“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Certain comic creators have such a distinct visual style that one needs only look at a single image to be able to identify the pen behind it. Case in point: Jim Mahfood. The boy who set his sights early toward making comics became — through determination, hard work, and a dose of good fortune — one of the most dynamic talents on the scene today.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): All of the above
Your home base: Portland, OR
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? From an artistic perspective, what’s the draw — pardon the pun — of working in this medium?
Jim Mahfood: For me, it’s the one art form where a singular vision can tell stories. I enjoy the freedom and independence of being a sole creator; with other storytelling media — TV, movies, animation — you obviously need a crew and a budget. With comics, you just need paper, ink, and your imagination. I love that openness and the thrill of whatever story I want to tell, whatever my imagination can manifest, that’s literally what I can bring into the world in the form of this thing called a comic book. It’s the ultimate playground of individual expression.
KS: To start at the beginning, when did the comics bug first get you?
JM: I got bit by the bug early. I started collecting the 1980s Marvel Tales Spider-Man reprints by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. As a kid in the late ‘70s, I discovered Spider-Man on The Electric Company, so when I started going to the grocery store with my mom, I discovered [his] comics on the spinner rack and I had no idea that the Marvel Tales were reprints of 1960s material! For me, that’s such a blessing because it was such a weird, quirky era… that I think helped shape me into being a weird, quirky artist myself. [laughter] Eventually I graduated to collecting Amazing Spider-Man.
KS: How about branching out beyond Spidey?
JM: I was also buying The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones from Marvel. G.I. Joe. Batman and Detective Comics when I could get [them]. And then discovering my first comic shop when I was 11 years old — I vividly remember going into this small, dingy shop and Dark Knight Returns was on the shelf as a new issue. It was issue two where Batman’s all humongous. I’d never seen a prestige format book before, and I remember my mom came in the shop and I asked her, “Can I get this?” and she looked at the price and was like, “Four dollars for a comic? No, we’re not buying this.” At the time, floppies were either 60 cents or 75 cents, so the idea of the prestige format… my mom was like, “What? No.” I’m definitely a child of the ‘80s comic boom and I’ve stayed with it my whole life.
[Author’s Note: Dark Knight Returns cover price was $2.95, still a deal-breaker for Jim’s mom.]
KS: Besides Ditko and Miller, who were the other formative artists for you?
JM: I grew up in St. Louis and Jim Lee was like a folk hero, because he moved there from Seoul, Korea and I started hearing these rumors of him in the comic shop — this guy from St. Louis who was starting to work for Marvel. I was too nervous as a kid to ask the guys at the shop who this person was. Eventually I heard the name and my first thought was “Is he related to Stan Lee? Is it Stan Lee’s son?” [laughter] There were no photos, no internet, no Wizard magazine yet. This was all very thrilling and enticing to me. By the time he graduated to Punisher War Journal, he was making his money and I think he skipped town to San Diego.
I started telling people when I was 11 or 12 that I’m gonna draw comics when I get older. That’s gonna be my job. So, the fact that someone from the town could make it, that was inspiration for me.
KS: Had you started noticing specific art styles at this point?
JM: Like I said, I started collecting ASM; I think Ron Frenz was drawing it at that time. I immediately noticed as a kid that “Wait a minute, this guy’s Spider-Man is way different than the other guy’s. Why is that? What’s going on here?”
Then in ’87 I discovered Ninja Turtles, the black-and-white comic before it became the cartoon and the toys. The Eastman and Laird names were right on the cover. I had such a limited budget, but I eventually I started getting copies of Amazing Heroes and occasionally Comics Journal and those publication obviously spotlight the creators. Pre-internet, everything felt so much more mysterious and exciting.
KS: So, you had this career goal in mind at 11 years old. Did you specifically want to be a comic artist, or comics just happened to be one option on the artistic path?
JM: Specifically comics. I was making my own comics on loose leaf and stapling them together, but I wasn’t necessarily good at the storytelling part, I was just good at drawing. I was recognized as the “art star” of my school, and that kept me motivated. Then when I was 15, I met these guys — Lorenzo Lizana and Ed Decker — in St. Louis that had a company called Artline Studio, publishing their own black-and-white comics. They basically hired me to be their office apprentice, for no money but for experience. These guys showed me how comics are made. You work on 11×17 board. I didn’t know that. You rule your pages out like this. You use these tools for inking. I didn’t know any of this.
KS: Was there any opportunity to practice your art during your work shifts?
JM: Eventually, Lorenzo had me start inking his work. I fell in love with the art of inking, and set my sights on pursuing just inking comics. I developed an inking portfolio but couldn’t break in as an inker. Long story short, when I discovered Jamie Hewlitt and Tank Girl, I was like, “This is the exact type of comic I want to make. F—k being an inker, I’m gonna start drawing, writing, and inking my own stuff. And I want it to be this sensibility — this irreverent, middle-finger-in-the-air, punk, sexy, fashionable, tying in with music. This is what I want to do.” Eventually I started self-publishing my own comics in college.
KS: Since you weren’t getting paid, what kinds of experience did the job bring you?
JM: They were both 10 years older than me, so when I was 15 they were 25. The payment was, when Ed and Lorenzo would drive to Chicago or Kansas City, my parents would let me go on these road trips to conventions. I’d stay in the hotel with them, sleep in the corner — I was 15, I didn’t care. They’d cover that, cover all my meals. I’d sit at the table with them, and Lorenzo would do commissions for people for, like, $15… and he’d give me $5 to ink them. I thought I was breaking into the business already. I was behind a table at a con, getting paid to ink, then at night I was meeting people like Phil Hester, Andy Parks, and some of the Midwest comics crew. Just to be there was absolutely thrilling.
KS: You eventually went from self-publishing your Grrl Scouts comics to doing Generation X for Marvel. How did you hustle your way in the door there? Or did they find you?
JM: I met Scott Lobdell at a comic con in St. Louis in 1996. I drove from Kansas City, where I was in college, back home to do the show. A friend called me on a Thursday and said, “We had someone cancel. Do you want to drive down tomorrow and exhibit?” I was like, “F—k yeah!” [laughter] I packed up my car — I had printed two issues of Grrl Scouts and a book called Cosmic Toast. Scott was one of the big guests there and he winds up coming by my table, seeing my work, and really digging it. I gave him copies of all three books, and he came by my table again the next day. “Hey, man, I read your stuff last night in the hotel room and I’m gonna bring it back to New York. I want to get you work. I want you to do something on Generation X.” I was totally floored.
KS: Marvel was open to the idea even though you weren’t an established name at that point?
JM: There was a young assistant editor in the X-office named Jason Liebig. Scott brought my stuff to him, Jason flipped out, and then he called me. He said, “Let’s do this Cosmic Toast book you did, but with the Generation X kids. Let’s do it black & white, let’s print it on this paper you used. If we’re gonna do it, let’s give you your own showcase.”
KS: That must’ve felt like winning the creative lottery.
JM: I’m still friends with Jason, but to this day I still don’t know how he got that past the radar. [Editor] Bob Harras had to look at this and approve it at some point. Jason would call me on Marvel’s dime at night and we would brainstorm story ideas. I would write the scripts by hand in a notebook, then fax those pages to Marvel because I was too poor to have a computer in ’96. If I was at school, I’d come home and there would be messages on my answering machine of Jason being like, “Here’s all my notes for you, so get out a pen.” It would be like a 15, 20-minute message. But getting that to go through was the game-changer for me.
KS: You were still in art school at this point?
JM: I was a senior at the Kansas City Art Institute, and everyone had that senior panic of we are all leaving school, what are gonna do with our lives? And I was strutting around like, “Hey, I’m working for Marvel.” [laughter] No one believed that I was writing, drawing, and lettering a black-and-white X-Men one-shot.
KS: After all your hard work and preparation, it all ultimately came down to being at the right convention at the right time.
JM: Self-publishing Cosmic Toast was the smartest thing I ever did in my life. That got Lobdell’s attention, which got me Generation X, and that got me the Clerks gig with Kevin Smith. As soon as I hooked up with Oni Press and Kevin, I became a full-blown, full-time artist — and I’ve never had a day job since.
KS: As someone with such a distinct, unusual style, did you ever feel pressure — either internally or externally — to “sand off the rough edges” and try to draw more traditional comic art to help you break in?
JM: I didn’t, because I broke in being weird. When I met Bob Schreck from Oni, he saw the Gen X stuff and wanted to show it to Kevin. Kevin wanted Joe Quesada. [laughter] Kevin obviously has more of a mainstream fanboy sensibility. It was Schreck and [Oni co-founder] Joe Nozemack who said to Kevin, “You want an outsider artist. We want it edgy, underground — your name will sell the book, so it’s almost better to have an unknown draw the book. Kevin Smith’s Clerks comic with this new guy drawing the book is a better marketing package.” And Kevin came around to that. I knew I probably wouldn’t ever become the monthly artist on X-Men or Spider-Man, but that wasn’t my goal — I wanted be the next Jamie Hewlett, the Hernandez Bros, Dan Clowes.
KS: What would’ve been an acceptable Plan B career path for young Jim if he never broke into art?
JM: Definitely music. I’ve been a huge music fan and collector my whole life. I played trumpet in high school and I was okay at it. I listen to music whenever I draw, so for sure something in that field.
KS: Tell us about what populates the Mahfood playlist.
JM: Anything from ‘70s punk to ‘80s hip-hop to ‘60s psychedelic. Be-bop. Jazz. I’ll even have aggressive days with metal — Slayer or something like that. If I’m writing it’s probably something more mellow, instrumental. If I’m inking and it’s high energy I can listen to anything I want. Sometimes at night I’ll have old movies on.
KS: You’ve certainly carved out your own path on your own terms. Who’s someone else in comics you look at as an example of success — however you define it?
JM: I’d say — and I’m fortunate to call these people friends — Skottie Young and Ed Piskor. Both of those guys are incredibly smart businessmen, extremely talented. They figured out a path and what they could bring to the table that’s unique. They did their way, but also did it in a way that had wider appeal. When Skottie did the Wizard of Oz book and then followed that by creating the Marvel babies stuff. Same with Ed when he did Hip-Hop Family Tree — I saw that book everywhere when I was in Japan — and following up with X-Men Grand Design and the Cartoonist Kayfabe YouTube channel. Those two guys I have the utmost respect for.
[Author’s Note: For more on Cartoonist Kayfabe, see our conversation with Ed’s co-host Jim Rugg.]
KS: As someone who’s been a “one-man band” for a while, let me hit you with this hypothetical: Would you rather write a script to be illustrated by a great artist, or illustrate a script by a great writer?
JM: I’d rather take on the drawing challenge. Sometimes, writing feels like homework where I have to make charts and do layouts and figure things out, whereas drawing feels like the most natural thing for me. The question also depends on whether I get to pick the writer. [laughter] I’ve heard legends about Alan Moore’s scripts being 200 pages for a 20-page story and I don’t know if I’d be up for that. But when I got to collaborate with [writer] Alan Martin on Tank Girl, he was great — he’d send me the script and say, “Do whatever you want with this, if you want to add or subtract panels, put in background jokes, that’s all you. I’m giving you the blueprint, now I want you to go off and do whatever crazy s—t you want.” That, to me, is the perfect collaboration with a writer. I’ve never written for anyone else to draw, but that would be an interesting challenge.
KS: For this last one, let’s take Tank Girl off the table since she’s gotten a lot of love already… Name a comic from any era that you’d hold up as an example of the craft at its highest form.
JM: Jack Kirby’s ‘70s Fourth World material, especially New Gods. It’s a cliché to say, but issue #7 “The Pact” — dude, that is flawless. It’s staggering to think that came out of a guy doing all those monthly comics at the same time. And Mike Royer with the gorgeous inking. I’m a huge Kirby fanatic anyway, but that I’m not sure if it gets much better than that ‘70s era. I obviously love things that are super visual and psychedelic, and the scope of his imagination — how did this one man design all these characters, create all these worlds, develop his own visual language? Being a visual creator, it’s staggering to look at his body of work. This guy was from a different place.
KS: To close out, the floor is yours to let readers know what you have out in stores now and anything you’ve got upcoming.
JM: My brand new series, Grrl Scouts Stone Ghost, is a six-issue series from Image. The first issue is out in November [now available], issue two drops on December 29. Starting in November, I basically have six months of new material in comic shops. I’ve been working on this for over two years — it’s me returning to creator-owned comics, putting my full effort into this new series. If it does well, I’m kinda planning the next series after that.
People can buy my books and prints directly from me at my website. I also have original art available at Inky Knuckles Comic Art. And Instagram is the place for the daily dose of all the stuff I’m doing.
This interview was edited for length.