Corporate Rock and Comics Are for Suckers: An Interview with Mitch Clem
Nowadays, the infinite space of the internet is littered with an uncountable number of webcomics, widely ranging in quality. But when Minnesota native Mitch Clem launched Nothing Nice to Say in 2002, the idea was still in its infancy, having just become truly recognized as a medium in the late 1990s.
The comic author and artist was born and raised around Minneapolis and listens to punk rock, and the comic has reflected that for the last seven years, despite the fact that Clem, now 26, has since relocated to San Antonio, Texas, much closer to the Austin punk scene.
Back in 2002, comics were a creative passionate for Clem. Now, they also happen to be his livelihood. In addition to Nothing Nice to Say, Clem last year launched the autobiographical and a bit more accessible My Stupid Life, on which he collaborates and costars with his fiancée, Amanda (Nation of Amanda). His artwork has also been known to adorn the T-shirts and posters of some of his favorite bands, and he is currently working on album covers for the Under the Influence 7-inch punk-cover series.
But Nothing Nice to Say has remained a favorite (or consistently hated) among longtime readers, and though Clem has a tendency to jump from project to project, putting others on hiatus (where Nothing Nice has been since last December), he always seems to find his way back to Blake and Fletcher. Clem has used the duo for the better part of a decade to crack jokes about the punk scene—because he loves it, and because it can be quite absurd at times. Dark Horse Comics published an anthology of the webcomic last October, and Clem saw fit to talk with GraphicNovelReporter last week about the experience.
Now that comics have turned into a profession for you, do you still enjoy it as much as you did when you started? Or is it more of a job, where the economics of it take precedence?
I would say the whole economic whatever-ness of it makes it more of a struggle than it used to be, but I wouldn’t say that I enjoy it less. I think that it’s as rewarding as it has ever been. I think the main joy that I take from it—coming up with a comic and actually drawing them has always been sort of a pain in the ass, I guess. The real satisfaction is when I finish it and I’ve got something to look at that I’m proud of and I can show it to other people. And I would say I still get just as much enjoyment from that now as I ever did, and probably more because I’ve learned to deal with people not liking my stuff. So that doesn’t bother me as much as it did, either.
To give our readers a bit of a background, when did you start writing and drawing comics, and what got you interested in the medium?
In general, I’ve pretty much been doing it all my life, since I was a kid. They were Looney Tunes rip offs, pretty much. I really liked Looney Tunes when I was a kid. My first ongoing series, if you could call it that, when I was a kid in elementary school—The Number Munchers on Apple II—those were the characters. They would get into some sort of antics and then an anvil would fall on somebody.
Aside from Looney Tunes, what kind of comics did you read growing up that influenced your style, and what do you read nowadays?
I read a few comics when I was a kid. I’d say the ones that were most influential were definitely Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. They’re definitely the big two. I still love those comics like I did when I was a kid.
How did Nothing Nice get its start?
I had already been doing a zine for a couple years, Summer’s Over, and there were comics in that. I booked a show at my house, and I drew a flyer for it. On the flyer, I had drawn two characters—which would later become Blake and Fletcher—just telling some joke on it. And there was this “Ah ha!” moment with that where I was like, “I could just make comics out of punk rock. I’ve got plenty of jokes to make about that.” Then I scrambled to come up with how I would distribute that to the world. I didn’t know that webcomics existed yet. So, I thought about doing a zine. Then my friend Pat, he was like, “You can just put comics online.” And that was that.
How would you describe Nothing Nice to someone who has never read it? Do you think it has an appeal outside the punk community, outside of the people who are into the scene and understand the inside jokes?
I do make an attempt, honestly. While the jokes can pertain to things that only people who know what I’m talking about are going to know about, I’ve at some points in the series made an effort to be inclusive with my jokes. You can catch on to what they’re saying and what the joke is, even if you don’t necessarily know who the band is and what they’re talking about. I try really hard to do that, but I don’t know that it works. I hear from basically anybody who reads any of my other comics that isn’t into punk rock, “Yeah, Nothing Nice doesn’t really make any sense to me.” All right, fair enough.
It has become an on-again, off-again project for you, and it has become fairly well known for its hiatuses. But the creative output doesn’t stop. It seems you are always jumping between different projects. What is your philosophy as far as when you do and do not work on certain comics?
My rule, basically, is I draw what I feel like. I think it was really important for me—I started Nothing Nice in 2002, and I set a rule for myself that three times a week it would update. I think that was really good then to force myself to produce and to get something done and sort of develop that cartoon really more than I have for the rest of my life. Now, when I force myself to work on a comic that I don’t feel like working on, more often than not I feel like lately my work sort of stagnates. It is just boring. There are a few Nothing Nice strips, maybe the readers can’t tell, but I look at them and I am like, “This is a comic written and drawn by someone with no interest in this. This is me at my most desperate to distribute for the sake of production.” I didn’t want to do that. So my rule is I work on whatever comic I’m inspired to work on at the time. Sometimes that’s Nothing Nice; sometimes it’s whatever else.
Where does Nothing Nice stand right now? There is a story arc that has been left hanging for awhile. Are their plans to finish that? Do you have any urge to get back to Nothing Nice at this time?
I’m having a really hard time drawing it for whatever reason. I have the rest of that story arc planned out. I know what’s going to happen. I’m having a really hard time drawing it, for whatever reason. I want to try getting other people to draw my script. I feel the art aspect of it, while something I really enjoy is something that slows me down. I think if I can get in the habit of writing really solid script and get onboard with a really good artist, I think I can produce more and higher quality stuff. So my idea with Nothing Nice now is I want to stick with that one-page format, stick with it being more a comic book–style story…maybe straight-to-book? Maybe get an artist onboard and put out a book. “Here’s a giant story of Nothing Nice.” I don’t know. I’m just rambling at this point.
As far as that storyline goes, when you’re digging into a genre that is as vocal as punk rock, it seems inevitable that you’re going to get some of the hate mail, some of the complaints. Is it difficult for you to deal with that? Specifically with this Dillinger Four/Civil War series, one person took major offense to it, prompting a public exchange. Does that kind of stuff discourage you from going back to it?
No, it doesn’t. The thing that bothered me the most about that dude getting mad at me about the Dillinger Four thing… For the people reading who don’t know, basically, Dillinger Four’s newest album, Civil War—which everyone needs to listen to; it’s incredible—went online. So people were downloading the leak. In my comic, the characters downloaded the leak and then got in trouble. The guy who mastered or engineered the album, he got all pissed off. He thought that me having the characters in my comic do something counted as me telling everyone else, “Hey! Download this D4 album for free and don’t pay for it, for sure.” Which is absolutely not what I was saying. The thing that was most discouraging about it is I found out that the guy is the bass player from Selby Tigers, who I really liked. They were a Minneapolis punk rock band back in the day. Their first album, Charm City, is really awesome.
So to answer your question: No. I used to get really discouraged and bummed out. Now I’ve resigned myself to the knowledge that that’s the nature of the internet—people get to have their say and they get to have the anonymity that comes with it. There are no consequences for them to just say whatever they want. That’s the venue. If you’re going to do anything online, you have to be willing to take that criticism. Plus, sometimes, people have valid points. Sometimes people say something I do sucks and they’re right. [Laughs] And I try to fix that.
You mentioned that you’re obviously not advocating everything your characters do in the strip, but do you personally relate to either Blake or Fletcher, or are they just both mouthpieces for these issues and jokes?
They used to be, when I first started—the really old stuff, the stuff in color. I used to be talking through these two characters. Personalitywise, they were all almost interchangeable. They were saying what I thought about whatever I thought. As time progressed, I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to slam on bands. I would say something about a band and eventually I would meet them. Over time, I would start meeting these people. Then I feel bad. The Lawrence Arms for instance. I never actually met them, but I don’t like them and I said so in the comic at some point. One of the characters is like, “Oh, they suck.” But these are just guys. I don’t need to [talk bad about] other people just because, right? Blake and Fletcher no longer, in any way, represent my—in no way do I have an agenda and like, “Okay, I need to vocalize that such and such a band is s----y, so I’m going to do it through the characters.” Fletcher and I don’t see eye to eye on anything. Blake and I don’t see eye to eye on much.
Does any of that have to do with changes in the punk scene or your perception of it? Nothing Nice started seven years ago. How have things changed personally and in the music you listen to since then?
That’s a good question. I think specific things have changed, but I don’t think that overall things are that much different for punk rock in general. When I started Nothing Nice to Say, Against Me! was still an acoustic band, and now they’re sort of the go-to, “Hey, look at the band that sold out.” When I started it, Green Day was the go-to band that had sold out. In another seven years, it’s going to be whoever. [Laughs]
So it’s different bands but the same things happening?
Yeah. I still go to a lot of shows and they’re still really good. There are still a lot of really awesome bands, as many as there were seven years ago, and probably seven years before that. The dynamics are all still there; it’s just the specifics that have changed.
Has the scene of punk rock changed for you in moving from Minnesota to Texas? Does that have a different influence on your work?
In Minneapolis, I was never an active part of that scene. I spent more of my time in St. Cloud. It’s where I booked shows and knew some people, but we didn’t have much of a punk scene there. And when I moved to Minneapolis, I was such a small fish in a big pond. Who the hell was I? I wasn’t really friends with a lot of people in the scene, and I hadn’t gone to a lot of house shows. When I moved to Texas, people would actually talk to me for whatever reason, and I got to know more people and be more of an active part in the stuff. I would say Austin and Minneapolis both have an equal number of awesome bands, even though Minneapolis has the edge because Dillinger Four is from there.
So you’ve had this webcomic for eight years. How did the book deal with Dark Horse come about? Were you seeking publication of the material, or did they come to you?
I totally wasn’t seeking anybody out. They contacted me. I got an email from them one day, and I thought someone was playing a prank on me. He’s like, “I work at Dark Horse. If you ever feel like doing a book, I’ll publish it for you.” I was kind of like, “What?” I had already been working on putting one together. I was just going to self-publish it. I hadn’t even considered asking anybody to put it out for me, because who the hell would want to, right? He took it to a pitch meeting, and I guess they liked it well enough and there it is. No idea how that happened.
Why did you decide to publish what essentially amounts to a second volume, while no first exists, though take the time to put a few early strips in to get new readers up to date? Why not a volume one?
The problem with the old material is I never saved any of my originals. I just threw them away. Those old Nothing Nice comics—I would draw it, scan it, put it online and then throw it away. So those literally are garbage. Probably don’t even exist anymore if I were to dig through garbage to find them. I didn’t save hi-res files. Publishing a book never entered my mind when I started the comic. So preserving those things, even for posterity, why would I do that? The only versions of the comics that exist, literally, are the 72dpi lo-res versions. So if you were to go to an old Nothing Nice comic and print it out on your computer at home, that’s as good as it would look in a book. That would be a hideous book. And it was color, so that’s more expensive. And it’s not a story or anything, so I didn’t think it would be that important to include it all. I think I was wrong. People made a pretty big deal about the whole volume thing.
Do you have any idea how well it is doing? Are there any plans, other than what you mentioned about a straight-to-book story, to do another collection of Nothing Nice?
As far as another book, I know Tim [Ervin], the editor, still wants to do one and he’s still enthusiastic about it. So it’s not off the table or anything. Right now I’m working on a completely different book for next year. I set out a five-year plan for myself starting last year with the Nothing Nice book that I’m going to put out a book every year. If I’m going to do another Nothing Nice book, I’m not going to even consider it until next year or the year after. But it’s definitely not off the table. It’s an option.
Can you say anything about the other book project you mentioned?
I have to create some original content for it. These are clues. These are hints. I have to create some original content to bridge the existing material. So I don’t want to say anything until I’ve got a start on that original content. But I have a publisher, and I have a game plan. It’s definitely going to happen, and hopefully will happen by this fall, and we’ll have it out around September.
What is your usual process for any given comic? How long do they take you?
It takes hours—minimum four hours, depending on how detailed it is. I’m really, really anal about what I draw. So half the process is—I draw it, then I erase it, then I draw it, then I erase it. Then I get mad and throw that away. Then I start a new page. It takes a pretty long time.
How did My Stupid Life come about, and what is it like working on a webcomic with your fiancée?
She’s a good sport. [Laughs] I have to be really careful about her mom reading the comic. That’s the only thing that stifles creativity; I can’t make all of the jokes that I write, publicly. It’s really fun. She’s a good sport and she’s funny. She says funny things and they make it into comics. That makes it easier.
It is presented as autobiographical, but there is a spin to the events as well. How much of it would you say is real-life?
I would say everything in it is at least inspired by reality. But it’s hardly factual. Everything is distorted. I never actually started an advice column, for instance. Those are just 100% silly jokes. They’re mostly fake. The ones that actually come from real life are the ones that aren’t that funny. [Laughs]
For more info, www.mitchclem.com