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The Cute Manifesto
By James Kochalka
Published by Alternative Comics; $19.95 USD

James Kochalka is a guy who just can't stop thinking about comics. He thinks about comics so much that other people who think a lot about comics have even appropriated Kochalka's most iconic statement on the subject to express their feelings on the matter. And while I believe Kochalka's very best work is by definition a work in progress, he certainly has come a long way since his earliest efforts within the artform.

One disgruntled former comics creator is even on record as saying Kochalka's work is a waste of paper, but it was instructive to me last year to meet someone who quite sincerely and convincingly recounted to me how Deadbear Detective -- one of Kochalka's earliest and most primitive works -- was a landmark moment in his comics-reading life that made him a lifelong devotee of the cartoonist's work. If there's one thing I've learned in my seven years or so as a comics critic, it's that personal, passionately created comics will reach and oftentimes profoundly affect an audience despite any perceived technical flaws, poor production values or a failure to check one's spelling. So while a closed mind or an embittered heart might dismiss Kochalka's seeming simplicity of line or overarching narrative concerns, the loyal and increasing audience he has built in the years I have watched his career is proof that craft may not be the enemy, but when unaccompanied by sincerity or passion, one should hide the silver and lock up one's daughters while it's hanging around.

The Cute Manifesto arrives as a sort of accidental primer on Kochalka. Many of his storytelling styles and moods are on display in this thick little book, from the pensive naturalism of Sunburn to the playful but impassioned inquiries of The Horrible Truth About Comics. His Craft is the Enemy essays are here, too, and if they aren't a solid model advice for every single person who wants to pick up an artist's tools and begin a lifetime of self-expression, they certainly provide more valuable, honest nutritive value than, say How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way.

One of Kochalka's undeniably best-conceived works is here, too. Reinventing Everything started out as two mini-comics, outlining how Kochalka saw his life and his world after the paradigm-shifting events of 11 September 2001. Among other things, Reinventing Everything is an explanation of and rumination on his and his wife's decision to bring new life into the world. It is at times as light and insubstantial as the blinking lights of a videogame screen, and then in the same story deeply humanistic, powerfully immediate and heart-stoppingly honest. It's impossible to think that the boy at the heart of this story, Eli Kochalka, won't someday read it and be singularly moved that his father felt so much and was so unafraid to share his feelings about his child with the small part of the world that cares what he has to say. It is just that, James Kochalka's unashamed and unmodulated love of life and all its complexity and contradiction, that makes his cartooning so valuable, so immediate, and so moving. I remain in awe of the achievement of Reinventing Everything, and I'm glad those two mini-comics have found new life in this more permanent form.

I wasn't altogether taken with the format and design of this book; I'd have liked it in larger dimensions, somewhere between here and the format of the Fancy Froglin volume. There's also perhaps a bit too much white space, which could have been used to feature the covers of many of the comics collected herein. Those are technical quibbles, though, and only impacted my enjoyment a bit. Ironically, probably the least affecting piece in this volume is the title story The Cute Manifesto. While obviously sincere and even factually accurate about both the universal cuteness of new life and the power of holding that life you've created in your arms, at just eight pages I sympathize with its intentions more than I can fully invest myself in its execution. That said, if I find it the weakest element of this volume, at eight pages it's hard to be terribly put out when so much excellence surrounds and outnumbers it. And hell, as my experience meeting that Deadbear Detective afficianado last year taught me, I could be all wet: You might think it's the best thing in this volume which contains so many good things.

For me, though, the real creative heart of this book is The Horrible Truth About Comics. It's not of terribly recent vintage -- Magic Boy's ears are longer and his hair is thicker than newcomers to Kochalka's work will expect -- but it is a long, thoughtful essay-in-comics-form that does that most magical magic trick of cartooning. The reader is utterly immersed and invested in the cartoonist's committment to exploring his own thoughts and ideas on the page, seemingly learing along with the reader what he believes and what he knows and pondering what still lies ahead in this most powerful artistic medium. "The biggest insult is a comic that sucks," Magic Boy says at one point, and we've all felt that sting of disappointment. "I don't mind a slap in the face if the result is a good comic," though, Kochalka notes; as one of the most forthright, emotional and observational of cartoonists, he certainly has suffered that -- at the hands of obsessive superhero hobbyists, jealous also-rans and confused readers who think every comic strip ever created has to have an easily digested punchline and eschew self-examination.

For my money, though, anyone who can't find meaning in Kochalka's work either doesn't have the life experience to appreciate the bravery with which the cartoonist explores the universes within and without him, or is deeply afraid to face the ultimate revelation such self-examination might result in. In any case, The Cute Manifesto is a powerful, compact and convincing case for the enduring and increasing popularity of one of team.artcomix's Most Valued Players, a love letter to comics, to his son, and most gratifyingly to us, his readers. "Resolve to put the skills you do hgave to work now," he says, "and pick up more along the way." Kochalka knows the true enemy is not craft, but time, and the insidious manner in which it ticks away whether we choose to use it wisely or not. Create every day, with passion and honesty, and your craft will improve by necessity and by nature. Kochalka's work over the years is an undeniable testament to this idea, and The Cute Manifesto is a wondrous documentation of his magical journey. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Alan David Doane

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Alan David Doane
Comic Book Galaxy Reviews
24 Larose St.
Glens Falls NY 12801

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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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