Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kochalka and Kochalka Again

All artists want to stretch, to do different things and not get stuck in a rut. Some are more successful than others, though -- some are so much better at their particular area than anything else, and some have a sensibility that only really works in one style. But Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, and even Meryl Streep dove into musical comedy singing ABBA songs, so every creative person wants to try to do the same -- to be Chris Gaines as well as Garth Brooks, to direct as well as act, to show the world The Day the Clown Cried. And the results are often less than attractive.

James Kochalka, though, seems to have no trouble with it. On the comics side, he does graphic novels for kids -- particularly the Johnny Boo series -- at the same time as projects like Superf*ckers, which should be kept far away from children (particularly the ones who like to copy what they read). And when you add in his music, animation, and game projects, it's difficult to understand when the man sleeps, or if he has any thought that doesn't immediately express itself in art.

Pinky & Stinky is one of Kochalka's books for kids -- originally published in 2002, so it's older than most of his material in that area (Johnny Boo, the Monkey Vs. Robot books). Like so many Kochalka fictions, it has an odd premise -- two talking pigs are sent on a ten-year mission to Pluto --that's immediately and completely accepted. Events follow in a linear, almost dream-like way: an asteroid hits the piggies' rocket, so they crashland on the Moon. They salvage what they can from the crash, and walk until they find human astronauts at a pumping station. Most of the astronauts don't like the "fat little piggies," and, in the ensuing conflict, they all fall beneath the surface into the ice city of the hand-shaped Moon Men. And so on -- the piggies end up triumphant in the end, but there's a lot of activity along the way, all of it both following directly from previous events and plausible the way stories told by elementary-school boys are plausible. It's silly and adventurous like a Saturday-morning cartoon, and Kochalka's loose, energetic style suits it well.

American Elf is something else again, the daily diary comic Kochalka has been doing, and posting online, since October of 1998.  He draws himself as an "elf" -- pointy ears, massive overbite -- but most of the rest of the "cast" (which means just the people Kochalka encounters in the course of his life) are drawn like Kochalka humans: simplified and cartoony, but meant to be human. There are exceptions, though: one friend and band-mate, Jason, is drawn as a cartoon dog, and crowds tend to become shaggy outline figures -- just as real crowds seem like a mass rather than individuals.

Diaries are a tricky form: they can easily descend into banality (of the "I had toast for breakfast" style), but that very prosaic every-day-ness is what makes the best diaries really work. American Elf, more than ten years on, is a casual, immediate account of moments in Kochalka's life -- one cartoon, usually in four square panels, now always in color, on one or two events that happened in the last day or so. Those can be domestic moments with his wife, Amy, and two young sons, sometimes touching but more often riotous or complaining, since those are two rambunctious boys and Kochalka doesn't gloss over how nervous and angry and hard to live with he often is. Or they can be moments from his various artistic careers -- a "rock show" or a concert for troubled kids or phone conferences with Hollywood or the minutia of designing a game or read-testing his new comics stories with his sons. It's all together in American Elf -- all of the stories and thoughts and moments and ideas, the conflicts and meals and errands and bedtimes of a real life, presented as they happen and assembled into books afterward.

Book 4 is the most recent collection, with all of the strips from 2008 through 2011 -- a fat book, like the first collection, and unlike the middle two, which only collected two years each. That added bulk is good for Book 4; it gives a wider view of Kochalka's life, from just after the birth of his second son Oliver up past Oliver's fourth birthday, with time to see projects come and go and feel the ebb and flow of the year (summer camping trips, holidays, comics conventions at the same times each year). Kochalka's eye on his own life is unsparing and all-encompassing, from fears to lusts to career concerns to anger to playing with his sons -- and, in every strip, it feels like utter honesty, no matter what the subject. American Elf is one of the great comics of our time, and it got that way quietly, assembling itself day by day through Kochalka's eye and hand and brain, making art every single day out of something that happened to him, something that he thought and felt. The brilliance of American Elf is that it has no beginning or end -- a reader can jump in beginning any day (today, six months ago, the beginning, 2002) and come back to it every day for more. But Book 4 is a great package for a great strip, and Kochalka's life and art is well worth exploring and examining and celebrating.

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