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Fantastic Butterflies
By James Kochalka
Published by Alternative Comics

A bit of a longform shaggy dog story, Fantastic Butterflies finds James Kochalka allowing his art to swim down the stream of his consciousness, creating not so much a narrative as a snapshot of the creator's world. Not a story, but a 160-page portrait in pen and ink, as seen through the delightful, distorted mirror of reality that James creates through observation and extrapolation of his friends and loved ones.

Kochalka's last major work, the graphic novel Pinky and Stinky, found the cartoonist engaging in perhaps more traditional storytelling than is usual. I was somewhat disappointed in Pinky and Stinky, and although I find it an entertaining work, autobiography is the form that most attracts me in comics, and while you can be certain many elements in Fantastic Butterflies are entirely fictional, there's a great deal of autobiographical foundation underlying the work. Besides, as Alan Moore has noted, "I happen to think fictions are real."

In the hands of gifted creators, you see, the unreal told in a short story can tell more truth than any number of volumes containing hard, cold facts. In Fantastic Butterflies, we see how James perceives his wife and her friend Josh by the way he gives their cartoon avatars Manga-inspired super powers. We sense the vitality and joy they must have through the cartoon battle they wage (and win) against a "Cancer Robot."

We see the moody surliness of Jason X-12 (the real-life Jason Cooley, Kochalka's guitarist in his band James Kochalka Superstar) in his disgust with the festive atmosphere at a party. James delights in turning his friends and family into robots, elves, dogs, however he perceives them -- and in some way, on some level, even a dog with a robot brain understands that these fictions take on a life of their own. Jason Cooley knows there's a truth in the depiction of himself as "a dog with a robot brain," even if that truth is only Kochalka's perception -- which is at once grounded in humanity and spectacularly surreal.

There are two serious elements in this graphic novel. Two of Kochalka's friends suffer health problems; one cancer, the other a burst testicle. I can only assume that these incidents are based on reality, although they are of course subjected to Kochalka's magical filter. Kochalka seems to be working out his feelings about these problems in the graphic novel -- in fact, in a way, I suspect they are the main impetus for it. Magic Boy, James's cartoon alter-ego, delivers a bit of a pep talk about the secret of being happy. While the points he makes may seem a bit heavy-handed in comparison to the rest of the lighter-than-air (yet still substantial -- and, I must say again, delightful) narrative, they spell out rather explicitly Kochalka's dualistic philosophy.

That some choose to dance after hearing his little speech while Jason X-12 continues to drink and even gets into a bar fight, shows us that Kochalka is not so blinded by his own outlook as to think that everyone will have the scales fall from their eyes once they've heard the Good Word According to Magic Boy. Kochalka can be a sunny optimist, but he's no fool.

The cartooning in Fantastic Butterflies, it bears mentioning, is some of Kochalka's strongest ever. His depictions of the woods at night, Jason X-12 walking darkened streets, and even just Magic Boy and friends sitting in a living room, all demonstrate a mature, confident talent that uses black ink to depict and fill reality like oxygen defines and fills your lungs and gives you new life with every breath. Virtually every page is a work of art unto itself, a splinter of a greater whole, beautiful in composition and execution, but as a whole creating a work of visual grace and depth.

This is a surreal story, as I said earlier "A distorted mirror of reality." But unlike the reflecting pool in this story that Jason X-12 complains reflects nothing, Kochalka's mirror reflects everything, a brilliant recreation of his personal ideaspace, a walk through his consciousness, a trip to a world that exists because James has observed it, and is observed because he exists in it. Trippy. Grade: 5/5

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