Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse exclusive interview with artist Jim Mahfood on helping to stylize the game-changing film

Spider-Verse Freeze Frame
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Freeze Frames. Pic credit: Sony Pictures

If you’ve seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse since it opened, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen it again since, or are planning to do so again soon. Perhaps in 3D this time?

It definitely justifies multiple screenings from the first second to the end credits sequence. Beyond the strong characters, delightful script and fresh air around a Spider-Man film, this conversation around this film goes beyond all of that.

The supply of artistry, innovative creativity and inventiveness of animation styles and storytelling are seen in abundance. It’s the culmination of countless artists on the animation side, but also the artists who helped design and conceptualize the look, the style and feel of what could be the most game-changing animated film since Toy Story. 

Monsters and Critics spoke to one of the many conceptual and character design artists for Into the Spider-Verse, comic book artist Jim Mahfood who has drawn a variety of titles including Tank Girl, Clerks, Howard the Human, Ultimate Spider-Man and most notably his own creation, Grrl Scouts.

His gonzo-graffiti style art has made him identifiable in hip hop culture and underground comics scene since the late 90s.

We spoke to Mahfood in between his first and second screenings of the film about his contributions, his impressions of the film and how it changes the landscape for future projects. We also talked about how Into the Spider-Verse will inspire others to push creative mediums to a new space.

Mahfood Spider-Verse Designs Miles Street
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse character Miles in street clothes.  Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

Monsters & Critics: Since the very first teaser trailer dropped for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse over a year ago, I noticed there would be some bold risks being taken. There were moments where the film would just freeze and look like a pinup page of comic book art in the middle of this fluid animation.

Little did I know it was just scratching the surface. Now, those freeze frames reminded me of your art, which got me wondering if you were involved. How did you get involved?

Jim Mahfood: One of the producers, Mike Moon used to work at Disney and I worked with him before and he’s a fan of my work. He knows all of the comic book crew that has that bugged out sensibility and style, like Skottie Young.

He’s fed me work for many years now and in 2015, they started a Spider-Man movie. He didn’t tell me much about it but he hired me to do four or five full-color concept pieces of just Spider-Man just in my style, as bugged out as I wanted to get.

He didn’t even tell me it was the Miles Morales Spider-Man movie. It was all very top secret. After I turned them in, he said, these are great, we’ll be in touch. I didn’t hear from him for almost a year.

They ramped up production and he hired me again to do a round of character designs, Peter Parker, Miles Morales and Miles’ roommate. They kept hiring me back to do Gwen and Spidey’s Rogue Gallery. I did passes at most of the major characters in the movie. 

What they do is take bits and pieces from everyone’s work and put it all together into what becomes a finished look. So after seeing the movie, to me, there’s hundreds of people that have worked on this movie.

The visuals are so elaborate and incredible that no one person can take credit for anything, this is the amalgamation of hundreds of talented people. To be part of the early production, I felt great when I saw the movie, I thought it was awesome, a next level step for animation for sure. 

M&C: You got to watch the film with the film’s producer and Miles Morales’ co-creator Brian Michael Bendis’ screening party, was that the first time you saw the finished film? 

Mahfood: Yeah! The fact that he invited me and to be able to watch the flick with Brian, and other comic creators Mike Oeming, David Marquez, and David Walker, was cool. After the movie, we were floored with what we just [have] seen.

We were all pleasantly surprised. From the trailer, this looked like it was going to be incredible but seeing how it was cut, pasted, the music, all the different levels of experimentation that was happening, it seemed like every two to three minutes, they were introducing a new visual idea or concept or style.

When I saw that, I knew this film was the work of hundreds and hundreds of brilliant people. This is not some average amateur animation s**t going on here. This is next level stuff we were witnessing. 

The interesting thing that happens in the movie is counterbalancing all of this edgy experimental visual s**t is that you care about the characters. They’re so well written and so much heart and humor in it, that to me was the perfect ying-yang of the movie.

The action gets bugged out and there’s a bunch of crazy s**t happening and references that some people might not understand, but you genuinely care about the characters so much, that’s where the heart (of the film) is.

Otherwise, this could have been a music video of crazy awesome visuals. Them giving you characters you actually cared about, it’s hitting on every level. 

Mahfood Spider-Verse Designs Spider-Man Costume
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Miles in his Spider-Man costume.  Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

M&C: Every animated film has so many unsung artists, but I felt like I was in artists alley of a comic convention with Into the Spider-Verse.

Mahfood: Oh yeah, that’s a great way to describe it!

M&C: The hip hop soundtrack and culture, the graffiti, I like that this film has rough edges, it isn’t polished and trimmed cleanly. Things were blurry, there were jump cuts, time lapses, errors that were purposely designed, happy accidents. You’ve stated before when you get hired to do work on films, you never see yourself in the finished project but this was a home.

Mahfood: Yes. That’s the thing that resonated for me. I was talking to my brother about this. In 1998, I was getting my first break in comics known as this hip hop comics guy. I was doing graffiti in comics, drawing characters with afros and ghetto blasters.

If you had told me that one day there would be an animated feature in theaters with Black-Puerto Rican Spider-Man and he’s spray painting, there’s boom boxes and graffiti time lapses, my head would’ve exploded.

It took 21 years for this stuff to happen to me but concerning my work for this film, I just assumed my work and many, many, many other artists’ work were hanging up in the Sony offices and little bits of things were plugged into this movie. You can see who’s sampling from what. 

Mahfood Spider-Verse Designs Kingpin 2
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Kingpin character. Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

M&C:  Did you go to the Sony office to work on these or did you do them from home?

Mahfood: I was doing them from home. It was just work for hire. I just saw Sanford Greene (Bitter Root) posting some of his designs, so I didn’t realize they hit him up too. There’s probably a bunch of (comics) guys out there that got hit up somewhere along the road, to do concept stuff for the movie.

M&C: I don’t know if you had anything to do with the Kingpin design but there was a part in the film where there’s a montage about him and his family and it’s done in the style of Bill Sienkiewicz’s art. That was another style just for one character. 

Mahfood: I did some Kingpin designs where I made him this huge block of a shape. I’m assuming I’m not the only artist to come up with that idea, but I was also homaging Sienkiewicz’s Daredevil: Love & War, where Bill made the Kingpin this shape.

He’s this little head and his body extends out of frame, I was referencing that and drawing him as this square. It was so awesome in the finished film but again I haven’t seen anyone else’s work so I don’t know if it was generated from me or someone else. 

M&C: Neither you or nor did any of the concept artists didn’t get an official credit in the film.

Mahfood: When you work on projects like this, you have to put your ego to the side and know that you’re becoming a small part of a greater whole. You can’t get too territorial, it’s almost like I’m just happy to be a part of the ride.

I did character design on that live-action Ghost in the Shell movie with Scarlett Johansson was in, and I didn’t get mentioned in the credit of that either. I actually don’t know the criteria of what you would have to do to get a credit as a (conceptual artist).

Mahfood Spider-Verse Designs Kingpin 1
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Kingpin Character Design. Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

M&C: Often times you can spot the “Disney” element in a film, where it’s been softened to reach the broader audience. But Into the Spider-Verse embraced the unfiltered hip hop culture and for me, my heart swelled in the graffiti scene with Miles and his Uncle Aaron. So it’s exciting to hear you say how it’s altering your hopes for your own projects.

Mahfood: I saw (Spider-Gwen creator) Jason Latour posting the other day about it on Instagram how this film is going to be a reference point for when animation changed when things went to another level. This movie is going to inspire a chain of events in animation and feature animation and the way people get inspired, hopefully, in art.

I’m not trying to overdo it, but I definitely think it’s special. I’ve been a Spider-Man fanatic since I was a little kid, so to see all the incarnations of Spidey through the years, the comics, the media, the movies… I thought Spider-Man: Homecoming was amazing and seeing this, this is the best Spider-Man thing ever made I think. 

Mahfood Spider-Verse Designs Spider-Ham
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Spider-Ham character. Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

M&C: All the way to the end credits scene where Spider-Man comes face to face with Spider-Man 2099.

Mahfood: Oh man, the ’67 Spider-Man cartoon reference? When Mike at Sony sent me this list of characters to draw, and I hit him back, “You’re not really going to put Spider-Ham are you? Is that a real thing?”

He replied, ‘Yeah, we’re doing the Spider-Verse.’ I remember buying the first issue of that comic in the 80s when it came out and that mainstream audiences across the world are going to see an animated Spider-Ham, it’s insane and hilarious.  

M&C: What else were you impressed with?

Mahfood: The references and homages to comics and comic book culture and Spider-Man in comics are so deep in this. There’s references to Steve Ditko, all the old comic book covers, Miles getting advice flipping through the comics. There’s so many layers.

All of us comics guys in the audience were all laughing because they were starting out a movie with the Comics Code of Authority Seal? It’s the best inside joke you could start the movie with.

I think all the comic book people enjoyed it the most because it made you feel so comfortable and almost appreciated, in a way. Seeing it, man, and knowing it’s going to help change the game for future animation, but I have my own animated project that I’m trying to get off the ground, and this is further motivating me.

This was cool to be a part of, but I’ve got to get my own s**t going on now. I’ve got to get my own characters and my own thing for animation. If a major corporate studio is willing to get this bugged out and experimental, then [the] sky’s the limit.

My hope is that theatrical feature-length animation becomes a huge thing and we can get to do Rated-R theatrical animation where we can do a f***ing Grrl Scouts Rated-R animated feature in four or five years and make it visually, that edgy, that over-the-top, that incredible!

Hopefully, the audience that made Deadpool the number one Rated R movie ever, will discover stuff like this and see it. So for me, I’m thinking in future terms–how much of the game is this one movie going to change? 

Grrl Scouts Magic Socks Cover
Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks graphic novel. Pic credit: Jim Mahfood

M&C:  What are you working on now that you can speak of?

Mahfood:  I’m doing a new five-issue mini-series Grrl Scouts comic for Image, that will hopefully be out next year called Grrl Scouts: Stone Ghost, which is probably going to be the next six or seven months of my life.

I’m doing some freelance variant covers for Dynamite and Valiant still. I can’t talk about it that much but I do have an animated Grrl Scouts pitch out there with a studio attached that we’re developing. 

Writing and drawing my own comics is a pure joy so while I’m waiting for bigger s**t to happen, if there’s a cartoon or not, I know there’s always a home to write and draw whatever I want with my own characters.

It’s fully me unfiltered and the characters, the ideas and the concepts are still getting out there. The joy of comics is that you can still make an entire concept, universe and world with just paper and ink. That’s your budget. So I’m excited about both, making everything happen that I can. 

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