Jim Mahfood’s Weird World

Weird: of, relating to, or caused by the supernatural; of strange or extraordinary character; fate, destiny.

My first encounter with stellar artist Jim Mahfood occurred at the laundromat across the street from the Kent State University campus in 1998.  Actually, it was in the cigar shop next door to the laundromat.  Every Wednesday i had deemed to be laundry day.  But not only because the college house i shared with seven others was so filthy that i would neither walk on the ground floor sans shoes nor believe placing my clothes in the “washing” machine would result in cleanliness (my domicile was the top floor, with friend Brad, where nary a stray partier would venture).  The cigar shop also sold comic books.  A convenient location adjacent to “the other laundromat” – not the snazzy new one that had a full bar, fried food, TVs, and billiards – meant that it was a cob-webby, forgotten relic of spin cycles past little used by townies or students.  Essentially the perfect place to gobble up that week’s trove in relative peace and quiet.

So, in case you were thinking i ran into Mahfood folding our mutual garb, sadly, no.  But i did immediately snatch up a comic that frankly screamed “I’m different – pick me!”

Generation X Underground Special might not have possessed the same kind of punch if it had been a Dark Horse book, or a Malibu book.  This was a Marvel Comics book, and Marvel Comics typically don’t look like that.  Thick cardstock cover in black and white with only a blue and yellow palette, B&W interior, and starring the team from one of my then-current must-haves – Generation X.  Of course i thumbed through it at the rack.  No supervillains.  Recognizable ones anyway.  The heroes?  Yeah…they were battling each other for Space Invaders supremacy, introspectively walking the streets of NYC, and employing Hostess snacks to thwart the world-threatening plans of time-displaced Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg’s Giant Espresso Cannon.  And fighting killer robot pimps.

Damn!  This was some seriously funky stuff.  Heavily into graffiti at the time (the form – i’m too chickenshit to actually do it) this book looked like someone broke into the Marvel Comics studios and bombed the place.  It was, and still is, one of my favorite single issues of comics ever.  No disrespect to Jim though – i did sell it as part of the collection for a 2001 zany adventure.  i have since replaced the copy which now occupies a spot with the pared-down, intimate accumulation of meaningful comics.  Actually, it doesn’t occupy the spot right now.  It’s sitting on the desk in front of me.  Looks so cool sitting there…i’ll be back in a moment.

Good stuff.  Jubilee would be a Cibo Matto fan, wouldn’t she?  Wonder why my copy of the book has a different scrapbook page than this one?  Also wonder if Mahfood was at the Lizard Lounge show on March 29, 1996?    That was one of the questions i had planned to ask Food One hisself when he agreed that it was cool to call him for an interview earlier this week.  Alas, that query didn’t make the final cut.  But oddly enough, seeing as how the man is an artist, the interview did start off with a talk about music.

Just the other day, Mahfood posted online about the Judgment Night OST, proclaiming its merit as a truly kick ass album.  Myself a longtime fan of the rock-rap collaborative work, and only recently digging it up and rediscovering it, i wondered what Jim’s favorite track from the album is.  And secretly, i’ll admit i wondered if it was the same as mine.  Then i could say “i’ve got the same favorite song as a famous artist.”  Incidentally, and i don’t know if the numbers and figures support this, but the soundtrack is so much better than the film.  True, it had a good cast including one of my favorite comedians Denis Leary.  But i’d rather listen to the album than re-watch that movie any day.

“I really like the very first track, the Helmet and House of Pain one. <Just Another Victim> is one of my favorites,” Mahfood said after a cordial greeting.  After going back to listen to the audio from our talk, i realize i never even introduced myself or told him my name.

It went something like this.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Jim?”

“Yeah…?”  <suspiciously…was i a bill collector?>

“Hey, what’s up?”

“What’s up, man?  How you doing?”

“I’m doing really good.  How about you?”

“Great, great.”

By the way, my name is Doug, and i write The Long Shot.  i wrote you to ask about interviewing you for it.  We are now engaged in that interview.  Hi!

He offered to talk slowly for me, in case I was writing things down.  Dude – this is the 21st century.  Digital recorders are like impulse buys at Target.  In retrospect, for all he knew i was some dim-witted Internet dweller with his phone number and possibly nefarious agenda.  So thanks for the offer, Jim.

Anyway, the album.  While he led off with track 1 for favorite, i could tell his real favorite is track 2 – Fallin’.  And why not?  It’s clearly the superior feel-good track on the album.

“De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub is fantastic,” Mahfood said.  “That’s a good one to put on mix tapes for people.

“That record came out in ’93 when I was a freshman in art school.  It’s a pretty distinct memory for me.  Being in the studio and listening to that non-stop with my friends.  Back then, it was a really big deal to buy a CD for me, because we were all really poor, in art school.  So if you went out and actually spent your money on a new album it had to be a really good, really important record.  You listened to every track, over and over again.  That one in particular stands out to me because of the time I got it in.”

I’ve followed Jim Mahfood’s career pretty much since that book got published in 1998.  Not in a weird, stalker-y way – i just dig the guy’s style and like seeing what he puts out there.  And it has been a lot since then.

One of the more noteworthy things about Mahfood’s career is that, despite his body of work in the comics field, for big publishers like Marvel, DC, and Image, to indie publishers like Oni Press, and others, to comic strips in Phoenix New Times, he has managed not to become type cast as a “comic book artist.”  He’s just an artist, and part of what he does is comics.  That seems like it could be a challenge as an artist, not to be defined so much by what you’ve done, especially if it is primarily in a particular genre.

“I consciously went out of my way to do other things,” Mahfood said.  “Originally I just wanted to do comics, and my career was just comics in the very beginning, when I broke in.

“I realized right away that having a weird, unique style I wasn’t going to be getting lots of work – high-paying work.  Being interested in music, I naturally started doing flyers and album covers.  All in a very underground status.  That led to commercial work, and getting recognized by bigger companies.

“I kinda realized that the style being weird is sort of a negative thing for me in the comics industry, but it’s a positive thing for me in almost all other genres because it stands out.  The client, whether it’s Bed Head, or Nissan, or Ziggy Marley, sees it and thinks it could work.  They just let me do my thing.  They want uniqueness.  They want the weirdness.

“That’s one way of looking at it.  The other way is I’m just really interested in doing lots of different things.  I love doing comic books.  It’s one of the greatest art forms ever.  I’ll always have one foot in that genre.  The other part of me loves seeing my stuff in other avenues.”

Mahfood’s career path flips the script on the auto-biographical comic –> back-up story with big publisher –> series artist –> creator-owned paradigm; the tried-and-true road travelled by your Joe Quesada’s, Frank Quitely’s, Brian Michael Bendis’s, and countless others.  His first professional work began as writer, penciler, inker, and letter for Marvel Comics Generation X Underground Special, a gig he landed while still a senior at the Kansas City Art Institute.

“The last semester of school I got this gig with Marvel and I was like ‘if this pans out, then I’m gonna be set,’” Mahfood said.  “It was weird having to be in class and take assignments when I’m going home at night and working on a Marvel book.  Getting paid what for me was huge money at the time.

“Living poor for four years and then suddenly right before graduation I’m working for Marvel, I was sorta like ‘fuck school.  Fuck everybody!  I’m doing my dream.’  This was either going to lead to other work, or this is a one-time fluke thing and I’ll be back to looking for a job when it’s over.”

Fast forward fifteen years and as it turns out – it was no fluke.

“It was good timing in the late 90s,” Mahfood said.  “There was this weird cross-over with indie guys working for the mainstream companies.  A lot of that had to do with Brian Michael Bendis becoming like the hottest writer at Marvel.

“He started doing Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, and it was his idea to have all these weirdo artists come along and do different issues, and that led to me getting more work at Marvel.  I got to do Spider-Man, which is a childhood dream come true, and get a decent paycheck from Marvel, then spend the next two or three months working on my own independent project, where I didn’t know if there’d be money or not.  I was just able to put out work.”

After finishing school, Mahfood immediately moved to Arizona.  As a native Clevelander, his “cuz I wanted to get out of the Midwest” required no further explanation.  With Gen X in the bag, or possible harder substance container – I didn’t inquire as to the material construction of his portfolio – Mahfood showed his as-yet-unpublished Underground Special pages to Kevin Smith and Bob Schreck at the San Diego Comic Con.

The two were there scouting talent for the Clerks comic book produced by Schreck’s new-at-the-time Oni Press.  They loved it, and called Mahfood a couple of weeks later asking for sketches and concept drawings.

“I got lucky,” Mahfood said.  “And the Gen X book was such a weird thing.  It just went in under the radar and I don’t think they would ever publish a book like that again.

“I’m really happy with it, man.  When I look back on it now, I think it’s funny, and weird, and its own unique thing.”

Mahfood’s career has evolved into a world-renowned reputation for edgy, experimental, and extraordinary mass media artwork that fuses his sensibility, personality, and energy.  It is wild and alive.

And sometimes even live.

“When I get a new offer, I’ll talk to the art director right away and ask them how much freedom can I have?” Mahfood said.  “”How much of me can I bring to the project?  How weird can we get?  I want to know that stuff right off the bat.  Before I say yes.  Before I make a commitment.

“The big corporate jobs I’ve done like Nissan, and Colt 45, and Bed Head – all three of them, all the art directors were really cool and immediately off the bat said ‘we want you to be you, and we want you to just do your thing.’  That’s the best thing I can hear. 

“If you look at those jobs, there’s still some stylish, crazy, trippy, weird stuff in there.  You can’t really…you can’t ever with a job like that get political, or religious – there’s no room for your political agenda in there.  You can’t do drawings of cops getting stabbed, you know what I mean?  It’s just out of the question.  There had to be some level where you take your personal ideas out of it.  But you still make it yours.  You still make it funky.”

That funkiness is a powerful theme in Mahfood creator-owned comic work on projects like Stupid Comics and 40oz. Comics.  Whether it’s a pastiche of Charlie’s Angels from the Gen X book, or the urban culture saturated Grrl Scouts, or a revitalization of Tank Girl, or the visual journal Los Angeles Ink Stains, his work is embedded with a kind of cosmic convalescence of art and music and the unconventional way it all clicks together.

“I’ve always had a disdain for authority,” Mahfood said.  “I think most artists do.  We just want to be.  We want to be free.  It’s a very simple idea.  Any symbol of authority, it’s like the artist’s natural inclination to rebel again that.  I think that’s ingrained in art and music.  It’s like all the people I like the most – artists, musicians – they all had an anti-establishment sensibility.  It just comes through.”

And when it slips under the radar, Mahfood couldn’t be happier.  For quite some time, I’ve had a strong suspicion that powerful ideas sometimes form through a series of ‘logical conclusions.’  I’ll spare you a long-winding explanation of that.  Wait – scratch that.  I’ll save that explanation to share with you here at the Long Shot another time.

Anyway, I was surprised to come across and then confirm via Wikipedia that Jim Mahfood contributed to the phenomenal 1999 film Fight Club.  See, Mahfood wrote and drew a comic strip called Stupid Comics while he was living in Arizona.  By his own two-dimensional admission, he started the strip in 1997 when he realized of the Sunday funnies “how fucking horrible they were.”

“None of them were funny,” the penciled-and-inked creator said.  “They were literally ‘stupid comics.’”

One of the weekly strips, titled “Riot!” was a tongue-in-cheek advert aimed at young urbanites fed up with a meaningless consumer existence.  This was back when it was cool to be an un-overly concerned young person, for you youngsters.  Don’t judge us – we didn’t have the Internet.

In the mock ad, a group of young urban warriors clash with police and vandalize a corporate coffee shop.  Sound familiar?  I checked with Jim to see if he’d read Chuck Palahniuk’s book ahead of time.  He had not.  Blowing up Starbucks?  It was just one of those logical conclusions.

“Me and my friends at the time saw the movie,” Mahfood said.  “We were all looking at each other in the theater like ‘first of all I can’t believe a major corporation put this movie out, and second of all half the shit that’s happening in this movie is shit that we’ve all talked about.  It was one of those weird things.

“It’s a reminder of how ridiculous the culture is that we live in.  But it makes the corporations so much money, that they’re just like ‘yeah, fuck it.  You guys can just write whatever you want.  We’ll put it on TV.’

“But the older you get, if you want to make a living off your talent, you will sometimes find yourself working for people that you really never thought you’d be working with.  The key thing is you don’t sell your soul.  You don’t compromise.  And if they allow you to do what you want and get away with it, you have to go for it.

“My goal is, man – I don’t want to work a regular job.  I don’t want to have a nine to five job.  I want to be able to get by on my skills.”

Those skills evolved once Mahfood relocated to Los Angeles in the very beginning of 2003.   Not only had his super tight, thick lined drawing style taken a toll on his drawing arm, he was also exposed to a bunch of new art and artists.

“I got looser,” Mahfood said.  “I loosened up physically, holding the pen less tight.  And I started doing live art in the nightclubs out here.”

Up until that point, whenever Mahfood’s work included self-referential material, his audience found him at the art table, surrounded by music, munchies, and multiple projects keeping him steadily busy and frequently stressed about deadlines or his ability to keep up with the demands of a burgeoning career.

His work, his style, and his life were changing.  Comic strip panels showed the black-and-white comic version of Mahfood creating art on floor-to-ceiling canvases.  The line work became more fluid, carefree, and organic.

“It was a really interesting cultural shift for me to come out here,” Mahfood said.  “Everyone was really welcoming and open-minded and I was surprised by that.  It did cause a shift in what I was doing.  And it’s still going on even to this day.  There are so many people out here doing creative stuff.  Each year you encounter new artists and new influences.

“I like that.  I like always wanting that change.  To evolve.”

While Mahfood’s career continues to metamorphose, he looks to the influences of his own past to keep him motivated and keep his eye on the prize.  Arguably the greatest inspiration comes from the hardest working man in show business.

“James Brown,” Mahfood said with reverence.  “And the whole aesthetic of funk music and funk attitude.  And James – a total self-made man.  Just said ‘I’m gonna do it my way.’  I’ve always admired that kind of attitude in artists.

“Whether it was James, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Guys that have their own unique style.  Their own unique look.  Jack KirbyJamie HewlettRalph Stedman.

“Just those really, really, you know really unique guys.  The guys that their stuff just stands out all on its own, as a living thing.  That’s what I aspire to.  Turn the art into its own brand.”

It was in the midst of a heavy James Brown period that Mahfood created a dedication to the Godfather of Soul when his comic creation Smoke Dog, in what was his first appearance if I’m not mistaken, emerges, sets a boom box on the ground, and proceeds to bug out to some sweet soul music.

“I go through phases where I’ll listen to just one artist for a week straight,” Mahfood said.  “I just decided to put it down in physical form, in a comic.”

Mahfood’s current project is, not shockingly, music-tinged as well.

“It’s called Disco Destroyer,” Mahfood said.  “It’s me and Scott Mosier, and Joe Casey.  We’ve been working on this show for MTV’s re-launch of Liquid Television.

“It’s the first time I’ve been able to see my stuff fully animated, fully moving.  It’s exciting.  It’s very time consuming, and we’re involved in every phase of the show, from recording the voices to picking the music to art directing, and I think what we have is pretty bad ass.  I think people are going to freak out when they see it.”

The details of the project have remained top secret, but judging by the sneak peeks they’ve shown, as well as the Mahfood’s penchant for dynamic, energetic visuals and fun and funky storytelling, is certainly something i’m already looking forward to.

“I definitely want to see…I want my own show,” Mahfood admitted.  “I want a series because seeing the style translate to animation is really amazing.  It works really well.

Titmouse Animation Studios is animating them.  Those guys do brilliant work.  They do Venture Brothers, and Black Dynamite, and a bunch of other stuff.”

Wait – i thought Mahfood was involved with the Clerks: The Animated Series?   The two episode ABC mega-series beloved by audiences for the strict adherence to continuity?

“They did all that in-house at Disney,” Mahfood said.  “It was one of those weird things, the style being used or influencing something and me not being directly involved.  But that happens.  That’s like <that ‘P’ sound you make, like a cross between a sigh and a deflating tire>.

“That’s another reason I changed up my style.  What I was doing in the late 90s and early 2000s was a very flat, graphic, kinda simple style to copy.  After a while I got…I wanted to evolve into something, some form of art that you couldn’t steal from.  My own language.  I think I’ve kinda gotten there at this point.  It’s its own thing.  Hard to replicate.”

Life & End Times Of Bram & Ben Cover

By this, I take it Mahfood intends to say through his art work “try and copy that, m-f’er!”  The artist agrees, clarifying that he doesn’t intend that in an arrogant way.

“I’m off on my own shit,” Mahfood said.  “If you want to be inspired by it, you should just take the example to do your own thing.  Don’t be afraid to get weird with it.”  Titmouse

The exponential growth of social media in the last decade has expanded the definition of what it means to do one’s own thing.  By empowering creators to connect directly with their fans and audiences, opportunities for creative success are increased by putting that power in their hands.

“It’s a huge role,” Mahfood said.  “Putting work out there, promoting projects, and having it available to the whole world – it opens things up tremendously.

“It all comes down to how big of a hustler you are.  If you’re hustling your ass off and promoting your stuff, and getting it in front of people, people will know and it will be beneficial.  The only downside of all that is there’s so much out there now.  It’s distracting.  You’ve got to plow through all the bad shit to get to the good stuff.

“But I would say it’s been more positive than negative, for sure.”

That positivity is something readily apparent in Mahfood’s attitude.  Underneath the anti-establishment ideologies, counter culture sensibility, and rebellious personality, there’s an artist who sees that the world is full of cool stuff that often goes unnoticed or glossed over by the veil of societal norms that we’ve come to know as the day-to-day.

At one time, a younger Jim Mahfood may have seemed disheartened by what he saw as a lack of appreciation for really living life – being a part of it – if his early, more personal work in comics is any indication.

Occasionally even distraught by it, that younger version in 2001 published a Stupid Comics installment titled “Please Get Me The Fuck Off This Rock!!!”  In it, he revealed that, on a daily basis, he prayed for alien abduction.  Like any reflective person, from time to time one can’t help but look at the state of affairs and wonder what the hell is going on?  Where did we go wrong?

These days, Mahfood concentrates more on his work, than on the never-ending stream of the unchanging political spectrum, and no longer yearns to be forcibly removed from the planet.

“Only when I pay attention to current events,” Mahfood said.  “I don’t watch the news.  I didn’t pay attention to the election.  I just want to be on my own thing and do my art.  It’s bad for your brain.  Crazy shit out there.

“You know how it is.  I have friends that are completely freaked out.  Stressed out.  I’m not necessarily ignorant, I just don’t pay attention.

“I just recently re-watched Oliver Stone’s movie Nixon.  The presidential debate speech that Nixon gives is the exact same one Obama gave in 2008.  Health care, ending the war, everything.  I couldn’t believe it.  They say the same things over and over.

“The older you get, the more you wise up to this shit.  I think I’d rather just go make art.”

*     *     *     *     *

So…yeah.  Talking with Jim Mahfood was a really awesome experience.  i enjoyed it too.

As i suspected, Jim is a super cool dude as well as fantastic artist.  Before i made the call, Jim wrote to apologize in advance for only having 20-30 minutes available to speak.  As i told him, five minutes would have been awesome.  As it was, we shot the breeze for about 45 minutes.  The way i figured it, he had a nice safety net to say “well, I gotta run!” if it turned out i was some kook.  But i managed to fool the guy and keep him on the phone for a little while longer than expected.  Still…i only got to about half the questions i had ready.  And that list was half as big as it had been earlier in the day.  You got off light, Mahfood.

If i’m honest though, it was a great honor to get to pick the brain of someone i’ve looked up to for quite some time.  A guy who never questioned whether or not he was going to pursue his own goals and who, like pretty much anyone i’ve ever seen talk about their enjoyable career, did not want to grind away at a typical 9 to 5.

He has achieved autonomy – the Holy Grail of creative and artistic people everywhere (and probably all sorts of people but that’s not what i’m writing about).

The great conceit of my interviews here at the Long Shot is the opportunity to learn from people like Jim, and get inspired by their example, and i hope you do too.  Whatever your “thing” is in life, you really ought to be focused on that and making it happen for yourself because while it may be difficult and fraught with challenge, so is all of life.  You might as well go for the gold and enjoy what you do along the way.

Thanks for visiting!

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7 thoughts on “Jim Mahfood’s Weird World

  1. Holy Effin awesome interview DV! It was well worth the wait. Now I just need to get famous so you can interview me.

  2. No fame required bro. Just do your own thing always.

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