Sunday, January 26, 2003

Graphic Arts As Literature

It's hard to be neutral about James Kochalka's work. You either like him or you don't. Kochalka depicts himself as an elf in this self-portrait.

Kochalka's cartooning
is lively and refreshing

By Gary C.W. Chun

James Kochalka's got a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting, but if you look at his prodigious decade-long output of cartoon work, there's not a trace of fine art in his simply drawn characterizations.

I doubt if anyone who first encounters Kochalka -- either through his numerous comic books, graphic novels or daily online diary on his American Elf Web site (he depicts himself as Magic Boy) -- would feel neutral about his work. You either like him or you don't; his cartoons can come off looking too self-absorbed or crudely cute.

I find his work a refreshing and amusing diversion, with story lines easy to digest and enjoy for what they are, namely, the whimsical workaday musings of a prolific Vermont cartoonist.

Kochalka first started self-publishing his strips in a minicomic jokingly entitled "James Kochalka Superstar," a bold moniker he also used for his side forays into music (four albums' worth). Well, that Superstar will revert to Superdad soon because his wife is pregnant with their first child.

"I'm kind of struggling right now," he wrote on his site recently, "mourning the inevitable loss of my rock 'n' roll lifestyle but very excited about being a dad!"

A panel from James Kochalka's fanciful graphic novel, "Fantastic Butterflies."

HIS DRAWINGS ARE simple and charming enough to be suitable for readers of all ages. I'm sure his firstborn will spur him to create work as childlike as his earlier "Monkey vs. Robot" graphic novel and "Peanutbutter and Jeremy" comic book series.

And for readers familiar with the autobiographical slant of most indie work, his online strips and three volumes' worth of strips collected under "The Sketchbook Diaries" title continue to explore the creativity of his daily life.

Two of Kochalka's most recently printed projects involve both the long and short of his work. One is his contribution to Dark Horse Maverick's "Happy Endings" anthology, a strip entitled "Krishna's Girlfriend," and the other is the fanciful graphic novel "Fantastic Butterflies," published by Highwater Books/Alternative Comics.

His take on what constitutes a happy ending is a hilarious one, as a bored guy puts off his girlfriend in pursuit of a cheap high. He does this by applying antiperspirant to the bottom of his feet to induce a fever (?!). The realistic dialogue, the pacing of the action in the strip's panels and the plain absurdity of the scenario (enough to make it plausibly real) are a good example of Kochalka at his best, when taken in a small dose.

The graphic novel, on the other hand, is chock-full of mind-blowing goofiness wedged into an autobiographical story that starts with Magic Boy sharing wine with a friend diagnosed with prostate cancer. The rest of the novel casually wends its way through scenes of his wife and her friend (the "fantastic butterflies" of the title) deciding to bake the best cake ever for a party; Magic Boy meeting his friend Jason (a talking dog with a serious case of ennui); time travel; playing softball while drunk; unrequited love; exploding testicles; and kung fu fighting against a mean and cranky "cancer robot."

If you find this too much, this kind of free-flow cartooning's not for you. But if you're a constant daydreamer, imagining the wildest scenarios involving you and the people in your seemingly mundane life, you've got an ally in James Kochalka.

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