27 August, 2005

More Notes from a Kochalkaholic

The Brattleboro Reformer earlier this month featured a piece on the Comic Art in the Green Mountains exhibit, running through early November of this year. It looks like later today my wife and I will be packing up the kids and heading off to Brattleboro to see the exhibit.

My wife, son and daughter all have read James Kochalka's comics, as well as seen him perform, so they're looking forward to seeing some of his original art on display (besides the original art on display in our living room, I mean -- a commissioned recreation of his Comics Journal cover). I'm really curious to see how his work is presented, and looking forward to the trip myself.

But unlike my family, I'm also familiar with the work of all the other cartoonists whose work is on display, as well -- Frank Miller, Steve Bissette, James Sturm and Rick Veitch. All of these guys have produced work I adore, from Bissette and Veitch's contributions to Alan Moore's landmark 1980s Swamp Thing run to Miller's excellent Daredevil work. But other than Kochalka, I'm most looking forward to seeing some of James Sturm's originals.

Sturm is a gifted storyteller whose works include stories as diverse as The Golem's Mighty Swing and the hugely underrated Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules. He's also the prime mover behind The Center for Cartoon Studies, which begins classes this fall in White River Junction, Vermont. The grand opening of the school is Saturday, September 10th, and you know, that might be a good reason for us to return to Vermont a couple of weeks from today's visit to Brattleboro. James Kochalka is a mamber of the school's faculty, it should be noted.

But as to Sturm, he has produced a truly impressive body of work, ranging from the mannered historical dramas of Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight and The Revival (the pair collected by Drawn and Quarterly as a collection called Above & Below) to the educational anti-racism comic Return to Normal, which was released in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

The Comic Art in the Green Mountains website says comics by these creators will be available in the museum gift shop, and I hope to find some previously unknown or unread work by some of the artists on display. But mainly, I am looking forward to exposing my family to some quality original comics art, and seeing what the reception is to this work among the people in attendance. I'm really looking forward to the trip, and hope to detail it for you in the next couple of days.

26 August, 2005

How to Discover Kochalka Awesomeness

There's a pretty neat story about how one person found their way to James Kochalka's cartooning and music up now at the American Elf forum.

24 August, 2005

Manifestly Cute Kochalka Art

I first noticed James Kochalka's interest in combining real-life photos with cute monster bodies on the cover of this year's Alternative Comics Free Comic Book Day release.

It seems like an artistic theme Kochalka has continued to follow, as you can see in the Eli Monster thread at the American Elf Forum. The thread followed Wednesday's posting of a daily diary comic strip at American Elf that told the story of the creation of the painting you see here.

When I asked James why this artistic theme seems to be holding his attention, the answer was typical of the surprising depth of thought that goes into the best of the artist's work. "I guess it's another way of trying to express what is special about people," Kochalka said. "The mysteriousness and wonder of our lives. We are strange monsters, separated from the rest of the world within our individual bodies."

I wonder if eventually we will see an entire story told in this style? Already in Super-F*ckers, Kochalka has experimented with photo collage combined with his own cartooning. I'd like to see more.


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.

23 August, 2005

Kochalka Hints at Second Print for CUTE MANIFESTO?

How else to explain his request for folks to point out mistakes in the first printing?

The only one that came to my mind has already been pointed out, the misspelling of "important" in one panel.

Me, if there's a second printing, I'd like to see all the original covers reprinted of the works compiled in this new collection, and maybe all the other folks' letters in response to James's "Craft is the Enemy" letter (featured in the book).


Ink 19 has posted a new review of THE CUTE MANIFESTO. It's a well-considered piece that looks at the various previously-published works compiled in the volume, and I agree with the assessment that the book is "a good, fun read."

I personally think the book is also a great introduction to Kochalka for new readers, as it assembles a good selection of both whimsical and thoughtful pieces, and one of his very best works, REINVENTING EVERYTHING.

Also, the alternative news magazine Northeast In Tune has a review of THE CUTE MANIFESTO. They note that "American Elf...is the staple by which other comic journals creators compare their own work," and hail the book as being useful to artists seeking to perfect their work. I'd say that's applicable not only to cartoonists; any artist in any field could benefit from thinking about their art in the way Kochalka does in such essays as "The Horrible Truth About Comics," and others in this volume.

21 August, 2005

My Declaration of Principles

If the title of the post doesn't do it, maybe this image will. Does anyone even read alt text anymore?A 2002 interview with James Kochalka touches on an issue that seems revelant to me as I continue to develop the idea for this blog.

"I've found that the more well-known I've become, and the more fans I have, the harder it is to think of my fans as real human beings. And I imagine that it must be even worse for someone who's actually famous (laughs). It seems a lot of them...I kinda like 'em, and it's endearing. I'm glad that they like the work, but sometimes they want more from me than I could ever give them, and that's disconcerting. They get mad (laughs)."

Given how much of himself and his life Kochalka shares in his work, this is hardly surprising, but it does prompt me to explore my own relationship to the man, his comics, and his music.

I generally eschew the term "fan," whenever possible in all my writing, because I see it as a perjorative term. I realize not everyone will see it that way, but when I think of words that usually come to mind before "fan," it's often words like "Nascar," "superhero," "pro wrestling," or "N-Synch" that precede the dreaded F-Word (which I dread more than the actual F-Word, just as a point of comparison), and generally these are things I don't enjoy, are bored by, or actively despise, often because of the apologetic, sycophantic manner in which "fans" of these entertainments comport themselves. So, I don't like to call people "fans," I certainly don't like to be called or considered a "fan," and if I am calling someone or a group of someones "fans," well, draw your own conclusions as to what that might imply to the canny observer.

As a journalist, on the radio and online, I have followed and covered the career of James Kochalka since 2000, around the time Carrot Boy The Beautiful and Monkey vs. Robot were released on CD and Monkey vs. Robot was released as a graphic novel. Although Kochalka had worked as a musician and cartoonist for years before 2000, clearly he has only gotten more popular and well-known since then, if only in the small ponds of comics and indy music. But I did enjoy his work from the first time I was exposed to it, and I believe his personal vision of comics is so compelling and exciting that I can't ever imagine a time when I won't want to follow his work. But am I a fan? I'd guess any interested observer looking at this blog would assume so. I don't personally feel like a fan, and I don't think I am fanatical in my devotion to Kochalka's work -- one small piece of original art is plenty for me, and I only made the four-hour drive to see him perform one year ago because extraordinary circumstances in my personal life gave me both the time and cash to easily go see him sing, and have him sign my copy of American Elf. My family and I had a wonderful time that night, and will never forget it, but the drive to Burlington, Vermont from where we live in upstate New York is long and not terribly interesting, and so I don't go over and see the band perform as often as I could. So am I a fan? It doesn't seem so to me. But I can see how you might think so.

The primary -- I think, only -- purpose of this website is journalistic. I am not here to impress James with my devotion, woo him with my wit, or make him love me through sheer, awesome will and determination. James Kochalka is not my Aquaman, in other words. Although I love the totality of his work, I do not love everything the man has created, and I am not obsessed with every detail -- or any detail, come to think of it -- of his personal life. I get all the info I need -- sometimes more than I want to know -- through his daily diary strip.

Occasionally, someone will mention my "friendship," with James, and although the coverage I have given his career over the years makes this an understandable assumption, it's not true: James and I have met precisely twice, in 2000 and again in 2004, and both times I was on a journalistic mission, covering his career. We've talked on the phone a bit more often, but as far as I can remember, every time was either so I could interview him, or so I could set up an interview with him for other radio colleagues.

I don't call him up to shoot the breeze, and neither does he do so with me. Certainly I feel friendly toward James -- his work reveals a deeply thoughful, even spiritual man about my age who is raising a small child and seems interested in many of the same political and social ideas I am interested in. He does not rankle me, annoy me, aggravate me, or exasperate me through his work.

So I am inclined to think positive thoughts about the man and wish him well. But I don't think I do our relationship any disservice or insult him at all when I say we are not friends. He has friends, I have friends, and we both know what friendship is and what it feels like and encompasses. This is not friendship. But again, I can see how an interested observer might make the mistake: My wife once referred to James and I as friends. That seemed like a compliment, in a way, to the congeniality of my, as I say, journalistic and professional relationship with the man. If we lived in the same town, maybe we'd be friends, I don't know. What my friend Marshall calls my "confrontational style" might inhibit all but the occasional get-togethers in that scenario, it's hard to say. But a girl can dream, can't she?

So, I'm not really a fan, and I'm not really his friend. So what am I, what is he, and why this blog?

I have, since 1986, been employed almost continuously as a journalist. Because I enjoy Kochalka's work, I have chosen oftentimes in the course of my work to create critical reviews, broadcast and online interviews and other features related to Kochalka. This summer, just winding down, has been filled with a pretty extraordinary output of creative material from the man and from his band, and I have found that I am as excited as ever about his comics and his music. But I have been somewhat stymied in trying to find a central source of news about his music and cartooning careers. One must follow numerous message boards, blogs and websites to compile information about what is new and next in the creative career of James Kochalka. And since I am doing this research anyway for my own personal edification, and since I am a journalist, and since I know how to create a blog that could easily become a central repository for the information I want to remind myself to gather on a regular basis, here we are with KOCHALKAHOLIC!

I want to cover Kochalka's comics and music to the best of my ability. As a non-profit weblog run part-time by a guy working full-time and raising two children, I appreciate any news tidbits, tips and links you can throw my way to make this a better blog. I might be the guy "utlimately responsible" for this blog, but I need help from all the Kochalkaholics I can find, if it's going to work in the long run. But this journalistic intent is why the sidebar is filled with listings of his museum exhibitions and links to where you can buy his work, and it's why the sidebar does not contain a list of James's favourite TV shows or what he had for breakfast this morning.

One important note: I really need to give credit where credit is due. Cartoonist Jason Marcy, is, so far as I know, the person who first coined the term "Kochalkaholic." I heard it first from him, and he deserves full credit if you think it's a clever name for this blog. If you think it's a stupid name for a blog, or worse yet, a stupid blog in general, you'll have to blame me. I really love James Kochalka's stuff. You could say I'm his biggest fan.