There’s a scene in the new Jim Woodring graphic novel, “Weathercraft,” where a character called Whim merges with a psychoactive plant called Salvia divinorum. Whim, the book’s devilish antagonist, is transformed into a malignant plant entity capable of warping reality and proceeds to wreak havoc on every creature he encounters.
“I don’t suggest using Salvia as a guide for this book,” Woodring said after describing the scene, but he noted that the plant does provide its own symbolic index.
During a reading at Pegasus Books in Berkeley yesterday evening, Woodring led readers through “Weathercraft” and his own symbolic index. After a few technical problems including a malfunctioning PowerPoint presentation, Woodring told the good folks at Pegasus to hand out copies of the book to all in attendance. Woodring then walked through each page of his story, explaining the intricacies of his narrative and art and pointing out subtle details within the pages of the book.
The reference to Salvia in regard to Woodring’s work is apt. He’s been called one of the great cartoonists of his generation and at this point, there’s little doubt of his visual storytelling prowess. But it’s the intense, visionary images and worlds that spring from his mind and on to his pages that truly separates him from his peers.
“Weathercraft” expands on his most famous creation, an alternate universe called the Unifactor. Woodring describes it as a sort of conscious environment. It’s inhabited by characters such as the feckless anthropomorphic entity known as Frank and the protagonist of “Weathercraft,” the sub-human Manhog.
While the functions and logic of his dream world are compelling, what always stood out to me was Woodring’s ability to blend classic cartooning techniques with the primordial “inner stuff,” as Francis Ford Coppola describes it. “Weathercraft,” like all his Unifactor stories, is absolutely wordless. It’s a quiet, cosmic adventure that relies on Woodring’s extraordinary control of visual language and blends his understanding of Vedantic beliefs with stylized, Max Fleischer nightmares to explore ideas about the evolution of consciousness. As if to hammer home this mysticism, Woodring notes that the Sanskrit symbol for the sacred syllable Aum is hidden on each page.
The continuity of his setting is loose, but he does gladly expand on this universe, at least as far as he understands it. He also encourages readers to bring something of themselves and their understanding to the stories. When one fan asked a question about a part of the story and gave a personal interpretation, Woodring said that it seemed plausible and told her to email him the explanation so he could pass it on as part of the canon. He calls it reader participation, but maybe some of the elements of Woodring’s work are just a mint-leaf beyond explanation.