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James Kochalka is the steady, tick-tocking mantlepiece clock of the comics industry, each year creating 365 new daily diary strips that, considered as a piece, represent about as much as can be known about any given year in the life of a human being through the communications medium of autobiographical cartooning.
A good portion of my year -- perhaps more than is reasonable, but it was fun, nonetheless -- was spent thinking about Kochalka and his work. From the landmark release of his mammoth American Elf collection (five years of daily strips under one cover), or visits to his daily online diary strip, hardly a day went by that I didn't read his work. Even more exciting for me was how much time my daughter spent reading Kochalka's comics, opening up her mind to the possibilities of the artform years earlier than was the case for me. If there's something more rewarding in comics than passing on the love of them to your children, I've yet to experience it.
Part of that process, and one of the very best days of the year for my entire family, was the booksigning party held for the release of American Elf at Crow Books in Burlington, Vermont. My wife and I brought our two children to James Kochalka's hometown to get our books signed, and we even took pictures. The most astonishing thing about spending a few hours with James and his family is the sense you get of how fully he has integrated all the elements of his life. If you know James's comics, you know him, as much as such a thing is possible. And when your chosen medium is autobiographical comics, I don't think there's a higher achievement.
I want to thank James (and his family) for how much joy they gave us during the past year. And I'm thrilled he took a few minutes to reflect on 2004 and look ahead to 2005.
Probably the biggest release you had this year in comics was the American Elf collection, compiling five years of your daily cartoon diary strips. Can you tell me what was involved in putting together the book?
Well, the biggest part of the effort was just doing the daily strip for five years (and counting)! It really took a monumental mental commitment... especially since I had no real obligation to anyone but myself. It's not like there was a syndicate that was demanding a daily strip. For the first couple years I was not even sure I would ever find someone willing to publish it, so there really was more of incentive to stop than to continue. But I persevered.
Then for the collection I did some new comics as an introduction, tracked down Moby to write an introduction (which he ended up drawing as a comic strip), and gathered together a bunch of little seen full-color works of mine for the appendix. For me the most fun part was getting to include Amy & Josh's cakfolio. A photo collection of all the crazy cakes they baked during the first five years that I worked on the diary strip.
How did you feel when you first leafed through an actual finished copy of the book? I imagine after five years of work, it must have been a heady moment.
Well, every time one of my new books is published my first feeling when I hold it in my hands is usually crushing disappointment and nausea. Little design flaws & other problems jump out at me. I'm not even going to say what they are, hopefully no one else will notice them.
However, then I went out on a five-city booksigning tour. And getting to meet so many many hundreds of readers, and seeing how much they really cared about this book... well, let's just say I felt a LOT better.
Now that you've done over five years of daily strips, can you tell me what sort of discipline it requires, to turn out a new piece every day?
At this point, it's just another part of life. You know, I shower every day, I eat every day, I take care of my family, and I draw. It's like breathing, if breathing were art. It's like working on a really amazing garden or something.
What have you learned about yourself and your art, that you didn't know at the time you first decided to try to keep a daily cartoon diary?
Well, I've actually stopped trying to learn something about life. I have simply surrendered to it. I think that the meaning of life is to LIVE.
What I really learned a lot about is how art exists in relation to life. I learned that art is not a comment on life, it's actually part of life. The artist's artistic life goes through the same twists and turns and ups and downs and ins and outs and loop-de-loops as the artist's "real" life does. I learned that the idea of a "story" is false. Life is not structured like a novel. It's structured like an infinite number of novels cut up and shuffled together randomly.
I imagine most of the people in your life are well aware of your daily strip and are sensitive to how their interaction with you might end up in print and on the internet. Has the strip's existence changed any of your relationships?
I don't feel like it has. Maybe you should ask them!
You started posting the strips online in 2002, and at the end of this year over two full years of strips will be available in color in your archive at americanelf.com. What impact did taking the strip online have?
I made it much more fun to draw. Now I have nearly instant contact with my readers, and more importantly, the readers have nearly instant contact with my work. I live my life in real time, it's important that readers can read it in as close to real time as possible. The internet is the only way to make this happen.
Also, it's made a significant financial contribution as well. If readers want access to the archives of the strip, they can subscribe to AmericanElf.com for $1.95 a month. Already I'm making more money from the website than I'm getting in royalties for the print version from Top Shelf.
Not to mention the huge artistic growth I've experienced by working in color every day after about a decade of working pretty much exclusively in black & white.
In what way, if any, do you find that the online presence of the strip affects buyers and readers of the print version?
I think that the online readers feel quite a bit closer to me personally, as if they're right there with me as I live my life. I think reading the strip online each day makes them more emotionally invested in the work. Many of them go on to buy the print version as well, but not all.
Usually the addition of an adorable child signals the creative end of most TV sitcoms -- in the case of American Elf, the addition to your family of your son Eli seems to have deepened your thoughtfulness, at the same time giving you previously-unexplored avenues for creativity. How has Eli changed your family's life, and your approach to your art?
Well, I can't retreat within the shell of my own mind anymore. Now I must be actively engaged with my son, and therefore the world, always. Even if I retreat to just the realm of my family... myself, Eli and Amy... that's so much bigger and more dynamic than retreating to the realm of just my own mind.
Also, somehow my energy for drawing and for life has increased. My confidence for drawing and for life has increased. It was a trend that had already begun before we had Eli.
Looking at the past year's worth of strips, it seems like you're involved in more and more business activities, including a partnership with Moby, a record deal and a TV contract for a Pinky and Stinky series. Any thoughts on the very possible further infiltration you might make into popular culture as we head into 2005?
Oh, it's interesting. I like playing in these little realms of my own creation (the books, and comics, and whatnot)... but if I could expand those realms outward to include more of the world that would be awesome. I just want more to play with!
What was your experience like pitching a TV series?
Hilarious. Disastrous. I can't pitch an idea to save my life. I think I always come off to them as a little insane or retarded or something. The deals I have been able to get are when someone approaches me themselves, or when I let my agent do it all for me. Hollywood is just so weird.
You have a book called SUPER F*CKERS on tap for mid-2005, what was the inspiration for that?
For several years I thought about how the universe is at war with itself, and that every single element is struggling against every other. Somehow that turned into a team of teen-age super heroes living together in a clubhouse. There's a huge cast of characters, each living out their little lives and bumping up against the other characters. It's going to be a really awesome series. The first issue (which I refer to as issue #271) comes out in May, 2005. I'm already working on the second issue. They're full color, and much denser than my other comics. I'm working on a 16 panel grid instead of my regular 4 panel grid... so the first 35 page issue of Super F*ckers is equal to what would usually be a 140 page graphic novel for me.
I can't think of anything to say to express what's so great about it... but the people who have read it so far have been blown away. Or horrified.
What else can we expect to see from James Kochalka in the coming year?
Two issues of Super F*ckers, my first major musical release from Rykodisc (in March or April), The Cute Manifesto (collecting The Cute Manifesto, The Horrible Truth about Comics, Sunburn, Reinventing Everything Part 1 & 2, and my Craft is the Enemy letters), more diary comics, a French edition of American Elf, the first issue of a Spanish comic book series of my short-story length Magic Boy comics, and if we're lucky, an american television series based on Pinky & Stinky. I think I'm going to try my hand at children's picture books, too.
Stay on top of the latest James Kochalka news at the American Elf website