28 August, 2005

The James Kochalka Library Part One

Magic Boy and Girlfriend is a collection of strips from James Kochalka's self-published mini-comic James Kochalka Superstar, and contains some of his earliest efforts in comics.

The volume was released by Top Shelf Productions in 1998, and includes nine diverse strips ranging in style from Kochalka's primitive Deadbear Circus Detective material to semi-realistic autobiography in the artistic vein of Sunburn to the whimsy and hyper-reality of his later Sketchbook Diaries/American Elf work.

I first read this book in late 2000 or early 2001, and although I enjoyed it then, it has revealed new worlds of nuance and artistic development in Kochalka from my most recent re-read. It's fascinating to me to see the young artist struggle right there on the page with how to depict himself and those around him, in one extraordinary story (the titular "Magic Boy and Girlfriend") showing the elf avatars of himself and his then-girlfriend Amy acting as cartoon peeping toms to the more realistic depictions of the couple and their friends inside a window. I found it most interesting how the narrative both embraced and evaded strict reportage through the changing depictions of the characters, especially telling given the somewhat unusual and erotic events that occurred to James and Amy and a couple of their acquaintence on the night in question. Did any of it happen? The story seems to say yes, but it's so easy to dismiss it as fiction due to its presentation, a fact not entirely coincidental, I am sure, given James and Amy's ultimate assessment of the night's events.

This story and others in the book highlight one of my favourite elements that runs throughout the entirety of Kochalka's body of work, the constant exploration of what is real, hyper-real, surreal, and pure whimsy. My presumption is that there is at least a nugget of truth in almost everything Kochalka has published post-Deadbear, and one of the most challenging elements of his work for me as a reader has been determining what it is I am supposed to believe, and what it is I am supposed to feel as a result of what I see -- not always the same thing.

Perhaps the best example of this approach is the story "Satan's Walk," in which Kochalka begins fairly realistically, unable to contact Amy and thus having to walk home from his then-job at a Chinese restaurant. During the half-hour walk, though, Kochalka's mind drifts to nightmare scenarios of discovering Amy dead in their shared apartment, and possible scenarios that might spin out of that horrific discovery. While I can only wonder what Amy must have made of the story at the time, I have to admit to the visceral comics thrills I take from this weird, experimental story that incorporates and comments on Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy in ways both extremely funny and extremely revealing of Kochalka's noted lifelong inability to "stop thinking about comics."

There is some strict autobio material in this 144-page volume, including an anecdote that explains Kochalka's longtime association with the musician Moby and shows the then-emerging club DJ exasperated at Kochalka's other well-known inability, the one about keeping his pants on while performing his music in public. Other true tales recounted include the death by alcoholic mishap of one of Kochalka's college roommates, weird coincidences in the artist's life involving people being hit in the head with rocks, and his early and odd fascination with people's asses.

Magic Boy seems to literally grow up in these pages, whether it's in working through his sexual obsessions and experimentation, giving up his childhood belief in fairies, and eventually discovering and experimenting with various mind-altering substances. By the time late in the book when Magic Boy declares that "In growing up you lose innocence, but gain power," the observation not only seems honestly won but somewhat profound.

That's not to say these stories are going to change the minds of any of Kochalka's more facile critics. People who accuse his work of being artless or simpleminded won't necessarily have their eyes opened to the power and charm of his work as later
collections and graphic novels might. Some of this stuff is pretty primitive, and I don't know that it's an ideal introduction to the world of Kochalka's comic art.

Then again, it does lay down all the basic elements, from the surreal modifications of real-life people and situations, to the presence of Amy, and robots, and elves, and robot elves, and perhaps most touchingly, the artist's fascination with the moon.

If you've read much Kochalka, you know there are recurring themes and elements, and from the Magic Boy stories to Pinky and Stinky, the Earth's sole satellite seems to hold mystery and even be a place of retreat for Kochalka or his cartoon avatars.

In the truly moving piece "Magic Boy Wins the Moon," from JKS #8, we see Kochalka alone in Baltimore, attending art school, immersed in his work and apart from his longtime love Amy. The lights of the city drowned out the stars at night, as they do in cities. To lose both the stars and Amy in one move seems to infuse Kochalka with a profound sense of loss and longing, which is overcome somewhat by the fact that the moon remains visible, a lone companion in an unfamiliar night sky.

In his usual fashion, Kochalka turns this sad but somewhat common life experience into a thing of wonder through comic art, achieving the moon and gaining access to all its secret wonders, and thereby also finding his way home, once again, to the arms of his beloved Amy.

That this story was created so long ago and yet still resonates with the artist's current narrative themes and style says something about the holistic power of Kochalka's comics work over time. That it remains a moving piece of surreal autobiography perfectly in keeping with the very best and most vital parts of his body of work from then to now makes it all the more rewarding to revisit.

Magic Boy and Girlfriend is currently out of stock from Top Shelf Productions, but may be available from comics retailers and online sources.


Blogger Unknown said...

In case you hadn't seen these, I loaned much of my early Kochalka collection to a friend who wrote some mini-reviews of 'em...



11:21 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home