Graphic Lit: An interview with James Kochalka
Since 1998, James Kochalka has been chronicling his life in comic books.
That in and of itself is not so special. Lots of cartoonists have been doing the same thing for decades. What makes Kochalka’s interesting is the format he’s chosen.
Each day Kochalka draws a little four-panel strip about his day and posts it online (at americanelf.com). Occasionally the events are significant, but more often that not, the focus is on odd little absurdities or thoughts that occur while going about his business.
That kind of an emphasis might seem unbearably twee to the casual reader, but when sitting down with a large chunk of strips — as in his newest collection, “American Elf Book Two” — a rich, nuanced portrait of the author and his family is revealed. By concentrating on the minor triumphs and hassles of everyday life, he’s able to draw out some meaningful truths and moments of beauty.
Kochalka talked with me over the phone from his home in Vermont about his new collection as well as his ongoing series, the delightfully profane "Super F*ckers."
Q: How did the idea for doing a daily diary strip come about?
A: Well, it’s a pretty simple idea in that people have done autobiographical comics for a long time but it seems like no one had ever tried to combine autobiographical comics with a daily strip format. It just makes sense because the most common form of a diary is the daily diary, right? So to do a daily diary comic strip just made sense.
And once I thought of it, I knew it would probably be the best thing that I would ever do. So once I thought of it I had to do it.
Q: How do you choose what particular moment or event to focus on for each day? Is there something you look for?
A: I guess it’s two things that I could choose to do in the broadest sense. I could try and draw about something typical that happened, something that sort of always happens or I could draw about something unusual that happened. (laughs)
Really I just look for something that I found interesting in some way. I’ve been doing the strip for a long time, since 1998, and I want to try and capture the full tapestry of my experience. Certain things happen to you again and again in life and sometimes I might notice I’ve had the same experience four or five times already and I have not yet drawn about it. So sometimes I’ll have realized this and just wait until the thing happens again so I can draw about it. (laughs)
Q: The reason I ask is I notice sometimes in a strip you’ll focus on playing with your son or the cat. And then the next day you’ll mention an big event that happened the day before. It’s interesting what you choose to focus on and what you leave out.
A: I don’t always pick the biggest, most important thing of the day. Sometimes I just pick some little moment or something that someone said. Other times I feel the need to explain more and I’ll have larger areas of text where I go more into the context of what happened or describing feelings. But other times I just like to show something simple that happened.
Really I don’t know how exactly I choose, but I try to have some variety so that it’s not the exact same strip every day.
Q: The interesting thing about the strips to me is that you’re very selective in what you reveal. Yet to a large extent I feel like I have a good sense of who you are and who your wife is, which may be completely unfair. I think that’s interesting considering you focus more on life’s little moments rather than the big, grandiose events.
A: Well, drawing the daily diary strip, as I pick a little moment each day to draw about, there’s obviously so many moments that I don’t choose. Practically an infinite number of things I could draw about on a particular day. Hopefully as the strip goes on day by day, year after year, a fuller portrait is being painted of my life.
Here’s why I started doing the strip: I’ve been drawing graphic novels and the novel has an established structure. Stories in general have an established structure. They have beginnings and middles and ends. And I felt there was something artificial about that. That wasn’t really capturing how I experience life. The stories that make up our lives don’t have beginnings, middles and ends. No story in your life really has an ending. They all continue on. And there’s really thousands of stories in your life, all happening at the same time and sort of twisting around each other and doing loop-de-loops. And certain things happen again and again and again. And there’s so many little details that all add up to make a human life.
Although I was trying to express that kind of thing in my grahic novels, there was no way to do it. Once I came upon the idea of doing the daily diary comic strip, I realized that would perfectly accomplish what I was trying to do.
Q: How do your family and friends feel about being portrayed in the strip?
A: Most of them really like to be in it. I’ve been doing it for a really long time. There was some resistance from (Kochalka’s wife) Amy towards the beginning, but not any more.
Actually she was already a character in my graphic novels before I started doing the diary strip, so she was already used to it by the time I started the strip.
There’s certain things that she doesn’t really like me to draw, like sex stuff, so I try to limit the amount of sex stuff I draw or how graphic it is. But I don’t leave it out entirely. I don’t draw every time I have sex in the comic. But I don’t draw every time I brush my teeth in the comic either. I draw some of the times I brush my teeth or have sex, but I don’t draw it all.
Q: Maybe that’s what the strip should be — every other one, brushing teeth or having sex.
A: I’ve had a fantasy for years that I would do a week or a month, just brushing teeth.
Q: That would be awesome.
A: At the beginning I thought that would be too risky to try, but now I draw hundreds of these strips a year and we’re coming up on a decade so there’s some room for a month of toothbrushing strips. Subscribership would probably jump.
Q: How does the online readership compare to the book sales? Which is the more financially viable?
A: I make more money from subscribers, although probably more people buy the books. Way more people buy the books. But the people that subscribe pay me $1.95 a month, so that comes out to more money.
Q: How many people do you have subscribing right now?
A: Acutally, I don’t really have any way to tell. The way we have the site set up doesn’t count and PayPal doesn’t tell me what the total is. All I know is how much money I take in a month. And even that I’m not completely sure of, but it’s something like $500-$600 a month.
Q: But the books sell well too? Because I remember when the first collection came out it wasn’t selling well.
A: Well Diamond has pretty much a monopoly on comic book distribution to comic book stores. Their orders for American Elf book one was 600 copies, which was pretty low. Especially because that book cost a lot to print because it’s giant.
So our orders for the next one are more than doubled, almost tripled that. But the book was slimmer; it was $10 cheaper and that was probably what cause orders to be lower for the first book, even though it was totally worth it.
Q: Has the first book regained money over time?
A: Oh yeah, I think all my book do fine in the long run. None of my books ever have particularily high initial orders. The highest might be around 2000 or 2500. But they all continue to sell as the years go by. Cause I’m not going anywhere and I’m pretty well known in indie comic circles. So the books continue to sell slowly over time. And that’s fine. I’d love to have a runaway best seller, but I’m happy enough because I make a living at it so I can’t really complain. I thought for sure I was going to have to work as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant for my whole life. Which is what I did for six years before.
Q: What are the benefits and hazards of doing a daily, personal strip like this?
A: Well, the only really big minus is every time I get together with my friends and I want to tell them about any little anecdotes that I have, they know them already, cause they’ve read the strip. (laughs) “Yeah I know James, I read the strip.” I’ve got nothing to say then. (laughs)
Q: Well, what have been the benefits? Is there anything you’ve found in doing a strip like this that you didn’t expect to discover?
A: Well I got a lot better at using PhotoShop. It’s gotta be good for my drawing skills.
Not every strip am I pushing myself to my utter limit of drawing. some of the strips are pretty much take it easy. But still it’s good to draw every day and I do try to remind myself to push on content. I don’t want to coast on the content. Because you could draw a daily diary strip and really reveal nothing about any of the deeper truths of humanity and I would like to try to reveal some deeper truths. Luckly how the strip is structured I’ve been able to reveal deeper truths without even trying.
There’s two good ways to do it, and they both work. Sometimes I draw without particualry even thinking about what I’m doing. Sometimes you can reveal things by accident. And then other times I purposely push myself to try and dig a little deeper in why I’m doing something. Sometimes that works and you actually do figure out some truth about yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise realized. But other times that obscures the truth because you think you come up with some profound thought and really you haven’t (laughs). But I figure it’s all part of it. If I draw some profound thought that I have and it turns out it’s all bullshit, that’s fine. That’s part of life too. Everyone has their profound thoughts that turn out to be bullshit.
Q: One of the things I admire about the strip is unlike a lot of similar autobiographical works, you’re not afraid to show yourself at your worst. You balance it out. I think a lot of people who are doing autobiographical strips, or are insipired by your work, seem to either focus all on the cute, or in the other direction.
A: I’ve been accused of my strip being just cuteness or a cute a day thing but it’s not.
Q: Well the one that stands out for me is that Christmas strip.
A I have no idea what you’re talking about. (laughs) I can’t remember.
Q: Are you being facectious?
A: No, I haven’t read my own book.
Q: In the strip you blow up over trying to get the Christmas tree up and Amy’s crying and saying we can cancel Christmas.
A: I ruin Christmas a little bit every year. I get a little better about that. I might not have ruined Christmas this year because I really tried hard not to.
It’s hard though because you get so many expectations and it never quite turns out the way you hoped. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, magical day, and that’s not necessarily what happens.
Q: How has becoming a parent affected your work? Because Eli plays such a huge part in the diary strips.
A: That’s true. It took a lot of the emphasis off of me. I did have to remind myself that it’s not his diary it’s my diary. It’s not just there to catalogue all the funny things that he says. And I don’t think it has become just that.
So much of my life revolve around being a dad now so the strip is about being a dad too. I thought I would lose my core readership when I had the kid because most hipsters in their 20s don’t have kids and some of them were vocal about how the strip sucked now. But for the most part it hasn’t been a problem.
Q: Well, they’re all starting to get older and have their own kids I suppose.
A: Sure. I still have a lot of pretty young readers I think. It’s broadened my readership. I get a lot of moms reading the strip now.
Q: Let’s talk about SuperFuckers for a little bit — a strip I don’t know how I’m going to refer to in the paper.
A: You can always put more asterixes in.
Q: I’ll just call it “Super Explitive Deleted.” How did that come about? What was the impetus for that?
A: It’s really complicated how I started doing that strip. You know my book “The Cute Manifesto?” I have a contrary dissenting philosophy. The Cute Manifesto is my book of art theory, comics theory and life theory. Basically it’s art and philosophy. I have an equal and opposite philosophy, which I call “the evil universe theory.” I wanted to incorporate my evil universe theory into a regular story. Basically I wanted to show the interconnectedness between all things and that every molecule of the universe is at war with every other molecule of the universe.
Somehow that turned into this goofy story about teen-age superheroes living in a clubhouse. And doing drugs. It was really going to be a quite different story but after I bounce these ideas around for several years before I started, pretty much the moment I actually sat down and put pencil to paper and started drawing the story it completely changed. And that happens anytime I write a story.
Q: How so? Where did you say “what this needs is a Legion of Super Heroes” bent?
A: I have no idea. I don’t know how it happens. (pause) This is how it happened. I had all these ideas about that grandiose graphic novel. But then I also thought an easy and fun way to make a bit of money would be to write a superhero comic for marvel or dc. So I pitched an idea for a Legion of Super Heroes series to DC. And it took them so long to get back to me about whether or not they wanted to do it that I finally just started working on it myself and changed the name to “Super Fuckers.” (laughs)
Q: It’s got a lot going on. Obviously on one level it’s this dopey little, really funny parody ...
A: I don’t consider it a parody. The reason I don’t consider it a parody is I cause I think it is a real super hero comic. I don’t think it’s making fun of super hero comics. I think it is a super hero comic. But I would say it’s a satire. It does satire a lot of things from real life.
One of the issues had a President Bush satire with Jack Crack sitting in as a Bush character. No one even noticed.
Q: Is that the one where he fights ...
A: Yeah. He tweaks the rules to become president of the club.
Q: I didn’t even catch that was a Bush satire, but now that you say that it makes perfect sense.
A: And that was already after he had become a born-again Christian. He became a born -again Christian and then stole the presidency.
Q: And now he’s wearing a dress.
A: That’s my revenge on George Bush. His stand-in is wearing a tutu in the latest issue.
Q: I like how each issue has some weird number so you get the feeling you’ve missed a couple of issues.
A: The reason I did that is that is my experience of reading comics. Back before you could find comics at the comic book store you had to buy them at the newsstand on a little spinner rack. I would never find two issues in a row of a comic. Or almost never. I didn’t know when to go and look for them. Sometimes they didn’t order every issue, sometimes it sold out before you got there. Sometimes your dad wouldn’t bring you back for three months. So I never had two issues of a comic in a row. It never made any sense. I wanted to capture that same experience I had reading super hero comics as a kid. that’s another reason why I say it’s not a parody. because I really am trying to capture the feeling I got from reading super hero comics.
Q: But the interesting thing is that they never really fight any crime or seem to go on any kind of missions.
A: No, there hasn’t been a single mission or actual threat they had to overcome. There’ve been some perceived threats that have turned out to be wrong.
Q: The super powers in themselves are more status symbols.
A: Yeah, they are. Most of the characters I haven’t even said what their power are.
Q: True. I don’t know what the one power of that very Christian uptight guy ...
A: Oh yeah, what’s his name? Does he even have a superhero name?
Q: He probably does but I don’t remember what it is. He’s the one who converted Jack to Chrisianity.
A: That guy, I’m not even sure if he does have any power (laughs). He’s definitely a respected member of the team. I’m not sure what he does.
In the first issue, you know Computer Fist?
Q: The name sounds familiar, yeah.
A: He doesn’t join the team in the first issue. He’s there for team tryouts. No one has noticed, but when he’s first introduced, he’s talking to this girl and he says, “My name’s Wilbur.” And then later he’s talking to another character who asks him his name and he says “Kevin.” (laughs).
Q: It’s got a very freewheeling sensability to it, so how much planning do you put into the book? Do you know where you’re going with it from issue to issue?
A: No, I know nothing. I have a general idea about what’s going to happen each issue when I start out. But usually the characters get their own ideas about what they want to do and how to behave.
Q: What other projects are you working on? I read where you were doing a children’s book.
A: Yes, I have a children’s book completed called “Squirrley Grey” and it’s coming out in August from Random House. I have a book of short stories called “Yellow Bear and Wheat Toast” but I haven’t found a publisher for it. That’s prose. I have a rough draft for a comic called Dragon Puncher. No one’s really interested in it, although I think it’s really good. I’ve got the first issue complete for a new children’s comic called Johnny Boo. We’re just trying decide what format we want to release that in with Top Shelf.
Q: You’re very prolific. How do you manage to balance your workload?
A: I guess I spend a lot of time working on art. But more than that I also taught myself how to work quickly. I don’t feel like I’m overworked or anything. I feel like my pace is pretty relaxed and alright. I can probably create ten times more stuff if I really buckled down and worked really, really hard. But I feel like I work at a relaxed pace. I’m probably wrong about that; I probably am working really hard. It just doesn’t feel like I’m overworked.
Q: Are you still doing the little strips for Nickelodeon Magazine?
A: Oh yes, for Nickelodeon Magazine I do Impy and Wormer. I still do that. Give them a couple batches of strips a year. I probably should do it more often. I’ve written a couple SpongeBob SquarePants comics for them for the foreign market. They’re not published in the United States. They have somebody else draw them and translate them into whatever language they’re being translated into. I don’t know if those will ever appear in the U.S. I’ve only done a couple of them.
Q: Are you still teaching at the cartoon school?
A: I haven’t at all. Not at all this year and only two days last fall, so not much. I’ve been doing a lot of paintings. I did 150 little paintings for a show at Giant Robot in New York City. Sold 111 of them so I thought that was pretty successful. I have another show at Giant Robot San Francisco in June. Doing a bunch of little paintings for that now.
Q: You’ve done paintings, you’ve done comics, you have a children’s book coming out, you’re recording music. Is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to take a stab at?
A: I really want to design video games. I would like to do animation myself. I made a couple of animated shorts for Nickelodeon. I optioned a couple of books to turn into TV series but none of them actually got made so I kind of would like to learn how to animate myself. But that sounds like a lot of work to figure out how to use one of those programs. I don’t know if I’ve got the time to devote a couple of years just learning how to use a stupid program. But I would really, really like to learn how to design video games.
I did design a video game that this guy was going to put together to make a Game Boy Advance game. He said he would put together a team of professional video game designers. And turn my idea into an actual Game Boy Advance game that would probably give away free online. There’s a whole homebrew scene for making GBA games. You can play them on emulators on your computer or you can load them onto carts and play them on your actual Game Boy. It’s kind of complicated if you don’t know anything about it.
This guy said he wanted to do this, but it hasn’t happened. I worked out all the play mechanics of the game and designed the characters and all that, but nothing has been actually created. I would really like the chance to actually make a game. I don’t know how to make that happen.