Apologies for the poor sound quality in this video - the Gage had very poor acoustics - even those in attendance struggled to hear.
Nibbus Maximus, 9th January 2011
This is why Jim Woodring wins “genius” awards. He has not only created some of the most groundbreaking comics of the last 25 years — works that have evolved their own mythology, visual grammar and symbolism — but he’s also not afraid to take, literally, giant risks like this, his giant-pen project.
Dubbed “Nibbus Maximus,” it began life as a Projectsite-funded project and managed to convince supporters to donate over $4,800 towards construction of a 16” dip-pen nib, a six feet long penholder and associated, similarly-scaled accessories. It was a feat never before attempted and for that, we have to admire Woodring’s hubris. Yet, it is a project that seems like a natural extension of the surreal worlds that he conjures in his comics and it would not seem out of place to see Frank wield a similar implement.
This afternoon’s packed event at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle was the grand unveiling of the pen and Woodring’s first public demonstration of its capabilities and, indeed, the artist’s own first proper use of the pen (save from a 30-foot line to ensure it worked). Over the course of three hours, he would try out the pen and then proceed to ink a selection of 3’ x 5’ pencil drawings. It was an exercise in chutzpah that seemed wholly appropriate to the project.
Woodring’s first faltering lines with the giant nib demonstrated that it did indeed work and, gradually, the first sheet began to fill with his trademark wavering lines, using the expressive potential of the nib with surprising degree of control. From there, he moved on to ink images of a jiva, a typically surreal creature and an even larger image of Frank. With each step, the growth in his confidence and mastery of the implement was clear to see.
Behind these, admittedly stunning, first steps, though, lurks the question: Why? As performance, today’s event was successful, but mainly due to the element of the unknown — the very proof that this outlandish idea would work was entertainment enough — and also the novelty factor of seeing Woodring wield the implement (his analogy of Excalibur was very apt). But those will soon fade and, as the video demonstrates, Woodring’s inking is slow and meticulous — any public demonstrations are likely to be either incomplete or incredibly long.
Perhaps, as another attendee speculated, it’s a demonstration of his craft on a large scale; a deconstruction of his art that makes evident to layperson the craft and labour that goes into the creation of his pages. Given his genial and avuncular demeanour, it would be easy to see Woodring become an inspirational public artist-cum-instructor like Rolf Harris (although, please, Jim — no covers of “Stairway to Heaven”). His previous presentations on his work have always led to a greater appreciation of both the texts and Woodring as an artist — I doubt anyone would deny that greater awareness of Jim Woodring would be a very healthy thing for comics.
Whatever his reasons or intentions — he quite self-effacingly says that he did it just to have a giant pen sitting around the house — there’s no doubt that Nibbus Maximus’ first outing was a resounding success. When the novelty has faded, though, and Woodring has truly mastered his giant nib, it’s only then that we are likely to see its true potential. Woodring is too much the consummate artist to become the painting-elephant of comics.