Mitch Clem. You know him, most of you love him, and he's one of the premiere punk rock comics writers today. After penning the punx-satire strip Nothing Nice to Say, he shifted over to more autobiographical, revealing strips, including the recurring My Stupid Life.
Lately, Clem has been working on direct-to-print work, and focusing on issues both inside and outside the punk rock world. Because Clem has a bunch of stuff coming out, features editor John Gentile spoke with him about his influences, his current work, and THA HATERZ.
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What got you interested in the visual arts? Did you receive formal training?
I haven't received any formal training outside of, you know, art class in school. I was always drawing ever since I was a kid and was at least initially fixated on newspaper strips, which had been my "when I grow up I wanna be" go-to as a child. So my education was really just collecting books of those strips and reading them a lot and them sort of naturally influencing my drawings.
Your art has really improved over the past few years. How did you improve your technique?
Thank you, that's nice of you to say. Really, the tricks are two-fold: First, draw constantly. Like, all the time, every day. I started Nothing Nice to Say in early 2002, which was, initially at least, a three-times-weekly strip. So I had to, no matter what, draw at least three comics a week. And then I bounced around from that to other webcomics, all the while just naturally practicing and practicing more and more simply by having to do it all the time.
It's that 10,000 hours thing like in Outliers. The key to getting decent at something is really just to do it all the time. The other trick is that I am constantly making a conscious effort to improve my art. I look at art other people do and see what I do or do not like about it and take that to heart. I read other peoples' comics or stories or watch TV shows and movies and am very conscious about what I think works and what doesn't and I try and keep that all in mind whenever I'm drawing or writing.
Basically I'm already predisposed to over-analyzing absolutely everything in front of me, so channeling that into how I approach my own stuff seems like a fairly constructive way to channel that particular psychosis. So yeah, in short, I guess it's not really a secret formula, all this. Just drawing all the time and being conscious about trying to improve. Practice practice practice!
I see touches of comic book art in your work, but also early cartoons like Fleischer and even Looney Tunes. What do you see as your biggest influences?
Haha, that's funny. Looney Tunes was a HUGE influence when I was a kid. I used to draw comics of, you know, anvils falling on people's heads and shit. Reiterating the thing I said about newspaper strips, perhaps, I'd say the biggest influence was Bill Watterson, probably?
In terms of an artist, I was really inspired by whose influence can clearly be seen in my work, especially earlier Nothing Nice to Say. It's hard to say, anymore, because, where earlier in my "career" I do think that I was directly influenced by stuff that inspired me, more recently I feel like I've been exploring just my own personal voice, trying to tell stories that are really specific to me and my life, and learning through how people perceive that material about what type of sharing really resonates with other people and what comes off as self-indulgent. Which brings me to another huge influence of mine: Aaron Cometbus. That guy is just thoroughly amazing. The more autobiographical my comics have become, the more I've looked to his zines as inspiration for telling my own stories.
You've stated that you are basically done with Nothing Nice to Say. Why do you think people keep demanding more of it, and also, why do you think it was so meaningful to readers?
When I had started the comic a million years ago, the concept struck me as a revelation. I know I wasn't the first person to combine my passions for both punk rock and comics, but I personally hadn't read any comics about punk rock, so the idea seemed to me at the time to be totally revolutionary. And, at least to me as a writer and artist, it was. And I think it was to a lot of other people out there who also loved punk rock just like me, and who found the comic filled a void they didn't know was there. I mean, the thing got insanely huge immediately and I don't know that I can take all the credit in terms of "oh, people loved it because I'm such a good writer." I think people just like jokes about punk rock and this was, to them and to me, at least, a unique approach to that field.
At this point, though, I feel like I've said all I have to say on the matter and would prefer to just write about stuff that I'm really compelled to write about. Sometimes, when you have a long-running project like that, it feels like you're stagnating or forcing your creativity in a way which is super unfulfilling. You can tell the periods where I was really bored with Nothing Nice because the comics are absolutely awful. Bad, poorly constructed non-jokes, ugly, sloppy art… I don't want to do that, I don't want to tread water in a project that I can't find the inspiration to really love and be passionate about.
So, Nothing Nice is best left as a project I did in the past that I can look back and be proud of. Let someone else make comics about punk rock now. People obviously dig the format, and someone younger and newer is gonna have way more fun with it, which is gonna resonate through their art. If people miss Nothing Nice, they should go read Orful Comics, that dude is amazing.
You had an older strip called San Antonio Rock City that was a very personal autobiographical strip -- perhaps even more personal than My Stupid Life. Was it hard to be that open? Did you ever get yourself into trouble by revealing so much personal stuff?
You know what, that's a solid question. No, I never had any sort of hang-ups about putting myself out there, UNTIL, and I probably shouldn't even talk about this online, but until I started My Stupid Life, which was my second stab at autobiographical cartooning. It was basically the exact same comic except I was dating someone different. That someone, of course, being Amanda, who I'm still with.
Now, in the past, I couldn't tell you whether anyone in my family had ever seen anything I'd written, comic-wise. And, frankly, why the hell would they? Nothing Nice wasn't for them at all, right? And so, without that hang-up of being afraid to speak openly in front of my parents, I was fortunate enough to feel totally free in my writing to just say and do whatever the hell I wanted.
However, once I started dating Amanda and started My Stupid Life, all of the sudden HER mom started reading my comics. And getting fucking ANGRY about them. Like, for instance, I made a joke one time about how, when you buy something at a store and they forget to deactivate the alarm tag or whatever, and so you walk out and the alarm goes off and the cashier just waves you through, like don't worry about it? And the joke was, "Oh man, we totally coulda just stolen a bunch of stuff." Whatever, dumb joke, who cares. Her mom got so mad, "Oh, so you two are shoplifters, is that it? You're a criminal now?" And on and on, every time I'd write a comic it was a point of contention with her. And, very quickly, I had to start censoring myself for the first time, which was absolutely maddening.
I wasn't free to express myself, I was now subordinate to Amanda's mom's taste in autobiographical comic strips. I wrote so many jokes that I thought were so funny and so out there that Amanda wouldn't let me put up online because she didn't want to deal with the fallout from her mother. And so again I found myself stagnating as an artist.
That was actually a pretty rough time, creatively, being kept at bay because one fifty-year-old woman who already didn't like me ANYWAY had control over what I said. That's a big part of the reason why I've turned from the Internet and am now focusing on direct-to-print comics: Because her mom isn't gonna go buy one of my BOOKS, so now I'm safe to open up and be myself. And now I'm almost overwhelmed with that previously unattainable freedom to say whatever I want and to open up about the darkest and most embarrassing things I could possibly say.
I'm thinking about starting a new zine, long-form autobiographical comics. The only problem I've had so far is deciding if and when to ever hold back. Which, all things considered, is a pretty good problem to have.
You briefly had a strip about kittens which was outside the realm of the topics that you usually cover. Can you tell us about the idea behind that strip?
Oh my god, Kittens. I thought it would be funny to have a comic that was just kittens playing. No plot, no characters, really, just only kittens frolicking around and being adorable. I stopped doing it right away because I am terrible at drawing animals, and now it's the project the most people jokingly request I bring back. The problem now, though, is that's no longer a unique concept, there literally actually ARE comics that are just kittens playing. Didn't Jeffery Brown put out an entire book of them a couple years ago? So yeah, the idea was that it was a stupid idea, but apparently stupid is pretty marketable nowadays.
How do you see punk rock and the visual arts intersecting?
Obviously they've always existed hand-in-hand. I mean, a huge chunk of what punk was when it first happened was a visual aesthetic. And, even beyond the fashion trend of it -- which irritating people always like to point to to try and discredit the movement -- was the cut-and-paste album art, the sort of pop art and postmodernism-influenced stuff.
Look at old 7-inch covers from the late 70s. They're fucking amazing. So yeah, art has always been a part of punk rock, even if the emphasis has ebbed and waned over the years, it's still a big part of it. Look at a Modern Life is War LP, like the cover, the gatefold, the vinyl itself -- that's art, man. And beautiful art at that. So via album art, which I suppose is a bit of an obvious answer. Through comics a lot too, especially lately. There are so many amazing artists out there centered in and around the punk scene putting out such spectacular comics about themselves or about the scene, or about both, it's really stellar.
You usually seem very excited about punk rock -- but it also seems that you are quite surrounded by the culture. Have you ever been burnt out by punk rock?
Hmâ?¦ I mean, I guess maybe here and there? I don't think I've ever been like, "I hate punk rock now, I'm gonna go join the Army!" But I go through periods of listening to different stuff. I don't even primarily listen to punk music, really. I listen to a lot of weepy indie rock garbage and hip hop too. Punk shows are just the most fun, and there never stopped being a shortage of awesome punk music coming out, so there's nothing really to be burned out about. Plus I'm not religious, so I need SOME kinda group to identify with. Might as well be the ones who won't judge me for being a dirt-poor thirty-one-year-old cartoonist.
You've done a lot of work directly with bands through flyers and the amazing Turnstile Comix series. What was a particularly memorable collaboration for you?
Well, there was the thrill of getting to do art for really huge name-drop-y artists like Green Day and Andrew WK. There's this weird, silly thrill where someone says, "Hey, you wanna do a flyer for this Screeching Weasel show?" and you go "Oh my god, they were my favorite in high school! Awesome!"
But, when you think about it, it's a fucking flyer, like, who cares? It's so disposable. But I get a charge out of it. Other than that, the newest Turnstile I've been working on for over a year now is with Lemuria, and I feel like it's come out really, really funny. I wish I could get my shit together enough to finally finish it because I think people are gonna get a charge out of it. Plus Lemuria is just such a stellar band, I love them.
You love the pop punk. What can be said about a thirty-plus-year-old man that enjoys music about going on dates to the pizza parlor?
Wait, RVIVR and the Crusades don't sing about pizza places! Although that might be kind of amazing if they did. We should organize like a split 7-inch! Crusades can tie the history of pizza in to Satanism, somehow, and RVIVR can talk about why pizza is offensive. I love it. But no, I don't know if I listen to that much really bubble-gummy stuff if that's what you're thinking. Do I? I guess I've got Mr. T Experience on my iPod right now, maybe there's no defending myself. But lately it's been all Crusades and RVIVR and Meat Wave and Nona and the Spits and ALL. Meat Wave is amazing, by the way. Make everyone on Punknews listen to them, work some magic.
Have you ever had to deal with unauthorized usage of your work? If so, what did you do?
Nah, not me. Amanda's the one who's getting ripped off by assholes on Tumblr and Reddit all the time. She won't post art online anymore, for real. If you ask her if she's thought of putting art up online, the mere mention of it literally makes her cry. Some dumb woman stole this design she did of this sloth, right? Amanda drew it and was making shirts and this woman saw it and ripped it off completely and started selling shirts and iPhone cases and shit.
And then, after Amanda called her out, she actually went up to Amanda when we were at SPX last year to try and make Amanda feel bad! For real, it was fucking INSANE.
So yeah. There's been more than that, but those were the last straws, I guess. She still gets messages and emails every week telling her that she sucks because people were mad that she tried to defend herself against plagiarism. Now she barely draws anymore. It really sucks. The Internet is assholes.
In NN2S strips, you had "punx" critics that would insult your work. Have you ever had a critic say something to you in person?
Oh dude, the best is when people come up to you at cons and pick up a book and go, "Hey, I really loved this!" and I say, "Oh, thank you," and they say, "Yeah, I always hated Nothing Nice to Say, but this one's really good actually!" That's about as severe as it gets anymore. And, really, that's just people not knowing how to compose themselves in polite company, which I can totally empathize with.
It wouldn't be fair for me to get angry and be like, "You know you just insulted me you dumb shit?" because I say the wrong thing and make an ass out of myself ALL THE TIME, so who the hell am I to judge? Hell, this very interview I expect a pretty overwhelming negative response to my personality. But no, the hate mail has died down considerably, for which I mostly blame the fact that I'm not Internet Famous anymore. So it goes.
What do you have in the works?
The third issue of As You Were, the punk comics anthology that I curate, should be out by the spring. That one is seriously the best issue yet, no lie. The submissions that I got were just soooooo incredible. Cathy G. Johnson joined the team and Lauren Monger, and their comics are just so great I can't even believe it. And Jim Kettner is back and his comic is also just a real powerful standout. And lots more, I mean, it's just overall, I'm really super proud of everyone's stuff and so stoked to put this one out, it's amazing.
Beyond that, OH, in March I'm putting out a split with Ben Snakepit, it's gonna be a return to the old-school comedy strip format of My Stupid Life. I did a daily strip the last three months of 2013 and so Snakepit and I are putting both of our daily strips together as a split and it's gonna be awesome, some of the jokes are pretty funny. And, since it's straight-to-print I got to overshare about some drama I couldn't otherwise broach online.
Any last comments?
Listen to Meat Wave's self-titled album. And Bullfighter by Wringer. And buy my books and stop being a dick to Amanda. That's it! Thanks!