24 September, 2005

Exploring "We Hunger"

Note: Click on images to see a larger version.

"We Hunger" by Jason Cooley and James Kochalka has always been one of my favourite Kochalka stories. Despite its brevity -- it's eleven panels spread across a mere two pages -- it captures and codifies many of the charms of Kochalka's "Magic Boy" style, taking genuine, real-life events and filtering them through the magical realism of Kochalka's creative impulse to give greater depth and meaning to both the real-life events and the depiction of them in the body of the story.

The anthology book it appeared in, Bogus Dead, was compiled, edited and published by Jerome Gaynor, who also contributed a story to the collection. When I asked Cooley about the creation of the story, he told me "In fall, 2001 Jerome Gaynor sent us all these neat invitations to partake in this zombie-themed anthology, much like the Flying Saucer Attack one he put out in '95, which both me and James were in. We drew separate comics then. By 2001, I had long since given up drawing while James had -- obviously -- improved phenomenally."

Bogus Dead required its contributors to watch a number of zombie movies, and then tell a story in comics form while hewing closely to the requirements of the zombie sub-genre. The dead must return to life, they must hunger for human flesh, and they can only be defeated by destroying their brains.

James Kochalka's Magic Boy avatar appears prominently on the cover, just left of center and quite easy to spot. Undoubtedly this was a deliberate nod to Kochalka's stature within the artcomix community. Other well-respected cartoonists are featured in the book, such as Graham Annable and Ariel Bordeaux, but it's likely that Gaynor thought Kochalka's inclusion (and pointing out same to the potential buyer) would help move a few copies. Certainly, it was why I bought mine.

Jason Cooley, AKA Jason X-12, The Dog with the Robot Brain, appears as a human on the back cover, a drawing he appears to have done himself. If it is less iconic, or even recognizable, than Kochalka's cover portrait, well, Cooley's drawing skill is a key point in the story they choose to tell.

I asked Cooley how he and Kochalka came up with the tale, and he told me "We met up for some beers and tried to plot out the zombie strip, and we made some sketches. James was kinda being a dick about the idea I had -- a '50s-type story where a young teenage girl zombie takes her new non-zombie boyfriend to a zombie diner and some zombie street gang wants to kill him but the old man zombie saves them both, then the girl eats her boyfriend's brain. We made some sketches and went home. Then I thought we should just do the comic about trying to come up with ideas for it. He agreed, we wrote and he drew it. I really was going through some shit with a girl [at the time] -- check Sketchbook Diaries for more details. I was a total sadsack wreck when we were writing it." It's clear when you read the story that Cooley's idea of the meta-story is not only followed, but when combined with Kochalka's art, creates a brief but nuanced fantasy that stands out in both the Bogus Dead collection and Kochalka's body of work.

In panel one, it appears as if Cooley and Kochalka will adhere to the editorial structure laid down by Gaynor:

The group of shambling, undead things that lurch toward a McDonald's-like fast food joint in this first panel are impressive for the threat they seem to pose as they emerge from the oppressive darkness. All the more impressive is the fact that they are drawn firmly in Kochalka's signature style, which one could be forgiven for presuming would not convincingly convey elements such as horror, terror or dread. But, simply depicted as they are, those are some fearsome brain-gobblers.

Panels two and three are where Cooley and Kochalka, not surprisingly, take the book's premise and turn it inside out:

In the space of three panels now, we've learned this is a story about zombies (panel one), and that it's really a story about telling a story about zombies. The mind-warping properties of Kochalka's best Magic Boy work is fully evoked as the reader ponders the slight bit of information so far conveyed: Kochalka and Jason X-12 are inside the restaurant that is surrounded by zombies, trying to come up with a story to tell about the undead monsters. The reader's senses are fully engaged in questions about what is to follow: Will the zombies invade the restaurant? Will Kochalka and X-12 make it out alive?

In panels four and five, the longtime friends differ already on key story points:

This is typical of the creative push and pull of the Kochalka/Cooley relationship. The two, obviously deeply committed friends and colleagues in the band James Kochalka Superstar, often disagree about many things. At the heart of it, Cooley's bitter cynicism (which often seems a defense mechanism) seems to rub up against Kochalka's starry-eyed optimism, and sparks inevitably fly. Were one to compare the dynamic to that of another pair of dissimilar musicians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one would not, I think, be far off the mark. Great art comes out of conflict when the opposing sides share a common goal, whether it's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or a two page zombie story, or a rock opera about a carrot turned into a boy by a mad scientist.

In panels six and seven, we learn of another conflict -- X-12 is frustrated and doesn't believe that his drawing skills are up to the task. Kochalka disagrees:

The furrowed brow on Jason's face, especially in panel six, is a wonder of economy of line. Kochalka's art is often devalued by his critics for being overly simplistic, but I defy anyone to deny the expressive nature of the depiction of the characters in this story -- X-12's anger and frustration are palpable in just a few, key strokes of Kochalka's brush. Such mastery of economy in drawing is common among the most well-regarded artists throughout comics history, such as Alex Toth and Jaime Hernandez. That Kochalka's style is so obviously sui generis and not strongly indebted to any one obvious inspiration is even more impressive. The final panel of the story also depends on Kochalka's ability to depict complex emotional states with a minimum of clutter, as we shall see.

With four panels remaining to the story now, Kochalka and Cooley turn to the heart of the matter: Jason X-12's true frustration, and the reason why the story they are trying to create isn't coming together:

Jason X-12 -- and obviously, Cooley in real life -- is a romantic at heart. If his guitar-god posturings and cynical asides are thinly veiled defenses against getting his heart broken, the veil is thin, thin stuff indeed. In my recent interview with Cooley, I mentioned how pensive and thoughtful I thought his solo instrumental music (recorded under the name "Schoolbus") was. He replied that "That stuff comes from liking girls. Songs about girls with no words. I'll have a crush on or be involved with somebody and then I'm trying to make them cry with these pretty little instrumentals. When will I learn they just want to rock?"

Of course, girls want it both ways -- they want to be wooed and rocked, often in that order, but it is the nature of the male of the species to seek a single solution to any problem, and perhaps X-12 enjoys the rocking more than the wooing. Again, the nature of the male asserts itself. But Cooley's Schoolbus music is undeniably thoughtful and provocative stuff, well worth setting aside some time to ponder.

In the final panel, any conceit to zombies or the threat they may pose directly outside the setting of this two-man stage piece has been abandoned. Not in favour so much of the easy punchline, but rather for an affirmation of the strong friendship X-12 and Magic Boy share:

X-12 is convinced that he loves the unidentified girl mentioned in the penultimate panel, and in the final statement of the story, Magic Boy bluntly asseses the situation as he sees it and prescribes the remedy: X-12 should finish drawing the comic about zombies. Note the relaxed, faraway, and quite definitive look on Magic Boy's face as he makes his statement: That's that economy of line that makes this story work so well. Every line serves a purpose, every purpose serves the story. Kochalka has the last word, and there's no doubt that the story is done, and that the lesson (do the work, Cooley) is right.

The story has clearly transformed from the expectations created in that first, eye-catching panel. No zombies from panel one seem to have intruded on the metatextual discussion between the two friends, because we see in the closing panels that everyone else in the place is normal. Not a zombie in sight. And while X-12 likely knows that Kochalka is right (despite the flop-sweat of exasperation in panel ten -- exasperation is a default setting for X-12, at least in the comics), and that he should finish the comic, we the readers know that probably didn't happen, because the entirety of "We Hunger" has obviously been drawn by James Kochalka. The story only gains in nuance the more one ponders its implications outside the panel borders.

The marvelous, economic nature of this story makes it a key piece of Kochalka comics work, and a great example of his gifts. It encompasses artistic exploration, in the one-panel cameo by some creepy, undead ghouls; it features Kochalka's trademark rejection of tradition and expectation in its failure to adhere to the prescribed formula; and best of all, it features cartoon versions of Kochalka and Cooley carrying out actions very likely parallel to events in our real world, but that when reinterpreted through Kochalka's storytelling stylizations, become a nearly magical depiction of the real made myth.

Contradiction is at the very heart of Kochalka's art, and the contradiction between the zombies in panel one and the relaxed, ironically more real interior, is a wondrous quantum bubble of reality/fiction that envelops the tale and elevates it high above average compared to most of the other stories in the collection. indeed, compared with many other Kochalka short stories, even.

I can't help but reflect, as I read each panel of the story, that there are zombies outside the windows, waiting in the dark. I know also that if we could see the satellite hanging in the night sky, that it would be the Earth, not the Moon -- because that's what hangs in the night sky on Magic Boy's world. His Burlington is a place of magic and wonder, set apart from -- and other than -- events on "our" Earth. One of the great joys of this story, and indeed of much of Kochalka's work, is the holistic way in which the reader comes to know that these tales are all happening in one place, in one world. It's not ours, it's Kochalka's, but he is profoundly generous in allowing us all to peek in and see what goes on. "We Hunger," which I believe is the best story in Bogus Dead, achieves its noteworthiness because it plays with expectations, and yet fully conforms to the world and worldview depicted by Kochalka in all his Magic Boy stories.

Cooley perhaps disputes Kochalka's view a bit. When I asked him his impressions of the story today, he told me "Reading it now, I'm appalled at how cool James tried to make himself look in this comic. I mean, look at how he's sitting with his beer, arm
around his chair acting all casual, his dialogue laden with superiority. Total bullshit. He's not that cool. And if he knew anything about zombies, he'd know that they only like to eat humans, not fucking McDonald's."

It's hard to know how serious Cooley is about his feelings for the story, but being as close to its creation as he is, he is entitled to his own interpretation. For me, as a reader and student of Kochalka's storytelling, I see it not as a tale of zombies, but of affection. A love and understanding shared by these two men driven by their art, and ironically, in the end, it is the cynical one derailed by romanticism while the presumptive romantic -- Magic Boy -- bluntly but not without respect and affection puts the final stamp on the discussion with his curt assessment of X-12's situation and the command to "Draw your damn comic."

As always, Kochalka is the teacher. We are all, in our own ways, his students. And there's still so very much to learn, even just in the two pages of this terrific little story.

Bogus Dead is available for purchase from Mars Import.


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