American Elf Book Three (Top Shelf)

amelf-header.gifCatch up with an old friend in this collection of two years’ worth of James Kochalka’s daily diary strip.




192 pgs. full color; $19.95

(W / A: James Kochalka)


I’m trying not to make this review about me, but it’s hard to write about a life without using your own as the template. So, forgive the personal reflections. I moved last year. A few of the good friends I had in my old town are still my good friends, but I don’t know as much about them as I used to. We’ve drifted apart and there’s mystery in the stories they tell me. I’m missing things.

I’ve made new friends. While I know less about them than my old friends, there’s not as much mystery. They explain things and fill gaps in conversations with biography.

James Kochalka is becoming an old friend. Of course, I’m not really friends with Mr. Kochalka. Outside of an interview for this publication, we’ve never even talked to each other. But I’ve been reading his daily diary strips since 2005, and I feel like I know him.

In late 1998, James Kochalka started drawing a comic strip about his life. Each day, he draws one strip (sometimes two) about one or two incidents and puts it online. Every so often, those strips are collected into a trade volume. This is the third collection of strips. It collects everything, and a few bonus strips and pictures, from 2006 and 2007.

The cover to American Elf Book Three by James Kochalka. Click for a larger image.All the strips in the book are now available online for free. The question of why pay $20 for something that’s free online brings up a lot of book vs. Internet comparisons and arguments over comfort and aesthetics, but it also hits the nature of the American Elf project (if it can still be called a project). Reading the strips online is fine and enjoyable, but for me, it doesn’t do Kochalka’s work justice. It’s easy to click through two years of strips and not realize the amount of real time the comics represent, but to have the same two years bound together in your hands and to pile the pages under your fingers as you read showcases the enormity of the project.

In that enormity is evolution. Here’s an example: Sometime in the last few years, James’ friend Jason said that the strip was only about James’ oldest son Eli, who was conceived partly in response to 9/11. I laughed when I read it, because I read it on the website, and I had read strips about Eli almost daily for the past few weeks online. Before doing this review, I read through the two previous trade collections of the diary strips. When I finished Book Three, I thought about Jason’s comment. It went from a sarcastic barb to a sharp insight on maturity. When the strip started in 1998 it was in black and white, James was a waiter, and he and Amy had no kids. The comics were frequently about eating at McDonalds, being drunk, Spandy the cat, and the chore of drawing the strip. Now American Elf is a bright, colorful comic about a family of four. James has lost some hair, he fights with Eli just as much as he does with Amy, the couple has a second son (named Oliver), and Spandy almost never shows up.

Kochalka gets a little political on the strip from this date in 2006. Click for a larger image.It’s a little sad to reflect on the changing voice of the strip, but it reflects the dynamic nature of life. James and all the other characters have grown up in the last ten years just as much as the readers likely have. Book Three works fine as a place to start; it’s warm and accessible and the strips are best enjoyed in torrential, page-turning sessions. It doesn’t matter that the book doesn’t start at the beginning of the project – the strips don’t start when James was born. There’s mystery in those years before and there’s mystery in the hours that aren’t represented in each day’s strip. But the mystery in the late 90s and early 2000s was secondary to the thrill of getting to know someone new. With Book Three, it’s clear that as life goes on for the Kochalkas those mysteries get deeper. That’s not bad, it’s just how friendships go. Everyone seems happier.

Maybe it was the black and white of those first few years, but the pre-child comics seem more sad. They’re less focused and much of the comedy comes out of the despair of everyday life. There’s less despair in Book Three. It feels less like an invitation to get to know the Kochalkas than an opportunity to spend time with them. It’s less personal. He’s not talking to us about his cat, he’s showing us pictures of his wonderful family. It’s great to reminisce and you can’t fault James, or anyone else for getting older. On the contrary, you can reward him by paying for what you can get free online. Think of it as making a long distance call to your old hometown on a lonely afternoon. | Gabe Bullard

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