James Kochalka : American Elf

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October 26, 1998 : James Kochalka decides to take on the challenge of producing a 4-panel daily strip, based on his daily life. Ten years later, this “cartoon diary” is still running alongside the artist’s other projects, withstanding two births and marveling at the little things of family life. An exploration of the intimate.

Nicolas Verstappen : It seems it was hard for you to find a publisher for your diaries. We can see in one of your strips that Chris Oliveros (D&Q) didn’t want to publish it.

James Kochalka : The reason it was hard to find a publisher for my diaries is because they’re a daily strip and not a graphic novel. The publishers just couldn’t quite wrap their head around that, at first.

And it’s not quite true that Chris Oliveros didn’t want to publish it. He couldn’t decide. So one day I called him up and decided for him. I told him “you don’t want to publish it” and that was that. Afterwards, I thought to myself… maybe I should’ve talked him INTO publishing it instead of talking him out of it. So, five minutes later I called Chris Staros (of Top Shelf). Staros had already rejected my proposal, but within a couple minutes I had him convinced to publish it.

NV : The five first years of your sketchbook diaries have been collected as American Elf. Each cover of #1, 2, 3 and 4 was a “season” and it would have been more logical to collect four diaries as a “year”. Why did you choose five years ?

JK : The book will actuall contains MORE than five full years. It’s five years and two months. It includes pretty much right up to the date that I started working putting together the book collection, so it’s as complete as it possibly could be at that time.

NV : Do you see the publication of your strips on your site only as a preview of a book ? Or is a publishing space of its own (and books would be a side-effect) ?

JK : The strip itself is the primary thing. And the website is the first and most direct way that I get the strip from me to the readers. The book is another way to get the strip to readers. The advantage of the website is it’s immediacy. The advantage of the book is it’s permanency and intimacy.

NV : In XeroXed #1, Joe Matt told me : “I view the generation younger than mine as more carefree, less neurotic, less rebellious, and with an approach to comics that values the art significantly more than the writing”. Do you agree with that ?

JK : Um… I’m not sure. What generation do you think I’m part of ? I might actually be older than Joe Matt, as far as I know. I’ll turn 37 next month [April 2007]. Life is really really good for me. I’m carefree AND rebellious. I rebel against anything that tries to put limits on my happiness, my artistic exploration, my work or my play.

NV : NV : You have worked with both Craig Thompson and Jeffrey Brown on the Conversation books, where you traded your respective views on comics. Do you feel like Craig Thompson that you’re in the “Understanding Comics” generation ? Do you feel more interested in theory than the generation before (as you wrote the Horrible Truth about Comics) ?

JK : I am interested in theory… because I like thinking. I’m intelligent, but I’m not an intellectual. I’m a playful thinker.

NV : I seem to remember there was a Conversation #3 with Frank Miller announced ? Was that project aborted ?

JK : Frank was supposed to be next in line, but then he broke his arm and then his movie career took off. I started one with Tom Devlin (my old publisher, he ran Highwater Books but he’s also a great cartoonist) but Tom gave up by the second page. I recently started one with Jeff Smith (Bone) but we only got about 5 pages in and then he got too busy to continue. Hopefully it will still get done.

NV : Can we see your diaries as some kind of a “ritual”, as something that would help you to go through your anxiety ?

JK : It’s not cathartic really. What it does is structure my life. Other people have jobs that help give their life structure. The diary gives my life structure. It’s something that I do every day. It is a real part of the fabric of my life.

NV : You’re writing a strip a day for American Elf. Isn’t it too frustrating to keep that rule when you’ve two or three strips in mind the same day ?

JK : Sometimes I draw more than one strip for a single day. So no, not really. Besides, I’ve found that most things in life happen more than once. So if I miss something one day, it’s bound to happen again sooner or later and I can write about it then. There are certain events that I’ve watched and waited for, knowing that when they eventually happened again, I’d right about them. Not necessarily even big things, just little family things maybe.

2008 will be the 10th anniversary of American Elf. I could draw it without even thinking at this point, but I always try to push myself into new territory. Plus my life just naturally pushes itself into new territory. My wife Amy and I just had our second child, Oliver.

NV : I have the feeling that Eli’s birth had a big impact on your American Elf writing. With Eli, it seems like if magic and “reality” just fitted together even more than you could have dreamed of… (I hope my sentence is clear enough…).

JK : That unification of all aspects of life that I mentioned above, that’s due largely to having my first little boy, yes. Having both children and art together in my life really helped unify everything. Now work and play are unified… I draw about our play adventures, and we draw while we play, drawing is playing and my work is drawing. Reality and fantasy are united… Everything we do is magnified and focused by our imagination to become something else, something more exciting, something magical.

Well, on my bright days everything is magical. On my dark days, it’s all a horrible nightmare. But I have far more bright days than dark days.

NV : In the Comics Journal Special Edition Summer 2002, we can read about Trondheim’s comics that they are “as handwriting, as natural and sustaining as breathing, as spontaneous as living”. Is it something you also try to achieve through your diaries and graphic novels ?

JK : Definitely. There is no separation in my day between art and life. And now that I am able to make a living drawing comics, there is no separation between work and play, either. Work, play, art, life… it’s all one thing to me.

NV : We can see in your diaries that you like Trondheim’s comics. How did you dicover his work ?

JK : I think I first found his comics in a book store in Montreal. Montreal is a french speaking city in Canada just two hours from where I live in the USA. For a while I was buying a lot of French comics even though I can’t really read French. It took me six months to read Lapinot et les Carottes de Patagonie, armed with a French-to-English dictionary.

NV : You named your GameBoy Advance “Snowy”. Does Hergé have an influence on your work (like in Pinky and Stinky adventures on the Moon) ?

JK : Tintin is the best adventure comic. So when I draw an adventure comic, Hergé is a definite influence. I read all the Tintin books when I was a kid. When I’m trying to create a little world for my characters to exist in, I often think back to how he put his little world together. I want to create a world that is vivid and crisp, in the same way that Herge’s world looks vivid and crisp. I don’t want my world to look like his world, I just want it to excite the imagination in the same way.

Astérix, too. Astérix is big influence when I do humorous comics. Everything I encounter bubbles up through my work in some way, you could say.

NV : Who is your favorite character ?

JK : Snowy. He barks differently than american dogs.

NV : Dylan Horrocks says that Hergé did find a way to draw pictures “where everything was perfect — defined in simple clear lines and smooth bright colours”. Are you also fascinated by reaching an iconic perfection ?

JK : Perfection, no. I’m attracted to the power of simplification. I’m also interested in how you can build a complex work from simple building blocks. Like the universe itself is complex and simple at the same time.

NV : Why did you get more realistic about the way of drawing Spandy in your Diary #3 ? Is it because you began “drawing with a new found confidence” ?

JK : I’m not content to stay static. One day I thought to myself… my cat has stripes, why don’t I draw them ? And I so I started drawing her fur more realistically. I hadn’t even really noticed that this was a detail I had been neglecting. As time goes by in the strips, many revelations like this have occurred. Less are about physical appearances though, and more are about the meaning of things.

NV : You say in the introduction of your Diary #1 that “life is not structured like a typical narrative”. Does your diary help you to find new ways to tell stories ? Is it like Moebius saying : “There’s no reason that a story should be like a house with a door to enter, with windows and a chimney. We can imagine stories with the shape of an elephant, a wheat field or a flame” ?

JK : I’m just trying to make art that’s more like life. Typical narrative is a very artificial construct, and I have no use for it in my explorations of life.

NV : You’ve started American Elf in black & white. Recently you’ve add colors. Do you see colors as a new “toy” ?

JK : I added color to American Elf in 2002, when I started. Color was something of a stumbling block my whole life making art. That is, until working with it daily on the computer gave me the opportunity to test and try various color schemes with little worry of the consequence (you can always just “undo”) and now I understand color really really well. Color feels intimate and natural and intuitive to me now. I love working with it.

Volume 2 of American Elf was published this past year in the US in full color.

NV : There’s a lot of freedom regarding your art. You say in your Cartoon Diary #3 (July 1, 2001) : “I know I’m not supposed to draw us doing it, but I might today”. Even for some things (like sex), you do not put any rules ?

JK : I don’t think I’ve ever drawn myself masturbating in the strip, but I’ve alluded to it, definitely. Maybe I have drawn it, I don’t know. I actually don’t bother going back and reading my own work anymore. It’s full steam ahead for me, I don’t look back.

NV : “Strip on the stage, strips on the pages”… Is getting “naked” on the stage of a rock show like getting “naked” in your strips ? Do you feel sometimes “exhibitionist” ?

JK : I think it’s different. A rock show has a certain kind of energy that can sometimes inspire a loss of clothing. It’s not about “exposing” myself, it’s about rocking harder. In fact, I’d rather not expose myself, and if I thought logically about it, I wouldn’t do it at all. But sometimes the energy of the show just demands it of me.

In the diary strips, it’s not about revealing myself to the reader, either. It’s about digging deeper into myself. It’s about learning more, and searching for some kind of magical insight.

I guess that neither the rock shows nor the diary strips are about revealing myself. But I am nonetheless revealed, almost as a side effect, I guess.

NV : Besides your activities in comics and music, you also paint a lot. The Little Paintings book will be out soon. Top Shelf uses the words “consuming obsession” to describe your relation to those paintings. What kind of need those paintings are fulfilling that comics and music don’t ?

JK : Well, “consuming obsession” might be a bit of an overstatement. I spent several months deeply involved in painting last year (2007) trying to get ready for two different solo shows. One at Giant Robot in New York City and one at Giant Robot in San Francisco. My #1 focus was probably still on my diary strip, but my #2 was on doing these paintings.

I don’t know if they fulfill a different need, but they express that need in a different way. I think I explore the same issues about existence, but in a more veiled and symbolic way.

NV : American Icons (like McDonald’s and the American flag) seem to interest you. What’s your relation to those icons ?

JK : Well, I’m American, so these symbols have been a profound part of my life. My father inspired rather grandiose feelings in me towards McDonald’s… I remember when I was a child, we’d go to eat at McDonald’s and he’d say “Just think… right now, people all over America are sitting down to eat in McDonald’s just like we are.” It was a powerful notion of our bond as citizens of this country. Of course, he was saying this sort of jokingly… but to me as a child, it was a real powerful, patriotic notion.

NV : Giving seven strips of your Diary #3 for the 9-11 Emergency Relief was a way to do your “war effort” ?

JK : Ha, no. My references in the strips to “helping the war effort” were said jokingly. We were pretty lost over here after 9-11. We were crushed, confused, crying, which then suddenly turned to manic glee. These strips were just an expression of those feelings, and part of the process of straightening out my mental state, I guess. I’m actually still not totally recovered, believe it or not.

I actually think the USA could potentially totally dissolve into anarchy within my lifetime. But I hope not, because that would make our lives quite hellish.

NV : What led you to the creation of Super F*ckers ? It looks like an echo of your relation to superheroes as a child but it’s more than that. It’s more like a critical observation of the behaviour of some American teenagers…

JK : I was thinking for years about the interconnectedness of all things. I wanted to do a grand and complicated graphic novel about the interconnectedness of all things. Somewhere during this time, I came up with what I call my “Evil Universe Theory”… basically that everything is evil and all action is an act of war and goodness and peace can only come from inaction and nothingness.

When I went to draw the book, it just suddenly turned into a really goofy superhero story. But you’re right, the deeper meanings shine through the mayhem. A lot of events were taken directly from my own college experience and exaggerated.

NV : Did that “Evil Universe Theory” came after 9-11 ? I mean, it could be a statement about American foreign politics. From American interventions in Arab countries to 9-11, from 9-11 to the “almost” civil war in Iraq. Is that theory linked to the 9-11 trauma ?

JK : Maybe it is linked. Basically, for us Americans, everything is linked to 9-11 trauma. We pretend we’re fine, but we’re fucked up. But the Evil Universe Theory extends down to the cellular level, and beyond, so it really has little to do with geo-politics.

NV : Was the “*” in Super F*ckers some kind of external censorship ?

JK : We knew we couldn’t put the book on the shelves if we didn’t censor the title. But I prefer the censored version and I get annoyed if people leave the asterisk out.

NV : Do you feel that your diaries have changed you ways of writing your graphic novels ?

JK : Maybe not yet… but soon. Soon, I think I will see a big change in the way I write graphic novels. It might be happening already, but I’m not sure. We’ll see when my next few graphic novels come out, I guess.

NV : You told me that it was too soon (in 2005) to see if your diaries had change your way of writing graphic novels. Two years later, would you say there’s been a change ?

JK : American Elf has helped unify my life. It’s given me a secure base, so I can let myself go wild with my other work. I feel as if I dare to do anything in my work.

[Interview conducted in late January 2004 and early January 2008.]

Official website James Kochalka
Entretien par in October 2008