Pornography. Say the word out loud -- do you spit it out with disgust or roll the syllables off your tongue gently, dreamily? Does the mere thought of pornography revolt you, make you muse about the decline of Western civilization in the 21st century? Does it weigh you down with guilt because your mate doesn't know that you secretly spend hours looking at midget sex on the Internet? Does it make you reminisce about the days when you'd steal your father's Playboys you'd found burrowed away in his den? Or do you grin conspiratorially when you say "pornography," and think about the Club International you bought last week with Jenna Jameson on the cover?
Porno is America's dirty little secret, a multibillion-dollar industry that's exploded exponentially since the Internet's capitalization on the medium -- it's not even much of a secret these days, more a shameful obsession shared by millions. You're spending the money on it, or your kids are, or your lover is, or your friends are. But it's not something that's discussed conversationally; it's more taboo than the subject of drug use. Many more people will happily chat about their pot-smoking habit than will converse about the aesthetics of Barely Legal's models vs. High Society's models. Opponents of pornography find it vile, degrading to women, say it's contributing to the moral degradation of our country and poisoning our youth; proponents will argue the opposite, that it's really quite silly to vilify the celebration of a naked (and excited, or copulating) person.
Jim Mahfood, nationally renowned (and often controversial) comic book artist and Tempe resident, has grasped the subject of pornography head-on and explored it in his just-released comic book We Love Porn. As the title implies, the collection of sex-related strips are a celebration of pornography and a chance for Mahfood to expose his talent for beautifully capturing the naked female form in ink.
Examining the 25-year-old artist's history and body of work, it's surprising that he's just now getting around to releasing a sex comic book. The man loves controversy and pissing people off. In his Stupid Comics collection (a compilation of the strips he draws for Java Magazine), he rails on Hilfiger-wearing suburban wiggers (personified by Stanley the Suburban Gangster, a recurring character). In a strip titled "True Tales of Amerikkkan History," he illustrates "how the West was actually won . . ." -- white Christian men using their "boomsticks" to take land from Native Americans, killing a young Indian girl's father and explaining, "We'll introduce you to our liquor, drugs, and firearms. . . . Basically we're pretty much gonna fuck your people over for the next 5 to 600 years."
And those examples just scrape the surface of Mahfood's venomously illustrated opinions. He dogs frat boys, ravers, Bible thumpers, computer nerds and politicians, while at the same time preaching his love of marijuana (as an alternative to girlfriends), his love of James Brown, hip-hop and all things funky.
Mahfood, a St. Louis native, has been a comic book geek since his grade school years. When he first discovered that his favorite cartoon superheroes could be found in comic books as well, he was hooked. "Most [fans] start out in typical superhero geek fashion, but if you stick with reading comics, appreciating the art form, you start getting into the other stuff," he explains. For Mahfood, the "other stuff" came in the form of underground comics such as Love and Rockets, the works of notorious screwball R. Crumb, and Zap Comics' releases (Furry Freak Brothers, etc.). "I had no idea that comics could be about normal people or the drug scene or the music scene. I though it was good guys versus bad guys. Then Crumb -- his drugs, sexual fantasies, violence -- I was like, 'You can do anything with comics, the sky's the limit.'"
Mahfood's obsession led him to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he hooked up with a like-minded soul, Mike Huddleston, and founded 40oz Comics. Almost immediately, the two stirred up a firestorm with two comic books called Girl Scouts, depicting the anti-heroines as drug-dealing, gun-happy hellions, replete with Girl Scout regalia -- sashes, uniforms, etc. That understandably pissed off the Girl Scouts of America, and the organization threatened litigation. That incarnation was put to bed, but reemerged a couple of years later in Mahfood's Grrl Scouts series -- same thematics, but sans references to the formidable cookie mafia.
In 1997, Mahfood's bus to the big time pulled up; he met Scott Lobdell, who was writing the X Men comics at the time, and got a gig doing X Men -- Generation X Underground Special for Marvel, the comic-publishing powerhouse. It was during the creation of this book that Mahfood relocated from Kansas City to Tempe, where he met local superheroes such as the Bombshelter DJs, who would eventually find themselves immortalized in his books.
The next giant leap for Mahfood was hooking up with Kevin Smith, writer/director of the movie Clerks. Smith was looking for an appropriate artist to illustrate his conception of what his comic book stories should look like, and Mahfood was the chosen one. They put out two Clerks books, and Mahfood was suddenly very hot shit -- rock star style (he even made a cameo in Smith's movie Dogma; look for him in the church scene).
"[The Clerks books were] the biggest thing that ever happened to me. Everyone in the industry knew my name," he recounts with an impish grin. The two books were among the biggest-selling black-and-white titles in 1998, and offers came flowing in vying for Mahfood's talent. Oni Press, one of the most respected independent comic publishers, put out the Clerks books, and Mahfood formed a relationship with the company that allowed him to release his next project, the aforementioned Grrl Scouts series. His notoriety would also eventually land him the opportunity to write and illustrate one of the four stories in Matt Groening's Bongo Comics' annual Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror comic. While working on Grrl Scouts, Mahfood hooked up his gig with Java Magazine and began drawing live in clubs with acts such as Bombshelter DJs and taking on various freelance gigs.
One of those freelance gigs was for Playtime Magazine, the Valley's own local pornographers. It was here that Mahfood's appreciation for the naked female body could be expressed without boundary (several of the strips he did for Playtime appear in the We Love Porn collection). The roots of his fascination with nude girls go back, of course, to puberty. "I've always been obsessed with women," he says exuberantly. "I like the way they look, talk, smell. I was raised in a Catholic family in the Midwest -- sex wasn't really talked about in my house. So when I discovered sex and porno, I was completely fascinated by it. It was awesome -- the most taboo thing you could discover.
"When I was going through puberty and drawing, I'd try to get cute girls to pose for me, and of course they wouldn't. So I basically started looking at porn to learn how to draw women, too. For me, porn had multiple uses. I would use it as a way of understanding sexuality, a way of getting off, and then a way of understanding anatomy and drawing the human form." Mahfood still keeps stacks of pornography in his drawing studio for anatomical reference (and getting off, one assumes).
The stories contained in We Love Porn aren't blatant wanking material -- sure, the girls Mahfood draws are beautiful and sensual, but each of the stories either has a sociological undertone ("Strip Club" and "The Story of Arvid"), or is arrantly funny ("Donuts" and "The Unexpected Invasion of the Murderous Space Cocks!!"). "They're silly sex comics; it's not 'porn' porn," Mahfood explains. "There's no penetration shots, no zoomed-in pussies. It's so ridiculous and so fantasy -- it's a joke, it's fiction."
Mahfood isn't afraid to expound his criticism of puritanical opponents of porn, either. "America as a whole is pretty squeamish about it. My basic thought is that we're living in the most hypocritical country on Earth, period. And when it comes to sex, it's everywhere in America, but it's still a weird thing to talk about, which to me doesn't make sense at all. There's so much T&A on MTV, even Friends -- if I was a teenage kid at home, I'd be jerking off to it eight hours a day."
And he doesn't want to hear any pontificating about how pornography is degrading to women, either. Sounding a bit like Annie Sprinkle, he says, "I think to some extent it's empowering to women because women know they have this superpower -- their sexuality -- and they can use it over men.
"Men might have the power, money, physical strength, but women have the sexuality. I think since the dawn of time, women have had to learn to adapt to using their sexuality to get what they want."
In We Love Porn, the stripper rejects the notion that stripping is degrading to women. "At the end, we see the stripper out of the strip club environment and hear what she feels and thinks about what she's doing," Mahfood says, "and it's a money thing -- 'Hey, I got paid tonight.' She's basically saying, 'I used my womanhood and strung some sucker along and got paid for it, and I don't feel bad about that.' Besides, most of the comics are about loser guys trying to score with women. They're desperate and pathetic guys that don't know how to relate to modern women."
Mahfood's opinions may not be shared by the conservative masses, but through his comics and his oratory, his points are well made. We Love Porn is a celebration of women and their sexuality, beautifully drawn and thoughtfully expressed.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.