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Hiphop & Comics: Jim Mahfood (Grrl Scouts)

jimmahfoodJim Mahfood is the creator of a successful line of independent comics which veer far from the norm. His creator owned work includes the Grrl Scout and Stupid Comics. He is best known for his work on the Clerks comic series produced with director Kevin Smith.

Notable Works: Grrl Scouts, Stupid Comics, Clerks

Website: Jim Mahfood.com

Hit us with an overview of some of the work you’ve done and bring us up to speed with where you are now.

For the last six years, I’ve been working freelance in the comic book industry. I’ve done some Spiderman issues for Marvel here and there and then I’ll jump back and do my own thing. I have a creator owned series of books called Grrl Scouts and the other is Stupid Comics, which is a collection of my comic strips all about pop culture, politics, music etc. I’m kinda known for doing the Clerks with filmmaker Kevin Smith and I also do some freelance illustration for random magazines from YM, which is a young girls magazine, to Bad Azz Mofo which is my boy Dave Walker who does the mag which is all about blaxploitation, kung fu films, and music. Comics are my full time job, but I also do the freelance stuff and live mural painting at hiphop and funk events around the country. I’ve performed with DJ Z-Trip, Mixmaster Mike, DJ Shadow, etc. That’s kinda the gist of it right there.

I’ve read up a lot on you and to me your career really parallels that of an underground hiphop artist. Do you agree with that comparison?

Completely. Working in comics, especially the way I do, is totally comparable to an underground emcee or rap crew because you can actually make a living off of it without selling out or compromising your vision. Some of my heroes are Del The Funkee Homosapian from the Hieroglyphics crew, Jurrasic 5 or my homeboy Z-Trip are all people who have developed a following for doing something really specific. Del is really known for his voice and his rhyme style and he’s jumped around on all these different projects from Gorrillaz to Deltron to Hieroglyphics and I’m the same way. I don’t want to sign a contract. I would never be a monthly superhero artist on like the X-Men for a whole year. I liked to do a couple issues for Marvel make the money and then go back to doing my black and white creator owned stuff where I write it, draw it, and letter it and the publisher doesn’t have any say over it and it just comes out and hopefully sells and you move onto the next thing. There is definitely a way to make money and be successful in underground culture whether its in hiphop or comics, you just have to specialize and develop your own unique flavor whether its your rhyme style or drawing style you just have to do shit that makes you stand out from everyone else. That’s how you get known and that’s how people remember you.

You mentioned doing your comics in black and white. I read through a few of your comics and you seem to stick strongly to making black and white comics and I’m sure that has to do with some of the first underground comics you came across at a younger age. What is it about omitting color that is so important to you and what message do you think that sends?

I just like the purity of black and white. I like the way the visuals really stand out immediately. It also goes back to being in control of my own work because when I do my shit in black and white and ship it off I know exactly what its gonna look like when it gets printed. When I did the Spiderman books for Marvel they’re such a big company that I had no choice in who the colorist was. I would do the artwork in black and white and send it off to Marvel and then they would scan the pages, add the lettering digitally, and just hand it off to some kid to color it. So I don’t know what the finished product will look like until it hits the stands and the coloring might ruin my work. I know how its gonna look in black and white. It’s not easy for me but it’s a style that I’ve become used to. I’ve learned how to use contrast to make images stand out really bold. I’m into flat graphics and really bold images that you can see three feet away. I don’t want people to have to look at my work really closely to figure out what is going on. I want it to be fast and immediate because I think people have short attention spans.

Your stance on most things seems to be pretty much anti establishment even within the comic industry. Is that statement accurate and what exactly are you rebelling against?

I’d agree that my work has an anti establishment message to it. My thing is ever since I was a little kid I’ve been politically minded and interested in how society, culture and politics all work. At an early age listening to Public Enemy, punk rock, Run DMC in eighth grade and discovering underground comics got me interested in seeing the big picture of why is it that the little people get fucked over on a daily basis. That’s a question I’ve wondered about since I was twelve years old. So when I discovered that music and comics and art can be a force for questioning everything that really appealed to me. You could have dope music like Public Enemy or KRS-ONE where the music is incredible but at the same time it has a message in the lyrics that are information. To me that just blew my mind. I can sit down and listen to a Public Enemy record and get an education at the same time without cracking open a book. So I try to take that same kind of aesthetic and put it into my creator owned comics. The book Stupid comics is just really hardcore political and cultural criticisms. If you look at mainstream media there is nothing on those outlets that question our government, our system or all this horrible shit that’s going on right now. This is a crazy time to be alive. I think we are living in one of the most historic periods in human history ever. Its crazy the amount of information that’s going on out there but it’s the underground that always questions and challenges things. I’ve always been attracted to that and I’ve always wanted to figure out a way to put that in my work. I wish there were more politically conscious comic books out there. Comic books as a whole is an underground medium anyway. We used to sell millions of copies of comics ten-twenty years ago, now the highest circulation of any book is 200,000. That’s like X-Men or Batman, that’s just sad. I’m just trying to figure out a way to use the medium to get out information the same way musicians or emcees have used hiphop, punk rock, or reggae to protest the crazy shit going on.

What do you think attributed to the huge decrease of comic sales?

Comics have had bad luck in America. It’s an American art form but Americans have generally associated it as being a medium for little kids and being juvenile. Then the early 90s really screwed us up. Mcfarlane and Jim Lee were the head guys at Marvel. Jim Lee had X-Men with the eight different covers and these guys were becoming millionaires selling comics and the circulation on the comics was like five and six million copies. Then they all left and went to Image and all the Image books were selling millions. Then all these speculators and collectors jumped on the bandwagon and started buying up the multiple covers and variants thinking that shit was going to become extremely valuable. The problem is it won’t become valuable unless it’s rare and if there are two million copies it will never be rare. So all these collectors crowded the market and the companies printed up way too much product then everything hit the ground. The collectors left, the publishers were left with these huge printing bills from over printing, and the industry almost folded. It was a dark time in comics. That’s when I was trying to break in and everyone at the companies were like kid there might not even be a comics industry in six months because things are so bad at this point. Its sucks because we were going really strong and then this whole thing went down and set us back another ten years. I think comics will always be around but for some reason in America it is a really under appreciated art form. If you go anywhere else, comic book artists are treated like rock stars. There’s this magazine in Italy that’s reprinting my Grrl Scouts comic in their magazine which is a mainstream magazine like Rolling Stone is here. Half is hiphop graffiti and fashion and you flip it over and the other half is black and white comics from American and European guys. You can buy that on the newsstands. You don’t even see that type of shit here.

We live in an age where it’s popular to burn music over the internet which is equivalent to going to your boys house to dub. Now you got these rappers who are like I’ll blow your head off, I’m a killer, and I push weight but all of a sudden the people burning their music are the criminals. If you did crime or are doing crime because times are hard you should feel complemented when someone wants to hear it so bad they try and steal it. Now the government and artists are mad. What’s your opinion on that whole situation?

It’s funny because if you pay attention to the people protesting the burning they are major label stars. They are all pawns to their corporate owned major label. I think what people don’t understand is that if your 50 Cent or Madonna you’re rich and getting paid but they are still getting raped by the label they work for. That’s why the stars are like don’t pirate our music because even though I’m gonna make about a million off this album the label is making fifteen million. Every underground DJ or emcee I know is like burn my shit, my whole thing is I want people to hear my stuff and I want them to know about my art.

635090-grrl1_largeI read a quote of yours that I thought was real fresh and it is similar to what we are trying to do with Halftime. You said when you did Grrl Scouts and Stupid Comics you did something that you were interested in and you figured if you liked it there would be other people who like it too although you weren’t targeting anyone specific. You just went with what you liked and I thought that was so dope to go out there and push what you like out there into the world.

I just remember someone telling me a long time ago you have to be happy with the work that you’re producing whether its comics, music or whatever and just make art you’re interested in making and if it speaks to you and its honest other people who know what time it is will relate to it. That’s my whole thing just trying to do shit I think is true and on point assuming that other people get it. And they do. There are actually a lot of intelligent people out there hungry for good art, music and culture and they will respond.

That kinda leads us into the next question tell us about Grrl Scouts series and what were some of the most surprising responses you got when you put it out.

I got a couple emails saying why did you make the main characters in your comic drug dealers, why did you make them vicious etc. that was from the first four issue series. My thing was the Grrl Scouts aren’t supposed to be heroes they are just the main characters in the book. The Grrl Scouts series itself is my outlet for talking about hiphop culture and graffiti, etc. It’s these three girls that live in an urban environment and do what they have to in order to survive. When we’re first introduced to them they’re drug dealers and this evil corporation finds out they are breaking into their drug money so they go after them. The Grrl Scouts hit back and take out this corporation. That’s the first series. The second series called Work Sucks, which was put out by Image this year, was about how too many people in the neighborhood have found out they took out the corporation and word has started to spread so they decide to lay low and get out of the drug dealing game for a while and get legit jobs. That whole series is about the bullshit average young people go through having to work. It’s more down to earth and about the characters and deals with the new situation which is real life. At the end of the series, they all realize they have different callings in life and they are going to try to pursue this other shit for now. Its three females that I’m trying to write as real people with distinct personalities. As far as feedback a lot of people said at times it was too preachy or too anti corporate and them being drug dealers got a little bit of hate mail. Then the second series came about and they weren’t kicking ass or shooting people and then everyone was like hey what happened!?

How did you develop the relationship with Image where they give you a good amount of backing yet you still do whatever you want?

I met Jim Valentino, the main publisher at Image. I did Stupid Comics through Oni Press a few years ago, I had a new one ready to go and I wanted to find a new publisher and see if I could work with somebody else. I sent Valentino Stupid Comics #1, he read it and called me the next day and said he dug it. He knew I had a following for what I do and he liked my art. It’s funny because he is an independent underground comics guy. People know him from Shadowhawk and Marvel in the early 90s but he was doing black and white underground indie shit in the 70s and 80s. He’s an indie guy who comes from that sensibility so he wants Image to be a really diverse company. He know that he has the full color superhero shit, Todd Mcfarlane’s Spawn stuff, crime comics, manga and he wants a line of black and white creator owned comics. I’m doing all my creator owned shit through Image now. I send them a proposal, show them what I want to do and when they approve it they just say go nuts and do the book. I do the entire book and send it to them and it gets printed. They don’t have any editorial control over what I’m doing. They know what I do and they know what’s coming in when I send them shit so it’s a good relationship. The books are making money for them and for me so that’s another reason it works out. If this shit wasn’t making money they’d probably be like we might not be able to do this but so far so good.

When you’re doing some of your live mural art what are some of the examples of how the music guides your work?

We try to not to plan the pieces out and go up there with blank boards and our paint and we let the music dictate what comes out. So what happens is I go up there and I just start making marks to the beat and find out where its going and it just develops over the course of the night. It’s completely interactive with the music. Its strange because if I’m performing to hiphop or reggae or something that has a slower beat the pieces develop slower and are real funky but if I do stuff to drum & bass or faster shit the pieces get more frantic and I paint quicker to the beat and they are more aggressive. I almost have to have the right DJ to make the pieces as funky as they could be. I just love that way of performing. I’m not a musician so that’s the closest thing I’ll get to performing in front of an audience by doing a visual that goes along with the shit you are hearing. We are just trying to bring it back to the early eighties Brooklyn style hiphop parties where you had live hiphop, live graffiti, DJs and break dancing and all four elements are represented. It’s cool because crowds respond to it. If your not dancing you can watch the DJ and a huge painting develop over the course of the night. We usually sell the painting at the end of the night and people in the crowd dig that because they get to take a piece of the night home with them. It’s cool to go from drawing comics doing intimate detailed type work to doing a big sloppy painting where we get dirty and are running around stage with cans of paint just going nuts.

I saw you directed a video for Zion I. what is it about directing that drew you to the project and how was that overall experience?

It was really cool. I’m a huge fan of videos, movies, and anything visual so my goal over the last couple of years was to see my shit taken to the next level which is animation or movies or whatever. A buddy of mine who directs music videos got this offer from Zion I so we put together this short proposal about a guy rapping in front of my backgrounds and drawings and the Zion I guys dug it. They are real cool laid-back guys and they came out to the studio and we shot them in front of the green screen rapping to the song and we just used my backgrounds and drawings all throughout the video interacting with the guys. The end result is fresh. Comics and directing are linked because when you are drawing your panels out and designing a page you are directing. You’re trying to decide how to shoot each panel and from what angle and how much information to show.

Who is the average reader of the comics you are putting out?

It seems to me the average reader that I meet at comic book conventions are 18-30 year old guys and girls. I’m pretty proud that I have cool female fans and they all seem to be people who are into underground culture as a whole. Most of my fans are cool, open-minded people who are into a lot of shit not just comics. Hopefully that says something about the work.

Any groupie love?

There has been groupie love here and there. It’s always a surreal thing when it happens.

Last thing before the bullets what are some of the upcoming projects you have on the horizon?

Stupid Comics # 2 just came out today and that’s all brand new material. I have a book called 40 oz collective out and that’s a trade paperback from Image. It collects all four of the 40 oz mini comics I’ve done plus twenty pages of brand new material, so it’s like a 120 page graphic novel. Then we have the trade of Grrl Scouts # 2 Work Sucks coming out through Image in February collecting that four issue mini series.

Time for the bullets!

The categories tonight are fine canine cuisine, sweet liquids, threads, safety, and friendship.

Fine Canine Cuisine

If you had to eat fried pit bull back or sautaed Chihuahua which would you eat?

I’d probably go with the pit bull.

Rottweiler Lo Mein dipped in light butter or BBQ Husky?

BBQ

Sweet Liquids

Duck Sauce with Lemonade or Sugar water?

Sugar Water

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke

Fruitopia or Dr. Pepper?

Dr. Pepper

Threads

Yankees cap or Orioles?

I actually like the Orioles cap design wise.

Would you rather wear a shirt that a drunk person just vomited all over or a shirt with a big picture of the rapper Fabolous on it?

Fabolous because I could play it off like I’m spoofing him.

Safety

You’re in another country and the car you in breaks down, you don’t know where you at and there are lions in the area. All of a sudden, a new black Benz comes up pumping the new Jay-z shit. This will probably be your only way out and the person asks you if you need a ride and you say yea. The window finally comes all the way down and its Bin Laden. Do you get in or do you stay and get eaten up by the lions?

I guess the lions

Friendship

If you had to hang with a couple for a week would it be Nick and Jessica Simpson from MTV or Ashford and Simpson?

Ashford and Simpson

Last question, if you had to create a comic book character out of either Todd Bridges or Chaka Khan which would you choose and what capabilities would you give them?

It would have to be Todd Bridges. He would have the ability to resurrect dead pop careers at record speed.

Date: January 11, 2004