cartoonist

Mitch Clem Interview

(Image courtesy of Mitch Clem)
(Image courtesy of Mitch Clem)

Mitch Clem is a cartoonist, perhaps best known for ongoing webcomic Nothing Nice To Say, which examines the culture surrounding punk music. He has also authored the autobiographical comic series San Antonio Rock City, and My Stupid Life. His work appears in zines like Razorcake, and on album covers and flyers. If you live in Austin, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen his work around town at some point.

Along with recently reviving Nothing Nice To Say, Clem is working on a project called Turnstyle Comix, which pairs a short book of illustrated stories from bands with a 7” EP of new work by each band.

We spoke about his creative process, influences, and the music scene in San Antonio.


Daily Texan Comics: So, right off the bat, what was the first show you ever went to?
Mitch Clem
: The first show that I ever saw was Veruca Salt when I was 12 or 13. Not my first punk show, but my first concert. That was in Minneapolis.

DTC: So when did you first start drawing comics?
MC
: I’ve been [drawing them] pretty much my whole life. Since I was a kid I was drawing comics. I started doing them regularly with Nothing Nice, the first one I did with any sort of regularity, that anybody saw besides me and my friends. That was February of 2002?

DTC: How old were you then?
MC
: Eighteen or nineteen? I think?

DTC: I notice you have a Squee tattoo.
MC
: Yeah. That happened kinda just before Nothing Nice.

DTC: Do you still keep up with Jhonen Vasquesz?
MC
: A little, I mean, I read Squee and Johnny [the Homicidal Maniac]. I really liked Invader Zim. I don’t know what he’s been up to lately.

DTC: I think he’s been painting. I remember reading this thing on his blog a few months ago, where he suggested that if you’re trying to make it, at this point, you have to do fan art.
MC
: I don’t know that I’d agree with that. There is certainly a niche within comics, like with Comic-Con. Worlds that definitely thrive on that. People make money selling sketches and stuff, and you’ve got your companies that do Doctor Who fan shirts and everything.

But like, who’s the most recent super successful cartoonist? That was that guy who did Scott Pilgrim. That’s not fan-art. That’s totally his own thing.

DTC: But it still has a root in it of some sort of reference to a specific existing world.
MC
: True, but that’s his universe as he lives it. He’s super into video games. Any comic I write is always about people who go to shows or play in bands.

DTC: What comics did you read growing up?
MC
: Calvin and Hobbes. That was my favorite. And the Far Side. Those were my two big ones. I was more into the newspaper strips than comic books.

DTC: Did you start out online, or just making copies for your friends?
MC
: Well, you know, before I had done Nothing Nice, I used to do a zine called Summer’s Over that had a lot of comics in it. So in that sense, yes, I was photocopying stuff and giving it to people. And then when I had the idea to start Nothing Nice, I didn’t know what web comics were. I didn’t read them, and I hadn’t heard of them. And I was trying to come up with an idea, like “how do I get this out there? Do I start a zine?” I was trying to think outside the box in that respect.

The weirdest idea I had for distributing it was making a comic once a week and printing them out on flyers and mailing them to all the record stores. And then the record stores would hang them up on their bulletin board. And I had this ridiculous fantasy of “Oh yeah, people are gonna go to the record store, ‘The new Nothing Nice is out friday, let’s go to the record store and read it on the bulletin board!’”

Dumb. But my friend Pat read Penny Arcade, and he said, “You know, you can just put these online”, like people do now. And he showed me their site and uh, the rest is history.

DTC: So when did people start paying attention to it, really?
MC
: You know what? Honestly, it kinda blew up very, very fast. Like, within the first couple months. I don’t want any of this to sound self important or anything, because I’m definitely not that guy, but I think it filled a niche that was there. But webcomics were still pretty new and weren't tired yet.

DTC: Recently you started working with another writer.
MC
: Joe Briggs.

DTC: How’d that start?
MC
: Well. I already knew him. We were online buddies. I think he was on my forum, and I met him in real life. He’s from England, and he came to Texas and we hung out. We got really drunk in my apartment, and he’s a really great guy. He’s super funny and super clever, and at one point I told him, hey, let’s start a comic together. Just for fun. I wasn’t doing Nothing Nice at the time. I wasn’t really doing anything at the time. And I wanted to do another comic. We threw some ideas back and forth, and it very quickly became apparent that anything that we do is going to be a retread of Nothing Nice, so why not just do Nothing Nice then?

DTC: So how do you work with him, since he lives in a different country?
MC
: It’s all email. Some of the jokes, he completely writes all by himself, and some of them I completely write by myself, and then the bulk of them are pretty collaborative. He’ll send me something and I’ll punch it up, and vice versa.

DTC: How’s having someone to bounce stuff off of?
MC
: It’s awesome. I honestly feel like the comic is a lot better with a cowriter. I just get in my own head and I can’t come up with ideas, and this and that. He’s just constantly coming up with great ideas.

DTC: When did you start doing flyers?
MC
: I was doing flyers before I started doing Nothing Nice. In fact, Nothing Nice is technically a spinoff of a flyer I had done for a Modern Machines show. I’d drawn Blake and Fletcher, or what would be Blake and Fletcher on [it], telling a joke, and when I decided to draw a comic, I thought, well those guys can be my characters.

DTC: Once the comic started getting attention, did you start getting requests to do it more frequently?
MC
: People definitely ask me for art. I don’t usually. I don’t really like doing freelance stuff for people too much. Nothing against the rest of the world or anything, it’s just it’s a whole different animal. When I do flyers, it’s for my friends, and that’s about it.

DTC: How does the process work for coming up with flyers?
MC
: I’ll go on facebook and be like “I have to draw a flyer for a show, what should I draw” and people give me all these stupid ideas and I’ll draw one of those. It’s always, invariably, do a Tyrannosaurus Rex doing a flip, eating pizza, and he’s riding on a chicken wing instead of a skateboard and Jesus is giving him the finger.

The thing about that and album covers that’s difficult for me is, I don’t sketch. I don’t have a sketchbook. I don’t really draw unless I have something specific to draw. So the comic works because I’ll have a script to work from. I don’t sit around just doodling.

There’s this guy, Zack Trover, who I sort of know through online, and he’s constantly posting things from his little moleskin sketchbooks. They're these fully realized [ideas]. If you were doing flyers or album covers, that’s one. You’re done. This dumb thing he scribbles out in an afternoon. I’m like, that’s a beautiful piece of comedic art, and it’s done. I can’t do that. I don’t know what the disconnect is.

DTC: What year did you move to Texas?
MC
: I don’t remember the answer to that.

DTC: Do you think moving to Texas affected anything, in the way in the way that you work, or your mode of thinking?
MC
: It affected the way that I work in that I moved to San Antonio... I moved FROM Minneapolis, which is just this haven of coffee shops all over the place, and I would always work in coffee shops. And I would go and just crank out several comics in a day. And I moved to San Antonio, which doesn’t really have coffee shops to speak of.

DTC: Everything’s really spread out in that town.
MC
: It’s very suburban, it’s kinda sad.

People from outside San Antonio do perceive very negative aspects of the scene, and they’re not wrong, but there are pockets of really cool stuff in the town, like my friend Dave will have shows at his house. And the Ten Eleven is a really awesome club.

DTC: First time I went there it was still called the Warhall. I tried to catch a raccoon in the back yard.
MC
: Really? Were you trying to get rabies or what?

DTC: No, I just wanted to see if I could get close enough to actually touch it.
MC
: Oh jesus. Did you.. You never lived there did you?

DTC: I did for a year.
MC
: Did you really? Not feeling it?

DTC: I transferred.
MC
: Austin’s cool. We always talk about moving to Austin. I just have no... motivation to ever do anything.

DTC: I remember you making some reference to it in San Antonio Rock City that you were considering moving here.
MC
: Oh yeah. Well at that point, I did move here with my then girlfriend, for half a year, maybe.

DTC: And you ended up going back to San Antonio?
MC
: Mmmhmmm. Mmmmhmmmm.

It’s weird, I was thinking about this the other day. It takes me an hour to drive from one end of San Antonio to the other. It takes the same amount of time it would take just to drive to Austin. I don’t know why I don’t come here more often.

DTC: Where are you working now?
MC
: I am a bank teller right now. It’s a constant battle between ethics and needing to eat. I need to do something and the only things I’m good at is math and comics. None of my coworkers know that I do comics.

DTC: They don’t know what you do?
MC
: I absolutely don’t talk about it.

DTC: Do you have any kind of relationship with them then?
MC
: Well, I mean, I talk to them and everything. It’s not like I’m cold. They just don’t know anything about my personal life. I don’t offer that up.

I think they all think I’m Catholic.

DTC: How’d they get that impression?
MC
: I mean, my mom’s Catholic, I was raised Catholic, and that’s somehow come up. But I never elaborated on “Oh, but this is who I am NOW" ...cause they’d think I was weird, so I just kinda left it at that.

DTC: When did you stop being a Catholic?
MC
: I never was. My mom is.

DTC: Would you consider yourself an Atheist or an Agnostic?
MC
: I call myself an atheist. Amanda [his fiancé] thinks that I’m agnostic. I sorta identify as atheist.

I get that it’s a possibility, and I can’t count that out, because nobody knows. But personally, I doubt it. I don’t believe in any bible.

DTC: When did you start thinking like that?
MC
: When I was a kid. When I was very young. I just kinda didn’t buy it, you know what I mean? It just didn’t make sense to me.

What I do remember is one thing, I remember being in school and learning what Lutherans were. Someone explaining to me as a child, “oh well, the Catholic church was doing this and that and this guy Martin Luther didn’t agree with it, so he put up his own list of rules.” I’m like “Oh, so he just.. made it up? You just get to make it up? Isn’t there some sort of written document of this stuff? You can’t just make this stuff up, right?”

And that right there was a big one.

That actually came up at work recently. Something about lent. It’s lent right now, and my coworkers were saying “Oh, you should give up soda,” or whatever. And one of my managers was saying “oh, one of the Catholic whatevers was saying that you don’t have to do that any more.” And I think “Oh, so they just decided? They just... Okay. That’s cool. We’re all winging it.”

This was the first comic Mitch Clem did for Nothing Nice to Say. He was 18.

DTC: So.. What got you into punk rock? I feel like this is a question you probably get a lot.
MC
: No, I don’t.

DTC: Really?
MC
: No, I actually don’t do interviews. I haven’t done interviews in a couple years, but my friend Liz Prince, she made fun of me. I told her that I don’t do interviews and she made the jackoff motion and stuck her tongue out, and I was like “Really? Is that lame?”

She shamed me into doing them again. That was the day I emailed you back and said alright let’s do this sucker.

DTC: Thank you for agreeing to do it.
MC
: Sure! ...What got me into punkrock? Mighty Mighty Bosstones came out on the radio, and I liked them, and thus I liked ska music, and from there I discovered punk rock through that. I was listening to a lot of ska-punk in the late 90s, mid 90s I guess.

That’s just what around at the time. Then I went from from, you know, Bosstones to Reel Big Fish to Less Than Jake. And then Less Than Jake had the liner notes where they thanked all these bands, and I was sorta vaguely aware of what punk rock was, and I decided to actively seek it out. And I loved it.

This was still pre-internet.

DTC: Back when everything was dancing gifs and midis.
MC
: Yes. The midis. I would go to my mom’s work, with a bunch of floppy disks, and download wave files onto them. Listen to Elastica on the computer.

DTC: Jeez. Floppy disks. It’s staggering now just how little information fit on them.
MC
: It just recently blew my mind, you can now stream Doom on the internet... It used to be, “This is what the computer is doing!”

DTC: So, you’ve mentioned you have a lot of allergies. How’s going to shows? I mean, a lot of time you get a lot of people smoking in confined spaces...
MC
: San Antonio just passed a smoking ban indoors, and that helps. I’ll go to house shows, where people will bring all these dogs, but I recently discovered the magic of Zertec, and no other allergy medicine had ever worked for me, and this one does somehow, and I love it. I’ll take that before I’ll go to a show, for sure.

It’s night and day. I come home from a show, and there’s a lot of places that are Not San Antonio parts of San Antonio, like Hollywood Park and there’s Converse. It doesn’t technically count, even though it’s within San Antonio city limits, so I’ll still go to a bar that has smoking in it. It's insane, I’ll just come home, and I’ll stink and I have to take a shower, and I can’t breath. And it’s insane.

DTC: Any shows you’re looking forward to right now?
MC
: Waxahatche is coming in a couple weeks... There was this show the other night, it was this power violence band. I didn’t even know San Antonio had a power violence scene. They were really good.

That’s the weird thing about the town, all these facets of punk rock are all so separated for some reason.

These bands never wanna play together. Every time I go to a show, it’s the same opening bands. They’re my friends, it’s not like I have a problem with seeing them. But I tried to book a show, where I tried to get a band who shall remain nameless, who sort of ran with a different clique. The idea was like, we’re all into the same shit, why don’t we.... unite right?

It’s cheesy but we’re all one big scene and I book them on a show. They showed up four hours late. They didn’t bring any equipment, and they were like “Uh, should we like... do you still want us to play? Cause there’s a party going on." I’m like “Just fucking go." What a bunch of shit.

I tried to get another band from town, that doesn’t usually roll with the same crowd, to play some shows, and they told me “No, we’re working on an album, so we’re not playing any shows right now” and proceeded to play another show very close to the same day. And I’m like “God forbid somebody who aren’t your friends come out and see you.”

DTC: Yeah. I’ve kinda seen that in a few other cities.
MC
: I would say, San Antonio is a lot more extreme in that aspect than a lot of cities, like there is no cross over. It’s very odd.

DTC: El Paso’s pretty weird. There’s a lot of really angry stuff I hear coming out of there, or was when I left.
MC
: It would be an upsetting town to have to live in, so I could see that.

There was a theory about the midwest, and how they put out all of this really great but aggressive, angry, kind of pop-punk and it was just like, you can’t deal with those brutal winters without being upset.

DTC: I think that’s kinda how you end up with stuff like black metal too.
MC
: Yeah. You’ve got a bunch of sad, angry people, they’re going to make loud, angry music.

And then you’ve got a town like Austin, where everything just pretty cool, so you get a bunch of like, garage bands.

DTC: I listened to the record inside of [Turnstyle Comix #1]
MC
: Oh yeah, the Slow Death.

DTC: Where’re they from again?
MC
: Minneapolis.

DTC: It’s really good.
MC
: Thank you. Well, I mean, I shouldn’t say thank you, I didn’t record it.

DTC: Well, the book’s great too. I especially liked the part where the guy takes his pants all the way off and starts pissing on them.
MC
: Oh sure. Sure. Spoiler alert.

DTC: How’d that project start?
MC
: I had the idea to... I don’t know, there was just a germ. Doing a comic with a record attached to it. I don’t remember how it was that I had the idea like, let’s interview the band, and just turn their tour stories into the comic. I don’t really remember how that came about, but it was sort of this “ah-ha” moment. I called Avi, the guy who does my merch, and I told him this idea. And I explained to him the premise. He was like “Awesome, let’s go”.

DTC: Did you pick the band?
MC
: Avi had come to me with them and said “hey, these guys will do it if you want,” and I liked them. So it was Avi’s idea to go with them, but I was into it. I have a list of bands I want to work with. I’m going to see if I can get these out any faster. Hopefully. I’m working on #2 right now.

DTC: Really? Who is it?
MC
: I can’t tell you. It’s a fun secret. I can tell you that the band has said that they’re doing it on stage several times, and yet “the news” still hasn’t broke. Shows you the level of interest in a project like that. But they’re really great.

DTC: What is your favorite sound?
MC
: Um...a child’s laughter.

You can read Mitch Clem's Nothing Nice to Say at http://www.mitchclem.com/nothingnice/ and check out his blog with other works at http://mitchclem.com/blog/.

Sketches

Anna Grainer, sophmore, is the cartoonist behind "Art Kid," which runs Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Page. She's a wonderful illustrator: her work features fashion-influenced portraits of women, created with ink lines and splashed with color. Her website is http://annagrainer.com/

Comics

Barfwater #1

Edited by Tim Root
44 pages, Black and white
Available by crappycomics@yahoo.com

Cartoonist Tim Root’s cover for “Barfwater #1” is absolutely gorgeous. It grabs the eye with its impeccable design and brilliant use of white space. It’s a wordless, letterpressed illustration executed in olive-marker green and dense goldenrod of a wrinkled old fart, apparently of old fart royalty. Adorned with a hat made from a Joy Divison LP cover and a chain pendant made of a bar of soap, the man is dementedly enjoying a hot, steamy basin bath of goopy, thick up-chuck provided by four older servants.

The cartoonish cover is detailed with flabby old men’s skin and emptied cans of Horton’s chili and Hungry Man soup. And the background is a field of lighting bolts! It’s striking and grotesque, vomit-inducing and utterly, deliriously hilarious.

“Barfwater” isn’t really much of a comic book. It’s more like a zine of comic art. The issue’s high number of contributors (14, including the letterpresser) gives the anthology an infectious level of energy and excitement. Everybody’s here to have fun; you can almost see the goofy grins these guys must have had putting this together.

Californian artist and publisher Tim Goodyear redraws the covers of David Lynch VHS tapes. Illustrator Jim Blanchard contributes a silly faux-woodprint tear-out centerfold of a made-up “Saint Cloris ‘Work-Knockers’ Aldrovandi,” a barfing old woman with goat-man legs and a beatifically ironic halo. Joe Cocker illustrates the lyrics to a Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles song with comic-book apocalypse imagery.

The penultimate page of "Barfwater" works as a sort of unaccredited manifesto. It neatly sums up the spirit found in the issue’s pages with impassioned handwriting. “The word normal is a gross word for unoriginal bullshit ... it takes up too much room. We only want books that make us think or cry.”


 

Elfworld Volume 2 #1 

Edited by François Vigneault
36 pages, Black and white.
Available at family-style.com 

“Elfworld” is an anthology pamphlet of self-described “sword and sorcery comics” put together by San Francisco Bay-area publisher Family Style.

You would be excused for thinking it’s a Sammy Harkham project, with its super-slick hand-printed cover and artsy spin on genre-comics leanings. Actually, “Elfworld” is the brainchild of now Portland-based cartoonist and publisher François Vigneault.

Vigneault, a cartoonist and designer of the ridiculously sophisticated book (it’s a comic book pamphlet with endpapers), recruits the likes of David Enos, Ben Costa and Dash Shaw to create a retrospective; an almost nostalgic reimagining of fantasy tropes and images.

Dash Shaw is quickly becoming the king of short, one- or two-page features in anthologies. The 28-year-old animator and cartoonist told USA Today’s Pop Candy blog that he is working on a feature-length animated movie right now. He has backing from the Sundance Institute and Texas-native John Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Itch” and “Shortbus” fame. Shaw also works on similar short pieces for Mome, Strange Tales and other anthologies in his spare time.

“The Orc of Nagwath” reflects Shaw’s well-documented love for the tabletop game, “Dungeons and Dragons.” Shaw gives us the internal dialogue of a villainous orc moments before he is to be hanged for various unspeakable dastardly deeds. The orc, drawn in Shaw’s signature wrinkle-faced style, waxes touchingly reminiscent of his first murder (“I slaughtered my mother just moments after she gave birth to me. I crawled back inside her holding a knife and cut myself out through her chest.”). A computer-generated crosshatching filter is jokingly applied to the illustration. The two-page strip visually references everything from pulpy genre stories to '50s romance comics and is darkly humorous to boot.

Ben Costa (sharing writing duties with J.R. Parks) pens a delightful four-page story called “A Little Insubordination” that documents two video-game monsters relaxing on their Friday lunch hour. The Xeric Grant-winning Costa is a great cartoonist, gracefully characterizing a lute-playing skeleton and a sentient gelatinous cube with emotive features.

Another highlight is David Enos’ ludicrously-scripted adventure story “The Mute,” which contains lines that would make Nic Cage’s head spin (“No!” cries a nefarious priest. “The preserved bodies of our ancestors are vulnerable to fire!”). The Gary Panter-indebted art fits perfectly with the weird, yet wonderful dialogue.

Other notable contributions include Jane Samborski’s delicate illustrations of “Dragon Mating Dances” and Grant Reynold’s dark, moody “Black Forest Hymn.”
 

Vermont-based cartoonist Joseph Lambert’s “I Will Bite You!” collects eight stories, six of them previously published in minicomics or anthologies sometime between 2006 and 2010.


Most of the pieces in the book are two-color, with “Cavemen” as a beautiful, full-color exception. Drawn with generous brushwork, “Cavemen” shows a prehistoric caveman mourning the tragic death of his best friend. It’s a moving, spiritual story about grief and memory — only, you know, with dinosaurs.


Lambert is probably best known for his 2007 36-page mini, “Turtle Keep It Steady,” which was featured in Linda Barry’s 2008 edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “The Best American Comics” series. The wordless story, in which an aviator-shades-wearing turtle drum-solo battles with a hare dressed like a pirate, is every bit as silly and fun and goofy as you would expect. The two animals vie for the attention of a fickle crowd, the tortoise mean-mugging his steady beat as he goes up against the hare’s downward-sloping, rock-and-roll freakout.


Many of Lambert’s comics deal with young kids and their day-to-day melodramas. The two best pieces in the collection, “Mom Said” and “Too Far,” both feature children doing what they do best: getting into trouble. “Mom Said” tells the all-too-familiar story of an older sibling with sudden responsibilities babysitting his younger brothers, watching and realizing that his childhood is slowly falling away from him. “Too Far” is just too good to spoil, but also deals with broken promises and familial obligation.


“I Will Bite You!” serves as an excellent survey of Lambert’s growth and trajectory as an artist. The newer pieces are much richer with emotional and dramatic texture. This doesn’t feel like a best-of compilation. This feels like the beginning of an excellent carrier. The best is yet to come.

 

Autobiographical series twists cultural icons into neurotically original take

Ever since Toronto-based cartoonist Michael Deforge first burst onto the alt-comics scene in 2009 with “Cold Heat Special #7,” bloggers and critics have hailed him as the next big thing. With the first issue of his annual pamphlet “Lose,” he again proves himself worthy of the hype.

The cover of “Lose #1” is an auto-portrait of the cartoonist, his expression disgruntled and his face a scarred landscape of disintegrated and degenerated images of dripping oil and geometric fractals. This will set the stage for the content within, which is heavily autobiographical, both in theme and execution. The framing narrative of “#1” is the story of Nesbit Lemon, a “guardian elf” who refuses to do the “It’s a Wonderful Life” routine with a depressed cartoonist because of a bureaucratic name mix-up and thus fails to prevent the cartoonist’s eventual suicide. When Nesbit goes to God to complain about the confusion, he is hurled into Cartoon Hell as penitence for his insubordination.

Deforge recently won the 2010 Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent for “Lose #1” at the Toronto Comic Art Festival, an award from a jury of distinguished Canadian artists and critics. Really, it’s no wonder as to why Deforge is a cartoonist’s cartoonist. Operating with an easy slickness that belies his immense talent and skill, Deforge draws from an eclectic mix of influences ranging from serialized newspaper craftsmen like Jim Davis of “Garfield” and Scott Adams of “Dilbert,” to the manga of Rumiko Takahashi and Osamu Tezuka. He even goes as far as name checking alt-comics masters Gary Panter and Matt Groening in an inspired sequence set at a bar in Hell, which features iconic characters like Astro Boy and Dick Tracy puking as they lose relevance and meaning in today’s throwaway culture.

Deforge’s mastery over their iconography allows him to twist and distort these pop-culture touchstones through his own personal neurosis. At one point, characters like Garfield and Cathy literally spill their guts like a ruptured Christmas Day Macy’s Parade balloon, the air — and entrails — gushing out of their hollow shells. A show-stopping Calvin and Hobbes nod will take your breath away, not only in its flawless execution but also in its grinning-doofus sincerity.

A stream-of-consciousness roller coaster ride through Deforge’s vibrant imagination, “Lose #1” is beautifully done. It says, with a deft and steady hand, to watch out and take notice. The second issue of “Lose” has since come out, a departure from the stream-of-consciousness style of the first issue to a more focused narrative about schoolyard loneliness and alien invasions.

Grade: A

All of Michael Deforge’s work can be found on his website at www.kingtrash.com. Lose, both the first and the new second issue, can be purchased through www.AdHouseBooks.com. More work from the publisher can be found at Koyama Press, www.koyamapress.com.