Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Artist Jim Mahfood on Los Angeles Ink Stains and his start in Kansas City

Posted By on Tue, Jun 5, 2012 at 10:13 AM

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Artist Jim Mahfood began his career in Kansas City. While the St. Louis native attended the Kansas City Art Institute, his work for zines like Flavorpak, as well as his own self-released comics Cosmic Toast and Girl Scouts (to say nothing of his illustrations for The Pitch) made him a respected name around the area. After graduation, Mahfood found work doing Clerks comics for Kevin Smith, as well as the well-regarded Generation X Underground Special for Marvel. Then Mahfood went underground, developing his style with a series of self-released comics and drawing the attention of Colt .45, which commissioned him for a national campaign. All the while working for "the Man," Mahfood created fan-friendly freebies like the Beat Bee Sessions podcast, devoted to sharing music and stories alongside his cohort Jane Dope, as well as Los Angeles Ink Stains, an autobiographical comic about Mahfood's work as an artist and adventures at parties. Those strips are now collected in a new book, due out later this month from Image Comics. We recently checked in with Mahfood via e-mail about his career and the new book.

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The Pitch: You started out here in Kansas City, doing illustrations for the Pitch - this very paper - as well as things in Flavorpak and other zines. What memories do you have of your time in the city and at the Art Institute?

Kansas City was the beginning of my career, so it will always hold a fond place in my heart. It was the first time I really got to be around like-minded people, and to participate in underground culture ... zines, mini-comics, hand-drawn flyers, underground parties, etc. etc. ... it was awesome. This was pre-Internet, and everyone I was around, at KCAI and beyond, was really into just doing their own thing for the right reasons. It was really pure.

As your career's gone forward, you seem to be moving away from comics, into more of an illustrative format. While there's still the occasional bit of sequential art - MarijuanaMan, the Jennifer's Body comic, and obviously Los Angeles Ink Stains - you seem to be doing more big art pieces. How has the transition come about?

I like to choose my projects carefully. Doing comics is a ridiculous amount of work. No one outside of the craft realizes how much work it is. Once you take on a comics project, you literally wake up every single day and are hunched over a drawing table for 10-12 hours a day drawing. It takes an immense amount of concentration and discipline to do this every day for three to four months in a row. It starts to wear on you. I get bored easily and I always want to play and experiment around with my art. I want to be free to do a variety of things. So I will always have one foot in the comics thing, and the rest of me is sort of out there doing various forms of illustration, advertising art, commercial work. I'm doing some animated stuff right now, showing in gallery shows, body-painting on girls, that sort of thing. I like the diversity. I like working with various clients and seeing my art presented in different ways. It keeps me motivated and excited about being creative. One gig just sort of leads into another. In the last two years alone, I was able to see my art wrapped around the bodies of Nissan cars, on the bottles for some of Bed Head's hair products, on T-shirts, and on iPhone cases. In '07-'08, I did a bunch of art for the Colt .45 ad campaign and I got to drive down the street on Hollywood Blvd. and see my art on a huge fucking billboard. I can't even tell you what that feels like. It's so over-the-top and badass. That's where my head is at. I could never just be restricted to the comic-book page. I want this stuff out there and everywhere.

The change in your style has paralleled the move away from comics. As you've gone from the blocky, clean, more old-school hip-hop graffiti look to the way more chaotic look you've got now, your projects have moved into the broader realm of pop culture. Are they connected, or is it just an organic change?

They're not really connected. But it's funny you brought that up because one of the main reasons I changed up the style was in the late '90s, when I was rocking that simple, blocky, clean, thick-line style ... man, so many people started to copy and bite that style. I had two major network studios rip off my drawing style and use it in animated shows. At the time this was happening, it was pretty shocking to me. I was only 23, my career had just started, and I had no idea that you could legally rip off the look of people's art like that. But I learned quick. You can't copyright a drawing style. So, no biggie. I just started changing the style up, and then the weirdest thing is that the style just sort of started to evolve on its own without me thinking about it. Moving to L.A. in '03 had a huge impact on me. Suddenly, I was surrounded by so many new styles of art and influence ... I just absorbed it all like a sponge. I started hanging out with serious fine-artist oil-painter dudes like Jason Shawn Alexander and Kent Williams, and that aesthetic started creeping into my work. At the same time, I still kick it with comic guys and graf writers and street artists and photographers and toy-makers ... you know ... that all has had a huge effect on me and my work. Now, I have this endless supply of influence. And I have crafted the art style so that it is my brand, it is unique unto me, and there's no way anyone can bite it now. I've developed a bunch of special techniques with my hands and wrists when I draw, the way I get the type of lines I get, the angle I position my wrist at, the way I roll the pen with my fingers when I make a mark ... there's no way anyone can bite that at this point. I am always interested in evolving and improving. I am always trying to outdo what I did yesterday.

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The Clerks comic and Generation X Underground Special brought you out of the indie comics underground, but you never did take a steady gig on any particular title. What was the reason?

I was never offered a steady gig by anyone. I probably would've said "no" anyway. Working on comics exclusively for a really long period of time never interested me. Way too much work. Like I said before. I just put in about five straight months drawing the new Tank Girl book. It's called "Everybody Loves Tank Girl" and drops this summer. It was super-fun to draw, but a shitload of hours went into that thing. I was working on other freelance stuff at the same time, and now I can take a break from comics again. I like to do special projects at this point, whether it's my own Carl the Cat That Makes Peanut Butter Sandwiches or MarijuanaMan for Ziggy Marley, or Tank Girl or whatever ... and then when it's done, I take a break and wait for the next proper comics gig to come along. "Los Angeles Ink Stains" is really the only on-going comic I have ever done. It's been something that I do when I feel like it and I post them on my blog for free. It's fun.

Image started out as a publisher of superhero books but has become this place for storytellers over the past few years - Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, John Layman's Chew, and S. Steven Struble's Li'l Depressed Boy, just to name a few. Where do you see yourself in all of that?

Yeah, I dig Image. I have a good thing with them. Basically, I can pitch them a project, and if they like it, they say "yes" and then they leave me alone to make the book the way I want to make it. And when it's done, I turn it in, and they publish it. There's really no editorial interference. It's complete freedom, which is the best way for me to work. I guess I've carved out my own little niche there. But they publish all genres of comics, you know? There's no rules or guidelines there for what you can and can't do. I like that.

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Your sideline projects - the things you do for fun and offer up for free, like Los Angeles Ink Stains and your Beat Bee Sessions podcast, end up being rather successful. Are there times when you wish people would pay more attention to your commercial work, or is it more fulfilling to have these fun things get acknowledged?

I really like having that balance of both. The thing about the commercial work is I get paid to do the actual art no matter what. So if people see it or not, if they buy the product or not, it sort of doesn't matter to me because my work is already done. I did my best, I earned my paycheck, and hopefully the end product looks dope as hell. It's another feather in my cap. Not everyone can afford to buy a custom Nissan Juke car with my art on it. Ha. So, the free stuff ... Los Angeles Ink Stains and the Beat Bee Sessions ... those are just fun ways of getting stuff out there for free to the people. Almost like a "thank-you" for the friends and fans that have supported my work.

Many of your early comics, like Grrl Scouts, featured a recommended soundtrack. Do you see the Beat Bee Sessions as the next logical step from there?

Oh yeah, for sure. Definitely. It IS the recommended soundtrack for what's going on in my life at the time the podcast is posted. I have been an obsessed music fan since I was 11 years old, and at this point I have a pretty over-the-top archive of music that I've collected over the years. It's fun to be able to share it with people.

Scott Mosier discussed the demise of your initial project for Disney on a recent episode of SModcast, but I was curious as to your take on how the two of you came to do Disco Destroyer, your upcoming cartoon for Liquid Television.

Scott is just a super-cool dude. He's really easy to get along with and collaborate with, so we are always looking for things to jam on together. I'm a huge fan of '70s music and pop culture, that's my favorite era, so I always wanted to do a weird '70s sort of Warriors (the movie) type thing. I came up with the name first ... Disco Destroyer. I just thought that sounded badass. I drew the main hero of the cartoon one day in my sketchbook and figured out some of the basic ideas of the show and then I showed it to Scott and asked for his input. And that's how collabs sometimes start. Keep it loose and organic and see where it goes. Later, we brought in our pal Joe Casey to co-write with us, and the three if us just gelled together to make a great team. We're having a lot of fun working on the thing. It's just way easier working on things with people that you already know, that you're already friends with. I think we're all very excited to see what the finished product is going to look like.

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