Note Bene: I have decided that instead of putting off and putting off and putting off my vow to somehow market my first novel I would let people download and read it for free. Give it a preview, read the whole thing or, if you like what you see, send me some kind words or an order for the actual book. Download and read my first book “Thank You, Goodnight” for FREE. [With a cover drawn by Jim Mahfood]
I hated history.
Really, I was homogeneously unable to follow the whole ethos of “those who cannot remember the past somethin’ somethin’ or another” but there was one of only a few things that has always stayed with me since 7th grade World History class: the de’ Medicis.
While I’ll keep the Cliff’s Notes version here brief it is important for the reading of this interview to see that the actions of a once powerful family that lived and reigned around Florence, Italy, around the 13th century and ruled well into the 15th, helped to flood Renaissance art into the streets of that boot-shaped land. They were well-known for a lot of artistic sponsorships, money was no issue for an artist with a whim and a financial need, and it’s something that I’ve always hoped to young talents within the comic book industry, with Mahfood being a recipient of some kind to help keep the man’s art churning out into the world.
You see eggheads get the MacArthur “Genius” grant, a free $500,000 to keep on keepin’ on with your artistic bad ass self, but you never see it bestowed on artisans who choose to toil in the folk art of comic books. I’ve always equated those who possess the ability to transcend the mundane and static into something that can resonate with the human spirit with those who possess a tuning fork for the souls of the rest of us but, unfortunately, bigger eggheads with even bigger checkbooks deem otherwise.
So, that brings us to Jim. An accomplished comic book artist and writer who has a penchant for the askew and whose work is infused with the kind of black and white punch that’s usually reserved for those who have thousands of colors within their artistic quill. His work is funny. It can make you laugh with the absurdity that it sometimes espouses but when Mahfood suggests that more cool people get together to help offset all the straight-lace, right-wingers who seem to be repopulating at bunny-like proportions there is a thin line of truth in the sentiment that you cannot deny.
His work can get political. A weekly contributor to Phoenix’s New Times magazine Jim can take a hot-button topic, peel it back, and get to the quick about what’s really at issue in the community on any given day. He hits more than he misses and, even when he does, it’s just comforting to know that the man who pioneered Smoke Dog and Zombie Kid can still rock the political mic more consistently than the constituents who suppose their elected overlords are doing everything “in their best interest.”
The man who took pity on a lowly novelist who needed a great cover and didn’t want anyone else to create it but him, Jim Mahfood was a class act who laid it out and helped me put a tight cover to my first book. There’s a lot to be said about fanboys but there’s something else entirely to owning mass quantities of one person’s work and just hoping that there could be something you could do someday to say thanks. In a way, being able to interview Jim last year during Comic-Con was a way for me to delve deeper into the reasons why I dig the man’s work so much and, as I hope you see, there’s a real sense of humor, of perspective and drive that hopefully ensures he’s the premiere black and white funkmaster of the comic book scene.
Sure, he can keep going on his own but isn’t there a wealthy family out there that can help this man save the world, one live art event at a time?
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: How many ‘Cons does this make for you?
JIM MAHFOOD: Probably… Probably over a lot. A lot of ‘Cons. 50 or so… I’ve been doing them for about almost 10 years. I do about 5 to 6 a year. It’s starting to wear, the wear and tear is getting to me. I mean, they’re great, San Diego is great but…5 days? 5 days is way too long. The other shows, like Chicago, are 3 days and that’s cool; see everybody, you’re in you’re out, you make your money but this is a little obnoxious. However, it’s only once a year so…
STIPP: But you’re on the front lines selling your own stuff. There’s a little bit of excitement, I could be way wrong, but you’re the one who’s written and drawn your work and here you are, selling to the public. Like the modern day DJ who’s selling their mix CDs out of the back of their trunk. Is that the way you want to keep it or do you have designs of someday hooking up with a big corporation like a DC or Marvel and have a cush gig just sitting at well-manicured tables for an hour or so just signing things?
MAHFOOD: Well, they don’t have the balls to do anything fun or cool or interesting, I think. Their stuff is OK but I’ve just been on my own, doing my own thing because I have complete control over it; I get to write it, draw it, design it, the way I want and I’ve always been attracted to art and music that’s been driven by one single person.
Like, my favorite musicians and DJs are the guys who write, produce and perform their own music and my favorite artists are the guys who have their own distinct stamp or style like, for example, Crumb or Mignola or Scott Morse. And I think that’s what’s selling this stuff, like the things that they do, what I do, is almost like a brand. The style is the brand. “Oh, I recognize your style,” that’s the kind of thing people say. They aren’t like, “Oh, your Spider-Man is cool.” What they’re saying is, “I like what *you* do.” “I like your vision, your writing, etc…” And that’s reflective of my own tastes and personality and sensibility. Certain people are attracted to that and some aren’t but that’s just the kind of art that I’m attracted to: people who have a voice and have something to say.
Unique. Uniqueness is key. Like I will never be the greatest artist of all time, the best storyteller or have the best layouts but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is being unique. Just being an individual and not drawing like anyone else is what matters. That’s what I’m trying to do.
STIPP: Who are your peers that you look toward for inspiration?
MAHFOOD: Definitely my whole crew of buddies that I do art with like Scott Morse, Dave Crosland, Mike Huddleston, Jose Garibaldi…I grew up loving Ninja Turtles when it first came out, it was so different. Crumb stuff, the Hernandez Brothers, Jamie Hewlett who did Tank Girl and all the Gorillaz artwork, just guys who their own unique thing that they alone do.
I’ve never really been into mainstream superhero artists not because those that are working on them are bad artists…it just doesn’t strike me. I like things that make you go, “Wow, that’s different.”
STIPP: How are you evolving as an artist? I just finished your Classic 40oz. One thing I noticed about your work years ago was how sharp the artwork was. Not just in the ephemeral sense but, quite literally, the drawings had a tight attention to detail. And now, when you look at your work there is a looseness, a roundish feel, to what you’re doing. Is that something you’re consciously thinking about?
MAHFOOD: Yeah, but it’s also something that unconsciously evolves on its own, too. The more you do it, you hope, the better you get and things start to work themselves out but, yeah, I definitely consciously started going…going from portraiture kinds of things to straight up Peanuts style. Where the drawings of me and my friends have round heads and little arms and little legs because I think it looks funnier, for one, and also I don’t take myself seriously enough to do realistic portrait work of me and my friends; it would be too weird.
So, I went and depicted them as these cute little cartoon characters, kind of like as buffoons. It’s cartoony and it’s supposed to be funny. And that’s one of the main things about my work, I am a huge fan of comedy and humor and I try to put comedy and humor into everything I do. I don’t think I could ever do a serious, hardcore detective book or a serious western…I mean it’s cool, it’s interesting, but, for me, I just don’t take myself, in my heart, seriously enough to do those sorts of things. I just like humor. I like to make people smile or chuckle. The world is depressing enough as it is but with my art I want people to be, “Oh, that’s interesting…It’s funny…It has something to say.”
STIPP: On that same token, I like what you’re doing with the weekly space you’re being given every week in the Phoenix New Times. It’s very political in a way; whatever issue is brewing within Phoenix’s border that week you somehow spin it into something amusing or thought-provoking.
MAHFOOD: Yeah, totally.
The weekly is more of an exercise because, since it’s a weekly, I have to throw out an idea every week…the idea and the art are done really quickly. I spend about an hour on them. I do them…right before they’re due and it’s more like an exercise of, “Here’s something that’s going on and here’s me commenting on it.” It’s literally supposed to be read within five seconds. The art isn’t that detailed because they don’t print them that big and the people who happen to land on that Letters page just glance through it and it’s just gotten to the point that instead of drawing intricate word balloons and lots of dialogue it’s simply five panels and, “Ah, yeah, funny.”
If you look at these things from the beginning there’s like 10 panels, whole lots of word balloons, it’s all very heavy diatribes but now, for me, it’s a looser idea of, “Let’s put out 10 ideas instead of one really detailed, convoluted, idea.” And there’s so much to comment on nowadays.
STIPP: How do you keep up with what’s happening in Phoenix if you don’t really live there anymore?
MAHFOOD: I live in LA and do the local Phoenix weekly, yeah. I just go to the Phoenix New Times.com and just read up on Phoenix news. I’m also good friends with the editor there and she will sometimes just hit me up like, “Would you mind, you should consider having your comic be about this hot topic right now.” She’ll send me the info, I’ll read it and I’ll comment about it.
It’s not heavily researched at all. It’s just me reacting to it. It’s like, here’s this fucked up story about the Phoenix cops and here’s me reacting to it. But it’s cool, man, because it was really challenging in the beginning but now I’m getting used to it and I really enjoy having a weekly because it keeps me on my toes. I’ve never done one before and every week it’s a new idea that gets put out there. Like, if one of them isn’t funny, or it doesn’t work very well, it doesn’t matter because I’ll have another chance next week. So, it’s almost like a safety net because every week I don’t have to blow people’s minds because the next week I can compensate for it….Which….may be a very bad way of looking at it.
STIPP: Are you finding some political satisfaction in taking a stance every week for the people to interpret?
MAHFOOD: Oh yeah. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always been a huge fan since I was a little kid of political satire in a cartoon-y format. Huge fan of Mad Magazine, Cracked, Saturday Night Live, HUGE fan of Bloom County the comic strip…Opus, Bill the Cat…huge fan of all that stuff.
The thing is…I’m not that smart or that politically savvy. I don’t watch CNN. I don’t really read the paper but I have an overall idea of all the crazy shit that’s going on and I feel like I am able to comment about it because it’s me writing, drawing and doing it all. People might think I’m crazy or they might agree with me so either way…It’s something I really enjoy. I couldn’t imagine doing art and not having a comment on the world and society we live in.
Like, in art school, in illustration class, we had to do shit like paint a shampoo bottle, photo realistically. Exercises like that always drove me crazy because I knew I would never use that in my artistic life. I just could never imagine being just an illustrator…illustrating cars or something. For me, it’s always been like, “There has to be a message in it…there has to be substance in it…there has to be more than just this surface bullshit.” There has to be some substance to it. There has to be something that draws people in and I think that might be one of the selling points to my art: the fan base that I have seem to be interested in the overall picture of, “I dig your art…but I also kind of dig the ideas and the humor and the writing…I kind of dig your whole vibe.” And, so, that’s what I’ve tried to establish. These are my books, this is my world and it’s not based on anything else.
It’s my funky version of the world.
STIPP: Do you ever question yourself?
MAHFOOD: Oh yeah. All the time. I sometimes think I’m just a huge hack. But something will happen where I do a piece, I’ll do a live art thing or a Stupid Comic and it’ll kind of gel and I’ll look at it the next day and go, “Oh, I’m kind of happy with that.”
The other thing, too, is, looking back, which I hate to do, I hate anything I’ve done that’s over a year old, when I look back at my old stuff the only good thing about doing that is that it lets me know I’ve evolved and that I’m better now. Because I really am trying to evolve the art style, the drawing, and trying to push it, trying to push the design, the compositions of it, just by hanging out with guys, real bad asses, like Scott and Mike Huddleston. If you’re an artist and you surround yourself with guys who are better than you, you just learn and absorb from them. You borrow from them. Like, I used to hang out at Scott’s studio when he lived there in LA. I would just go there and see what he was working on, watch him work, and borrow and absorb what he was doing. Not steal it, take it and apply it to my style and do it differently. It’s like if you’re a DJ and you sample. Don’t just lift and sample the most obvious drum beat…go dig into the weird, obscure shit. Take it and make it into something really exciting.
STIPP: What is it about music that seems to be infused within your artwork?
MAHFOOD: Just like the attitude and the feeling of the music. I get a really specific feeling and attitude feeling towards things like hip-hop and hip-hop culture and funk and jazz. It has a particular rhythm and vibe that it gives off to me. I was around it ever since I was a kid. Like my mom raised us on records. She was always playing records like Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire and also like rock n’ roll, Neil Diamond and Queen…it’s just always been…I’ve always just sat in my room and drawn and listened to music. I never really watched TV and drew, I’ve never had talk radio on…I’ve just always out on music as a kid, locked myself in my room, and drew. And it became a soundtrack to what I was drawing. If I was angry, or doing something aggressive, I’d put on punk rock or if I was doing something more inspired I’d put on hip-hop. Music always has intrigued and fascinated me. So, I’ve tried to develop a visual style that conveys my reaction to music and…it might work and it might not work.
And the live art, the live art is a literal reaction to music because we are literally painting and drawing what we’re feeling while the music is going on, loud as fuck, pumping through our bodies, our eardrums, like when Scott and I paint live we don’t talk about what we’re going to do, we don’t plan it out. We just go up and we do it. It just comes out, it’s like an exorcism…and it’s like this subconscious, crazy shit just comes out and when a piece is done sometimes you step back and it’s like, “Whoa. Wait. Where did that come from?” But it just came out. It is what it is.
It’s like improvisational jazz. You know, when Miles Davis would just get up there and just play. And freestyle.
STIPP: How do you see yourself progressing as an artist? When you look at yourself, what is driving you day-after-day?
MAHFOOD: Well, I always want to do comics in some form or another, and I always will, but I would love to be able and take the live art thing on an international tour. Get a bunch of artists, get a bunch of DJs, get it sponsored by, like, a shoe company or a marker company or some hip company and literally take it around the world and do comic book stores, signings during the days, and then live art in clubs at night.
It would be a dream for me. So, it’s starting to catch on and blow up and it’s, hopefully, leading to that. It may take a little while to get sponsors but I already have like artists and DJs all ready to go. It’s just organizing it and figuring out how to do it.
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