20 December, 2012

Farewell, Elf

There was a point where I greeted every new American Elf strip as a gift; daily I’d wake and fire up my computer and see what new wonder of daily living James Kochalka had managed to distill down into that day’s strip. Somewhere between the publication of the first collection and the fourth, I lost interest. It’s been a year or more since I even looked at the site on which Kochalka has been posting the strips for all to read for free.

It was a gradual fading away of the passion I felt for Kochalka’s work. I had discovered his work fairly early on, when he was still struggling to become a known cartoonist, sometime around 2000 or 2001. Books like Magic Boy and Girlfriend and Monkey vs. Robot absolutely changed how I saw comics. I might not yet have been fully versed in Kochalka’s “Craft is the Enemy” philosophy, but I could see before my eyes the realization of that stance; in his autobiographical comics, especially, Kochalka was delivering as pure a vision of his comics as he could from his mind to the printed page (and soon, the computer screen). Magical realism informed much of what he did and the way Kochalka could convey essential truths through whimsy and whim dazzled me on a regular basis.

There’s no one in comics I’ve interviewed more than Kochalka; seven or eight times, I think, in total; and yet despite driving to Burlington, Vermont and spending hours picking his brain, I never really felt like I knew him. For all the sharing James Kochalka does in his comics and in his music, he’s maintained his own private world, I think, and so it doesn’t surprise me that he has cited his family’s own need for privacy as one of the reasons he is bringing American Elf to an end after nearly 14 years.

While I did fall off the Kochalka wagon some time back, those 14 years of daily diary strips are worth noting, and celebrating. The best of them echoed Kochalka’s best longform works like Magic Boy and Girlfriend and Fantastic Butterflies, where Kochalka transformed his everyday life in Burlington into something magical and wondrous. I once asked him if he would ever do more works like Fantastic Butterflies, which I regard as his best graphic novel, and he told me he didn’t expect to, and indeed, he hasn’t done such work since. I really regret that he chose not to continue to explore in depth his life and the lives of those around him, because it seemed like ground was being broken there in a way few other cartoonists had ever attempted, especially in an ongoing, autobiographically-informed manner.

Instead, the past few years have seen Kochalka focus in print on works like Super-F*ckers, Johnny Boo, and Dragon Puncher. Super-F*ckers has reached the world of animation, although I don’t know if it is being broadcast or ever will; I suppose at this late date it’s possible to make a fortune just uploading the cartoons to YouTube and maybe printing some DVDs for whatever fan base arises out of the effort. I haven’t seen the cartoons and don’t expect to; although I have read every one of the four printed issues of Super-F*ckers. I didn’t particularly enjoy them, and am not interested in reliving them in animated form. At its best, Kochalka’s comics work has always been about a unique marriage of entertainment and enlightenment, and I don’t think that’s what Super-F*ckers is about.
For many years James Kochalka’s comics and music, and especially the now-concluding American Elf, gave me untold pleasure and comfort in a world where both are precious commodities to be cherished. Furthermore, Kochalka for years entertained and enlightened my entire family, both in print and on CD, and in person at events like the American Elf booksigning party we all attended back in 2004, one of the greatest nights I think my family ever spent together, brought together by the power and genius of James Kochalka and his bandmates. Kochalka’s work at Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies and his being named the state’s first cartoonist laureate are both enormous accomplishments, and well-earned, at that.

But as the American Elf era passes, and with the apparent success of Super-F*ckers in animated form, I find myself surprised and saddened that the comics and graphic novels I expected in the wake of Kochalka’s earliest, smartest works never quite seemed to materialize. Most of the steps he’s made since the release of the first American Elf collection have been steps away from where I thought he was headed; in the end any real observations or insights about human nature and his own life seem to have been restricted to the daily American Elf strip itself, with most of his other published work aimed at children. The American Elf collections, and Magic Boy and Girlfriend, and Fantastic Butterflies are three works that represent Kochalka’s highest achievements in comics, but the marketplace has never seemed to appreciate and celebrate such glorious and nuanced storytelling, and the end of American Elf and its era of daily autobiographical comic storytelling seems to signal an ever-more-unlikely opportunity to hope to ever again read a comic book or graphic novel by James Kochalka that brings me as much joy and sense of wonder as his very best works once did. Still, we had American Elf for over a decade, and for that I am grateful, and awed.


Blogger Neil Hood said...

True dat.
I really enjoyed the strip - although I wasn't a reader from the very start - posted my own wee 'homage' recently here...


...apologies if this appears twice, I had issues commenting yesterday.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Nate said...

I have to agree with you ... while I think it's great that someone is making comics for kids, I do feel like I've been missing out on the James K comics that really hit a spot with me.

For a long time there, I kind of felt linked to James. He's almost exactly my age, and, while I've never had success with music or cartooning, I've dabbled in both. I did have a long-term relationship, but mine came to a crashing end with a divorce in 2005 ... I think that's one reason I had trouble reading James's strips for a while there: they had been "our" strips, and now I was alone. I didn't have kids, either, so the strips about that subject didn't resonate with me as much. But now I find James is dealing with the death of his father, and my own dad just died a few weeks ago. Damn.

I do hope that he will, at some point, do some non-kiddie work (SuperF**kers may not be PG, but it is pretty juvenile). We'll see. Glad I can always re-read his older works!

11:40 AM  

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