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An Interview with Jim Mahfood

-by Andrew Goletz

Jim Mahfood is one of the, dare I say it, hottest up and coming creators in comics. With a resume that includes ‘The Generation X Underground Special’ (one of Marvel’s most ambitious works to date), ‘Clerks’, and his creator owned ‘Grrl Scouts’ and the upcoming stinks on ‘Grendel’, and ‘Ultimate Spider-Man Team Up’, Mahfood is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Jim recently took some time to talk to Gray Haven about his career, urban underground culture, comics and of course, politics.

Gray Haven: So how did you get started in the industry?

Jim Mahfood: I had been doing comics since I was a little kid. I mean, everyone does those little stapled books when they’re younger. My first professional gig came in high school. I was in St.Louis and did some inking for a small company called Artline Studios. These guys really took me under their wing. They showed me the right tools to use: which pens and brushes, etc to use. That’s what really started the obsession that I could do this as a career.

GH: It got the fire going.

JM: Yeah, Then I started doing some work for Caliber and my first real national gig was a ‘Showcase’ story for DC featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes It was at this time that I also met my 40oz Comics partner, Mike Huddleson, who was also doing some gigs back then.

GH: So you’ve been in the industry for awhile?

JM: Yes I have. ‘Showcase’ was back in 1995. It’s funny to look back and see where I came from. In this medium you grown in front of everyone. You can see the art change and (hopefully) improve over time.

GH: Do you deal with that okay?

JM: I’m my own worst critic, really. I’m not even really all that impressed with my work on the ‘Clerks’ book, which is what most people recognize me from. I do think that I’ve improved over time. I think I have a lot better understanding of anatomy than I did before, but I know I can still improve. I’m really curious to see what my stuff’s going to look like 4 or 5 years from now.

GH: Speaking of ‘Clerks’, how did your collaboration with Kevin Smith come about?

JM: Well I had just done the black and white ‘Generation X Underground Special’ for Marvel in 1997. It’s now the San Diego Comic Con and I’m there trying to show off my work and see what happens. Oni was there and I went to the booth. Kevin Smith was signing stuff and giving things out and I got to meet Bob Schreck and show him Gen X. He couldn’t believe that Marvel was letting me do something like that. I mean, a black and white, alternative type story with their mutants? He took the work and then we saw each other again the next day. He told me that they were looking for an artist for an upcoming ‘Clerks’ comic, which is why Kevin was at the con. I worked on some sketches and sent them to Bob and Kevin and I week later they tell me they like what I’ve done and that I’ve got the gig!


GH: Wow.

JM: Yeah. It changed my life. From that point on, things just took off. A lot of it has to do with Bob Schreck. He’s got to be one of the most well connected people in the industry. If you know Bob, you’re set. He’s a great talent, very well respected and he’s a hell of a nice person, too. He’s given a lot of people their first big breaks. I think it’s great he’s editing the Batman books now and bringing people like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker into the fold. The man’s a visionary. He knows what works and he isn’t afraid to take a chance when he believes in it.

GH: It sounds like a very lucky break.

JM: It took time, though. I mean, people look at all the stuff I’m doing now and it’s like, ‘wow, you just came out of no where’. It seems like I just popped into the industry but me and Mike…we’ve had to deal with 5 years of rejection before anything happened and we got any sort of breaks. And even then, it’s been 5 years since things have really started to roll.

GH: It’s all about paying your dues.

JM: Yes it is. People in music don’t form a band and then immediately get signed to a record deal. It takes time. This is what you have to explain to an aspiring artist and it’s very hard to do. They have all these dreams and aspirations and want to get a gig right away and you have to be the voice of reason and tell them, ‘look, it takes time’.  I was there. Everyone in the industry was there at some point. But it’s hard to explain that to some excited guy or girl who is just waiting for his or her shot.

GH: But it is great once you get there.

JM: It’s great to look back and be like, ‘yeah, I proved those bastards who rejected me wrong!’ You have to be accessible to the fans, too and not forget where you came from. You need to be patient and nice to these guys and not ignore them or treat them like shit. They’re your fans and they just want to meet you or get something signed or show off some work that they’re really proud of. You can’t just disregard that. In terms of advice, I always felt, and I’ve told people, that rejection just makes you stronger and even more passionate about your work.

GH: What comics are you a fan of?

JM: I really get into ‘100 Bullets’. I think Azzarello is a great writer and I love his dialogue and his talent for really understanding urban dialogue. I enjoy Andi Watson’s work and Scott Morse. I also think that ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ is a great book. I think the idea of the Ultimate line, of bringing new readers into the stores and getting them to read these characters without tons of layering and continuity is a great idea. There are a lot of good comics out today, but you have to week through 90% of the crap to find the good ones. You have to stop being force fed the same old crap and when you finally start reading the quality books, you won’t be able to go back.

GH: Is there anything in ‘Stupid Comics’ or ‘Java’ that the editors were just like, ‘no way’?

JM: Not at all. They’re all very cool and open minded about this stuff. Besides, when I first got the Java gig, we talked about the type of work I wanted to do and the opinions I wanted to express. There’s nothing that came as a surprise to them. And when the work was collected in ‘Stupid Comics’ by Oni, they already has seen the material. Jamie (Rich) and all these guys are part of the same scene. It’s all about coming from the mindset of the creator and respecting and artist’s creativity. So in essence, no, no one tried to tone down or censor the work.

GH: Do you have any regrets about something you’ve written where you think you’ve gone too far?

JM: Absolutely not.

GH: There seem to be a lot of creators who branch off out of the industry or leave it completely. Where are you headed?

JM: I’m not going anywhere, at least not permanently. I want to stay in comics for the rest of my life, if I can help it. I disagree with a lot of the people who think the industry isn’t going to be here, either. There are always new 13, 14 or 15 year old kids coming up to me with their own mini-comics. There’s always someone new out there who is itching for their chance to break in and tell their story, or at least read a good comic, you know?

But to answer you more specifically, I have a lot of interests outside comics. I dabble in music and movies. I’ve been dabbling a bit with animation. There’s going to be a ‘Grrl Scouts’ animated feature on Thrave.com. Creators like Judd Winick, Scott Morse and Brian Michael Bendis are turning their work into animated features. It’s an incredible project. I’ve seen the storyboards for my first episode and it looks great. It’s my first experience seeing my drawings move and it’s pretty cool. I’d like to try my hand at a bunch of different things, but in the end my first love will be comics.

GH: Going back to what you mentioned regarding the industry itself. So you do think there are enough fans out there to support it?

JM: I do, but we have to find them and keep them when we do. I’m always surprised when I get my books from Oni and then go to the clubs and loan some out. The next week all these kids are coming back to me saying they’ve never read comics in ages or that they didn’t realize comic books could be like this. It’s great to see. For me, that’s proof that people are hungry for this stuff. But they want it to be good. They want it to be on their level, you know? If you know someone who would enjoy a certain comic, let that person borrow it. It helps keep people open minded if they have a ‘loaner copy’ to read. They’re more willing to take a chance and usually the reaction is very positive.

You also need to be sensible about it. I wouldn’t start giving someone ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ because they dug ‘Strangers in Paradise’. You have to wean people onto things that they would like. Just because you like 50 different books doesn’t mean they will.

GH: Getting new people to read comics is part of the problem now.

JM: That’s right. I haven’t seen anyone under the age of 16 in my comic book store for 3 years.

GH: Why do you think that is?

JM: Culture has a lot to do with it. Things move so fast nowadays. There’s so much technology and so much to see out there on the web. Kids are being exposed to so much information and technology to play with. Kids just don’t have the attention span to read recreationally anymore. I have 2 younger brothers, an 18 year old and 16 year old. They tell me that no one goes into a store or seeks out comics. I mean, it takes what, 15 minutes to read a comic book. It’s better than watching a stupid sitcom. I’m still in my 20s but I already notice a difference. Kids now are really missing out on a lot of things. They’re too self absorbed with trying to look cool and getting their cell phone. Gimmie a fucking break. My brother shows off my work and the kids dig the stuff but they don’t seek it out on their own. We weren’t as obsessed with MTV culture as they are now. Kids are so obsessed about saying the right things or wearing the right clothes.

GH: So how do you fix the problem?

JM: You have to go outside the industry. What’s the point of doing these in store things and direct market books that no one will ever see? You go to books stores and coffee houses and clubs and convert people who don’t read comics. You give them to kids and let them see what kind of good work exists. Hell, I give my work out at clubs and the kids there are like, ‘whoa, this is the most crazy, risqué shit I’ve ever seen’. It’s a whole new world for them.

GH: Not a mainstream guy?

JM: I think you can still do a good mainstream comic, but I just don’t think a lot of people are trying to. I can see how super-heroes can be cool, but you have to work on making them cool. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sales on ‘Batman: The Long Halloween’? That reaffirms my belief that it can be done. And there are books like Ultimate Marvel Team Up. Brian Bendis and Joe Quesada are bringing my faith back in mainstream. They have Matt Wagner doing his first Marvel work for Christ sakes! With Bob Schreck over at DC as the Batman editor and Alan Moore at Wildstorm it’s a great time for comic books.

GH: Is there a mainstream character you’d like to get your hands on?
JM: Batman. He’s my favorite super-hero. It’s the myth, not the character that appeals to me. He’s like an urban legend. I like the whole legend that comes with Batman: Gordon, the cops, Robin, Batgirl. One of my favorite things is seeing an artist do a Batman scene and all they draw is the silhouette. Just that shape of his cape and ears does so much, man. It’s great! I’m also a big Kirby fan, but then, who isn’t? I think it’d be fun to play with some of his characters. Walt Simonson is doing an awesome job with ‘Orion’ at DC.

GH: How did ‘Grrl Scouts’ come about?

JM: I’ve always wanted to do a full story with those characters. I started doing things with them back in 95, self-published stuff. It came during a time when Mike and I were totally frustrated with how things were progressing so we just did our own stuff. I got a really cool response to the self-published stuff and I knew I wanted to come back to these characters when I was ready.  The Grrls represent everything my friends and I are interested in: politics, drug culture, mainstream vs underground culture. There’s nothing new or original to what I write about here but I try and represent it in a new light.

GH: What was the reaction to ‘Grrl Scouts’?

JM: Oh shit, really weird. It was pretty much positive but the negative comments were really, really negative. Jamie Rich and I were shocked at how extreme the negative ones were. Some people just didn’t get it. They’re so conditioned to the good vs evil and right vs wrong type story in comics where everything is just cut and dry. The girls in the book aren’t the heroes or the good guys. They’re just the main characters of the story. They’re less evil than the corporate fascists whom they’re battling anyway. I don’t get the negative comments about that. It’s like people want this shit watered down for them.

GH: Was female reaction positive?

JM: Very. There were a lot of women who picked up the book and they were the majority who enjoyed it. I got a lot of comments from women who were like, ‘thanks for having these funny, smart, sexy young women who aren’t toned down’. It’s the new woman for the 21st Century. Women are sick of these comics that are geared to the male power fantasy with big haired, big tit, damsels in distress being rescued by these men in tights.  I write about the type of women that I hang out with. They’re independent, creative, and generally fun to be with. I like surrounding myself with creative people.

GH: What do you do when you don’t write or draw?

JM: I dabble in short film. I played trumpet when I was younger so I fuck around with buddies who are DJs. It’s just fun. Music is a big part of my life. I’m pretty much all over the board when it comes to the style of music I like, as long as it’s good.  I get into rap, ska, hip-hop, jazz. John Coltrane and Miles Davis are awesome. Good music like that just stands the test of time.

I love hip-hop culture and everything that goes with it: the music, the graffiti. I do live art acts in clubs. The DJs will spin records and I’ll be doing these murals. It’s awesome. Do you remember when hip-hop used to be cool? It’s not like that Puff Daddy, Jay Z, MTV shit they have now. At these clubs they play real hip-hop, untainted. There’s this great underground culture out there that I just love being a part of and tap into when doing comics. The Hernandez brothers did the same thing with punk rock when they did ‘Love and Rockets’. I’m trying to do it with hip-hop and urban culture.

GH: The election should be decided by the time this sees print, but you’re a politically minded guy, who do you want to win?

JM: My friends and I were constantly debating who we should vote for.  I chose Nader. I know he had no hope of winning, but hell, he’s Lebanese and we have to stick together. Seriously, though, Nader is a good guy who wants genuine change. I’m hoping that Gore wins, though, rather than Bush. Bush is a schmuck. He’s evil.  Did you ever read ‘Fortunate Son’?

GH: No.

JM: It’s by J Hatfied. It was banned for awhile, but you can go to softskull.com and order it through their site. It’s fascinating to read about this guy Bush and the whole family. The Bush legacy is traced back to royalty. Bush Jr is a wonderful actor. He comes across as a warm, sincere guy, but he’s not. People just don’t educate themselves enough. I mean, for God’s sake, we’re going to probably have 3-4 new Supreme Court Justices appointed.

 If Bush wins, it’s going to be the end of Abortion and any other personal freedoms we have. We’re conservative enough as a country. If Bush wins, no matter how melodramatic I sound, it’s going to mean a restriction of all of our freedom and civil rights. I’m not a Gore supporter evil. They’re both owned by corporate America, but I’ve hoping the lesser of two evils wins.

I think a lot of young people are put off by the political system and they’re finally getting off of their asses and are starting to vote. In the 80s and most of the 90s, the trend for kids was that ignorance was cool. It’s over now. Ignorance is not cool and never was. The more you know, about anything, the better off you are.

GH: Do you think Gore will win?

JM: I don’t know. Like I said, if it can’t be Nader or some other 3rd party person who will actually try and make a difference I wish it would be Gore. Bill Mahr had a good point on Politically Incorrect. He basically said that if Gore was such a pussy that he can’t beat Bush that he doesn’t deserve to win. If he’s getting schooled, he shouldn’t get it. There are horrible things about Bush, facts, but Gore didn’t want to go the ‘mudslinging’ route and he needed to. He needed to get down and dirty and let the truth be known, but he didn’t and now he could very well lose the election.

GH: What projects do you have on the horizon?

JM: I just did a short story for Bongo, a Simpsons Halloween Special. I’ve got a sequel to the Generation X book hopefully and I’ll be doing an issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, with Brian Michael Bendis. I also have a short thing for Wildstorm and I’m going to be doing a story for the ‘Grendel: Black, White and Red’ sequel. Matt (Wagner) is great because he really gears the story to the art team or the art team to the story, whatever, you know?

GH: Are we going to be seeing the ‘Grrl Scouts’ again?

JM: I’m definitely going to be following up with them. I have a lot of story ideas in my notebooks that I want to start getting to. I personally think I work best in short stories, so I think for the next series I’m going to be doing short vignettes about each girl. It’ll help the reader learn about the characters a bit more and it’ll assist me as a writer.

GH: How about another collection, like ‘Stupid Comics’?

JM: There will be another collection, but probably not for another year or so. It takes awhile to come up with new material and I only have about 8-10 new strips right now.

GH: If you could get to fight anyone, who would it be?

JM: I can only pick one?

GH: Well, if you have more, go for it.
JM: That doctor, Laura Schlessinger, George W. Bush and Philip Knight.

GH: How bout someone you’d like to spend time with without beating the shit out of them?

JM: Michael Moore. I’m a huge fan of Michael Moore and love the work that he does. I’d also love to meet Noam Chomsky. He’s an MIT Professor and writes a lot about the truth of American history. Fascinating stuff.

GH: Backstreet Boys or N’Sync?
JM: You mean I can only pick one? Ugh. New Kids on the Block, man. Seriously, I’d say The Jackson Five. They played their own instruments and they were funky as hell. Even in the seventies, before they all went their separate ways, they were still producin' some raw funk that's ten times doper than anything the Backstreet Boys or fuckin' n'Sync could even think of.

GH: You’re a presence in the online community. How can fans find out more about you, your work and upcoming projects?

JM: Easy. www.40ozcomics.com.

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