There are only a small number of medium-changing geniuses in the history of cartooning who have managed to develop a singular visual language, and Jim Woodring is one of them. His re-creation of the world in gorgeous, obsessive-compulsive, wavy lines—which he calls the Unifactor and which first saw print in 1992—has its own freestanding physics and morality. The sky isn't clear. It's a series of tight ripples, like a pool of water in a heavy rainstorm. There is water and weird plant life that looks menacing or friendly, depending on where you're standing, and brilliant Middle Eastern architecture, and it's the setting for the sort of fairy tales you dreamed about when you were a child.
Woodring populated the Unifactor with two creatures at first: Frank, a cartoony, bucktoothed, cat-faced creature who resembles the misshapen country cousin that Mickey Mouse's family never wants to talk about, and his neighbor Manhog, a disgusting cross between, well, man and hog. Frank can be just as mean and manipulative as Manhog, but the universe favors Frank. He comes out on top every time because he is beautiful, or at least not a monster.
In one of the earliest Frank/Manhog interactions, Frank is throwing a tea party for himself and a few stuffed animals. He's telling stories. (Woodring's comics don't include any words or sound effects, but he is very clear that Frank can talk and that there is sound in the Unifactor. In this way, his comics are like fuzzy receptions from an alien world on a broken monitor.) Manhog is watching and at first smiling, but then, over a gorgeous five-panel sequence, his face twists into sadness at being on the outside, then self-pity because he knows he isn't invited, and, finally, rage.
Manhog charges, rears up on his hind legs, yanks up the blanket Frank is sitting on, rips the stuffing out of Frank's friends, spills the tea, and scampers away on four legs, leaving Frank with his head in his hands in an alarmingly adult show of grief. The Unifactor becomes gray and dark and gloomy. Frank is wandering, sad, when he comes across a wooden lean-to with Manhog asleep inside. We all know this part, when our white-gloved hero, roused out of his innocence by an unprovoked attack, plans some mischief and unleashes an elaborate revenge, giving the villain his comeuppance. But no: Instead of plotting an artful bit of poetic justice, the way Bugs Bunny, say, pesters Yosemite Sam into inadvertently revealing his doltishness, Frank picks up a discarded sliver of wood and shoves it into Manhog's ear. Manhog wails and thrashes around in a pool of his own blood as Frank stalks away, still angry, nothing settled.
Woodring's initials signal the end of the piece. And this full stop breaks every rule of cartooning as we know it: Comics, with their superheroes and merry pranksters poking fun at bloated egos and wealthy corporations on behalf of the little guy, have always been a moral medium. Frank's artless violence suggests nihilism and announces another kind of storytelling, one that's almost hyperrealistic. He's giving our own complex social interactions back to us all dressed up in masks, and the result is funny, strange, and horrifying.
This year, Woodring published his finest work to date, which extends his essence into epic form. It's called Weathercraft, his first full-length graphic novel, and it spans 100 pages exactly. It's embedded with codes and secrets. A practicing Hindu, he has hidden a tiny "om" in the intricate line work of each of Weathercraft's pages.
If you've spent any time reading his work, you half expect the place where Woodring lives to be a giant, colorful, onion-domed cathedral with a front door resembling an Indian love goddess's pulsating vagina. But no. All of Woodring's wild ideas are born in a house that is entirely disappointing from the outside. It's just a pleasant-but-ordinary-looking home in Ravenna, with a front porch and a small yard. Then you go inside.
It's clear that you've stepped into Woodring's own Unifactor: The TV is in an elaborate, handmade cabinet that looks like an altar from a Disney- worshipping death cult. Off by the drawing table, a giant poster of a dissected frog hangs behind a skeleton wearing a fez. Original comics art is displayed everywhere—the Nancy strip in the bathroom featuring Nancy and Sluggo playing with masks is a special delight—and all around the dining room table, Woodring has assembled an autodidact's library. Cartoon collections and art books line the walls in some kind of sloppy, unknowable organization.
Woodring can't sit still for more than a few minutes before referencing some brilliant cartoonist you've never heard of. He mentions a childhood favorite, Boris Artzybasheff—the name alone sounds like a character of Woodring's own creation—and starts combing the walls until he finds the Artzybasheff collection he was thinking of. He drops the book open in the middle of the table, revealing a lost cartooning genius—a flash of brilliance that influenced an entire generation of underground cartoonists, presumably including Robert Crumb, the only artist Woodring reverentially declares is "kind of above criticism." Woodring does this conjuring act several times over the course of a couple hours, standing up and digging a missing link from out of his bookshelves; he might as well be pulling pieces of the Loch Ness monster's skeleton up from under the table.
He points out an inky figure in the book by Artzybasheff. The little silhouette appears to have fallen off a Grecian urn. "I lifted this fellow right out of this book," he says, cheerily: This incidental character in a magazine illustration from the 1930s leaped directly into Woodring's strip "Gentlemanhog." It's impossible to look at all the clever, forgotten characters in these books and not wonder how many of them have climbed into the Unifactor in one form or another.
Woodring's work is about layers, both behind the stories and in them. Occasionally, Frank will peel back the petals of a fleshy wall to discover something—a pencil, for instance—hiding inside. And every time Woodring returns to the Unifactor, he adds another character. A tiny spermatozoal creature will crawl up Frank's asshole and turn him inside out until Pupshaw—one of Frank's pets, who looks like a roof from a Turkish castle with legs—tackles the whole sprawling mess and blows Frank's outsides back inside, like a benevolent Big Bad Wolf.
Aside from the standard high-school requirements, Woodring has still never attended an art class. A friend of his from high school in Los Angeles (class of 1970) once told Woodring that he couldn't draw that well, "but you acted like you could, and that made all the difference." He claims he was never really a competent draftsman. "And I'm still not. I managed to take my limited range and go as far as I could." After his unexceptional run as a student, he became a garbage man, then wound up as an artist at the hack L.A. cartoon studio Ruby-Spears, where he was befriended by a classic comic-book artist named Gil Kane. In the 1980s, Kane passed on a photocopied zine of illustrations and essays by Woodring called Jim to Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, who told Woodring that if he included some comics, he'd be happy to publish it.
It may seem strange that a man who creates books without words is winning a literary award. "There are going to be some writers in this town who will think, 'What the fuck?!'" Woodring says when I bring it up. But then he adds, pointing to a copy of Weathercraft, "There is writing in that book. It's just covered up with pictures."