Way back in the Analog Age, before CDs, DATs, minidiscs and MP3's, existed something called "records," or "LPs." All you milk-crate athletes probably remember 'em, but for the rest of you, try to imagine a world where the premiere sound-reproduction format was a 175-gram, 12-inch platter of deep-black vinyl. They had warm tones and smelled great right out of the package, and they came with easy-to-read liner notes and expansive covers that required some sort of decoration. Back then, there was no MTV (we didn't know how good we had it), so recording artists used the cover to give listeners an idea of what they would be getting if they ponied up the $1.99 for a new album.
More often than not, record labels just slapped a carefully staged photo of the artist on the album, or maybe a spiffy-looking band logo, and then shipped it out, but there were exceptions. Some bands hired artists to create covers that embodied the sound of the band. Yes used Roger Dean's futuristic stoner paintings to sell their prog-rock noodlings, Andy Warhol designed a couple of interactive double-entendre covers for the sexually charged Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones (a peelable banana and a working zipper, respectively), and Led Zeppelin's pretentious conceptual packaging extravaganzas all pushed the idea of album art further away from dollars-and-cents marketability while helping solidify what each band was about musically.
Perhaps no group used album art more effectively than George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic Family and their ongoing collaboration with artist Pedro Bell. Cosmic Slop and One Nation Under a Groove were packed with Bell's cartoons and collages detailing the extraterrestrial adventures of the P-Funk Super Heroes. His art helped shape and define the Funkadelic myth, and the music became a soundtrack for Bell's comic books. "Pedro Bell's work visually embodies what funk is. You can tell he listened to the music and was influenced by what he heard. I hope that's what my work becomes for hip-hop," says Jim Mahfood, a young artist from South St. Louis County recently transplanted to Arizona.
Had Mahfood been born 20 years earlier, he might have become one of those now-extinct artists who worked lovingly with a band to mesh art and music into a pleasing and profitable union. Alas, album art has gone the way of the eight-track since the advent of the CD and its size limitations, so Mahfood has incorporated his love of music and art in the world of comic books.
Now, before you curl your lip in derision and mutter something derogatory about "that Superman bullshit," be forewarned that Jim Mahfood is as much a scholar of comics as he is of hip-hop, and he will gladly school your sorry ass in the Gospel of Comic Books as Art Form that Defies Categorization as Mere Superhero Stories. Four-color mainstream comics, he admits, are nothing more complex than the ongoing homoerotic struggles be-tween costumed hyperthyroid males and the villains who love to hate them. Black-and-white underground comics, he avers, are a whole other thing. "With comics, you can tell any sort of story you want. It doesn't always have to be two guys kicking the shit out of each other. That's the stereotype."
Mahfood's version of comics is heavily influenced by hip-hop culture, funk music, B-movies, Bad Azz Mofo magazine and his distaste for consumerism. His recently finished four issue series Grrl Scouts (that's not a misprint; the Girl Scouts of America threatened legal action if he used their spelling) re-volved around the adventures of three young ladies who spin records, write graffiti and deal drugs while trying to escape the machinations of the Brotherhood of the Cracker. The series is an unabashed homage to the blaxploitation movies of the '70s, as well as to the history of hip-hop. Mahfood litters his panels with visual references to old-school rappers, funk and soul artists, graffiti writers and underground DJs. A steady stream of band fliers, movie posters and T-shirt slogans lets the reader know what inspires Mahfood, and his "Unofficial Soundtrack" lists at the beginning of each issue provide the industrious reader with the opportunity to score the book musically. At its best, Mahfood's work flows like prose rap; laced with the slang and sensibility of hip-hop's street vibe, his artistic style borrows heavily from graffiti to create a black-and-white world as vibrant, violent and humorous as Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves album: a synthesis of images and sounds that tells a story within a hip-hop framework.
The combination of elements has garnered Mahfood an audience that extends beyond just comic-book aficionados, which was his goal: "I want to convert non-comic-book readers into underground-comics and hip-hop fans. I love it when people come up to me and tell me they like how I represent the hip-hop lifestyle. I like it when people who have never picked up a comic get mine because they say it's not like other comic books. I want intelligent people to like it."
Of course, his blending of hip-hop sensibilities and comic books has won him his fair share of critics; the most common complaints concern the violence, profanity and drug use he portrays. Guns, swearing and "da chronic" may be almost acceptable tropes in the music community, but comics are mainly perceived as kid stuff, and so the presence of these hip-hop staples in Grrl Scouts hits a little harder. On this point, Mahfood concedes that people have a right to their opinions, but he notes, "It's a work of fiction. I think it's a cop-out on my part to say, "It's OK, because they're (the characters) only dealing naturals, like pot or mushrooms.' But they're not role models. This is not reality. Would three young intelligent women really turn to drug dealing to get by? They'd get jobs. I do mature, R-rated-movie-type books, and no kid under 16 should probably be getting it. I don't write it for them. I write it for older, hipper kids who are into the same things I'm into."
Apparently the older, hipper kids are into Mahfood's work plenty. For a long stretch last year, Jim had a weekly gig with the Bombshelter Crew, Arizona's premier DJs. Emile, Radar and Z-Trip spun live at Anderson's Fifth Estate while Jim created "big-ass (5-by-2-foot) marker drawings of hip-hop heroes like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, onstage with them. I worked on upright glass panels while they spun -- three DJs, six tables and me. It was crazy. I wanted to do looser, more freestyle shit, and they dug my work, so we hooked up." For Mahfood, those shows were a throwback to the hip-hop jams immortalized in the film Breakin', where MCs and DJs worked the crowd while graf artists threw up murals and B-boys battled. It was also a rare opportunity for a visual artist to perform for a live audience as opposed to the seclusion of his studio, where he spends most of his time. "Six days a week, eight or nine hours a day to meet my deadlines," Mahfood says.
The fruits of those 50-hour workweeks will pay off this summer, when Oni Comics releases the collected soft-cover version of the Grrl Scouts series, as well as a collection of his Stupid Comics, a feature Mahfood has been doing for the Arizona weekly paper Java. "I've also got a story coming out in the The Simpsons Comics Treehouse of Horror No. 6. It's a Simpsons story, but I get to do it my way, not like the usual Simpsons stuff." He's quick to note that all of his books will be available at Star Clipper Comics and the Fantasy Shop: "St. Louis pride, baby!"