Rob Kirby Interviews Max Clotfelter

Max Clotfelter's comics represent a missing link between the punk-fueled underground comics of the eighties and the spikier corners of the present more "respectable" graphic novels scene. Clotfelter writes and draws from the dark side, with a certain bewildered sweetness and the bracing honesty borne of a true outsider. His comics make me laugh out loud, often while wincing in empathy or delighted horror. Whether describing the agonies of adolescence, delineating the lives of grungy street people or spinning out into the ether with more abstract visions, Clotfelter remains a vital figure in the modern Seattle comics scene. He graciously agreed to answer me some questions in the last few weeks, the results of which I now transmit to you.  

Rob Kirby: Can you tell me where you're from, and how that may or may not have contributed to your vocation as a cartoonist? Basically, I want your origin story.

Max Clotfelter: I was born in Marietta, Georgia in 1978. My mom was an elementary school teacher and my dad worked a variety of jobs ranging from some kind of "supervisor" position on an assembly line at Lockheed to owning liquor stores. A really basic middle-class upbringing.

Growing up, I always felt naturally attracted to drawing, but I was never very good at it. I never did any illustrations for the yearbooks and my work was never chosen for any of the county scholastic art shows. I just had a compulsion to draw whatever I felt like, and never cared whether I improved or not. I also read a bunch of comics and would redraw images created by my favorite artists. So eventually that impulse to draw single images developed into drawing comics.

Also, I sucked at sports and I was a weirdo loser outcast. Marietta was a strange little town. Lots of old southern values, lots of churches and lots of athletics, and I was pretty much on the bottom of the social ladder. Drawing the most disturbing stuff I could imagine became a way for me to reach out and beg for attention, and it kind’ve worked. By the 8th grade I was creating these filthy transgressive comics. I'd show them to kids in the hallways and pass them around in class. At one point a teacher found a notebook filled with about 150 comic strips and I was immediately suspended from school and required to go through a full psychiatric evaluation (My mom showed me notes from the evaluation years later and I guess there had been fears that I was illustrating demonic hallucinations.)

But ultimately they sent me back to school and told me not to draw unless it was G-rated. (I disobeyed this of course - only from then on I only drew on loose leaf sheets of paper, instead of filling an entire notebook. “The Notebook," btw, was never returned to me and I still think about it often).

Anyway, in my senior year of high school I tried taking art classes again and did a little better. I still had no understanding of simple concepts like color theory, perspective, or light & shadow. I was an underachiever who approached art with the same inhibition that also kept me from doing anything well in life. 

Kirby: Tell me about your influences.

Clotfelter: I always remember trying to read newspaper comic strips. Peanuts was great, but Garfield was the Boss. Then I became a fan of Mad Magazine when my mom would sit me at the newsstand at the grocery store while she did her shopping. My favorite artist in Mad was Sergio Aragones, and I found out he had a monthly comic called Groo. So that was the first comic I started collecting. My dad enjoyed taking my brother and me out and supporting our baseball card and comic book hobbies. We'd always be driving around looking for new shops and going to conventions on Sundays. Atlanta had some pretty serious comic stores and I got heavy into collecting by the time I was 11.

Larry Hama's writing for G.I. Joe was great. I tried to pick that up every month. I collected all of the Punisher comics, especially anything with artwork by Mike Zeck (who drew a bunch of G.I. Joe covers) and Jim Lee. I was a total Rambo nut at the time, obsessed with guns and knives and running around in the woods hacking at trees with a machete, totally locked in this isolated fantasy word inspired by action movies, comics and toys. I was painfully aware of how everyone around me was transitioning into adolescence. My parents had to be a little concerned, but didn't know what to do. I was stockpiling bb guns, cammo gear and martial arts weapons at a rapid pace. Eventually though, I just trashed it all and became completely obsessed with comics.

Once all my attention was focused on comics it began influencing my drawing. I started picking up anything by Sam Kieth, especially his Wolverine comics in Marvel Comics Presents. They were so loose and the wide-open panel compositions were unlike any I had ever seen. I started tracing his art a lot. I was also tracing a lot of Arthur Adams and Todd McFarlane. Simon Bisley's Lobo comics became my biggest influence up until that point, with his super-violent, detailed art. The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (where Lobo is hired to kill Santa Claus) inspired me to start drawing my own violent and horrible comics at school.

The Lobo comic had a "Mature Audiences Only" label on it, so I went back to the comic shop looking for anything else with the same label. That's when I started picking up any black and white alternative/underground comic that I could find. Stuff like Nina Paley, J.R Williams, Heavy Metal and trashy, hyper-violent Texas Chainsaw Massacre comics.

I was reading Wizard Magazine cover-to-cover every month - they had a column dedicated to alternative comics, and that informed my tastes as I got into high school. I called all the shops in town trying to find one that carried Pete Bagge's Hate and had my dad take me to go buy The Bradleys and Hey, Buddy! It was the funniest shit I had ever read. I also found some Eightball and Love & Rockets collections at a thrift store, and I remember not even understanding them at first. I remember my mom being annoyed at how loud I was laughing at Clowes' Lout Rampage while she was trying to drive on the interstate. The humor was so sarcastic and mean, it felt like I was in on something that nobody around me understood. I was also reading fantasy/adventure stuff like Sandman, Grendel, Nexus and Madman, totally getting lost in it all and obsessing over the worlds they had created. I started trying to develop my own stories and cast of characters, but it was all horrible.

Around this time I got a driver’s license started hanging out at a comic shop every day after school. The three clerks were the only adults who I could show my drawings to and they totally encouraged me to push it to the limit. The weirder and more deranged the better. We would smoke cigarettes and talk about Tarantino and Kevin Smith and listen to college radio for hours (They were always smoking weed, but I was too scared to partake). They couldn't believe I had never heard of Crumb and gave me a copy of Zapp #0. That was a pretty big deal. One of these guys was Shane from my Tablegeddon comic.

The shop went out of business my senior year of High School. This is also about the time I learned how to make a minicomic from an issue of Too Much Coffee Man. I printed my first mini on a run-down gas station photocopier four months before graduation. The cover was a swipe of the cover to Zapp #0. It was pretty thrilling to be able to make my own little comic. 

Kirby: I really relate to all that that – being interested in everything, all kinds of comics, picking up by osmosis all the disparate elements that would eventually coalesce into my style (as it were). That's so funny that you got into Peter Bagge's comics. I've been convinced all along that you would have totally been a contributor to Weirdo during his tenure as editor, had you not been, you know, a toddler at the time!

Clotfelter: Oh Yeah: Weirdo, Real Stuff, Snake Eyes, Zero Zero. I always dreamed of being in one of those anthologies. 

Kirby: Tell me about going to School of Art and Design at Savannah (SCAD) (from 1997-2002). Was this successful for you? Did you specifically learn comics or was the program more broad-based?

Clotfelter: It was crazy going to art school. I had never really been around other people my age who took art seriously (or even made art!). The first thing I noticed was how far behind I was compared to the really talented people there. I had no education in art history. I had never painted with anything but watercolor. I had never used Photoshop. I didn't even have an email address. So I struggled really hard through the first year of foundation classes, but once I made it into the Sequential Art program I had a blast! My comic drawing continued to slowly develop and I made a bunch of great friends who really inspired me to work harder.

Also, all of the professors in the department were nuts. It's like they knew we were the outcast department of this big school, so there was this informal demeanor to the way they taught. Some days James Sturm would bring his dog to class for life drawing, or maybe the next day his friend Ed Brubraker would show up unannounced and rip us all to shreds in a critique. One time James found some crazy old character around town and had him sit for us in class for 3 hours to interview and then turn it into a comic. Another professor, Bob Pendarvis, would have people show up to class in costumes or go on hour-long monologues about mysterious vending machines he wanted to place around the city. All of it created this really creative environment.

Kirby: Oh my god, that all sounds so awesome! You’d at last found your niche. I hope you put some of these experiences into comics already; in fact, there’s your first graphic novel, right there, starring a supporting cast of alt-comics weirdos! So what happened after you graduated, what was your trajectory?

Clotfelter: I graduated from school, got a shitty job and kept making mini-comics. I ended up back in my hometown, which was kind of grim. But luckily I moved into a house with some outsider musicians who had found themselves stranded in Georgia. I was also really inspired by a John Porcellino interview in The Comics Journal. So the goal at that point was to make zines, send them to as many people as possible, do some anthology stuff and just be a part of a community. I went to SPX a few times and gave out a bunch of comics. Danny Hellman asked me to contribute to Legal Action Comics as a result of that. And USS Catastrophe was selling my mini-comics online.

A good college friend, Aaron Mew, had moved back to Hawaii and started an anthology with his old friend Kazimir Strzepek called Paper Cuts Machine. I contributed a few pages to that, which also featured Liz Prince, Ken Dahl and Kelly Froh. I remember reading it and asking Aaron more about Kelly. And apparently she had asked him about me. She lived in Vancouver B.C. and pretty soon we were writing lots of letters back and forth. 

Kirby: What was it about Kelly’s work that attracted you? Did you think her cartoon alter ego was cute?

Clotfelter: Ha...Um, what stuck out to me was how personal and honest it was. The first comic of hers i read was about an embarrassing crush on a college professor, and she told the story with a really down to earth sense of humor. 

Kirby: Funny you should say that, because the first work of yours I ever saw was in the mini-masterpiece Stew Brew #3, the split-zine in which you and Kelly traded off comics about your respective childhood experiences with television. I was really impressed with the brutal honesty of your comics in there (and in subsequent work of yours I’ve seen). You took these really painful, lonely experiences and made them really funny, in an unsparing sort of fashion. Does this come naturally to you? Did you always draw autobio comics or did you start out in a different direction?

Clotfelter: I've always juggled a bunch of different styles of comics. There are plenty of autobio stories, and a lot of cornball gag strips. But there are also the conspiracy-themed comics and some hallucinogenic pantomime stuff. I've just tried to create as many assorted cast members as possible, so that I can utilize whichever character best fits the story I want to tell.  Sometimes it's a banjo-playing rat or a mutated latchkey kid, and other times it's just a caricature of myself.

As for the themes, I've always tended to steer my comics toward the rougher elements of life. So if I'm doing something that's autobio, it's probably going to be a pretty dark or embarrassing moment. But I think that also helps the nice moments look even better in contrast! 

Kirby: Yes, I've seen some non-autobio work of yours in tabloid anthologies like Pork & Intruder, and I loved that surreal pantomime piece reprinted in Treasury of Mini Comics Volume One from Fantagraphics last year. I get the sense you really like publishing in anthologies, collaborating with others, participating in drawing events, collectives, etc. Can you talk about these experiences a little bit? Are you at heart, you know, a PEOPLE PERSON?

Clotfelter: A lot of the anthology stuff suits me well because I'm more of a short story guy than a graphic novelist. Plus, all the individual deadlines keep me on point because I can be very easily distracted when I'm just working on my own stuff. I also get a big thrill out of being in anthologies with a bunch of people whose comics I love! I remember emailing Sean at Pork and begging him to publish my comics just so I could be in the same magazine as Bobby Madness, Tim Root and Tim Goodyear. Since there's so little financial reward involved in all of this, I feel like I need the community of friends and anthologies to help make it all worth it. Maybe one day I'll collect all the anthology stuff into a big fancy book, or I'll attempt a graphic novel, but right now I really just don't have the desire. I'd rather just get my Not My Small Diary pages finished!

There's also something really important about the community aspect of comics, jamming and anthologies on a local level. I'm really lucky to be living in Seattle with so many great artists. I keep a list of the people I meet in the city who identify as comic artists and/or illustrators and number is nearing 300. I belong to a collective of friends who self-publish a quarterly comics newspaper the Intruder. We all split the printing costs and Marc Palm donates time to do all the production work, so we're able to give it away for free! Belonging to that has been huge because we're all really supportive of each other and we've used our strength as a group to achieve some pretty cool goals like gallery shows and release parties. It's also really great to have a group of folks you can hang out with, talk shop, and pass around a jam comic.

Seattle's got so much happening right now. Short Run keeps attracting more attendees every year, it seems unreal that 1,850 people were interested enough in comics to show up and buy little handmade books from all of the exhibitors. Larry Reid does a great job of booking events at the Fantagraphics shop, which in turn provides a consistent hub of comic networking. There are lots of new publishers, distros and markets popping up all the time. And I'm still organizing the Dune night every month, which just hit the two-year mark. It's like everyone's taken on a unique task that collectively benefits the entire community. All with - up until this point - very little drama!

Kirby: That’s really wonderful to hear. It sounds as if you’ve really found your place, your home. Before we wrap up, it is time once again for The Totally Random Stupid Question™! Max Clotfelter, can you reveal to us now a special hidden talent of yours, heretofore unknown to your general audience?

Clotfelter: I'm a meticulous list maker and note taker. I've got nearly 400 little books full of notes I've kept over the past 12 years. Plus I'm really into going to concerts and I've maintained a detailed list of every one I've ever gone to. (1,000+ and counting!)

Kirby: Color me impressed, Meticulous Note Taking is a highly underrated talent. Finally, what is coming up next from you in 2015? Any reveals?

Clotfelter: I've got a few things cooking in 2015. I'm gonna continue drawing Hobot strips for Pork and the Wiregrass Enforcer. The next Intruder is scheduled to come out in mid-February. I've got a few pages in the next issue of Kroger Kromix! Last Gasp is publishing a brand-new book full of Dennis Eichhorn comics and I've got 6 pages in that. I'm also hoping to hit the road and do some tabling in Portland and LA. with my bud Tom Van Deusen, so I'll definitely have some new zines ready for those shows. So maybe I'll see you out and we can do some trading!

Thanks much to Max for taking the time to talk with me! I encourage all interested parties to seek out more of his work, either in person at the places mentioned above, or  at his website:

Until next time, have a good holiday, and we’ll see you in the New Year for more scintillating conversations with cartoonists who will, you know, will scintillate you. Rob K.

Images above: 1. Max himself; 2. Comic from Meat #1; 3. Excerpt from Tablegeddon; 4. Comic from Stewbrew #3; 4. Comic from Custard Record #1; 5. Excerpt from Not My Small Diary #17; 6. Comic from Ghost House Anthology #3; 7. The artist in full-fledged tabling mode. All images © by Max Clotfelter.