26 October, 2005

Saluting Seven Years of The Sketchbook Diaries

They say it's a medical fact that over the course of every seven years, every cell in the human body (except brain cells, I believe) replaces itself at least once. The net effect of this is that at the end of any given seven year period, physically, you are no longer the person you used to be.

You've been totally replaced, by a new you. And I know this is a medical fact because it's mentioned in the editor's notes of the new issue of Men's Health Magazine.

But that's not why I mention it. I've been thinking a lot about the seven-year-new-you thing recently, in the run-up to today's date -- October 26th, 2005. Today is the seventh anniversary of the very first daily diary strip drawn by James Kochalka.

Click for larger image.


I didn't really discover James Kochalka's work until Monkey vs. Robot came out in 2000, so I can't say I've been on-board for the entire seven years of the daily diary strip, but I will say that from the moment I discovered the strips until now, I have been entirely riveted by this life's work of Kochalka's. I'm proud to say many, though not all of my cells have replaced themselves, and that experiencing Kochalka's life and times through his strip has, indeed, made me feel like a new man.

I don't think any single comic book, graphic novel, or any other comic-related artifact or publication has changed how I see comics as much as Kochalka's daily strips. Although excellent, paradigm-shifting work by such folks as Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes and Robert Crumb has certainly taught me over the 34 years I have been reading comics that the artform can be a window to the soul of the artist, I don't think any other cartoonist in human history has, daily, opened himself so wide, laid bare his life to such scrutiny, or offered with such delightful skill an invitation to share in his perception of himself and his reality. Only Charles Schulz comes immediately to mind as a true peer, but even there the veneer of fiction, however thin, separates the two.

There's been a price for this gift Kochalka has given us. Readers and fellow creators unable to process Kochalka's unique presenation of his life experience have dismissed him as trite, facile, a waste of time. Sour grapes, one senses, from people who wish they had the ability to present themselves so boldly and full of wonder, and more importantly, from people who wish they had the courage to do so.

More than anything, I admire Kochalka's courage, although he might not even see it as such. It takes guts to put it all out there, whether through a daily interpretation of your interaction with the universe, or dropping your drawers at a rock concert. In every way that counts, Kochalka has lived his life as an artist to the absolute limit, pushing farther and harder than just about anybody I can think of. To be sure, he has not always succeeded, but he has always tried.

The daily diary strips -- the Sketchbook Diaries, American Elf, whatever you wanna call 'em -- represent seven years of truly sublime achievement by one of our very best, most forward-looking cartoonists. James Kochalka has reason to be proud today. He may not be the man he was when he began this thing seven years ago, but his readers are all the better for the tireless effort he's made, not only in creating the strips but in fighting for a place for his unique work in a marketplace made for comics so much less profound, so much less interesting, and so much less enduring.

I look forward to being someone else seven years from today, but I know I'll still start the day looking forward to another installment in the life of James Kochalka. I wonder who he will be by then? Much the same, no doubt -- and yet, at levels both small and large, entirely new and different.

As always. As it should be.

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More Comments on Seven Years of The Sketchbook Diaries

I asked a number of folks to weigh in on today's milestone anniversary. Here's what some of them had to say.

From Cole Odell

James's creative joy shines through every single panel of American Elf, inspiring a protective affection in the reader not unlike that for a cute, sometimes exasperatingly naughty puppy. That this response is probably deliberate on James's part doesn't take away from it at all.

American Elf single-handedly restored my waning enthusasm for comics, after I'd burned out on caped wonders and morose lit-comix. More than that, American Elf made me a happier person, and certainly a more reflective one. You see, I simply can't read James's autobiographical comics the way I read almost everything else. Literature usually allows the reader to experience at least some degree of the exotic -— perceptions, places, people, and reactions outside one's regular frame of reference. I look at American Elf and see the trappings of my own life -- an emotional, occasionally childish male Vermonter in my thirties with liberal politics, a mortgage, young sons and a wife who deserves to have multiple books written about how awesome she is. Here's where the mirror warps, though, because I haven't written those books, and James has. What can I say? The guy's a superstar.

But his work makes me feel like I could be one too. And that response is certainly deliberate on his part. The "James Kochalka's Dianetics" joke from the Cute Manifesto ad is only funny because it's true.

James occasionaly reminds me of Calvin Johnson, strangely charismatic leader of the cuddlecore band Beat Happening, founder of K Records and central figure in a scene that celebrated a deliberate childlike enthusiasm for life. For both artists, their choice of expression seems to be a personal philosophy put into practice—and a provocation. Their art, even at its cutest, implicitly asks, "are you brave enough to live according to your ideals?"

From Brett Warnock

James Kochalka's sketchbook diaries are a singular phenomenon in comics; a pure and unique tour de force, and a fine example of what the medium has to offer. James set the bar for diary comics, and to this day he is unequaled in his quest to record the minutia and small moments that inform his life, and by extension, all of our lives.

From Colin Clary

I love James's diary strips! It's a fun way to keep tabs on a friend across town and it's really hard to believe it's been seven years. I guess it makes sense, though. At this point it's like a part of my life and I don't know what I'd feel if there wasn't a new strip always on the way. It makes you kind of look forward to each day and also enjoy looking back.

It's inspiring to know that you can do a little bit of work each day and have it add up to something totally awesome years down the road. It reminds me that you don't have to do everything all at once, but that each day you have an opportunity to contribute to your world in some way that can make a difference, or make you smile or laugh, or feel weird, or make no sense at all. At all adds up! Plus it helps me remember how long I've had my striped sweater. Three years and five days!

Yow!

Happy seven year anniversary James! I'll meet you at that bar that you aren't allowed to leave!

From Jason Marcy

Seven years. Has it been so long? There are few words to describe the how the daily journal of James Kochalka took ahold of me. I came across my first taste of the strips in The Comics Journal. There was an immediacy and dare I say magical quality to them. One moment from James's day captured in a few panels, saying so little but really then, so much. It was like I'd discovered Peep Show, the book that inspired me to do autobio comics, all over again. They meant that much to me.

Seven years? It simply can't be. But here I am, closing in on my own daily journal comic's fifth year, and yes, that was inspired by James Kochalka's now almost defintive masterpiece of daily journal work. Without Peep Show I wouldn't be doing autobio comics, and without Sketchbook Diaries, American Elf, I wouldn't be doing dailies. Two very important and pivotal moments in my comic career both resulting in the same: me doing comics.

James still possesses that inscrutable "something" though, the spark of "something" that wants you to see his daily as more than life moments. Or maybe not. I've always called that effect "the magic at work," because I'm sure even Kochalka himself isn't fully aware of the powers he wields through his daily musings on life. I've seen many daily comics, and none of them have that "it" quite the way American Elf does.

And really, that is how it should be.

Seven years? Impossible. It seems like yesterday. "The magic at work." Thanks James!

Feel free to e-mail KOCHALKAHOLIC! your comments on today's anniversary.

2 Comments:

Blogger Eliot Johnson said...

I'll write my own comments when i have the time, but first, i must say, Mr. Doane...that is perhaps the finest piece I have ever seen written on a comics blog.

Bravo.

7:12 PM  
Blogger ADD said...

Thank you, Eliot, that is very kind of you. I'm delighted it struck a chord with you!

8:10 PM  

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