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A Short Interview With James Kochalka
posted July 17, 2005
 

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James Kochalka hardly needs an introduction at this point. A rock musician and alternative comics mainstay, the Vermont-based artist broke into the comics scene in the middle 1990s with several formally audacious and cleverly written mini-comics. With his outsized personality and high rate of production, Kochalka soon became the best known of a new generation of comics artists, many of whom valued personal expression over controlled execution. He clashed memorably with Jim Woodring in the Comics Journal over the importance of craft, ironically becoming a more skilled and thoughtful cartoonist than 80 percent of his peers. His comics are well known for their insistent romanticism, flights of fantasy and thinly veiled autobiography.

In the last 10 years Kochalka has released enough music to support a greatest hits album and created enough comics he has a considerable library of collected works from publishers like Top Shelf and Alternative. Perhaps his most prominent project to date is a daily diary of on-line sketchbook strips, a huge chunk of which were collected in American Elf. Another high-profile effort is his other current series, SuperF*ckers, a full-color superhero work that reads like a profane teen comedy. Kochalka's heroes sexually obsess over each other, get in fights for no reason, do a lot of drugs and curse like sailors. It's his latest work that is the primary focus of this interview.

TOM SPURGEON: What is your work day like? How do you split up your time? How much time is spent on music, for example?

JAMES KOCHALKA: The daily work that I do on music is like just singing while I'm walking down the street, or singing in the shower or doing something else. That's how I write the songs. That doesn't really take up any time -- there's no time blocked out for that. I do that in the extra time that I have, in my free time. Drawing, I draw while my son's taking a nap. He usually takes a nap for three or four hours in the afternoon. On the days when he's in daycare I pretty much draw all day. He's in daycare just two or three days a week.

SPURGEON: That must be nice.

KOCHALKA: Amy's a teacher, so she gets the whole summer off. He's not in daycare during summer. But I also tend to get less drawing done, because there's more fun to be had. [laughs]

SPURGEON: You're really prolific, though, so I don't think anyone would go after you that way.

KOCHALKA: I was worried when we had Eli, two years ago, I guess I was worried I wouldn't be able to create as much stuff because I wouldn't have as much time. But I just use my time better. I haven't noticed any particular drop in my output.

SPURGEON: You even do a daily strip. Let me ask you about that, because it came up recently that you were changing format on the print books based on your on-line sketchbook diary comics. In making the announcement, you hinted that you were kind of depressed that American Elf hasn't reached a sizeable audience, at least as currently formatted.

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KOCHALKA: I wouldn't say I was depressed about it. Maybe disappointed. But it was something that we pretty much predicted would happen. The reason why we knew the sketchbook diaries would be difficult to sell is because it's not a graphic novel. Right now if you're serious about comics you're doing graphic novels. If you're not doing graphic novels, then people don't know what to make of it. They don't take it seriously, or they don't even consider it at all.

SPURGEON: By graphic novel you mean some sort of long narrative?

KOCHALKA: Some sort of long narrative. And American Elf is a comic strip. At first Top Shelf was reluctant to even publish it at all, because it doesn't fit that model of being a graphic novel. I don't feel like I'm going to quit or anything because we have a low readership for it.

SPURGEON: You described it as it perhaps your best work, so I imagine there would be some frustration there.

KOCHALKA: The main frustration comes in a little bit in that I did a signing tour for this book last summer and the response was phenomenal. So I thought maybe this was the book that would break me through. But instead: no. [laughs] I'd like to have something that would allow me to break through to a wider audience beyond a couple of thousand readers.

SPURGEON: Do you think that's possible, even?

KOCHALKA: My wife says no, it's not possible. That I will only ever appeal to a couple of thousand people. But who knows?

One thing about the diary strips -- by setting up the web site and having it be subscription based where people pay $1.95 a month to be able to view the archives, it's actually turned what has a farily low readership into my most moneymaking comic ever. Even though American Elf does not have a high readership, I make more money from it than any of my other comics. In that sense, it's a big success for me.

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SPURGEON: So: SuperF*ckers.

KOCHALKA: Yes.

SPURGEON: Is it too crass to ask how it's done so far?

KOCHALKA: Like how well it's sold? I know the Diamond orders were the best we've ever had for one of my books. [Spurgeon laughs] Maybe it's a trade secret or something, but it was like 2,500 copies through Diamond. We thought that was fantastic; it means the book broke even right out of the gate. Which is good.

SPURGEON: No, that's great.

KOCHALKA: Top Shelf was never worried, but I was a little worried because it was a full color book that it was going to lose tens of thousands of dollars. But it's doing great. A lot of readers have said they've gone to stores and the store's been sold out. At least ten different people have told me their local stores have sold out. I have no idea if stores are re-ordering or not.

SPURGEON: Chris or Brett are aggressive hand-sellers, too, so you'll likely move some copies that way this summer.

KOCHALKA: Yeah.

SPURGEON: That's good to hear, though. Now where did this book come from? Is there a fascinating origin story as to how this simmered to the surface?

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KOCHALKA: There is. The idea was percolating for years, and the idea that was percolating was very different from how it ended up. I was thinking about how life seems like a constant struggle. The way there's an endless variety of struggles going on at any given moment, down to the bacterial and sub-atomic level and all the way up to wars between nations. Then there are struggles for people trying to find a mate or whatever, and then there's the cosmic forces, solar systems pulling against each other, all that kind of thing. To me it started to seem really like the universe was in a state of constant war.

So I wanted to do a story about that. Somehow, when I actually sat down to draw it, it turned into a combination of Legion of Super Heroes and Animal House. [laughter] The characters wrested control of the book away from me. Once it turned into a superhero book, I thought I could force it into some kind of all-ages type book, but the characters just would not stop swearing.

SPURGEON: I was thinking while I was reading it that I would have very much liked it when I was a kid.

KOCHALKA: Right.

SPURGEON: All these people acting badly [Kochalka laughs] which is appealing to kids. People acting rotten.

KOCHALKA: It's not for the little kids, but I think teenagers would love it.

SPURGEON: Well, teenagers don't read comics.

KOCHALKA: No. [laughs] It's been getting reviewed on some superhero blog things, and those people tend to absolutely despise the book.

SPURGEON: In just the way you'd expect?

KOCHALKA: I'm surprised. They think I'm making fun of them. That I'm mocking them. I was just trying to create something that would have some of the feeling I would get reading Legion of Super-Heroes or Fantastic Four comics but be acceptable to my grown-up brain in some way.

SPURGEON: The way you structured the book is really dense, James. You're doing four tiers, and four panels across at some point. It's a longer read for that.

KOCHALKA: The reason I made it so dense -- there's a couple of reasons. The least interesting reason is that if I'd done it like the typical number of panels per page I normally do, I was afraid the book would be too expensive in full color. It would be a 150-page book instead of a 32-page book.

The other thing is I wanted to... in the original way I envisioned the book, to show the infinite variety of factions at war with each other, someone would light a cigarette and as the match was being lit we'd zoom in on the flame and in the flame and there would be two massive societies at war with each other. I obviously didn't end up doing any of that stuff in the book. But I wanted to capture that feeling that the universe was dense and complex. I've already pretty much covered the opposite idea in my books, that the universe is pretty much simple. [laughter] The universe is both complex and simple, and now I'm talking more about the complexities.

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SPURGEON: Do you have more fun writing boys rather than girls? Someone told me that after reading issue #1 they were disappointed that the girls weren't as gross and fun as the boy characters.

KOCHALKA: Well, it's a boy comic. I was at that Heroes Con or something and some girl was buying the book, and I warned her, "It's a boy's book." It was the first book she ever bought by me, so I was a little worried that she might not be buying the right one for her. [laughs] It's definitely a far cry from Quit Your Job. When I wrote that I was basically trying to move girls to tears. In a good way. Not in the way that I'm hurting them. [laughs] In this book, I didn't think too much about that kind of thing. Although I'm starting to work on issue #3, and issue #3 has a little bit of a love story in it. So maybe that will be more appealing.

SPURGEON: Let met ask you this --

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KOCHALKA: There's a love story in issue #1, but it's an unrequited love story, right?

SPURGEON: Well, sure. Unless you count the two things doing it in the toilet. [laughter]

The color palette in
SuperF*ckers is pretty interesting, with a lot of pinks and purples and some yellow. Did you try to stay away from...

KOCHALKA: ... somber colors?

SPURGEON: It looks different than most books out now.

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KOCHALKA: It was definitely conscious. I feel like all colors and color combinations have their artistic value in different situations. I look at the way things are colored now and it's like everybody's using Chris Ware's color scheme. It's not the only color scheme that exists in the world, but the comics that are coming out now you'd think that it was the only color scheme that exists in the world. It suits his comic very well because it's a somber comic. But SuperF*ckers is not a somber comic. It would be ridiculous if I colored it in those somber graytones.

SPURGEON: Are you learning stuff as you go along? I don't remember you doing a lot of color work before. Are there differences between the issues?

KOCHALKA: I've learned a lot about color over the past two years. I do the daily diary strip in color, online. There's nothing like practicing something every day to help you get better at it. Regarding SuperF*ckers, I think I started using some darker richer colors in #2. Part of the learning curve is not knowing how the book will print.

SPURGEON: Who printed the book?

KOCHALKA: Qubecor. In my experience in the past, things tend to print a little darker than what you think they're going to. This book for some reason didn't print darker, maybe because I used such bright colors.

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SPURGEON: Now, I love the back cover strip... is that figure clay?

KOCHALKA: That's sculptee.

SPURGEON: Are you going to do more stuff like that?

KOCHALKA: I don't have anything like that in the second issue, but I plan on doing some more in the third issue.

SPURGEON: How many are you going to do? Is this ongoing?

KOCHALKA: I'll do at least three. We'll see. I have another idea for a different book I want to do about monsters. [Spurgeon laughs] When I was first started thinking about the monster book -- I don't have a title for it yet -- I was like, "I want to do a book just like SuperF*ckers but with monsters and for all ages." Once I start working on it, it'll probably end up pretty different.

SPURGEON: It'll end up adult because of your potty mouth.

KOCHALKA: [laughs] I know a lot of little kids now that I have a kid. I'd like to do a book they could actually read. I've been reading a lot of kids' books because I read books to Eli.

SPURGEON: Have you heard back from any of your hardcore fans in a negative fashion on this book?

KOCHALKA: Yes. I just got a letter from a guy in Greece who said I should not be doing a book like this because I am a poet.

SPURGEON: A poet. Really?

KOCHALKA: Yes. And I wrote back to say, "It's a deep and meaningful, complex work..."

SPURGEON: "... so please stop acting like a jerk"? [laughter]

KOCHALKA: "It's a deep and meaningful complex work. It's not my fault if you can't see that." Just paraphrasing.

SPURGEON: How do you react to that, though? You're set on a certain path in some people's eyes. Do you feel constrained by that?

KOCHALKA: If I felt constrained by that, I wouldn't have been able to draw this book. I feel like I can do anything I want. Which is the best thing about being an artist, that you can do anything you want. As soon as you start feeling you can't do whatever you want because you're afraid how the readers are going to react, then it's just a job. I don't want to have a job.