrics.
Jim is a brand-new collection of Woodring’s earliest comics work, which was originally produced as zines in the early 1980s until Fantagraphics cofounder Gary Groth fell in love with his work and became his lifelong publisher. This isn’t a stack of embarrassing juvenalia; the quality of work is very high, but if you stare at the pages for a while, you’ll notice a bit of uncharacteristic uncertainty resonating through the ink. In an interview with Woodring, he admits that “it is hard to go back to your old work,” but he’s overall “thrilled” to review his earliest comics. “I was stunned by how authentic [the work in Jim] is to me today,” he says. The book “had this symbolic power, and I can feel it rising up in me again” while reading it. Keen eyes can spot a faulty bit of crosshatched shading, or a messy silhouette that Woodring would never sign his name to now, but for the most part, this is fully realized work produced by the hand of a man who is entirely confident about what he’s trying to communicate.
The dozens of short works that make up Jim vary in style and content. Some of the pages are Mad magazine–style parodies of advertisements, if Mad were run by a demented Timothy Leary who produced ads for bizarre hermit-crab-looking otherworldly beasts: “Lightweight, Slowmoving, Brilliantly Colored NIFFERS—Traditional conscience pets, as old as Mankind, sent from home to home around the world!” Other stories include a childhood reminiscence about the father of Woodring’s first crush, illustrated with colorful storybook illustrations of gaudy monsters in suburban settings. One caption reads:
It was difficult for me to contend with the fact that my darling was this monster’s little girl. The carpet in their house was so thick and dense you couldn’t hear yourself walk. I imagined them moving around in it silently at night.
Most of Jim, though, is made up of short stories starring Woodring himself in dreamlike situations. He encounters flying saucers and wears aliens for a hat and tries out new drawing desks that require him to squeeze into a tiny, mailbox-like space. One story, in which Woodring’s left hand swells up and takes the place of his withering body, “is as literal a retelling of an actual dream as I could make it,” Woodring explains. Many people have reported that while lucid dreaming, if the dreamers try to look at their hands, they’ll see gnarled, “grossly distorted” masses of flesh at the end of their wrists. (Woodring adds that William S. Burroughs also recounted this experience in Naked Lunch.) Despite these surrealistic aspects, Woodring describes the book as “entirely autobiographical” and says it takes place in “the real world.” When describing how he depicted the hand sequence, for instance, he sounds more like a fact-obsessed journalist than an artist as he expresses his disappointment that he was unable to perfectly convey the way transitions occur in a dream-state.
Jim is not a book for everyone; even Woodring refers to it as having “difficulty in it.” None of the stories, he says, “makes a clear and unambiguous point,” and he concludes that “some people dislike it, and not a little.” For those on Woodring’s “wavelength,” though, it’s a treat, a portrait of the artist as a young weirdo, an early greatest-hits album full of emotion and experimentation and attempts to test the strength of the relationship between author and reader.
When asked if Woodring sees the work in Jim as a first step in the journey to the Unifactor, where he spends most of his creative time these days, Woodring’s response is unequivocal: “It’s entirely different. The Unifactor is a literary construct,” while the works in Jim, to Woodring, represent reality. He sounds a little wistful when talking about the energy and vibrancy of the early work, but don’t expect him to abandon the Unifactor for the real world any time soon: “This stuff served its purpose for me,” Woodring says. “It was the first stage in a multistage rocket [that] pointed me in a certain direction. And I’ve been going in that direction ever since.”