Saturday, January 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #4: American Elf by James Kochalka

James Kochalka kept a daily diary comic, posted online at, for more than fourteen years, starting in late 1998 (with a few hiccups in the early months) and running through the end of 2012. That's one of the little-acknowledged great achievements in modern comics, a sustained burst of story and art unmatched by anyone else working today.

Even more important than the raw fact of American Elf's existence is that the strips were good all of the time, and sublime a lot of the time. Kochalka's life had interesting aspects and moments -- he fronted a rock band as well as being a cartoonist, and the years of the strip saw him grow from an ambitious but rough-edges young man into a slightly more settled husband and father -- and he launched the strip with a strong sense of focus on those aspects and moments. And that only got better as he gained more experience putting an entire day, or a moment that encapsulates that day, into four little comics panels.

All but the last year of American Elf has been collected, and I've written about much of it here -- Book Two, which collected the strips from 2004 and 2005; Book Three, which did the same for 2006 and 2007; and the double-sized (and, in retrospect, ill-timed) Book Four, which covered 2008 through 2011. The first four-plus years of the strip were originally self-published by Kochalka in a few smaller books under the title Sketchbook Diaries, and were then gathered together to make the first volume of the collected American Elf. And it's that first book that I came to last -- which isn't even ironic, since the whole point of a good diary is that each entry explains itself, and so it can be begun anywhere.

There's definitely an element of Kochalka finding himself in these early years, and a lot more questioning of the point of the exercise itself than he'd do later. But even from the beginning -- there's a comics introduction by Kochalka that makes this point explicitly -- he was trying to show a whole life through the small everyday moments, so the focus and detail and drive was there from the beginning.

It all began with a short run of strips -- two and three a day, actually -- during the San Diego Comic-Con in August of 1998, which inspired Kochalka to start doing it daily. (Though it did take him about two months to get around to that, showing that we're all procrastinators.) The early strips are more whimsical and sillier than Kochalka's later work -- not that he stopped being silly, but he worked out ways to be seriously silly as he went on, if that makes sense. These early years of American Elf are also more metafictional than the later ones -- Kochalka's strips were often about being strips, or about trying to find of twist moments to make better diary strips.

But the real joys of American Elf are of seeing this young man -- often too angry, always too energetic, a raw nerve vibrating against a world that doesn't know what to do with him -- as he works and plays and thinks and lives his life, building a work of art around those little moments. Maybe American Elf couldn't have gone on forever -- no life can be examined all the time -- but, still, we can wish that it went on longer, or could come back somehow, someday.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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