“I’ve Been Jokerfied In The Same Way That A Lot Of People Have”: An Interview with Max Huffman

Max Huffman. Photo by Lindsay Metivier

I met Max Huffman when he was a literal child who walked into the comic shop I used to own. I was excited to discover that he was a cartoonist, and funny, not just “for his age,” but like funny funny. Max stuck with comics. He got a cartooning degree from the School of Visual Arts and grew into an adult, and his comics changed as he did. I sold my comic shop and became a cartoonist with a day job myself. I now consider myself lucky to know Max, not as a kid, but as a friend as well as a peer who makes highly considered, beautifully drawn, funny comics. 

Cover Not Final, Max’s first book with a barcode, is due from Adhouse Books in June, and is now available for preorder from comic shops and bookstores. You can learn more about Max’s comics and order the ones in print from his website.

I interviewed Max via Google doc in February and March 2021.

Andrew Neal: Max, I'm excited to talk to you about your comics, but considering the year we just lived through, I have to ask how things are going for you first. How are you doing?

Max Huffman: I’m really lucky and privileged to say that I’m doing good, man. Those enhanced unemployment BernieBucks changed my life. I’ve talked to a few other artists in a similar spot— it’s really confusing to have the most financial stability of your adult life during a time of complete abject chaos and misery. I miss my job very much. I don’t have the galaxy brain perspective necessary to fully understand what the fuck is going on. But it turns out that dovetails nicely with a lifetime of escaping into comics to process and escape feelings of anxiety and lack of control.

“I’m Good” comic strip.

I feel you. I’ve definitely processed a lot of my own feelings through my own comics over the last year. I know you’ve been working during the pandemic: you drew and self-published Whisnant, you’ve posted some “I’m Good” strips, and you put together a book and got a publishing deal. It sounds like a lot from my end, but have you been able to work as much on comics as you would like?

I have all the time in the world right now but I still feel like I work exceptionally slow. Especially writing— I can’t generate gags with any kind of regularity. They come when they come, usually in bed immediately before falling asleep.  It’s taken three years to draw thirty “I’m Good” strips. Maybe in a decade I’ll have a book’s worth.

Whisnant came out of being completely unable to draw or write for the first month of quarantine. I had to make a really stripped down loosey goosey daily strip to get the Comix Juice back. Working that fast felt like a runner’s high. My last comic before that took a year and a half and it was a tiny black and white Chick tract.

Page from Whisnant.

Do you think living through the last year or so affected the way you think about comics?

I think I’ve been jokerfied in the same way that a lot of people have. The world is on fire and I’m out here playing kazoo. I feel guilty about not making more “important” work and at the same time very defensive of bits for bits’ sake. I have nothing to offer except my silly little drawings, so here’s those.

Regardless of how high a value I place on silly little drawings, I wouldn’t equate any cartoonist with Nero! I’m thrilled to be getting comics at all right now.

 Ha— I was thinking more like Nero’s filthy little court jester.

I think there’s a lot of value in setting restrictions on yourself to help get moving and to guide the work. With Whisnant, that was a question of forcing out a page a day. With Big Drink, did you set the format and figure out the content based on that, or did you have the idea and think, “This would be a good Chick tract?” 

Big Drink’s plot and format were linked pretty much from the jump. It was mildly autobiographical in that I had just moved to a small town and worked late nights in service, feeling drinky and adrift. Cult recruitment offering a way out paralleled the evangelizing outreach aspect of a Chick tract in a way that I thought complemented the story. I didn’t go full parody mode with it. Getting three pages out of a sheet of bristol was nice too.

Page from Big Drink.

Speaking of formats, your upcoming book from Adhouse, Cover Not Final, is a collection of some of your crime noir and detective comics. It looks like you drew design inspiration from vintage paperback crime fiction. Is that pretty much correct? Were there any artists, designers, or publishers you looked to?

I imagined Cover Not Final as existing kind of halfway between pulp paperback and Archie digest, so I wanted it to have elements of both without leaning too hard into pastiche one way or the other. Covers have been a weak point in the past for me and I was totally prepared to fall back on Chris Pitzer’s design acumen, but it ended up coming together fairly naturally on its own. I knew I wanted a cover gag, because they tell you so much instantly about the world and tone of the comic, and it’s a free joke without having to open the book. There were certainly vintage paperbacks I looked to for inspiration.

Cover of Cover Not Final.

The comics collected in Cover Not Final were drawn over the course of several years. I called them crime noir earlier but first and foremost, they’re humor comics, right? Do you have an affinity for crime fiction, or just for the tropes of it, like the narration?

Yes, they’re humor comics first and crime comics second. I guess I think of humor as format and crime as genre? Crime is my favorite genre, although I don’t have any deep philosophy as to why. Systems and individuals, man! The snappy vernacular is obviously a huge appeal but I’m also always completely taken by fiction about professionals being very good at their jobs. Someone asked what my favorite rom-com was once and I said “The Devil Wears Prada.”

My taste in books without pictures is pretty entry-level: Westlake, Chandler, Inherent Vice. José Muñoz is my guiding comics star. There’s a detective comic in Cover Not Final that I originally wrote in college and redrew for the collection, and I forgot that it was an homage to Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass until a friend pointed it out recently.

Page from Tennell Leffitt, Man Detective, collected in Cover Not Final.

Westlake’s The Ax is one of my all time favorite books. I like Chandler too, though I’m more enamored with some of the stuff he inspired. I’m pretty sure my favorite author, Sara Gran, has listed him as her favorite author. Point is, I don’t think what you described as entry level is a bad place to jump off of.

Movies are the true crime medium, I think. I like that world, and there’s so much of it that I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I watched Heat and To Live And Die In L.A. for the first time in quarantine. There are directors, like Soderbergh and the Coens, who have a balance of humor, rhythm and scheming that is pretty close to ideal for me. I’m less precious than a lot of pure theory folks about using film vocabulary to describe comics, at least traditionally narrative genre comics…they’re unquestionably different art forms but it feels wild to me to deny that they share DNA. 

I kind of understand the whole “don’t talk about comics in movie terms” thing but I feel like it’s an unnecessarily pedantic argument, kind of like the difference between a “graphic novel” and a “trade paperback.” I’m all for finding inspiration for comics in books, in movies, in music, in conversation. Throughout your work and in a couple places in Cover Not Final, it seems like you draw from music, or at least from the music scene. Do music and comics have a strong connection for you?

Sure. I started going to shows when I moved to New York for school in 2012, just in time for the death throes of what seemed like something cool. I saw three DIY spaces on the same block get torn down and replaced with the headquarters of the newly Rupert Murdoch-funded Vice. The incredibly heavy-handed sledgehammer irony of that event kind of formed the foundation of the comics world I’ve been lazily building ever since.

When I moved back to North Carolina after college I started working almost immediately as a graphic designer and bartender at the Cat’s Cradle, a 50-year-old rock club here in Carrboro. I’ve been there since and hope to one day be there again.

There’s a good music community here with a lot of history. I think being in and around a live scene is one of the most gratifying things a visual artist can do, even if you are completely devoid of any musical talent, like me. It’s an arts zone separate from but complementary to comics, that values illustration and even pays for it sometimes. And it’s a way to meet creative working people in a small town. I can count the number of cartoonists here on one hand (you’re the thumb, of course). Absolutely lousy with synthesizers, though.

From Hot Dignity Dog, collected in Cover Not Final.

The book opens with a single page of Doctor Website singing an expository song about Business Park, where the following story is set. This reminded me of the lyrics that would show up in movie parodies in Mad Magazine. Is Mad an influence? Or was this inspired by anything else?

Mad didn’t enter into my thinking, but I’ve always loved printed, tuneless lyrics as a fictional device. Thomas Pynchon is the GOAT for that. But then whenever I’d consider putting a song into my own work it would feel excruciatingly corny. Some dumb self-loathing thing. Anyway, that comic was me trying to break through that mental wall.

Business Park Blues, collected in Cover not Final.

Something else I’ve noted in your work is that there’s a lot of public transportation. Cover Not Final has a couple of stories which heavily involve buses and one featuring an uber ride. What’s the deal with all this transportation content, Max?

I can’t drive a car, Andrew! I never learned when I was a teenager and now as an adult the prospect of operating a big metal box that can kill makes me extremely anxious! That’s the deal, Andrew!!!!! And the truth is I love the bus. Wild shit happens on the bus.

From Zone of the Midnight Half Shirk, collected in Cover Not Final.

I’m going to ignore the part where I need to check my vehicular privilege and just mark your answer down as “write what you know.” You mentioned Archie digests earlier as an influence on format. You produced a Jughead fan comic in 2014, so I’m assuming you’d count Archie comics among your influences?

The biggest thing was seeing a jumbo digest in the checkout line as a kid, and then seeing that this monstrous tome was like issue #312 or something. It was this window into a persistent, hermetically sealed gag world that seemed to have operated like clockwork for all of time. Jughead is interesting because all the characters are insanely broad and he’s just a couple layers more specific. He’s driven by something outside the hamster wheel.

From Bootleg Jughead.

I never considered that about Jughead - that he was more specific. My takeaway from Archie Comics as a kid was more like, “I can’t wait to have girls fighting over me in high school!” What are some other comics that you’d list as influences?

I mean, the fact of the matter is that as the owner of my local comic shop, you were privy to and enabled my biggest and most embarrassing influences growing up. After being exposed to Tintin, Asterix and the 80s Marvel A-Team comics at a very young age, I moved on to Sonic the Hedgehog and Bionicle before discovering webcomics and Jhonen Vasquez in middle school.

Most of the stuff that influences my work today I came across in college. I don’t want to go into list mode but going to comix shows, making zines with friends and becoming aware of fine art all kind of made my brain explode. Gary Panter’s classes had a big impact. He really tried to get his students-- most of whom were at cartoon school to make comics about cartoons about comics -- thinking about art and writing and cultural movements.

My opinion is that you can’t choose your influences - at least not all of them - and you shouldn’t be embarrassed by them. This is me totally talking out of my ass without having considered it before, but I’d guess a lot of artists’ styles come from the combination of stuff they were drawn to both as kids and adults.

Yeah, I should clarify that I’m not embarrassed by the comics I was reading, although a lot of ‘em don’t do anything for me anymore. It’s all part of the soup. Like, Jhonen Vasquez is a huge gateway for so many kids into expressionism and absurdism. Austin English has that bit where he calls him “Fort Thunder for the people”.

I AM embarrassed by the kid I was, and especially the comics I posted online as a very mildly public Child Cartoonist. I wish I was a person who could look back with more love and compassion for myself, but what are you gonna do.

Hopefully you’ll get there. I don’t think you’ve mentioned comic strips yet. “I’m Good” reads enough like a traditional newspaper strip that I think there has to be some of that in your cartooning DNA, right? 

Sure, I grew up on Foxtrot and Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield and all that. Strength and solidarity to all my fellow ten-year-olds who owned a copy of “The Dilbert Principle” for some reason. (Requisite “fuck Scott Adams” here.) I wanted “I’m Good” to be a big broad black and white strip I could conceivably make forever, taking inspiration from personal favorites like Nancy, Steven, Onion Head Monster and Underworld.

“I’m Good” comic strip.

Earlier you talked about the Chick tract format in relation to Big Drink and the Archie digest and crime paperback formats in relation to Cover Not Final. You’ve produced comics that are closer to “traditional” comic format, like Plaguers Int’l. How important is the format in considering what type of comic you are going to make?

I don’t know! It’s all comics. It’s secondary to the content. I think it’s just easier for me to stay interested and engaged in making a thing when there’s a structure to it. The idea of making a big three hundred page Graphic Novel is pants-shittingly alien to me. I did not put my character points into stamina. But I’m working on a longer book-shaped book right now and having fun.

A lot of your comics intersect with each other. Cover Not Final collects a batch of crime stories drawn over several years which seem to be connected by the guy on the cover, Career Criminal. Do you think about the continuity of your comics and how they fit together as you’re making them? Or maybe another way to ask is: Do you have a plan in mind when you work on comics for how they fit together with your previous work, or work that you haven’t done yet? 

Twisty, callback-laden continuity is another one of those things I find fun and rewarding in other people’s work and every time I do it feels like unearned try-hard self-indulgence. What’s the deal with that? Like, I clearly love that stuff. Why can’t I just rock with it?

Most of the comics I’ve made in the last eight years or so take place in the same town. I’ve never planned ahead but the town’s built up over time. Cover Not Final is the first time I’ve had enough material to drop a bunch of dead ends and misfires and go “hey, these stories work pretty well as a single unit, there’s actually a payoff to all the little connections”. And maybe it’s a chance to close the door on some of that world and go somewhere new.

From Hot Dignity Dog, collected in Cover Not Final.

Setting these stories in a shared setting doesn’t strike me as self-indulgent. They’re stories that have related but not identical themes, and it makes sense for them all to be set in the same place. If you do go somewhere new, I hope it’s because you want to. Are there non-Business Park set comics you have in mind?

No, it’s totally all in my head. I mean, obviously, the whole thing is in my head. Making comics is self-indulgent! When it’s good I feel like I’m playing with all my toys on one of those children’s rugs with the roads and buildings on them. I think Cover Not Final is the best case scenario in terms of all that stuff coming together in a meaningful way for someone who isn’t me. The comic I’m working on now is a very different corner of Business Park. Much like my hometown, I have a tough time leaving it behind.

I’ve asked mostly about technical stuff so far, and while your work is technically impressive, it’s clear to me that there’s a lot of meaning and emotion behind it. As a fellow humor cartoonist I think about how existing within the context of a joke can rub the edge off a character’s emotions for the reader. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you ever worry about how to communicate emotion while still making people laugh? 

You’re kind to say those things about the strips. I think I get what you mean. It’s a lot bigger than comics, right? Like, I’ve always used humor as a shortcut to (or replacement for) expressing myself, ever since I was a kid and realized that people responded to it. And even in this interview, I’m thinking to myself “am I being genuine and chill or am I being an insufferable self-obsessed clown”? Funny is a prison that can defang big feelings or amplify little ones. The emotions I try to communicate in my comics are usually like “quiet desperation” or “blasé evil” or “getting shit on”. Are those emotions? I think it works for those.

Yes, It’s absolutely bigger than comics. “Defanging big feelings” is also kind of the deal with the noir narration you use sometimes too, right? Private dicks who have been through the shit and who hide their emotions behind a tough guy wall aren’t that far removed from the smart kid who always leads with a joke. And they both need keen powers of observation. You were either going to be a cartoonist or a private detective from day one, Max. 

I’ve never made that connection, but yeah, they’re both coping mechanisms. I guess “coping mechanisms” is a generous way to frame emotional unavailability. No one would dispute that I had Big Kid Detective Energy growing up. I’m lucky to have had a gruff commissioner-type like yourself around.

I appreciate the sentiment, and if I made a difference, I’m glad. You’re the one who has done the work to get your cartooning to where it is, though! Thanks for the talk, Max.

Thanks, Andrew. Hope to be carpooling to some festival with you again someday soon.

Art from Plaguers Int’l.