Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 23, 2008

CR Sunday Interview: James Kochalka



imageI don't know that I'll ever figure out James Kochalka, and I'm not sure I care. I enjoy James and I like James' work quite a bit in its various forms, and I'm particularly fond of American Elf, his daily diary strip that recently celebrated a 10th anniversary. I imagine that for a long of young cartoonists the cartoonist/singer/painter looms large influence-wise in a way that we're only now just beginning to see, not just a slew of imitative webcomics but a whole approach to doing comics, extending from a greater emphasis on process all the way to his frequently satisfying embrace of odd colors that work on the screen more than they might on the printed page. Although he may not be the most successful cartoonist of his generation, Kochalka's career makes admirable sense: a constant flow from play into work, from art into life, and back again. It's a way of thinking where I could probably ask him 125 questions and I know that he'd answer them honestly and without the usual barriers between thought and response. I kept it down under 25, though. In the interview below we talk mostly about American Elf but make sure to include the latest word on some of the projects of his I like best: Johnny Boo, Superf*ckers and his recent forays into painting -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: When you passed the ten-year point on American Elf, was there any extra rumination on your part over what you've done, the accomplishment represented by the strip?

JAMES KOCHALKA: The whole past year, since October a year ago, I've been pretty acutely aware that the 10th anniversary was coming. In fact, I did worry from time to time that the entire endeavor had been sort of pointless. When I began, I was hoping to reveal something amazing about the way a human life unfolded. That unlike typical literature, the stories of our lives don't have neat beginnings, middles, and ends. It's more like thousands of interconnected threads of stories winding and looping and knotting around each other, starting and stopping and repeating endlessly. But that was pretty clearly established in just the first couple years of the strip, and maybe the rest of the ten years was just more of the same and rather pointless? It's not like every year of the strip necessarily reveals greater truths about human existence than the year before it. But then I look back over the ten years as whole and there have been profound changes... especially becoming a father... that have made the strip a much richer work. So, it's good that I stuck with it.

SPURGEON: Another thing I imagine might be on your mind is how doing the strip, both the documentary aspect of it and the investment it represents, has perhaps altered your life. Do you think your life is different for having this very personal, intimate dialogue with a readership out there on a daily basis?

KOCHALKA: That's just the thing. When I reached the anniversary it suddenly became clear to me that discovering some secret truth about human existence was not necessarily important. That the really important thing about drawing the daily diary strip was the way that it had utterly transformed my life for the better. I am more unified and whole because of the strip. There is no meaningful separation between my art and my life. They have become one.

SPURGEON: Is there anything that used to be a bigger part of American Elf that's maybe anot in there as much now? Is there anything you notice by its absence?

KOCHALKA: Sure, lots of stuff. For instance, I used to work as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, which was in the strip a lot for the first couple of months before I quit my job to become a full-time artist. Amy and I used to go out drinking and stuff, but that's not really in there that much anymore, because now that we have kids we just don't do it anymore. My cat Spandy used to be in the strip nearly constantly, but she's been largely replaced by Eli and Oliver. She still shows up in like one strip a month maybe, but she almost never talks anymore like I used to draw her doing.

Even my wife Amy is not in the strip as much anymore as she used to be. These two boys so completely overwhelm our lives that a lot of other stuff is pushed out. I think it's a rather fascinating turn of events... it's a real struggle, I think that you can see the struggle in the strip. Sometimes I happily let them consume me totally, and other times I struggle against it. I think it's a dynamic that's in there, but not overtly stated.


SPURGEON: There seems to be a tendency to split artists who work with autobiographical figures into those that work with... let's call them peak experiences and those that work with daily experiences, with the idea from some that those cartoonists who work with one or two major, life-changing experiences may be making more powerful comics than those that are saying "here's what happened today." I was interested how you might make the case for a daily diary comic to someone who was maybe a bit skeptical about reading one. What specific value does your work have? Does it have value beyond the pleasure of reading it?

KOCHALKA: I don't think that my strip is really about "what happened today." It's about what happened today in relation to every other day. Beyond that, it's about the totality of my human life, and by extension all human lives. Which I think is incredibly more important than someone's "peak experience." Sometimes the peaks obscure the true meaning and value of human life. I know that when I'm drawing the strip, sometimes even the day's peak experience is not ultimately the thing I choose to draw. Because sometimes the minor events have a subtle resonance that speaks more directly to the human experience, whereas the peak distracts and misleads.

My strip makes the mundane more important. It can even make the mundane magical and transformative. And when the mundane is magical and transformative then those peak experiences shrink in importance, and become more like awkward anomalies.

But I tackle the peak experiences, too, when they come and I think the feeling is right. Nothing earth shattering has happened to me, but my life has highs and lows just like any other.


SPURGEON: I'm not sure exactly how to phrase this... one thing I find interesting about your work is that it's not nostalgic. I think a lot of people if asked to do a comic dealing with some of American Elf's basic themes and interests would spend more time talking about their personal histories... how do you avoid being overly nostalgic in your work? Is that something you have to actively resist?

KOCHALKA: Huh. That's interesting. I guess I live so strongly in the moment that I'm not easily overcome by thoughts of the past? The living in the moment thing greatly accentuates and exaggerates the importance of what I'm experiencing right now. Like, if a meal is really good, I'm thinking "this is the best thing I have ever eaten." Or if I'm experiencing joy, I'm thinking "I've never been as happy as I am right now." Unfortunately, minor negative experiences easily overwhelm me as well.

I think maybe the process of drawing the strip, which is very much focused on the now, may have accidentally worked to rewire my brain in this respect. Or maybe the whole reason I draw the strip is because my brain was already wired this way.

imageSPURGEON: Congratulations on being named an Official Selection of the 2009 Angouleme Festival. How are you published in Europe, James? How much of your work is available over there? Do readers in Europe either through your print publication or through on-line means react to your work differently?

KOCHALKA: I really have little idea what readers in Europe think of my work. There has been a French and Danish edition of Kissers, a Portuguese edition of my early graphic novel Paradise Sucks, Portuguese and Spanish collections of my short stories, and there have been French, Italian and Spanish editions of American Elf, each in slightly different form. The french edition of American Elf by Ego Comme X is very much like Top Shelf's. It's a big book collecting the first five years of the strip. That's the one that's made Angouleme's list.

SPURGEON: You're slated to go to Angouleme this year. Do you like con and festival experiences?

KOCHALKA: They were thrilling when I was younger. And sometimes they're still thrilling, especially when I meet new people or crash crazy parties or something. Sitting at the table and signing books can be kind of a chore unless I remind myself to have fun with it. I think it's important to be there, professionally, to remind people that I exist and make and maintain contacts that could be useful in this business.

SPURGEON: You have a lot of irons in the fire, it seems. What is your daily experience with art like? I know that you've invested a lot of your time into play with your family, so maybe it's not even that distinct a time when you're working on your art. But do you keep any kind of schedule? Do you move back and forth between projects as it pleases you to do so? I guess, in general, how do you work?

KOCHALKA: Well, as I go about my day I'm thinking comics all the time. I mentally rewrite my life in comics form as I live it. I spend a lot of time playing with my boys, of course, but a lot of that is creative play which is essentially like writing stories in 3D space using our bodies. I spontaneously burst out in song, little songs inspired by whatever we're doing at the time. Like, if someone falls down I might bust out a song about that, or a song about cooking dinner, or a song about changing the diaper, or brushing teething. Just all day long, I sing little songs. Eli is five, he's in kindergarten, and Oliver is almost one and he's in daycare three days a week, so I do most of my work on those days when they're out of the house. But that's not quite enough, so on the days that Oliver is home I'll draw while he takes a nap, or sometimes even when he's sitting on my lap, or in the evening when they go to sleep.

If I'm working on a comic for kids then Eli is always my test audience. The comics are read to him again and again as bedtime stories in rough draft form, works in progress.


SPURGEON: Do you have a sense of your audience, and how it might be different than most comics audiences? I always got the sense that you had a lot of younger readers, not just for the material that you have targeted for that group but for your work in general.

KOCHALKA: My readership started off as almost exclusively 20-something hipsters, but now it is much more diverse, I think. In addition to running online -- and being collected into books -- American Elf also runs in the local free weekly paper, Seven Days. Although it's definitely an adult-oriented strip, there's plenty of kids that read American Elf in the newspaper. A lot of couples tell me that they love to read American Elf to each other in bed. The readership seems to include male & female, young & old, couples & singles. The comics that I do specifically for kids, like Johnny Boo, also have a pretty substantial adult readership. For a guy like me who is kind of a freak, it's astonishing that such a wide crowd seems to get my work. I mean, my "career" is still pretty much at the cult level of success, but my readers aren't exclusively the type of people that seek out and revel in the obscure.

SPURGEON: How do you feel about your imitators, those inspired by you? What is it like looking in that kind of fun house mirror?

KOCHALKA: I think it's good that I inspired them to make more art. It's good to draw everyday, no harm can come of that I think. If they're drawing a diary strip, then they have to take some time to contemplate their life, and I think that's good, too. It's not that the world needs more diary strips necessarily, but I think there's plenty of people who find drawing one to be the same sort of transformative experience that I found it be, so it's good for them personally even if the world at large has no use for it.

At some point, any ambitious artist is going to want to make their own stamp on the world and go in their own direction. But not everyone has that ambition, and I wouldn't think less of anyone for that.

SPURGEON: I have no sense of what you read, James. Is comics a part of your reading, still? Who do you find inspirational in that sense? Is there anything or anyone that informs your work that we might be surprised to hear does so?

KOCHALKA: My comics reading is pretty omnivorous. I love the standard alt comics pantheon of greats... Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are two favorites, most everything from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. I like the new comics avant garde, Ben Jones of Paper Rad is big favorite, and I really like much of the stuff in Kramers Ergot. I really like where art comics and adventure comics cross paths, like in Powr Mastrs by CF, or The Mourning Star by Kazimir Strepek, or Daybreak by Brian Ralph. I love mainstream superhero comics stuff, like Frank Miller when he does Bat Man, or Invincible by Robot Kirkman, or All-Star Superman. I read a lot of the current DC comics for little kids to my son Eli, like Tiny Titans or Legion of Superheroes in the 31st Century. I also read him the Harvey reprints like Casper and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. I love the Sunday Press comic strip reprints. I love everything by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. Moomin by Tove Jansson. Jack Kirby reprints. We've only scratched the surface here of what I read and like.

After years of avoiding prose, I find I've been reading a lot of non-comics work lately too. Kelly Link (Magic For Beginners) is pretty great. I love Toa Lin's absurd avant garde writing, especially his book Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which is poetry... mostly about depressed hamsters. Miranda July. George Saunders. Etgar Keret. I guess the trend here is that I prefer short stories to novels, but I like full on novels, too. Tove Jansson is probably my favorite author, and not just her children's work. I've read all her adult novels, too, in the last couple years.

SPURGEON: Beyond works that you like, do you feel that there are works that are sympathetic to your own? Are there works that you feel are doing the same sort of thing you are in terms of their focus and approach, say?

KOCHALKA: Oh, I see what you mean. I don't know really. I feel an affinity for aspects of the work of a wide variety of cartoonists. But I'm not sure there's anyone that close where I feel like we're really really artistically in sync together. The closest may be Tony Millionaire, in that he draws both imaginative adventure comics, gross out stuff, and tender delicate work as well.

Yeah... I'd say the two cartoonists whose work is most often on my mind when I'm working are probably Tony Millionaire and Chris Ware. Chris Ware's work especially is something of a counterpoint for American Elf. Fascinating, brilliant work that is going in a nearly opposite direction than mine is... and yet still retains a clear link. I think it's the buried humanity of his work and it's ambition that most interests me. I very clearly do not want my humanity to be buried by my ambition. I want my ambition to be wedded to joy and not despair. And make no mistake, I am a hugely ambitious cartoonist. I would never have undertaken such a giant work as American Elf if I were not.


SPURGEON: One thing that really strikes me when I go back to your work after a while of not looking at it is your sense of color, the very strong use of some offbeat colors mixed together, this overall effect of kind of a bright, not-yet-properly tuned TV flooding a darkened room. How do you approach the colors in your strip?

KOCHALKA: Well, I pick the color of the line work first and then put the rest of the colors in response to that. I use color to try to capture a combination of factors... the time of day, the time of year, and the emotional reality of the strip as I see it. I guess in that regard it's a sort of expressionism.

I feel no worries about taking a risk with color, because if it doesn't work out there's always tomorrow to try again. The daily strip is freeing in that sense... it doesn't matter much if I want to try something different, no matter what I do it's just a little blip in the work as a whole.

SPURGEON: Doing a comic for as long as American Elf, is there any work on your part to try to avoid visual or rhythmic clichés? Do you ever go back over a bunch of the strips and say, "My gosh, I do that one thing entirely too frequently." Do you have a self-improvement gene that comes out that way, James? If not, how do you work on becoming a better cartoonist, or do you even think about it in those terms?

KOCHALKA: In real life the same things do in fact happen again and again. So I sometimes like to capture that in the strip. I actually don't reread my strip very much at all, but I do look them over without really reading them from time to time -- especially when proofing the books before they go to the printer -- and I'm generally pretty aware of what I've done and haven't done.

imageI try not to let myself get complacent. I don't go for the thing that would be easiest to draw each day. Still, some deeply personal things are outrageously difficult to get a handle on. Some of the most difficult things to write about... if I can't tackle them the first time they occur to me, I wait until they pop up again later in life, and maybe that's the time that I can handle it. And sometimes I just have to force myself to take the plunge and step in that direction, and sometimes I have to find a way to write about it sideways and trick myself that way.

I really do work hard to always keep the strip going forward, pushing harder emotionally in various directions... but the idea of "better"? Well, what I think is better varies wildly from day to day. I find it more useful to wait until I'm unbalanced, and let the strip hit me with a sucker punch. Not just in my diary strip, but all my work, I try to work myself into a zone where things can pop in unexpectedly and take me by surprise. It's kind of like this... part of my mind is not thinking, and another part is pushing really hard trying to get deeper into the secret stuff.

SPURGEON: When we talked a long, long time ago, you told me that there was a part of you that would always prefer mini-comics because of the immediacy of getting something out there just by hitting the copier. I take it that putting stuff up on-line has a similar appeal. What do you think is at the heart of your desire to get your work out quickly? Is it to make the work and the feedback one experience? Is it just excitement over the work itself? Is it the thrill of working without an editorial net?

KOCHALKA: The internet has mostly replaced the mini-comic, for me. When I'm working on something, and right after I've finished it, that's when I care about it most. I want to get it out there into the world while I still care about it. That's when it feels most alive to me. Waiting for a publisher to schedule a work is and waiting for it to finally see print is like watching it die, or even a bit like dying myself. By the time the book is published it's already practically dead to me, I've moved on to other work. I think that's why I like more immediate forms of distribution.

SPURGEON: Do you have any feelings about webcomics in general and how they've progressed? I talked to Jesse Reklaw recently and it struck me that both he and you kind of presaged this whole webcomics revolution while at the same time not letting that whole world pass you by like some of the early webcomics talents. Is there anything you admire or think interesting about the wave of prominent web site cartoons out there? Is there anything you think is missing from that whole scene, work you'd like to see done or a way of approaching work you'd love to see emphasized? Do you even consider yourself a webcartoonist?

KOCHALKA: I'm amazing how many of these guys are able to make really good money drawing their webcomics and giving them away for free. If there's any danger it's that their work can become more about generating money-making t-shirt slogans and less about the stuff of art, like exploring the human condition or whatever.

I do consider myself a webcartoonist. I have a lot of webcartoonist friends and we talk about webcartoonist stuff.

But perhaps really my diary comic is more part of the same zeitgeist that led to blogs and YouTube. Blogs and YouTube are about taking the little mundane things showcasing them, and making them huge and important, kinda just like American Elf does. The thing that all these have in common, webcomics too, is ordinary people, not giant corporations, making their own stuff unfettered by editors.

Really, I want to make anything and everything. Toys, movies, books, records, webcomics. I even try to invent new drinks and stuff like that.

SPURGEON: Do you have any thoughts about how your work will be distributed in the near future? It seems like you're perfectly set up to be published on a mobile phone, for example.

KOCHALKA: People keep saying that to me. I don't think American Elf would work that way... just because it's not very rigidly drawn... it varies quite a bit in panel size and shape, which work fine on the large screen of a computer, but I don't think that cell phones offer a big enough canvas for that. I think they'd be pretty unforgiving of any strip that was not drawn specifically for their dimensions.

imageSPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about some of your other projects. First, is Superf*ckers dead? I got the sense that that book became really complicated to make, really quickly, at least in terms of having all these character and finding fresh ground on which to do an issue.

KOCHALKA: SuperF*ckers is extremely difficult, time consuming work. But it keeps drawing me back. I recently did a new 16 page story, that I put up as bonus content for subscribers at

imageSPURGEON: I didn't know! It occurs to me the next Johnny Boo is due any day now, too. Am I right in thinking that this was your attempt at capturing the kind of joking and light slapstick that dominates everyday play with young kids? Was there anything different about returning to that work for #2?

KOCHALKA: Yes, it is about the kind of imaginative, rollicking play that my kids and I partake in. But it is also about what an asshole I am. I have wild mood swings, and the book sort of mimics that. I often go very quickly from joy to despair to anger to joy, ping-ponging back and forth all day long. And I've tried to recreate that dynamic in the book. Also, Johnny Boo himself is kind of comment on my ego as an artist. He thinks he's awesome just for being Johnny Boo. I think it's a little more pointed in #2.

imageSPURGEON: I also remember that at one point you had a book of small paintings coming out. Is that still due? What is that, exactly?

KOCHALKA: I've been paintings hundreds and hundreds of little 2x2 inch paintings. I've had three major shows of them at Giant Robot over the last couple years, first at Giant Robot NY, then Giant Robot SF, and right now at GR2 in LA. So, I took what I thought were the best ones and arranged them six to a page in a sort of comic book format. It forms a sort of non-narrative narrative... a sort of emotional narrative with no plot. Anyhow, I put the book together about a year ago and Top Shelf scheduled it for spring 2008. Then Top Shelf bumped it to November 2008. But then they just told me that they will not publish it until 2010. I think chances are slim for this book, honestly.

SPURGEON: Have you done well in terms of gallery sales and original art sales over the years? Is there something you think people react to seeing your originals that they might not react to with the published material?

KOCHALKA: The shows at Giant Robot have been pretty wildly successful. They have their own scene going on... so although there's definitely a lot of my readers buying the paintings, there's also a lot of people who aren't even that familiar with my comics who are buying the paintings too.

Paintings definitely do have a different appeal than comics. I guess it's about contemplating one moment in time as opposed to showing the progression of time.

SPURGEON: There seems to be a lot of similarity between your various comic project in the kinds of things that interest you, and there seems to be a playfulness that connects your comics and your music -- how is panting different as a way to express your favorite themes? What does painting allow you to do that cartooning or making music doesn't?

KOCHALKA: I guess painting allows me to use unobstructed metaphor. That is, I can paint something that means something to me, divorced from story, and I don't need to explain it or justify it in any way if I don't want to.


SPURGEON: You mentioned in your anniversary strip that that would have been a good point to quit. It was a joke, but do you have any idea what will be a good point for you to stop doing that comic? When do you think you'll know it's time to end it?

KOCHALKA: There may be no way out. I think I'm doomed. No, seriously, I'll stop American Elf if and when I really want to. It's a lot of damn work, that's for sure, so I often entertain the fantasy about quitting. But it's such a huge part of my life now, I don't think I could quit. If I quit, it would be probably be because something else became more important to me. Which could happen. Maybe some other artistic obsession will take over. Or maybe society will crumble and there won't be paper or ink or time to fritter away.

SPURGEON: Is craft still the enemy?

KOCHALKA: Yes. However, because I draw so much, so hard, I almost can't help but to improve my chops and solidify my craft. I have to purposefully cultivate a situation where I can still be surprised, where the new and unexpected sneaks in and overpowers my years of experience. Like I think I said earlier, I kind of let half my brain work without thinking while the other half my brain positions itself to knock me on my ass.


* self-portrait, painting
* photo by me
* early American Elf panel
* living in the moment, American Elf
* the recently-honored French-language book
* I just sort of liked this one, American Elf
* some of the offbeat coloration Kochalka uses to fine effect, American Elf
* I just sort of liked this panel, American Elf
* from Superf*ckers
* the second Johnny Boo cover
* painting by Kochalka
* the tenth anniversary comic, American Elf
* (below) Kochalka doing answers for this interview


* American Elf
* American Elf print collections: one, two, three
* Johnny Boo Volume Two: Twinkle Power, hardcover, 40 pages, 9781603090155, $9.95
* other titles



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