Jim Mahfood’s work is easy to pick out in a crowd of artists: deep inks, a raw sketchiness, and splashes of color are kind of his deal, and have been for over 25 years now. Weird is where the heart is when it comes to Mahfood, and his career — including his most recent project, creating illustrations for Maurice Broaddus and Otis Whitaker’s Sorcerers novella — is no different.
Born in 1975 in St. Louis, Missouri and raised with a healthy, steady stream of cartoons, comic books, old-school sci-fi/fantasy, and a variety of vinyl records, Mahfood nabbed his first job in comics at fifteen working as a mentee for artist Lorenzo Lizana of Artline Studios. Turning 18, Mahfood moved out to Missouri, to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, where he met fellow cartoonist and illustrator Mike Huddleston, with the two founding 40 Oz. Comics. That publisher was the birthplace of his first self-published work, 1995’s Grrl Scouts — a project he still toys with, when given the chance, to this day.
His self-published work was quick to get the attention of Marvel Comics in 1997, and Mahfood hit the big time when he worked on the off-kilter X-Men spin-off Generation X. Since then, he’s worked on projects collaborating with filmmaker and comic connoisseur Kevin Smith, Ziggy Marley — on Marijuana Man, of course — and Alan Martin of Tank Girl fame, amongst many others. With great art comes great possibility, and Mahfood has also brought his eclectic talent to freelance work for big names including Titmouse production studio, Cartoon Network, MAD Magazine, Heavy Metal Magazine, Playboy, and even designs for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Colt 45 malt liquor.
His most recent works include his own Pop-Up Funk and One Dangerous Donut collections, the Visual Funk: the Psychedelic Adult Coloring Book from IDW Publishing, and the development of Grrl Scouts as an animated series for New Form Digital, and — of course — the psychedelic stylings of NeoText’s own Sorcerers.
With a career that has spawned a wide swath of fans across a hilariously broad spectrum, it’s hard not to wonder how this charmingly alternative rebel who’s been creating such flamboyant and bombastic art for decades ended up where he is now, and what that means for his artwork looking forward.
CHLOE MAVEAL: How are you doing these days? It’s some weird times. How are you dealing with the heat and all of the madness here in Portland?
JIM MAHFOOD: Oh, man. I just stay home! I have a little portable air conditioning unit that I set up in my studio and I’ve just been hanging out and drawing all day. I don't really know what else to do, you know? This is my way of escaping. Just stay busy and stay focused on cool projects.
MAVEAL: That sounds pretty great, to be honest. But even working in the studio -- especially with a lot of the stuff that's happening right now with the protests and political discourse here in [Portland] -- there seems like there’s a lot to draw on when it comes to portraying counter culture. Like, there is a whole heap of anger and eagerness to fight “the man”. With your work being so steeped in hip-hop and punk rock -- both of which share their own bond with a message of fighting the system -- are you able to take what you’re seeing going on around you here in the city and turn it into something incredible on the page?
MAHFOOD: Oh, yeah, totally! And I’ve always done that. I grew up as the punk and hip hop type. And that’s the message of a lot of that music -- especially the older versions of that music. Always a “go for it” attitude and DIY type attitude. For me it goes directly back to the 1990’s when I was in art school and people were making zines and printing their own comic books. It was cool because the mentality was that you don't have to wait for a corporation to give you the go ahead, or you don't have to go work for Marvel and DC; you can just make your own comics or zines and put them out. And the idea was if you get paid for it, too, then that's cool, but the most important thing is having your vision put out into the world.
I try to do a balance of things where I work for a corporation because I've established my style in a way that they are hiring me to be me. I don't have to compromise my drawing style or my vision and I'll take their money and then I'll go into my own self published project where I still put out a comic book or a zine on my own once a year. I still have that balance of working for a corporation but still doing my own shit that's completely unfiltered and needed right now.
MAVEAL: Kind of making the corporate dollar but making sure to keep to your roots and keep the “fuck The Man” vibes.
MAHFOOD: Exactly! And I feel I'm getting away with murder even taking the corporation's money because the work that I'm turning in is pretty bugged out and crazy, but it’s taken like 20 years for these comic corporations to catch on to the fact that trippy and crazy is okay. It’s something good.
MAVEAL: Funny how that works, right? The more grassroots art seems to go over so well with the new comic book audiences. Sometimes better than what is considered mainstream art in the books.
MAHFOOD: Right, right. It's a weird balance. I just got lucky with people recognizing the fact that my art style can be used in a lot of different ways, so I'm just sort of going with it as much as I can.
MAVEAL: Seems like the luckiest end to going with the flow. Everything is having to catch up to you!
MAHFOOD: Yeah, and it's weird. It’s like with Grrl Scouts -- I created that in 1995 when I was in college, and the book carries out that idea of three non-white girls dealing drugs and one of them is a lesbian. In 1995 that seemed like a pretty edgy, kind of crazy idea! So when I had optioning offers for TV and stuff throughout the years, people would always say, “You got to take out the drugs” and I had to do this, I had do that.
So last year, when we were shopping around, I noticed that the corporations are finally getting to the point where they're like, “Three women and no one's white? That's great! One of them's gay? That's great! They do weed? That's fine!” But it took like 25 years for corporate America to catch up with these ideas of this being where culture is just going. It’s the new mainstream and it’s weird to witness.
MAVEAL: I feel you. I grew up the punk kid as well so it’s odd when you get to an age where you’re looking around going “Oh wait, hold up. Am I cool now...on accident?”
MAHFOOD: Exactly! I'm not trying to brag like I was ahead of the curve at all, but my mentality has always been rooted in this punk rock/DIY mentality that is finally starting to be accepted now. It’s really bizarre.
MAVEAL: Well, where did that kind of mentality really start? And more pointedly, how did this career birthed from that mentality begin for you?
MAHFOOD: I grew up in St. Louis and I started interning for a really small comic book company that was based there. There were literally just two guys that were publishing comics, and they were called Artline Studios. I met one of the guys when I was about 15, he saw my work, and hired me basically to be like an apprentice. I was just doing grunt work like erasing pencils off of page and inking background work. All really low entry-work type stuff. This was pre internet so I didn't know how comics were made. So these guys were the first to show me the basics of how to really make comics. Like sat me down and said “These are the tools. These are the brushes and the ink”. They were kind of like my first mentors.
And then I went to art school in Kansas City when I was 18 and I met all these other people that were doing DIY zines and throwing their own punk and hip hop and DJ events. That kind of turned into me writing, drawing, and self-publishing my own stuff. That's where Grrl Scouts came about. Then my senior year I was at a comic book show and some people from Marvel saw my work and said that we should do something with Generation X but in my style. So they brought my work back to New York and showed it to a young assistant editor in the X-Men offices -- this cool kid named Jason Liebig; and Jason was like, “Instead of doing an annual with Scott, why don't you just do this for Generation X? It’d be you writing, drawing, and doing different stories to different characters". So of course I said yes! That’s actually the gig got me working on Clerks as well.
MAVEAL: Oh my god, I remember the Clerks comics! Those were my jam back in the day.
MAHFOOD: Yeah! They were fun. And after Clerks came out that was the beginning of me being a full time, proper career, freelance artist. It just exploded and put my name out there. Oni [Press] was publishing those Clerks books and they were like “Hey, when Clerks is done you can keep working with us and do Grrl Scouts or whatever creator-owned stuff you want to do. You have a home here. So from that time on I was able to make a living off this stuff.
MAVEAL: I mean, that's pretty amazing. You’ve worked with Marvel on X-Men, with Kevin Smith on Clerks, and you’ve even gotten to work with Tank Girl as well -- which was one of my favorites. But those are all characters and universes that have these pre-established histories and -- to an extent -- pre-established art styles. So from that perspective, what is it like for you to have traversed all the different vibes within the industry like that? Was that kind of difficult to make your style something that fit for everyone?
MAHFOOD: Yeah, I mean, it was weird trying to figure out if I need to be concerned about fitting in or public perception. [Generation X] I think had mixed reactions when it first came out because it was so strange for Marvel to be putting it out. But the good thing about the Clerks thing was that Kevin [Smith]’s name was going to sell that book and make it a hit anyway, so the fact that the Oni [Press] folks were smart enough to put a new name on it as far as the art goes, and have it be kind of a weird, individual style.
I think Kevin's fans gravitated toward that and accepted it more than a mainstream Marvel superhero. And the greatest thing about Tank Girl is that I was already taking inspiration from Jamie Hewlett’s art style and putting it into my own work anyway. So when [Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett] saw my work, they offered me to do some technical stuff and they were kind of like, “Hey, you know how this works with Tank Girl. You just do your own thing. You be you. Alan will send you the scripts but you interpret that script however you want it”. So with all three of those projects I mean, I was essentially given as much freedom as I wanted.
With Kevin, though, the only challenges were how was I going to make room for all the words. He was really, very verbose! So when I got the scripts I was kind of like, “Oh shit, this script is hysterical but comics is a visual medium, so how do I make all this work?” It was a little tricky and took some figuring out but it was such a pleasure to work with Kevin and all of those other guys. Kevin was also like the Tank Girl crew in that he basically said “Here's the script; do whatever you want. I don't have to see breakdowns or layouts or any of that stuff, but you know what you're doing”.
MAVEAL: Is there a pressure that comes with that freedom? Like, someone saying they trust your taste implicitly, no limits, go with god.
MAHFOOD: I would rather work that way than have someone really looking over my shoulder, honestly. So even when I was pretty young and naïve, I would’ve rather had the blessing of the editor or the writer saying to just go for it. I felt like if I was going to screw up, someone would say something to me and we would make the proper correction. But I seriously do the best work when they leave the hell alone and just let me go!
MAVEAL: It clearly pays off for you! With everything that you've worked on, it all seems to go so much deeper than what we see with a lot of traditional comics art. There's a lot of street art elements and creative rawness and really visceral movement. With all of the various techniques and mediums that you use to achieve that sort of careful chaos, do you have a favorite that helps you achieve that vibe?
MAHFOOD: Traditional black ink on paper is still my favorite thing in the world. There's just something so pure and direct about that look. There's a special satisfaction in putting that ink down on the paper. That's usually my go-to, but obviously we now live in a world where most things have to be presented in color. So I'm also doing more of a mixed media --kind of a Bill Sienkiewicz, Ralph Steadman type of thing. I don’t really know how to render with paint, but I basically draw and add paints as an after-effect; like a splattery effect. With Sorcerers, I did all of it on traditional paper and then did a new kind of digital coloring with white and the gray Zipatone and inks all practically on paper and then scanning that and adding like, two or three colors digitally to get a nice graphic pop. I'm still figuring things out, but that's the cool thing with art for me. I'm still figuring how this stuff works.
MAVEAL: Speaking of evolutionary processes and figuring things out...how did you end up here at NeoText? This seems like a whole departure from your usual gig!
MAHFOOD: I’m good friends with Ben [Marra] and he's doing some fantastic work for them. So in the beginning of this year we were talking about the new projects we were working on and he started talking to me about all this stuff he was doing for John [Schoenfelder]. He asked if I was interested in talking to John because he was looking for illustrators so I figured, yeah, let's talk.
John pitched me the Sorcerers project by talking about how it was a hip-hop mixed with the occult story and I told him that he had to send me the script because it sounded like it could be right up my alley. As soon as I started reading it I could visualize what these illustrations could be. I talked to John about it, and he ended up being another one of these great guys that knew that he should just leave me alone in terms of doing the illustrations. I was asking if he wanted to see the character designs and the layouts or whatever else they might need and he said he felt like I should just go for it and be left alone to do my thing. That was the answer I really wanted to hear and from there we just...did the project! And it was easy because I ended up being really passionate about the material, so it made it even more enjoyable to just dive fully into.
I’m into anything dealing with weird occultism, magic, and that kind of stuff because it allows me to get psychedelic and strange with the artwork. As soon as some of the powers and stuff start manifesting in the Sorcerer's script, that's when I start getting really excited about being able to do really fun, crazy stuff. Then you mix that with the street level hip-hop stuff like gangster guys wearing gold chains surrounded by bodyguards, and a strip club scene, and things like that. That's all in my wheelhouse of what I want to do.
MAVEAL: It sounds like the alternative fantasy take really drove it home for you. You can always tell when an artist really connects with the material.
MAHFOOD: Oh yeah. The fact that Malik, our main character, is this brilliant ghostwriter for hip-hop MC’s in this universe is what initially drew me in. Like, the main character of our story is a creative guy, too, and he's kind of stuck in this weird situation where he's making brilliant work and selling it off instead of getting credit for himself. And then he makes this really big mistake of showing two different rappers the same lyrics and he gets caught up in this game.
As I was reading the script it was cool to see this happening to creative people in a book. We've all made some sort of blunder or mistake somewhere early-on in our career where we learn these sort of lessons, and that's what happens in this book. It sets off this chain of events that force him to come to terms with who he really is. There's way more than just sorcery and hip-hop going on here.