Interview with Mitch Clem: Contributor Interview #3 By Lauren Trout

Jan 11, 2009

Mitch Clem
San Antonio, TX
Razorcake Columnist/ Illustrator

Lauren: Mitch; as you get older, are you feeling burnt out on punk rock, or more excited about being involved with it? What would your 15 year old self think of you?

Mitch: I’m certainly not burnt out on it. I hear a lot from people who are, though, or from people who completely immersed themselves in the “lifestyle” in their younger years, only to rebel against their own rebellion as they got older. I was lucky enough to grow rationally, to recognize as I aged and as my values changed, that punk rock wasn’t a strict set of rules meant to be enforced. Punk rock, to me, anyhow, was just about individuality, and about expression, and about having a good time. Call it what you want.
My punk rock idol when I was a teenager was Aaron Cometbus. It was through his zine that I discovered the world of self-publishing, and it was through his zine that I was inspired to start a zine of my own when I was in high school, and to keep at it for years until switching gears and starting a comic, which has now been going strong for nearly seven years. Punk rock made me the man I am today.
But I can see how people get bored with it, even beyond not realizing that punk rock isn’t necessarily all about anarchy and hating your parents. People’s musical tastes seem to stagnate around their early 20s, and people who once found great pleasure in discovering and obsessing over new bands and new sounds find themselves prioritizing music less and less, until it’s just a couple preset stations on satellite radio to them, background noise and nothing else. Or even the people who still primarily enjoy punk rock, they like the same bands they liked in high school and that’s that. They say “punk is dead” and tell you all about how there’s no good bands anymore.
But that’s just it. There are. There are all kinds of good bands anymore. There are times when patience wears thin and it’s harder to force oneself to give a shit enough to really seek them out, but there’s always that “holy shit!” band waiting around the corner of every musical depression waiting to reinvigorate your taste for punk rock all over again.

Lauren: How would you describe your artistic aesthetic and how is it influenced by punk rock?

Mitch: Man, I don’t know how to describe my aesthetic. That’s like when you play in a band and people ask you what you sound like. I don’t know. I’ve stared at my stuff for so long that I just don’t know. It’s influenced by punk rock in that I make comics about punk rock stuff? Man, tough question to be number two. After I rambled for a year on that first question I feel like anything else I write isn’t gonna measure up. Not like anyone’s reading this far in anyhow…

Lauren: Pop punk, in particular, seems to be your kind of music. Tell me how you feel about the current crop of bands that are playing that style of music and any band in particular that you think stands out from all of the mid-‘90s imitators.

Mitch: Yeah, I like pop punk. People used to give me shit for that, too. When I was like seventeen and first started living on my own up in Duluth, there was this punk rock clique in town, basically the only people who listened to punk rock to any extent all were friends with one another, and they did not like me at all. I got made fun of for wearing Screeching Weasel shirts. Don’t ask me why, because they all thought Cadillac Blindside were great. But everyone up there’s favorite band was Hot Water Music, and, I guess in reaction to how much I hated that clique, I decided I hated Hot Water Music too. And I held onto that for a long time. HWM was music for people who made fun of people for liking Screeching Weasel. Eventually I got over that, of course. I moved to a different town and then HWM started putting out good records.
God, tangent. What was the question? Pop punk. Yeah, there’s good and bad right now. As with always, some people want to homogenize everything, they want pop punk to sound like this and all the songs have to be about girls and the lyrics have to be nasal and the guitars have to be all down strokes (like Johnny Ramone, dude), etc. When the Lookout sound was ruling the land, my favorite pop punk bands were the ones who would fuck with the standards and make music that was as fresh and exciting as it was catchy and fun. My favorites back then were Sinkhole, Cletus, Apocalypse Hoboken, Scared of Chaka, Boris the Sprinkler, Cub, Everready, etc. But MTX were always my favorite because Dr. Frank is the greatest lyricist of all time (or possibly tied for first place with Aaron Cometbus).
Right now, I think Shang-A-Lang might be the best band currently active in the U.S. Those guys seriously tear it up. The Methadones are really great and the Copyrights are doing something unique with that whole formula 27 thing. All the awesome bands that could qualify as pop punk keep breaking up, though. The Ergs!, Chinese Telephones, Marked Men. Le sigh.

Lauren: You recently had a collection of your “Nothing Nice To Say” comics from a few years ago published in book format. Was it frustrating to have to focus on all old material while you were getting the book ready?

Mitch: It wasn’t frustrating to have to look at them, because I’m very proud of those strips. What was frustrating to me was the expectation that I had to return from a NN2S hiatus and make new strips to drum up some attention and interest in the book.
I have a rule as a cartoonist: Don’t make comics you don’t want to make. I learned a lot of self-discipline in the first several years I spent drawing NN2S every other day, and learned how important it is for an artist to remain prolific, to constantly be creating no matter what. Art improves, writing improves, etc. But what took me a while to figure out was that it’s possible to keep busy without stagnating on one project. I started a different comic, a NN2S spin-off, called the Coffee Achievers, which was more of a story being told than a bunch of punch lines. That was very rewarding. Then I returned to NN2S. Then I made an autobiographical comic. Then I returned to NN2S. And so forth.
The point is that, if you focus on constantly trying to better yourself in the confines you’ve created for yourself (i.e., having to write jokes only about punk rock), it gets frustrating when you grow beyond those confines, and you have to take a break and do something else, something with a whole different set of rules you can work at bending and improving in.
This is verbose. I swear there’s a point.
I grew out of what NN2S was, which was a punch line strip about punk rock. Setup, exposition, punch line. Setup, exposition, punch line. All about punk, has to be about punk. That gets old. I mean, how many different ways are there to say that straight edgers are stupid?
And that was where I was at when assembling the book. I was on a hiatus from NN2S at the time and really didn’t want to have to do it again. I love the old comics and I love the characters and, again, I’m very proud of everything I’ve created under the NN2S banner. But I didn’t want to have to do it again, and I knew I had to.
But! It dawned on me that I made my own rules, I could break them. I’d found great joy in doing ongoing story arcs with NN2S, and decided I should just focus on telling funny stories instead of just telling jokes. And I changed the format, so instead of a strip, it’s a full page comic. And it’s new to me now, and it’s freeing and it’s exciting and invigorating and I love it again, I love doing it as much as I ever have.

Lauren: Why do you publish most of your work on the internet instead of in print? Have you ever made your own paper zine?

Mitch: I did a paper zine in and shortly after high school called Summer’s Over. I published nine issues. No one read them.
When I was inspired with the idea to start NN2S, I thought of several different means of publishing it. I thought about just making it its own zine, but felt like I wanted to try something new. I actually flirted for a while with the idea of making one comic a week and printing out copies on one sheet of paper, then mailing them all over to record stores to hang up. I had this ludicrous fantasy of people going into the record store to check out the new NN2S. I was like eighteen, cut me some slack.
I hadn’t heard of webcomics, I didn’t know that was done, until my friend Pat showed me Penny Arcade. And I realized that was it. Put it online! It’s cheap, it’s instant, and it’s easy. Awesome. And that’s why I started it that way.
I continue to publish comics online first instead of print because it’s instant gratification. I get immediate feedback about what people like and dislike about each strip as I make them. The praise keeps me motivated to continue and the criticisms give me ideas on things to improve. If I were to put out an issue of comics, that’s a minimum of twenty-some pages to make it worthwhile. Two comics per page, that’s forty comics. Forty comics would take months. Literally at least two months if I really pushed myself. But when there aren’t people out there waiting for a new comic, it’s hard to give a shit. Does that make sense? I motivate myself through fear of disappointing my readers. I update because I have to, because otherwise people get mad. And that’s fair! That’s fair for them to expect me to live up to my claims of being a cartoonist. If nothing’s going up immediately, no one knows, and so no one cares, and so I don’t care, and then I just lay around on the couch all day reading Green Lantern comics and occasionally breaking to masturbate.

Lauren: Have you ever drawn a comic, then later regretted it and taken it down from your website?

Mitch: No. I have drawn comics and then regretted them to some extent, yes. I won’t tell you which, but I would say I have probably done a good dozen or two comics that I am downright ashamed of. Some of them I think are too preachy, some of them are too mean spirited, some of them take stances I don’t necessarily agree with, and some of them are just downright not fucking funny even a little bit. But I keep them all up because I feel like taking them down would be a betrayal to the fans.

Lauren: Do people know a lot about you from reading your comics like “My Stupid Life”? What are some aspects of your life that you don’t usually mention in your comics?

Mitch: I don’t mention all the sexual three-ways and swinger parties we attend regularly. Or that I hate Jews.
No, I kid. Um, I don’t know what people do or do not know about me through my comics. I really do say stupid things constantly, just like in the comics. I do love Amanda very intensely, more than words can describe, just like in the comics. I genuinely am preoccupied with sex probably more than is appropriate just like in the comics. But everything is changed here and there to make the punch lines funnier, so the line between fiction and autobiography is fuzzy at best.

Lauren: Are the people who read your web comics the same people who read your Razorcake column or buy records by bands that you’ve done work for?

Mitch: Maybe? I don’t have the stats on what kinds of demographics read Razorcake, I don’t know how many crossover fans there are. I imagine a good number of my fans checked out Razorcake for the first time through me, but I’m sure they kept reading because Razorcake really is a genuinely awesome magazine. Plus, I don’t think my presence in the ‘Cake is prominent enough that people would pick it up just for me. I think everyone picks it up for Snakepit.
As for buying records, I do know that some of my fans will buy records just for my art, I’ve heard of that happening, but, again, I couldn’t tell you to what extent. But I can hire some focus groups to find out if you’d like.

Lauren: You were in a band before—the name of it is eluding me right now—but is it more nerve-racking or gratifying to have a live audience when you’re playing music versus having an anonymous internet audience for your artwork?

Mitch: Yes. I hate playing music in front of people. I’ve gotten used to people hating me over the internet, people hating me in person is just too much to take. Plus I’m pretty shy around new people unless I’m really drunk, at which point I make a total ass out of myself. So any sort of situation where anyone knows who I am is usually uncomfortable for me. But I still love playing music and I wish I could be in a band that played shows and people loved us. I just know that won’t happen, so I’ll stick to comics.

Lauren: What is your day job right now, and what do you wish you were getting paid to do?

Mitch: I am a cartoonist full time. I make my money off ads on my site, merchandise revenue, and freelance illustration for bands and record labels. My dream job would be getting paid to eat pizza and read Green Lantern and Flash comics.

Lauren: Tell me your favorite...Album cover (that you didn’t illustrate):

Mitch: Hüsker Dü Metal Circus is probably my all-time favorite album cover, that thing is absolutely fucking flawless. The chairs, the backwards lettering… Ugh. I wish I could make something that amazing. Beyond that, I’m a really big John Yates fan, I think he’s just great.

Lauren: Thing about living in Austin:

Mitch: I live in San Antonio!

Lauren:Razorcake contributor to illustrate for:

Mitch: I rarely illustrate for anyone besides Nardwuar, but he would still easily be my favorite. I think he’s a great guy and I love what he does.

Lauren: Old- school comic book illustrator:

Mitch: Jack Kirby.

Lauren: Thing about being engaged:

Mitch: Knowing how lucky I am that I actually somehow managed to find the perfect person for me who I wanted to spend my life with, and that she wanted to spend her life with me too. And being able to say sappy bullshit like that with a straight face.

Lauren: Criticism you’ve received about your comics:

Mitch: “It’s just not funny.”