24 August, 2005


The Cute Manifesto by James KochalkaJames 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 universal model 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 learning 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
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 have 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, he seems to say, 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

The Cute Manifesto By James Kochalka is published by Alternative Comics and has a cover price of $19.95 USD. It can be ordered from many of the retailers listed in the "Buy Kochalka" section of the sidebar at right.


Blogger Jeff Manley said...

I don't understand how someone could not respect what James is doing. I may not buy or read his comics (eventhough, I am often compared to him) but I don't really buy anyones comics. Even if you don't like James' work you have to admit he fills a hole in alternative comics that no one else has tried filling.

8:28 AM  
Blogger ADD said...

To an insecure observer, one of the most threatening things you can do is state what you believe with conviction and passion. For all its flaws, this is something Ayn Rand captured perfectly in ATLAS SHRUGGED. If nothing makes you happier than professional North American superhero comics with no deeper theme or meaning than Costumed Guy A beats up Costumed Guy B, what could appear more threatening than a passionate cartoonist joyfully portraying entire, complex worlds of comic art that in no way intersect with the hollow, empty confections you crave? What could be more frightening than looking into the empty core of your cherished, lousy entertainment choices and seeing your own vapid reflection staring back at you there in the middle of the abyss?

"How dare you, Kochalka," in other words.

God knows I hear it all the time in response to my own writing as a comics critic. "Who are you to say such things?" "That's just your opinion!" "You're a big, mean elitist snob!" Okay, sure, fine, paint me with whatever brush you like. What fascinates me is the vast horde of people who claim to be bored or disinterested in any given entertainment, be it James's comics or my own work as a critic, and yet they never miss an opportunity to weigh in, obsess over and condemn the latest work or missive from the object of their alleged disinterest. It's a fascinating psychopathology, and if I had a little more time and a little less kindness in my heart, I would probably take the time to write more about it. But there's so many better things to do, and THE CUTE MANIFESTO is a great reminder that it's better to create something than spend your days just laughing and pointing and trying to bring others down to your level.

That's one of the great charms of Kochalka's work, the sense that as he explores his life and his world, he would like to bring as many of his readers along as are willing to make the journey with him.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

You wrote:
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.

I'm a big Kochalka fan -- I subscribe to American Elf and read it every day. Among my cherished possessions are a number of his comics including the ever-popular Monica's Story, Quit Your Job, The Horrible Truth about Comics, etc. etc. Kochalka has a particularly joyful way of illustrating and examining the world that appeals to me very much.

I find it a little sad that you, a fellow Kochalka enthusiast, denigrate the life experience and courage of anyone who can't find meaning in Kochalka's work. Kochalka's not for everyone. Neither are comics, for that matter.

Someone not liking James Kochalka's work doesn't necessary make them bitter or closed-minded. It's quite possible that they are, but that doesn't mean you should stoop to saying it. It's bad form. Let them show they're bitter and closed-minded themselves.

Vituperatively attacking people who don't like what you like does not make a strong case for your opinion. In fact, it undermines it and seriously damages your credibility.

Instead, consider a two-pronged approach: point out what is valuable, positive, significant, interesting, etc. about the subject of your review, and refute the substantive points brought up by reviewers with whom you disagree.

It seems for the most part you write well and have a lot to say. Resorting to ad hominem attacks reflects poorly on you, your work, and by extension, what you care about. Don't do that to James Kochalka, for all of our sakes.

3:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home