Artist Jim Mahfood on Moving to L.A., Drawing Tank Girl and Spiderman, and Coming Back to Town for Phoenix Comicon

Around a decade ago, you could regularly spy the artwork of Jim Mahfood all around the Valley.

The stark drawings created by the onetime Tempe resident (who's also known as Food One) were seen on fliers for hip-hop shows, in advertisements, in his comic books like Grrl Scouts, and the pages of publications like Phoenix New Times and Java. He was also tight with the local urban culture scene, which including doing live art at events like The Blunt Club or promotional work for local b-boys or rappers.

It was during those days that Mahfood also hooked up with director Kevin Smith and drew the comic book version of Clerks, got his art into the pages of a few special one-offs and compilations for Marvel Comics, and was one of the stars of the underground comics scene.

The grass has gotten even greener for the funky artist since he put the Valley in the rearview some years ago and high-tailed to L.A. He's currently got plenty of projects in the works, including getting to draw a few issues of Tank Girl (a big influence of his) and working on a cartoon for MTV.

Mahfood's pulling a prodigal son and returning to the Valley this weekend for an appearance at Phoenix Comicon. Jackalope Ranch recently spoke with the artist about living in L.A., what he misses about Phoenix, his current projects, and his reaction to the sad news of Adam "MCA" Yauch's recent passing and the impending closure of Wet Paint.

What are you doing at Phoenix Comicon? I'm signing at the Ash Avenue Comics booth. They're sort of sponsored me coming out. I've got this brand new mini-comic that I'm bringing with me, plus some original art work. I'll also be doing some commissioned sketches for people. Just coming to hang out, really. And then Saturday is the live art party [Secret Wars].

Ash Avenue is where you sold a lot of your comics back in the day? Yeah, for sure. I lived down the street from there when I originally moved out to Arizona in 1997. I just randomly moved to Tempe and I lived four doors up the street from Casey Moore's, the comic shop, and Eastside Records. That was like my neighborhood, my stomping ground. I've known those guys for years. I haven't been back to Arizona in like two years. I usually come back once a year just to visit or go to The Blunt Club or do live art with Dumper. Times been moving so fast that I can't believe its been two years now.

You also hung out at Wet Paint a lot at its old location on College Street? Yeah, that was before they relocated to Ash Avenue, they were closer to the ASU campus. There's definitely a lot of my history in Tempe, hanging out with people that were doing cool shit.

Any reaction to the news that Wet Paint will close by the end of June? Are you serious? Awww...I didn't know that. Shit.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. No, it's just weird. It's kinda disappointing that the era we live in is extremely unfriendly to independently owned...anything. Mom and pop shops and whatnot. Its just kinda the nature of our fast food world to see shit closing down left and right. I always try and support indie stuff but its just so convenient to be able to buy your music online now and not have to leave your house. I still love actual records and CDs, going to an art store and picking out my own supplies, and going to a comic shop. But I'm in my mid-30s now, like in pop culture terms I'm old, so my opinion and my way of doing things is not the normal way of doing things any more. The normal way is to get it as fast and cheap as possible. It's fucked up, but what can you do?

What do you miss about Phoenix? I definitely loved how close-knit everything was and [how] the community was tight and you didn't have to travel far. When I was living in Tempe, I could literally walk or ride my skateboard to all my friend's houses. L.A. has this weird, fucked up car culture where you drive everywhere, have to find parking, and deal with idiots experiencing road rage and stuff. There was a year or two when I lived in Tempe and didn't even own a car. The scene was smaller and seemed a little bit more intimate, like everybody had each other's backs and supported each other's stuff. I have that out here too, it's just that people are a little more competitive and everyone's trying to make. Whereas in Arizona, it was more for the love of it.

What are some of your current projects? I have two of my biggest books of my career coming out this summer. First one is called Los Angeles Ink Stains and it's a collected volume of all the Ink Stains strips I've been doing the last few years. Its something I've done on my blog for the past few years and giving away for free. It's an autobiographical comic strip about my life in L.A., my travels, and all the crazy shit that has happened. So after three years we're finally collecting them and putting them out into a book. It comes out on June 20.

Is Ink Stains the continuation of Stupid Comics that you did for Java? Yeah, totally. It's sort of the evolution of Stupid Comics, exactly. I actually talk about that in the Ink Stains book. Like, Stupid Comics was great and it was a lot of fun, but after a while I felt like I had said everything I'd wanted to say about social commentary or satire or politics. It seemed like a lot of my fans like my autobio stuff most.

Why did you start doing Ink Stains? Living in L.A., it's just so interesting and weird here that I just decided to start documenting my life out here. I started it at the end of 2008 since I didn't have any work coming in after the economy crashed. And I wanted to keep busy, so I just started doing this strip and giving it away for free and on my blog. And it worked. It caught on and I got this whole new audience for it and people started hitting me up for work again. It was just this cool, weird thing.

What's your other upcoming comic book? And the other book is a Tank Girl comic, which comes out on July 18. It's a three-issue miniseries called Everybody Loves Tank Girl and I got to draw the whole thing, which is a pretty big honor for me. It's like one of the main books I was influenced by as a teenager and as a guy in my early 20s putting out my first independent comics like Grrl Scouts. Its cool that its come full circle where I was able to do the book that I was sort of borrowing from, which was Tank Girl.

Anything else in the works? I'm also working on a cartoon for MTV. I'm doing something for the relaunch of Liquid Television. So I'm finally gonna see myself animated after forever trying to get a show living out here in L.A. It's called Disco Destroyer and its like a 70s, totally tripped out exploitation thing with rock 'n' rollers and street gangs and hot chicks in muscle cars. Titmouse is animating the show and I'm drawing it. It's pretty cool.

Are you still doing stuff for Marvel Comics? The last time I worked for them was two years ago when I did a short Spiderman story. I haven't worked regularly for them since then.

What was it like being able to draw a character as iconic as Spiderman in your own style? It was definitely a huge thrill. That's the stuff I grew up on as a kid as far as comics go. To be able to leave any mark on it was rewarding and exciting.

You've done so many types of comics during your career. How come? I like doing a bit of everything, variety is cool, but writing and drawing my own stuff that has to do with music and all the other shit that I'm into, that's my favorite. I did two issues of Kick Drum Comix, and it was all music-inspired stuff with brand new characters that I created, and I had a blast doing that. I've just given myself the freedom to have fun and do whatever the hell I wanted, and that usually results in the best product.

Have you enjoyed being a comics artist for as long as you have? Yeah, but it's just that comics aren't appreciated in this country the way they should be. There's a whole generation of kids like me that are doing all this kick-ass work, but comics are considered a "low art" in America. We have to rely on this loyal cult following to keep the business going.

What your opinion about the current state of comic books? The production quality is so high on them today. The coloring, the paper...It's all really high end. It's almost like they're trying to match all these comic book movies that are coming out. People should be reading comics instead of these brainless sitcoms on TV.

In both Stupid Comics and Ink Stains, your work tends to be filled with raw emotion. Why is that? Well, I'm not just that good of a writer to do intricate, poetic, and lyrical writing. Like I've always been a fan of writing that's super-simple, direct and straightforward. And I think that style of writing fits my visuals really well too. I had a teacher in art school that always told me less is more. I've kind approached the writing the same way where those comics have a very specific formula where I can only fit a certain amount of words into a panel or on a page. And there's a certain rhythm and beats to hit, and there's a certain number of words I can fit into a balloon.

One recent Ink Stains had your reaction to the recent death of MCA and how part of your adolescence died with him. Yeah, comics like Ink Spots are reflection of major things that are going on. For people in my generation and in their mid-30s, the Beasties were a big deal. I remember them being a part of my life from their first album on up. It was just a weird, heavy thing to know that he's gone. It's really weird. It makes me feel old and stuff. For the people that understand, it was a heavy thing. For all my friends, especially in New York and stuff, we were like, "What the fuck?"

You've always been heavily influenced by urban and hip-hop culture, correct? Yeah. It mostly has come from the people I usually hang out with. DJs, graffiti artists, musicians. People that are really passionate about what they do. And for instance, a lot of the conversation and dialogue you find in Grrl Scouts, is taken from real conversations I hear. Yeah, basically I just hang out with people that are really passionate about their art. And also, from listening to hip-hop for so many years. It sort of has it's own language and slang.

What's your background with graf art? I tried to paint graf in St. Louis and Kansas City years ago, but I was a toy. I was a sucker. I didn't know what I was doing. I almost got shot one night sneaking up onto a rooftop and that sort of ended my painting career before it began. But in K.C. I got to hang out with some amazing writers like Gear and Scribe, and I got to see them in action. It gave me a very deep appreciation for graf and the lifestyle around it. These guys don't fuck around. Recently, I went out stenciling one night out here over the holidays when the streets were empty. It was a thrill. I dig all the stenciling and wheatpasting that goes on out here. But I'm still on probation, man, I have to watch my ass.

You'll be doing a live art battle with Adam Dumper this weekend at the Secret Wars after-party. What do you dig about live art? It's really loose and fun. It's a nice contrast to comics and illustration work. With that stuff, there's lots of careful pre-planning and figuring it all out before you go into the inking phase or the finishes or whatever. With live art you have a brush in one hand and a beer in the other and you just throw paint around and have fun and fuck around. There's no rules, no set way of doing it, and each artist can come to the plate with his or her own thing that they do. I just make the shit up as I go along and hope that the finished product comes out badass. But basically, I just want to wreck shit, get dirty, catch a buzz, talk trash with my friends that are painting with me, and rock out to the loud music.

Jim Mahfood is scheduled to appear at Phoenix Comicon daily through Sunday at the Ash Avenue Comics table (booth #908), Admission is $30-$40.

The Secret Wars after-party takes place at 10 p.m. on Saturday night at Ghost.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.