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American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka
By James Kochalka
Published by Top Shelf

American Elf is a gigantic collection, complete and unabridged, featuring five years of Kochalka's daily diary strips, giving perhaps the most complete and complex view into the head of any cartoonist who ever lived. His strips reveal all about his love for his wife, his boner for life, and the ins and outs of what it is to be James Kochalka, Superstar. The five years of comic strips collected here are endlessly funny, engaging, and entertaining.

Kochalka began keeping these diary entries in the form of comic strips a few years ago, and with one brief exception, he has never missed a day. As you might expect, then, we get a pretty good look into his inner life. Kochalka reveals himself as neurotic and romantic, playful and extremely thoughtful. These strips are all so compact and so much fun that virtually anyone, comics reader or not, will quickly find something hilarious, insightful or otherwise delightful to occupy their attention the minute they crack open the cover. This stuff is so addictive, and this package is so attractive, that it will shatter any preconceived notions about comics that your friends and family may have.

This volume collects everything from the previously-released Sketchbook Diaries volumes 1-4, plus an additional year's worth of strips and a ton of colour paintings, new strips and hidden gems. I've been writing about how great James Kochalka's comics are for about as long as I've been doing writing about comics, but this new collection is such a tremendous capstone to his delightful career, that I hope he is as proud of creating it as I am proud to own such a seminal comics work. No one has ever done something quite like James Kochalka's American Elf, and a copy belongs in the collection of anyone who just plain loves good comics.

To read Kochalka's work is to immerse yourself in his contradictory, delightful consciousness, where no admission is too humiliating, and no observation truly inconsequential, even the inconsequential ones. The primary elements of Kochalka's world as we see it are his wife Amy, and his alter-ego Magic Boy. Also important is their cat Spandy, and their apartment, and the relationship between all of these elements. The true joy of the book is seeing James grow over the years, grow into his celebrity, grow into his art, grow into new roles as a Superstar, homeowner and most compellingly, as a father.

To me, the most important strips are the ones that focus on James and Amy's family. He adores and infuriates his wife, and she complements him perfectly. At the end of the day, the ongoing story of their romance is a heartening one. Late in the story that unfolds over five years, the two decide to have a child, and as you can imagine this takes the strips to new heights of hilarity and impressive new layers of personal, human revelation.

There is a universe of life experience on display here; James is a keen observer of the bizarre, tiny little details and moments that make up his personal universe. These observations can be surprisingly insightful or they can be outrageously funny, such as the strip here about Spandy's dirty ears. "It's where I keep my dirt!" Spandy, indignant, protests. The relationship between Kochalka and his cat is at once fantastically funny and deeply moving; baby Eli really seems like James and Amy's second child, in many ways. Especially to Spandy.

The number of creators who speak this directly to the "Horror of being alive," as Tony Millionaire might put it, is probably pretty small. But Kochalka digs right in, constantly tortured with small changes to his body ("Those tiny bubbles are back!"), or by how to depict the world as he perceives it.

This book has five years' worth of daily comic strips by one of the best cartoonists alive, and it's a gorgeous, constantly surprising volume that you will cherish for all the years you own it. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane


The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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