06 November, 2005

Kochalkaholic Reviews Conversation #2

I've seen the title of this mini-comic referred to as "Conversations," and "Top Shelf Conversations," so I want to point out that the legal title, as listed in the indicia on the inside front cover, is "Conversation."

I point this out in the hope of making it easier to find, because chances are, it won't be the easiest comic in the world to find. I did the math on that last night as I was walking up the stairs to go to the bathroom. (As an aside, apropos of nothing, take my advice and never put your bedroom and your bathroom on two separate floors. Trust me).

Anyway, the math on Conversation #2: Most places interested in carrying comics like this are, unsurprisingly, comic book stores. So there's a strike against Conversation #2. It does not benefit from the newfound willingness of libraries and mainstream bookstores to carry hefty graphic novels like, say, Kochalka's American Elf or Brown's somewhat-less-hefty but still- graphic-novel-ly books like Unlikely or AEIOU (Any Easy Intimacy). So, with the most likely venue for Conversation #2 being comic book shops, we're faced with another obstacle: Comic book shop owners, by and large -- and of course there are exceptions, but in comics not many -- comic book shop owners prefer to order what sells, i.e., superhero comics. Both Kochalka and Brown have released superhero comics this past year. Kochalka's Super-F*ckers -- a bright, profane, gaudy and hilarious piece of entertainment -- has done pretty well in comic book stores. #1 in the series, in fact, had the highest initial pre-orders of any Kochalka work to date. Impressive.

I don't have any first hand information about how Brown's Bighead did in comic shops, but being less bright and less gaudy, if no less hilarious, it probably did not get the attention of as many readers. If nothing else, we've in recent weeks seen a second issue of Super-F*ckers released. I have heard no such news about a follow-up to Bighead. In any event, though, Conversation #2 suffers because it does not have superheroes. Although it does, I should note, feature a Brown/Kochalka brawl that relies on suspension of disbelief as Brown sprouts Mr. Fantastic-like appendages and Kochalka walks through space with no visible source of oxygen, talking up a storm to boot. It should be noted, though, that the meta-reality of this essay-in-comics-form allows for a suspension of disbelief all its own -- and the sincerity of the two authors also contributes to the reader's immersion in their dialogue.

This is the second issue in a series, another strike. Comic shop owners are relentless in their policy of ordering fewer #2s than #1s. Fanboys love #1s, although I haven't heard of too many Conversation #1s being slabbed by CCG in the hopes of creating a profound increase in the pamphlet's value.

In fact, now that we're a good way into my thought process on this, I'll briefly state the biggest obstacle this issue has to overcome: Conversation #1, a collaboration between Kochalka and Craig Thompson, just wasn't very good.

I never reviewed it, but my Comic Book Galaxy partner Chris Allen did, and since I agreed with everything he said, here are his comments from his column Breakdowns:

The Conversation is...a proposed series of small comic duets between James Kochalka and other cartoonists. The first issue...features Kochalka trading lines and panels with Craig Thompson on the nature of Art and its purpose in the world. Aside from the fact that these are two excellent artists whose every squiggle is pretty pleasant to look at, this book is almost embarrassingly bad. Less so for Kochalka’s contribution, as he honestly has some interesting things to say, and tries mightily to draw something out of Thompson. But unfortunately, Thompson offers little but 'Art is intense; art is a solace...an indulgence, too' or broadsides about superhero artists. There’s some self-deprecation here, too, I must admit, but I didn’t find it too convincing. I think this book would actually have been much more interesting as a wordless sketchbook. It’s just too brief to really get a 'conversation' about anything going, and having to contend with that and this unfamiliar collaboration, they get too self-conscious to make the experiment worthwhile.

Yes, yes, precisely. Thompson's body of work pales in comparison to Kochalka's, in both quality and quantity. He was out of his element in Conversation #1, still having so very much to learn himself as an artist. The resulting collaboration was a frustrating mess.

Brown, too, seems at times in Conversation #2 to evade the subject. On one page his character deliberately says nothing then forces Kochalka into an action sequence, which Kochalka brilliantly turns around on his for one of the most profound statements on his art that he has made yet:

I want to BE somebody! If no one knows I'm alive, it's like I'm dead! That's why I draw! That's why I publish!

This is the core sequence of this essential issue, as it strips aside Kochalka's oft-derided cosmic ponderings (see Sunburn) and life questions (see Reinventing Everything and many, many other works) to get to the core of why he is an artist. All of his existential inquiries that have peppered his work from nearly the very beginning are not to be dismissed -- they are, in fact, a part and parcel of Kochalka's statement here. It's as universal as breathing: We all want to "be somebody." We all long to be noticed, cared for, validated. For some, it's enough if one finds a mate and builds a family. Some people, in fact, are bothered and even offended if anyone else seeks a greater prominence. I'd dare to say most of Kochalka's most strident critics are guilty of this sin: Because they can't ever imagine working as hard as Kochalka does at asking questions, sharing his journey and making a name for himself, they judge him and his work as, in the words of one embittered, failed cartoonist, "A waste of time."

But another Kochalka statement here, as true as the one quoted above, refutes pretty much all criticism of his approach in his art. This is not to say that all of Kochalka's work is above reproach, but rather to point out that Kochalka's statement here that "The meaning of life is to LIVE!" puts the lie to any ad hominem attacks on Kochalka as a trite and facile cartoonist. "We don't NEED reasons. And we don't need answers! It's enough to be alive, to feel the power of bring alive, and to feel the power of being alive in my art!" Crucially, Kochalka responds to Brown's attempt to transfer this philosophy away from art and over to golf with "I'm sure the golf guy feels the same way."

Don't mistake the dearth of of multi-syllabic words for simplicity here. Kochalka touches on the most important lesson about leading a relatively torment-free life that one can learn. As Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers:

"If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.

Delivering this message in the second issue of a non-superhero comic book series in mini-comics format to a marketplace populated largely by individuals disinterested in or even afraid of asking itself questions about their own personal happiness may be like tossing pearls before swine, but I don't think big sales are the point here. While Kochalka wants his work to be noticed, I don't think he's ever been primarily motivated by making money or becoming a true international "superstar." I think in recent years Kochalka's work has pointed more and more toward an artist who has not completed his personal life's journey, but who more than almost any other cartoonist in history has pointed himself on the right track at an extraordinarily early stage. He has used his art to ask himself questions, and the answers he has found and shared with his readers can easily be translated by each person experiencing the work into making their lives better.

When Kochalka says "Quit Your Job," he is not telling readers to stop working. I'd guess Kochalka has worked more than ever since giving up his job at a Chinese restaurant years ago. Between music and comics, clearly he can't stop working. But he found a way to make his work an essential part of his life. That's at the heart of Conversation #2, and overall it is a gigantic improvement over the first issue, despite Kochalka's worries on one page to the contrary, and despite a sequence on shit that goes on three or four pages longer than it should have.

Like life, Conversation #2 is imperfect, but it's worth experiencing. And also like life, Conversation as a series is improving with maturity. Kochalka initially wanted Conversation to be a book of stories-as-dialogues between himself and various other artists, and the idea can only benefit from continuing. I hope this series continues long enough to demand a permanent collection, and most of all I hope that Kochalka and his publishers seek out dialogues with other artists who can challenge Kochalka's ideas, phiolosophies and perceptions to a much greater extent than Thompson or Brown demonstrated themselves capable of. Imagine Kochalka trading panels with Crumb, Clowes, Frazetta, or perhaps best of all that aforementioned embittered cartoonist who finds Kochalka's work so beneath contempt. Imagine this series continuing, with Kochalka challenging himself, and his creative peers challenging him, forcing an even deeper exploration of the art they practice.

To imagine this series stopping now, when it's finally found its way, is a sad proposition. Like the daily sketchbook diary, Kochalka's other innovation, the whole concept of the Conversation comics is a good idea. This issue, finally, shows that it can be a great one. All that's needed is bravery, maturity, and the will to go forward. Anything less would be a tragic waste of resources.

Conversation #2 by James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown is published by Top Shelf Productions.


Blogger Eliot said...

Excellent review.

I have to say that I think you understate the improvement between Thompson and Brown, though. Thompson was so totally out of his element, but Brown really did hold his own. While he may not have made the deepest comments on his own (though he had a few), he most certainly did a good job of drawing a lot out of Kochalka.

Further, the chemistry between Brown and Kochalka was much greater than that of Thompson and Kochalka, which was quite clearly a forced pairing considering Thompson's overwhelming popularity at the time.

My hope is that Kochalka's next partner in conversation is Paul Hornschemeier.

Now that, would be incredible.

11:18 AM  
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