“What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man.”
That’s a tagline for Marvel’s new animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” nominated Thursday for a Golden Globe and hitting theaters next Friday. But for artist Jim Mahfood, what makes him “different” is also what got him hired as a character designer on the film.
“I’m taking influences from American comic books, graffiti art, anime and psychedelic ’60s imagery, then meshing them into my own aesthetic,” says Mahfood, who launched his professional career while attending the Kansas City Art Institute.
“I’m really trying to do something different that looks very kinetic and energized.”
Mahfood proved an ideal fit to help develop the stylized look of “Into the Spider-Verse.” The movie introduces Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a nerdy half black/half Puerto Rican middle-schooler who gains powers similar to Spider-Man’s, aka Peter Parker. The story is told through an innovative mix of techniques designed to capture the feel of a comic book, from split panels and word balloons to occasional blurred lines meant to simulate common printing errors.
The picture already earned best animated film honors from the New York Film Critics Circle.
“I usually get hired on at the very beginning stage to go crazy and draw the weirdest stuff I can,” says Mahfood, who is currently based in Portland, Ore. “Then the people from the studio take bits and pieces from what I’m doing and incorporate it into final designs. But my style’s so weird — so bugged out — that I’m never used as a final character designer.”
Mahfood was brought on to the film by Emmy-winning animator Mike Moon, with whom he’d developed a project at Disney. (Their original series got axed once Disney bought Marvel.)
“Mike called and asked me to do some tryout drawings of Spider-Man, but I wasn’t sure what it was for,” Mahfood recalls of a secretive process that began in 2015.
“They kept hiring me back. I’d do Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Peter Parker. Then they’d say, ‘Can you do more?’ They eventually gave me the list of all the villains and other supporting characters. Because they’re doing this whole spider-verse thing, they’re cramming in so many characters into the movie, … like this pig guy called Spider-Ham who exists in an all-animal reality.”
But the film’s other tagline also applies to how Mahfood’s contribution was incorporated: “Enter a universe where more than one wears the mask.”
“They’re probably hiring me and 20 other people to turn in crazy concepts and character designs. Then they tack those to a big wall and Frankenstein it together into a final design,” he says.
Mahfood admits that whenever he’s involved with features or animation, the end product is an amalgamation; it’s never entirely his vision. However, Mahfood’s idiosyncratic and prolific comic book career has offered him far more creative control of his own work.
In addition to illustrating numerous wall-crawler titles such as “Spider-Man’s Tangled Web,” “Spectacular Spider-Man” and “Ultimate Marvel Team-Up,” Mahfood bolstered his national reputation as the primary artist on filmmaker Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” comics.
Currently, he’s working on his own series for Image Comics called Grrl Scouts. (It’s based on a concept he began self-publishing while a student in KC.) He describes it as being about “three girls who deal weed and go on psychedelic adventures.”
He concedes the comic is very much inspired by a revered British publication.
“I started my comic because I was obsessed with Tank Girl comics in the ’90s. Now I’ve become one of the new artists on it, which is like this full-circle thing,” he says.
This further elevates his status as a go-to artist whenever “bizarre, comedy-based issues” are needed.
“(Jim) is one of the most unique and distinctive voices in comics and has been from day one,” says veteran artist/creator Skottie Young (Deadpool, Rocket Raccoon).
“His lines are so distinctly Jim that it’s impossible to mistake him for anyone else. He sees the world and filters it through his crazy brain and relays back on paper with lines and shapes that no one else on earth could do.”
Young — who recently relocated to KC from Illinois — first teamed with Mahfood on Marvel’s Howard the Human, a reverse take on the classic character Howard the Duck.
“No other person could have drawn that issue. He embraced it instantly and brought that wacky-ass story to life in the best ways,” Young says. “I hope Jim makes comics for the rest of both of our lives.”
A St. Louis native, Mahfood headed to KC in the early ’90s to attend KCAI — where he says he was surrounded by “serious talent.”
The 43-year-old says his own work has changed dramatically since graduating college.
“When I was in school, I was doing a much flatter, simpler, cartoony look. Now it’s expanded because I’ve learned how to draw more. The skills have improved over time through experimentation and just doing it as a job for 20 years. I’m basically penciling, inking, painting and coloring my own stuff at this point. I’ve managed to craft a brand around that style.”
He also picked up a nickname in Kansas City that became his personal trademark.
“In the ’80s, one of my cousins had this incredible black Trans Am Firebird,” he remembers. “He had a custom license plate that said ‘Food One.’ As a kid, I thought that was the coolest, toughest thing. I took that and used it for my art signature and alias.”
Mahfood/Food One left KC in 1997 and moved to Tempe, Ariz. — more on account of a woman than professional considerations. In 2002, he headed to Los Angeles, where he resided until earlier this year upon realizing he needed a break from the metropolis. Now he’s renting a friend’s house in Portland with no concrete plans of returning to L.A.
Besides his comic-related projects, Mahfood has amassed an eclectic assortment of artistic gigs. Highlights include: painting the backgrounds of the coffee shop on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” drawing the “Star Wars” map featured in the movie “Fanboys” and illustrating the Kickpuncher comic book included in the Season 1 DVD of NBC’s “Community.”
But his most oddball contribution involved conceiving the artwork for a Colt 45 malt liquor ad campaign.
“It was bizarre because something I had drawn 11-by-17 inches on my table in my studio in L.A. was blown up to the side of a beer truck. Friends of mine in Chicago and Brooklyn would send me photos of the beer trucks in their neighborhoods,” he says.
Now Mahfood’s work will be displayed on even bigger canvases thanks to “Into the Spider-Verse.”
“I grew up reading all the Marvel stuff. I still love superhero comics, even though what I write and draw is not that sensibility at all,” he says.
“My career has led me into these weird areas I never would have predicted. I love the unpredictability of it.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”