Profile – Woodrow Phoenix

Graphic artist Woodrow Phoenix packs a very Postmodern punch in his work, with message-driven illustrations offering up an incongruous mix of the cute and the sinister. Dominic Lutyens catches up with him

The impressively prolific London-based artist, illustrator, graphic designer and writer Woodrow Phoenix is known for his free-wheeling experimentation with illustrative and graphic styles, which makes his eclectic approach extremely Postmodern, yet some of his views might seem ultra-traditional. While doing a BA in typography at Reading University in the early 1980s, he was interested ‘in learning about technical rather than aesthetic things’, he says in his cluttered studio in Aldgate, east London. His collection of Japanese toy figures (including Atom Boy and Totoro) testifies to another of his passions/ Japanese pop culture. His 2006 book, Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World, analyses the phenomenal popularity of these kidult toys.

Today, Phoenix’s philosophy is equally classical and almost logocentric, since he considers a clear narrative more important than visual pyrotechnics. ‘This applies especially in comics because they’re ultimately about storytelling,’ he says. ‘If people cannot follow the story, it’s no good. Drawings can hurt a story if they dominate it. The importance of legibility in graphic design was drummed into me at college, and it’s something I still agree with.’

If you look at Phoenix’s career as a whole, his work has become increasingly message-driven, even didactic, and, in terms of subject matter, darker. His most recent projects include illustrations for film-maker Sarah Wood’s animated film For Cultural Purposes Only. Commissioned by Animate Projects, it was broadcast on Channel 4’s annual Animate TV programme last week and will be screened at Tate Modern in London on 3 December.

Wood’s aim was to reconstruct films from Palestine’s lost film archive in Beirut, which was destroyed in 1982 by Israeli bombs. This reconstruction was based on interviews with Palestinians who had seen some of these films. Phoenix drew what they described.

Wood thought her collaboration with Phoenix was ‘a good fit’, he says, because of another project of his, characterised by the same unblinking realism – the graphic non-fiction book Rumble Strip, published in 2008 by Myriad Editions.

Inspired by the ‘isolating’ car culture of Los Angeles – where he lived in 2002 while working for Disney, which optioned his cartoon character Sugar Kat (from his comic Sugar Buzz, co-written with Ian Carney) – the book warns of the dangers of cars, backed up by grim accident statistics. Its starkly minimalist, monochrome drawings are more eerie for being devoid of people.

Up until this point in the conversation, Phoenix has seemed very intense, but then he states, in an almost shockingly casual, matter-of-fact way, ‘I lost my sister in a car accident. Killing while driving is the most acceptable way to kill. In the UK you only get five or six years in prison for it.’

Equally marked by bleak realism is his similarly monochrome comic Cite Soleil about teenage gangs involved in kidnapping in Haiti, co-created with 17-year-old Haitian writer Adele Austin.

Yet Phoenix’s initial work was lighter, more humorous. Having worked, post-college, as a letterer for DC Comics and Marvel, his earliest, mid-1980s illustrations, which appeared in Radio Times, had a 1950s/1960s retro quality influenced by Hanna-Barbera cartoons. These were cute and filled with visual jokes. Ironically, while he endorses clear typography, back then his illustrations were stylised, anti-naturalistic. ‘I was inspired by 1950s and 1960s animation because their whittled-down, abstract shapes are elegant,’ says Phoenix. ‘People often think good drawing is about naturalism. I admire photorealism, but don’t find it interesting.’

In the mid-1990s, Phoenix’s comics became very Postmodern. A comic featuring Sherlock Holmes saw the sleuth literally invade other books – for example, Jekyll and Hyde – leading Phoenix to parody different styles of typography to mirror the jumps from one literary genre to another.

In fact, incongruity is a major theme in his work: his Sumo Family cartoon of 1990, published by the Independent on Sunday newspaper, featured a family of Sumo wrestlers whose conversations were unexpectedly ‘existentialist and intellectual’.

Phoenix is working on a cartoon called L’il Existentialist. It has a precocious six-year-old heroine with an ontological desire to unravel life’s mysteries, who still shares the average girl’s obsessions with ponies and chocolate. He hopes it will make it as a TV cartoon. But, in Phoenix’s world, there’s no strict hierarchy between formats. ‘For me, TV animation isn’t a direct progression from comics or graphic novels – it’s just an alternative,’ he says.

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