‘Weathercraft': A wordless epic of toons and torture

April 28, 2011 | 10:03 a.m.

Last year, “Asterios Polyp” won as the graphic novel category was introduced at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The five finalists in the category this year have been announced and the winner will be named Friday. Leading up to the awards ceremony, we will be looking at each of the finalists. Today: “Weathercraft.”

In his “Frank” comics — a staple in the world of alternative comics — Jim Woodring has put his anthropomorphic character through nearly two decades of scrapes, slapstick violence and meanderings through a cartoon universe that is both paradisaical and terrifying. In Woodring’s first full-length graphic novel “Weathercraft,” published by Fantagraphics, side character Manhog is thrust into the spotlight, forced on a quest for truth in a hallucinatory realm. Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark caught up with the Woodring.

NC: Your pen-and-ink drawing style is beautifully reminiscent of old woodcuts, and what’s most striking is the absence of any text or dialogue. Is it difficult to tell a story this way?

wc16 Weathercraft: A wordless epic of toons and torture
“Weathercraft” (Fantagraphics Books)

JW: It’s not really hard to do it, but it’s a lot more work, because you have to show everything. You can’t have someone say, “I’m going to go to the store,” and then next thing you know, they’re at the store; you have to show them walking to the store. So there’s a lot of repetitive drawing. You have to draw a lot of the same things over and over again. And also, you can’t condense time with words. You can’t have a little sign that says “the next day” or anything like that. If you want to show time, you have to do it visually, and it’s trickier.

NC: This is your first full-length graphic novel. What was your creative process like?

JW: Doing short stories, it’s kind of easy because they’re snappy, and they usually contain one short story line, and it’s easy to get across. The challenge of doing a longer story is that you have to have more than one storyline to keep it going, and you have to worry about things like the reader getting tired in the middle of it, or the second act being too boring. That was something I had to struggle to prevent from happening. … For stories like that, I write them out in words first, and I fill up a little sketchbook with drawings every month, so when I’m working on a story like that, I draw things that I think might be useful to put into the story. I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting and crossing out and just trying to build up a story of sentences that hook up to each other and work together. I can tell when I’m on the right track. I can tell when there’s kind of an idea lurking in the darkness, waiting to be found. But it can take me quite a while to finally uncover it.

NC: Can you tell us about this world you’ve created for your characters in “Weathercraft” and other “Frank” comics? I think you call it the Unifactor?

JW: The Unifactor obviously is the place where the stories are set. It’s a concept that evolved as I started drawing them. I began to realize that things happen there in a way that they wouldn’t happen in a place where there was actual free will. Things were kind of being controlled by the environment, so it occurred to me to give the environment a name so that I could think about its personality and why it was doing what it was doing. I’ve come to think of it as a closed system of moral and metaphysical algebra that always insists on the equation working out the same.

NC: This book introduces some new characters to the Unifactor:  the crones that you’ve nicknamed “Betty and Veronica.” Can you tell us about them? Are they agents of suffering or redemption?

JW: I concocted them for this story. I don’t really understand them, except that they’re a pair of dei ex machina. Things happen to the characters in that world in a way that seems very arbitrary, since you can’t see the personalities that are manipulating things or making things happen. So they are beings that you can see and whose intent you can divine somewhat. It was just a way of showing the authors of the forces that are manipulating the reality there. Because I thought if I just had things happening, it would seem too arbitrary. I wanted to make it clear that something deliberately was being done to bring about this series of events. That it wasn’t just happening, or that it wasn’t just an unrelated series of things, that it was a campaign that these two creatures were conducting.

NC: Can you describe their particular brand of magic?

weathercraft cover Weathercraft: A wordless epic of toons and torture
“Weathercraft” (Fantagraphics Books)

JW: I never really thought of it as being magic before. I just thought that they were manipulating these forces, more in the way that a guru or a spiritual teacher will intercede on behalf of a disciple. Things happen when that happens, but it’s not really magic, it’s just that, if you believe in that, some people are capable of understanding and controlling the world in a way that regular people are not, in the same way that a parent can kind of control reality for a young child by choosing what they see, choosing how they hear things, determining what their experiences will be. That’s more like what they were doing.

NC: In the past, we’ve mostly seen the Frank character, but this book focuses mostly on Manhog.

JW: Frank is the one that is the least capable of changing things himself. He never really learns anything, and everything he does is sort of inadvertent, so people gravitate to him. There are two creatures that live with him; Pupshaw and Pushpaw are sort of his guardians. They are very powerful beings who have made themselves subservient to him. I kind of think of them as being Katharine Hepburn to his Spencer Tracy. I’ve done five or six hundred pages of “Frank” stories, and Manhog has always been sort of an incidental character, or almost always. A lot of times, he’s the most sympathetic, or the most interesting, and he’s just the character whose plight is the easiest to understand, for me anyway, just because he’s the most human. And I just thought it was time to do a story about his getting as far up the road as his humanity would take him.

NC: It’s pretty creepy. We see him endure 30 pages of torture.

JW: Oh well, yeah, but you know, that’s a literary tradition. The ordeal. You have to set things up so that there’s something to bounce back from. … He is railroaded into that quest. It’s not a journey he would have undertaken himself, but the whole casserole of conditions are unleashed upon him that make it so that he ends up going in that direction. There’s the part of the book where he goes into this artificial setting that looks natural. He’s ushered into it by these two old crones, and he sees a series of tableaux, and the tableaux kind of soften him up for the final image, which is sort of loosely based on what I’ve read about the Eleusinian mysteries. It was an ancient Greek ritual where I think — I’m not an expert on it — people would actually get high on burning bay leaves, and then they would be shown a sequence of tableaux that would lead to the ultimate tableau, which I think was the goddess Demeter holding two sheaves of wheat. So it was just based on the idea of educational dioramas, basically. And the last thing he sees is a man and a hog, which is the two warring sides of his nature separated into two separate entities which are more or less at peace with themselves. And that is a revelation to him. You can see he is looking at his fingers, he’s counting, “One, two…” and he gets his mind around this duality. Those are like the keys to the kingdom for him. It makes it so he is completely the master of the world after that. He’s able to play with plastic reality as if it were putty or something.

NC: So as he sees and understands more, his behavior changes?

JW: At one point, those two crones go to try and rendezvous with him to push him further into it. So he’s definitely being manipulated into going on this journey that he’s on. There’s a point where he has the opportunity  of leaving this veil of tears entirely and entering into paradise. That portal opens up. But when he’s about to do it, he’s reminded of the fact that he unleashed this catastrophe upon the world. And this same elevation of consciousness that made it possible for him to enter this world has also made him responsible enough that he just isn’t selfish enough to do it anymore. So he forsakes going into this shining realm so he can return to the world and be of service to it.

NC: But he ends up right where he started. Why have him lose it all?

wc48 Weathercraft: A wordless epic of toons and torture
“Weathercraft” (Fantagraphics Books)

JW: Typically when people go on a journey like that, they become enlightened, and they bring something back and they give it to the world. And one of the things that disturbs me to some extent are people who go very far down the spiritual path and learn a lot and become quite spiritually evolved, and then something happens, and they get sucked back into a worldly life, and they let all that go by the board. So that was why I ended the story that way, because it’s sort of a meditation on the question of why and how that happens.

NC: How have personal experiences informed your work?

JW: That’s a hard question to answer. Even before I realized that I could be an actual artist, I was always trying to express the way I felt about the world with pictures and stories and things. The comics and the drawings that I do are not, from my standpoint, fantasy. They’re reality-based, and they’re intended to say something about the way I see the world. I mean, I’m a cartoonist, so I have to be an entertainer, I have to put something out that people will like, but I’m not just spinning yarns or making things up. I try to do stories that are based on something that I think about the world.

NC: At one point, we see Frank eating lunch right outside the cell where Manhog is being tortured by Whim.

JW: That’s Frank’s character. He’s naive in a way that isn’t innocent. He just doesn’t really understand what’s going on around him, so he’s capable of that kind of coarseness, you know, in the same way that a child would be. Children don’t always realize the implications of what they’re seeing. So he’s kind of like that. It’s been my experience that people are capable of great cruelty to each other, and callousness. … Art is always so reductive, and what I have going on in my comics is so simple and relatively easy to understand compared to real life, which is infinitely complex. So it might relate to real life in the same way that a chessboard would relate to a chessboard with an infinite number of squares on it. It’s sort of similar in some ways, but it’s much, much, much, much, much simpler and reductive and easier to understand.

NC: You’ve also drawn “Star Wars” and “Aliens” comics. Did you enjoy those?

JW: I enjoyed aspects of them. I enjoyed the fact that there was money connected with them. I enjoyed the “Aliens” story because I thought that was a great monster, and they let me just be as gross and grotesque as I possibly could, so I really tried to lay on the goo as thick as I could, and that was fun. It’s different as far as what I’m trying to do goes. The process of trying to put a story together so that it works — it has a beginning a middle and an end, and it interests people — it’s the same. But as far as what I’m trying to do with the story, it’s entirely different. With those stories, I’m just trying to come up with something that would be a worthwhile project. When I do something like that, I’m like a plumber who shows up with his tools and just does whatever needs to be done. This stuff, the “Frank” stories and the drawings and paintings that I do, are my self-expression.

NC: So what’s next?

JW: I just finished a book [“Congress of the Animals”] that’s coming out in June that takes Frank out of the Unifactor for the first time in the story, and he brings somebody back with him. He learns things, and things happen that have never happened. He leaves the Unifactor, and he has experiences there, and he comes back to the Unifactor, and he’s different. … He’s less innocent and he’s more materialistic. In his naturally innocent state, even though he’s not particularly good or altruistic, he is innocent, and he is protected. That’s one of the things of the story … that no matter how bad the thread is, the hammer never really falls on Frank. The Unifactor is protecting him. But I think that might be over now.

– Noelene Clark

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