Cartoonist James Kochalka was an alternative-culture superstar when he began his career–at least, he frequently signed his work "James Kochalka, Superstar." That puckish self-promotion, combined with prolific output in the mini-comics scene and pokes at comics icons like Scott McCloud (in the letters pages of The Comics Journal and elsewhere) made the Vermont-based artist a controversial figure in the early to mid-'90s. While popular alternative cartoonists like Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, and Chris Ware were crossing over into respectability, Kochalka was leading a movement to keep a sense of silliness and lightness in the medium, and in outsider art in general. He's taught painting classes for novices, sung in a punk band (James Kochalka Superstar, which recently signed to Rykodisc), made animated shorts for Nickelodeon, and sold a decent number of his fanciful graphic novels, which have titles like Monkey Vs. Robot, Fancy Froglin's Sexy Forest, and Peanutbutter & Jeremy's Best Book Ever!
But Kochalka's most significant workand the one that's won over even many longstanding Kochalka-hatersis his sketchbook diary, which he puts online daily at americanelf.com. Kochalka uses the flat, boxy, panel-strip format to capture big events in his life (like the 2003 birth of his son) and common ones (like his frequent quarrels and jests with his wife). Top Shelf has just collected five years' worth of the strip into one volume; American Elf should vault Kochalka into the same echelon of critical respect as the cartoonists with whom he used to spar. Recently, Kochalka spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his comics diaries, his philosophy of aesthetics, and how the two fit together.
The Onion: What prompted you to start a sketchbook diary?
James Kochalka: I wrote the first diary entry on a plane to the San Diego Comicon. My friend Brian Ralph was working on his book Cave-In, and I thought, "If he's getting work done on the plane, I can get work done, too." I kept it up for the week I was at the convention, and stopped when I got home. Then I thought about it for a couple of months, and decided it would be good to do it full-time. I started in earnest in October 1998.
O: Were you planning to publish it all along?
JK: Yeah, but that didn't have any effect on how I approached drawing it. And in fact, even though I've got three publishers that I work with regularlyHighwater Books, Alternative Comics, and Top Shelfit took me several years to convince any of them that it would be worth publishing. The whole general thrust of the comics movement right now is toward the graphic-novel, long-form, literary artistic works. And I was doing a daily strip, which is completely the opposite direction. [Laughs.] It took them a couple of years to wrap their minds around it.
O: Do you go through several ideas for the strip during the course of a day, or do you sit down at the end of the day and decide what to draw?
JK: Well, sometimes during the day, something will happen where I'll say, "Oh, that would be a good strip," and I mentally file it away. But more often than not, when I decide I need to sit down and draw the strip, I've forgotten it. [Laughs.] So I have to try and piece it together.
O: You don't keep notes?
JK: Oh, no.
O: Do you keep a regular sketchbook?
JK: No. I tried once. I just finished working on this book called Superfuckers, about a teen superhero team, and I tried to work out my ideas in a sketchbook, but it didn't feel right. I find working on plain white paper with a ballpoint pen is the best way. And I usually throw those away.
O: There seems to be a whole mini-industry in publishing sketchbooks: Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Seth, Adrian Tomine...
JK: Yeah, it's interesting. In the case of Robert Crumb, I think his sketchbook work is far superior to any of his other work. Like, leaps and bounds beyond. Why is that? I'm not sure. I think my sketchbook diary is leaps and bounds beyond any of my other work. It has something to do with feeling freer. Normally, in one of my graphic novels, I start off with a ruler, and rule off the shapes of the panels. And even before that, I'll do a thumbnail sketch of the whole page, figuring out what's going to go in each panel, and then I'll draw it carefully and ink it carefully. In my sketchbook diaries, I do pencil it first, lightly, and then ink it, but I allow myself to be as free as I can. It's really a struggle. My ambition is to make something great enough that it will affect people for hundreds of years and be remembered. But in order to do that, whatever that magic thing is... Who knows? I usually feel like I've got to push myself harder, to go deeper. But sometimes it's the opposite: to not push at all, to let myself flow in whatever direction the wind might take me. I'm willing to try anything to help me unlock something new. If great concentration is going to help me unlock something fantastic, then I'll try great concentration. If it's absentmindedly doodling, I'll do that.
O: Have you ever considered editing the diaries, picking only the best strips for publication?
JK: I think that would defeat the purpose. One of the reasons I wanted to leave the graphic-novel format behind is that it seemed artificial to impose that kind of novel-like structure on my life, which is always in progress. It goes through ups and downs and twists and turns, and certain things repeat themselves, and there are surprises. So the daily-diary format enables me to follow my life in any direction it might go, without having to worry about structure. To edit it down would be to impose the kind of structure I was trying to get away from.
O: You don't seem overly concerned in the strip with keeping up a continuous narrative. One day you might be very angry, or fighting with your wife, and the next day everything's fine, with no clarification for readers.
JK: Right. There was a strip recently where Amy and I were talking about how mean I'd been to her, but the strips in the days leading up to it hadn't shown me being mean, because I was talking about something else. So it's like I've opened up a window into my life for the readers, but they're just peeking in. [Laughs.] My life is revealed to the reader, and yet still a mystery.
O: Is there anything you wouldn't include because it's too personal or embarrassing?
JK: Not exactly. I mean, I've found that it would be extremely easy for me to write about what I had for dinner every day, so I try to ban myself from writing about that. And, like, every time I masturbate, I'm not going to write a strip about it. [Laughs.] If you go through the diary and see how often my wife and I have sex, it doesn't match every occurrence of sex in my life. [Laughs.] It might show up a couple of times a year, but it's happening more frequently than that.
JK: [Laughs.] Or, for instance, I'll draw strips about myself brushing my teeth, but I can't draw every time I brush my teeth. Although I've been sort of fantasizing for like six months now that it would be fun to draw a strip about me brushing my teeth for a full week, and show what goes through my head.
O: So you consciously try to avoid repeating yourself? In a recent strip, you worried that you were drawing too many strips about your son.
JK: Yeah, specifically when he gets sick or something. It used to be like a big event here in our lives, but as time goes on and he gets sick more and more, it becomes less of a big event. So it's unlikely that I'll continue to draw every time he gets sick. There might be something else in the day that's actually bigger.
O: Do you find that the strip gets stronger or more interesting as you have more going on in your life, like having a kid or signing a record contract?
JK: If something miserable happens to me, it might end up being a better strip. That's the one really good thing about doing the diary, I think. If something absolutely miserable happens to me and I'm feeling terrible, but I can draw a strip about it and the strip turns out well, then I feel really glad about the terrible thing that happened. [Laughs.]
O: As you look back over the diaries, have you spotted trends in your life that you might not have otherwise noticed? For example, you seem to be sick a lot, or at least you draw about being sick a lot.
JK: I didn't used to be sick a lot until we had the baby.
O: Actually, in the first few years of the strip, you drew a lot about being sick.
JK: I threw up a lot. That's different. [Laughs.] I'm actually a little bit bulimic, I think. I really enjoy throwing up. It's a good release.
O: In those early strips, you seemed to be grappling with some impulse-control problems, like eating more than you can hold, or playing videogames longer than you mean to.
JK: Definitely. If there's a lot of food to be eaten, I will eat it until, well, I throw up. [Laughs.] And if there's a great videogame, I'll play it until my hands are crippled. I guess I do have a little bit of a problem that way. But it's relatively useful, in that the same energy allows me to get a lot of artwork done.
O: That's one thing you don't show very often in the diary strip: your actual work. Readers may get the impression that your days are spent lying on the couch, playing videogames, and going to parties.
JK: Yes, but then how did all the comics get drawn? [Laughs.]
O: That's a fairly common kink for people who write or draw about their lives on a regular basis. You get people like Erma Bombeck, who wrote about what it's like to be a middle-class housewife, but never really acknowledged in her work that she was also a best-selling author.
JK: Well, in that case, I think my artistic life does show up in the diary strip quite often. There are plenty of strips about working on the diary strip itself, and then there are strips about work-related things like going to conventions, or dealing with my publishers and lawyers. My thoughts and feelings about my work are there in the diary, along with the more everyday stuff like brushing my teeth or having a baby.
O: One of the unique qualities of the diary is the way it lets you capture the rhythm of marriage. A lot of your strips are about you saying something funny and your wife saying something funny in return, and that's an aspect of married life that doesn't get recorded often: the little in-jokes that make up a relationship.
JK: Well, she really is a funny woman. She's sort of quiet, and at parties, she used to say things to me that would be so funny, but no one would hear, and I'd repeat it louder and get a big response. I got away with that for years. [Laughs.] I do get letters from couples pretty frequently who love the strip for that reason. They see some connection to their own relationship. I think the fundamental thing my comic is about is my relationship with my wife.
O: Do you still catch flak for comments you made early in your career, like when you announced that "craft is the enemy" in The Comics Journal?
JK: Oh, I think so. There are people who read that and decided they'd never buy one of my comics. Years have gone by, and they won't even try one. I've heard from people who, after years of avoiding my work, finally decided to check something out and really liked it. But I think I scared a lot of people away.
O: Do you regret it?
JK: No. [Laughs.] In fact, Alternative Comics is putting out a collection of my essays about comics, and we're going to reprint those letters to The Comics Journal.
O: In your time as an art teacher, and in some of your treatises on aesthetics, you've been an advocate for the democratization of art. Would you say that's still what you stand for: people turning their own experiences into art?
JK: Yes, well... I don't really hold myself as an example of what other people should follow. I think they should do whatever they feel like artistically. To be creative and think creatively. It's a worthwhile pursuit for anybody. If you're a fan of comics, or a fan of stories in general, and you've read some really great ones that you love, you might be too intimidated to try it yourself. I see young artists all the time who aren't sure what to do, and they sort of freeze up when they sit down to draw. I try to encourage them to just do it, and not worry so much about what's going to come out. Because if you don't sit down and do it, nothing's going to come out. You don't even have a shot at making something good if you don't sit down and give it a try. And I think a beginner could have just as good a shot at creating something really powerful as a seasoned pro. They might even have a better chance, because they might hit on something fabulous by accident, whereas the seasoned pro is stuck in his ways. There's no way to predict what it's going to take to make a masterpiece that's remembered for hundreds of years. I think anybody's got as good a shot at it as anybody else. You have to be inspired, though. Could you sit down intending to create hackwork, and accidentally come up with something great? I'm not sure. I don't think so. I think there has to be an effort to try and make something great, in order to make something great.