Written by Gabe Bullard Monday, 21 January 2008 10:16
A prolific comics creator and musician (under the name James Kochalka Superstar), artist James Kochalka documents the little things that make life worth living every day in his online comics diary American Elf. "If living the life of James Kochalka means having a little bit of fun and not being so uptight about everything," says the author, cat-owner, and father of two, "then that's good."
When James Kochalka quit his job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he told his boss he was leaving to be a full-time superstar. That was almost ten years ago. Now, Kochalka spends his days playing with his kids, drawing comics, and making music on his Game Boy. What's more, he wants you to read about it.
Kochalka is a rarity, an artist that is wildly prolific artist in multiple mediums: his band, James Kochalka Superstar, has nine albums under its belt, including 2006's Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly for indie giant Rykodisc, while his dozens of comics works range from all-ages fare (Peanutbutter & Jeremy, Squirrelly Gray)) to foul-mouthed adults-only material (the superhero pastiche Super F*ckers, or the adventures of the pants-less amphibian Fancy Froglin) to pretty much everything in between. In October of 1998, Kochalka came up with an idea that sounded fairly simple: every day he would draw a comic strip about that day. Thus, American Elf was born. The strip, winner of Ignatz Awards for both Outstanding Comic and Outstanding Online Comic, took its name from Kochalka's pointy-eared, bucktoothed cartoon depiction of himself. Over time, that caricature has changed—Kochalka still looks like an elf, but not the elf he was in 1998—but more has changed for Kochalka than just his self-portrait: he had a son, published more books, recorded more music and recently had a second son. All of this is documented in the comic strip, which is posted daily on AmericanElf.com.
Kochalka relaunched the American Elf site in early December, allowing visitors to read the entire archive of diary strips for free, while paid subscribers can read other Kochalka comics such as the out-of-print Fancy Froglin strips. The site also hosts forums, music downloads, and a blog. With this redesign, Kochalka is now more accessible than ever to his fans. PLAYBACK:stl talked with Kochalka shortly before Christmas from his home in Vermont about the new son, new site, and new comics.
PLAYBACK:stl: How's the new baby?
James Kochalka: It's great so far. It's pretty easy. I can barely tell the difference between having a new baby and not having a new baby. I imagine once [James' wife] Amy goes back to work and I have to more of it by myself, it'll be harder.
In one of the strips after your first son Eli was born, your friend Jason commented that all of the strips with the new baby in them suck. Do you think anyone will say that about the new strips?
No. I suppose there's certain people who just hate babies who will hate the strip, but even people who hate babies will find something of interest some days in American Elf. It's not all about the baby.
There's been a lot that's happened in the industry and your life since you started...
When I started the diary, I was still working my job as a waiter at the Chinese restaurant, then a couple months into the strip I quit. The strip covers my entire career as a full-time superstar. When I quit I said I was quitting to be a full-time superstar, instead of just part-time as I had been.
How have the past few years as a superstar been?
Great! I'm not that cut out for the working world, I get too stressed out. Even when I had really crappy jobs, I'd take them pretty seriously. I was never able to nonchalantly do my job and not stress about it. I'm better off.
Do you not stress out about the comics?
I still stress out about certain things. I've got this really great book that I completed few months ago. It's called Dragon Puncher and I'm looking for a publisher and everybody's rejecting it. It's driving me crazy cause I think it's one of the best books I've ever written.
Dragon Puncher like the song?
Yeah, I have a song called "Dragon Puncher" and I wrote this book called Dragon Puncher and I just can't find anyone to publish it. I really drew it to appeal to little kids, but the whole thing is fighting. The whole book basically is this battle. I think the children's book publishers are freaked out ‘cause it's all fighting, and the publishers of more adult stuff are freaked out ‘cause it seems like it's for little kids. Everyone needs to lighten up cause it's an awesome book.
Which came first, the song or the book?
The song came first.
What's the book about?
It combines photography and comics. The backgrounds are photographs and the pictures are drawn but the faces of the characters are photographs. Our cat Spandy is the dragon puncher and she wears a big robot suit. Our son Eli is her sidekick—he's like a little fuzzy brown monster—and I am the dragon.
I can only tell you anecdotally. I read it for my son Eli and he just cracked up laughing on every page. But he is my son and I did write it specifically for him so I figured of course he's going to find it funny. I was in Kinko's the other day and the guy said to me, "I hope you don't mind, when you were in here last making copies of your Dragon Puncher book, I made a copy for myself." I thought, that's weird. He made a copy for himself and brought it home and read it to his 3 year old girl. She loved it so much he had to read it to her three times in a row. In the month or so between my visits at Kinko's, he had read it to her like a couple dozen times.
That seems like really strong anecdotal evidence that the book is awesome and the publishers are stupid for not publishing it.
Did you have the same kind of trouble with Squirrelly Gray?
With Squirrelly Gray, I had some problems because, in the original draft, the fox had a giant meat cleaver instead of a club. Random House made me change it from a meat cleaver to a club.
Were you okay with that?
I kind of figured I'd have to get rid of the meat cleaver, but I think the meat cleaver helped get their attention and I think the meat cleaver is probably is one of the reasons the book was published, even though they knew they had to change it.
Almost everybody out there trying to make books for kids, they're so scared of parents. They're so scared of freaking the parents out, like the parents are going to start some letter writing campaign to shut them down. They're just really scared of parents so all the children's books are written to be lame and absolutely as non-offensive as possible. And they're not very good.
Do you like doing the children's books?
Yeah, I love it. I'm doing a new series for kids with Top Shelf called Johnny Boo. There'll be two Johnny Boo books out next year. It's about a ghost and his pet ghost Squiggle.
Has being a dad made you shift your work towards kids?
Yeah, definitely. I had been working on Supef F*ckers for a couple years. It was something to have this really cool looking superhero book that (Eli) would really like if it wasn't full of swears. So I'm trying to write something with that same kind of energy, but for kids.
Do you think you'll make music for kids?
I don't know. I've got lots of songs that are good for kids. On iTunes and other music download sites we put together a compilation called Why is the Sky Blue that's all my best kids songs together in one group so parents can get it and bypass the songs with swears. But a lot of parents are already doing that, making their own mixtapes of my albums for their kids. Or just pressing forward when it came to the swearing songs. But this way they don't have to do that.
Do you hear from a lot of parents who use your art with their kids?
Yeah, I actually get a lot of letters from kids too. I get way more letters from kids than I do from grownups at this point. Grownups will just go to my message board and post something, but little kids will send actual physical letters.
I bet that's nice.
Yeah it is. But one thing they do that's kind of annoying is they ask me to send them free comics. I don't know where they got the idea that people just send out free comics all the time. Maybe it's from Free Comic Book Day.
Do you send them comics?
No. I'd go bankrupt if I gave all the kids free comics.
Do you respond?
Yeah, I try to, but sometimes I forget. I have a hard time answering everything so I usually hold onto the letters in case I have time in the future to answer them. Then, if the Christmas season rolls around and I haven't had time to answer the letters yet, I'll send them a card.
Do you make the cards?
You're pretty accessible on the American Elf message boards. Is that important to your career?
I used to think so but now I'm not sure. The message board crowd is pretty small but I guess they're the biggest fans. I don't know if it's any big career help or not. It's fun to have. It's good to get feedback. It's good for me to know that people are reading the strips and liking it as I'm working on it. It gives me incentive to keep working on it and trying to make it better. It's better than working in a vacuum, or only getting a little bit of feedback once the book is finally collected.
The fans will often complain that I haven't drawn enough strips about Spandy since Eli was born, which is true. Sometimes they'll say I never draw strips about Spandy anymore, but I'll look back and there's a strip about Spandy every month or two. In August or September I did like ten strips about Spandy. And still, someone said, "Boy, I miss the strips about the cat, you never do any about Spandy," so I guess I can't win.
You recently redesigned the American Elf site, right?
Yeah. For years you could only read the most recent strip for free and you had to subscribe to access the archives. That worked fairly well for me. I had a good amount of subscribers, and I was making a steady income from that each month, but the readership was dropping. The amount of money I made wasn't dropping, but the readership was going way down. I like having readers, and I was asking people to pay for what every other web comic on Earth offers for free. We changed it; the archives are now free to everyone and subscribers get bonus content. It seems to be working awesome so far.
What kind of bonus content is there?
I just put up the first main story arc from the Fancy Froglin book. Starting very soon—before Christmas—I'm going to serialize the short Fancy Froglin Christmas Special that I drew. I'm going to follow that with Fancy Froglin on the Frozen Lake, which is another winter themed Fancy Froglin story that I drew that's not in the book. Then, I've got about 40 other pages of Fancy Froglin stuff that's not in the book that I plan to start serializing too.
I've got this strip I did in my old college newspaper called Dead Bear Circus Detective. It's pretty roughly drawn, very much early work, and I plan to start serializing that at some point.
I've got my son's drawings up. He named his series Monster Attack.
Do you give Eli a cut of the subscription money?
Actually, I made his part free. We call it the American Elf Supersite now because it has more than the American Elf diary strip, it has these other comics on there too. I can add new series to the group whenever I want and I can assign each series to be subscriber only or free to everyone and I made Eli's free to everyone.
Is Eli excited to have his comics up?
Yeah, he thinks it's incredibly awesome. Now he wants to make a book of them too. Actually it's not just a "want", he fully expects that I will make a book of them.
It's a pretty big redesign. Any other features you might add?
One big new feature is the blog. Next to the strip I now have space to keep a blog which I never have done before.
There's the mp3 section that has a lot of songs that aren't on my albums with my band James Kochalka Superstar. I've got some songs on there that I've recorded with my Game Boy and Nintendo DS.
Would you say you're more open to the fans than ever now?
Oh yeah. I'm excited to have this built and ready to go. It took a couple months from when I made the decision to revamp the site to when it was actually ready to go live. I wanted to have it ready before the birth of my second son. He was born on Thanksgiving, the site came two weeks later.
I think a problem with the site before, when only subscribers could access the website, was people who were big fans of my comics knew what they were getting, [but] if anybody followed a link there, they, I'm sure, were just flabbergasted and dumbfounded by what they encountered. One, because very few people charge for comics online. Two, one episode of American Elf by itself really isn't very good...only after you've read a few, maybe a couple dozen do you start to understand what's good about the strip. I even had that experience myself when the first book collection came out. I had a feeling I'd really created something really special and really great, but my first reaction when I sat down to read it was, "Oh no, it's awful." But after I read a couple pages, I thought, "Well, it's not awful." And then by the time I had read a couple dozen pages, I thought, "It's even better than I thought it was."
Do you think this will hurt American Elf book sales?
Not at all, I think it'll increase book sales. The online version gets you hooked, but there's something special about having a book you can hold in your hands.
Do you ever read the old strips?
No, I hardly ever go back and read by own work. Very rarely. I used to read my own books over and over again, but now I don't. I don't have time.
Continue on to page 2 to read about Kochalka's working technique, his upcoming musical plans, and what he hopes readers get from reading his diary.
You seem really busy with the daily strips, the books and the family. How do you find time to work?
I've taught myself to work fast so that it doesn't take as long to finish the work as when I started. I can do a better drawing in less time. As I was teaching myself to draw better I also taught myself to draw faster.
How do you do that?
You just go faster and eventually you get better. You have to allow yourself to let the line wobble a little bit and not worry about keeping it so tight. It kinda looks better anyhow. That's what I've found out.
The art has changed over the course of the strips.
It's hard to say how it's changing. Definitely the shape of my character's head has changed and it seems to be always changing.
Is that something that comes with age or just lots of drawing?
I allow myself to change. I'm not that strict. I don't try to draw on model like an animator who has to draw every picture exactly the same. I've always drawn the character a little different in every panel. I change the shape along with the emotion the character is showing. If you allow yourself to change the shape all the time and not trying to draw it the same, then it's going to keep always changing. There's panel to panel changes and greater over-arching, over-the-years changes in the shape of the character.
One way it's changed is it's gotten a little more realistic and a little more human looking. It's still the elf character with the curved lip and the buck teeth and the ears, but the head is just a little more human shaped and the hair is drawn more realistically.
Spandy's changed over the years. I used to not draw her stripes now I draw her stripes. I used to draw her blank.
Do you get asked about theory since the Conversations came out?
A lot of people are interested in my "Craft is the enemy" letter that I wrote to the Comics Journal, so that's a fairly frequent topic of conversation.
I interviewed Jeffrey Brown and he mentioned becoming a new father.
Yeah, I read that. It kind of had a little swipe at me.
Yeah, he said he didn't want to draw about his son in case his son wanted to be an autobiographical cartoonist and he compared that to you drawing Eli.
First, that doesn't make any sense. His child is an infant. His child is not going to remember anything from when he was an infant so he can't possibly draw autobiographical comics about his time as an infant.
Plus, Eli is already drawing his own comics and has been since he was two. Not that I expect him to grow up to be a cartoonist, but it's something that we're having fun with now.
Is this the start of a Kochalka-Brown feud?
No, I'm good friends with Jeffrey Brown.
Do you talk with a lot of cartoonists?
No, I don't spend a lot of time talking to other cartoonists. I like other cartoonists. I used to spend a lot more time corresponding or talking on the phone with them, but I don't anymore. I'm just busy.
What comics do you like to read?
I like all the indie comics that I've ever liked. But lately I've been getting into some more mainstream stuff cause some of it's been really awesome. I read Invincible, the Superman comic by Grant Morrison [All-Star Superman] and...I don't know who the artist is [Frank Quitely] but he's really good.
When you read other comics, does it inspire you to explore different styles?
Well, Dragon Puncher is in a pretty different style in that it combines photography and drawing together.
Do you think you'll do more of that?
I don't know. [laughs] I've got a zillion different ideas of things I want to do and it's hard to get them all done. Some ideas I've been hanging onto for a long time. I've got a lot of different things I want to do, some of them in different styles.
I think I already do work in a lot of different styles. The diary strips are drawn pretty differently than something like Monkey Versus Robot. Definitely story-wise, there's a difference. Writing-wise there's a huge stylistic difference between the two. Something like Conversations or Cute Manifesto are pretty different yet again. Super F*ckers is pretty different from those. I did this one book—Sunburn, which is in the Cute Manifesto—which is drawn differently and isn't very cartoony at all.
What's it like teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies?
I think it's great, but I don't teach there very much. Only a few days a year. It's just kind of far to travel. It's about two hours away.
Is Vermont an essential part of your work?
Yeah, I think so. All of the books are set here in Burlington. Even Super F*ckers is set in the field behind my house. Also, personally, I really get a lot of inspiration from the changing season. If I lived somewhere else where the seasons didn't change, I think it would be detrimental to my art.
Is it because of the rhythm?
Well, every time the seasons change, I feel newly inspired. So it's not just a rhythm thing, it makes the world seem magic cause it goes through these various transformations. That feeling of wonder, I use in my creative work a lot.
Does drawing a diary strip add meaning to each day?
Yeah, maybe. It does tend to make life seem more important. Like, all the little things that make up life. Life isn't just big events. In fact, the big events of life would be meaningless without all the little things in life to compare them to.
Did you discover that through the diary strips?
What I was hoping to discover when I set out was just...well, I don't know what I wanted to discover. I had a feeling that the graphic novel format was...there's an inherent falsehood to it. The stories of your life don't really have a beginning and an end. The stories of your life, there tend to be countless dozens of them going on at once all wrapping and twisting around each other in unexpected ways with really no end. I thought the best way to portray that would be a daily diary strip that wouldn't end.
I can't imagine stopping now. I'm in the tenth year of the diary strip now...by next October, I will have finished the tenth year. I figured ten years was about the maximum I could do it but I never thought I'd get that far. I thought maybe I could do it for five years. The first five years felt like a long time, the second five years went by like nothing.
Do you have a set time that you draw each strip?
I don't really have a strict schedule for anything. I just draw whenever I want to. Sometimes I wait too late and I really don't want to, but I still have to.
Jason and a few other people on the boards have said the most recent strips are the best they've read. Is that inspirational and do you agree?
I had been thinking the recent strips were particularly good, too. Then when they called out on that, when other people said they thought the recent ones were good, suddenly I felt like I started to draw worse ones. I don't know if that's completely true, but it jinxed me a little bit.
Do you feel pressured by the message board posters?
Not really, as some people posted, even the sucky ones are a little bit great. I feel like they like it no matter what I do. They appreciate when it's especially good. I'm glad they're not always going on there saying, "That strip sure sucks." That would make it a lot more difficult on me. Even if I think a certain one sucks, it's not fun to have someone tell you a certain thing sucks.
Although I occasionally get letters like that. I got a letter from someone. All the letter said was, "You're a piece of shit." [laughs]
It was like, "Wow, that's some fan letter."
Some people write letters and go into more depth about why my comics suck so much. Some people are really offended.
I've found, and this happens again and again and again. There are people who hate my work. Actively despise it for years. Then suddenly they'll read something they like and in a short period of time reverse their whole opinion and start liking everything. I've seen that happen many many many times. If someone's actively hating me, that's good. They're thinking about me. My work is slowly worming its way into their brain and eventually it will succeed in conquering them.
Any plans for a third podcast?
It's hard to get the band together. My friend Creston--he plays guitar in the band--he just had a baby, and it's his first baby so he's more wrapped up in it. Then, the bass player we record at his house, he's been out of town for weeks. We haven't been able to do anything for a while.
I want to record a new album. I've got dozens and dozens of songs I want to record, but no time to do it. It's not that there's no time to do it, there's no time for everyone in the band to all get together and do it. I'm trying to think of another solution. I might make an album... I'm really into chip-tunes which is music made with 8-bit processors. I might make an album on my Game Boy. It's sort of slow and tedious work compared to just going with my band and having them play the song while I sing. That's the easy way to make an album. It'll be harder to make a chip tunes album, but I've made a few songs and I'm learning the program and getting better at it. I just have to finish up a couple books I'm working on and then I'll take the time to make a new album. I can't wait much longer, it's driving me crazy.
I think I'll do a whole album like that. At first, I thought I was gonna do music with the Game Boy and have the band play on top of it. I did two songs like that and I might put them up on the site soon, but it ended up sounding too much like math rock, or a little bit like Primus. I like rock when it's a little looser, and playing along with the Game Boy means everything has to be a little too precise. I think the Game Boy sounds better on its own without the rock on top of it and the rock sounds better without the Game Boy with it.
But I could do an album where some songs are Game Boy songs and other songs are rock songs. Or maybe I'll just do an EP that's all Game Boy songs. I haven't decided. I've wanted to make this Game Boy album for a couple of years, and I've just been slowly gearing up to do so. I'm almost ready.
A friend of mine once said, "James Kochalka lives the life everyone should live." You document what you do pretty well, what's your comment on influencing how others live?
This is only semi-related, but my son Eli was at a birthday party and the kids were playing and I went into the room to play with the kids and I sat down to play with the toys and this little girl she looked at me quite cross and said, "Grownups can't play." Why not? The grownups at her house might not play but the grownups at my house play.
If living the life of James Kochalka means having a little bit of fun and not being so uptight about everything, then that's good. But if living the like of James Kochalka also means having a lot of insignificant anxieties and meltdowns a couple times a day, I don't know if everyone needs to throw a temper-tantrum once a day. They might be better off without that.
That's the life of a superstar?
It's an emotional roller-coaster ride for my wife, I think.
Overall everything is good?
Life is fantastic, I'm just a little...I don't know...volatile.
Does that add to your art?
Pretty much any of my books that you read, they all follow an emotional ride that I go on all the time. Which is going from feelings of ecstasy to feelings of despair. A lot of the characters rocket back and forth like that. It's pretty funny in the comics. In the Johnny Boo book, Johnny Boo and Squiggle are always hurting each others' feelings and then having to desperately apologize only to do it all again a few pages later.
Fancy Froglin, when he has his erection he's ecstatically happy but when he loses it he goes into a suicidal despair until a few pages later when he gets it back and he's ecstatically happy again.
Do you hear from people who have been in despair who read your work and then feel better?
I do get a lot of letters form people saying American Elf helped them in some way through a difficult period in their life. It's good to know it's having some sort of positive effect. I think that's great.
Here's what I'm trying to do with my life and my work. I'm trying to fully integrate everything. So the transition from work to play to everyday life is all seamless. So that it's all one thing. There's no difference between living and making art. I've gotten really close. Music, comics, writing, painting, playing with Eli, doing dishes, cooking, all that, fully integrated into one seamless unit. That's pretty much my goal and I'm really, really close. Or perhaps I've already done it. | Gabe Bullard
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