James Kochalka

We’ve been reading about James Kochalka’s life off and on via his daily, decade-plus-running American Elf comic strip since before his children were born, so when he mentioned a date when he’d be busy with his son Eli’s eighth birthday party, we had an inappropriate urge to shriek about how fast they grow up despite personally knowing zero Kochalkas. The multitalented comics author has an almost freakish ability to put out material, from his daily, one-panel autobiographical comics to longer-form graphic novels to music to video games. Kochalka recently visited Philadelphia for “The Kochalkalypse,” a two-day event consisting of a release party for his latest book, Fungus, at Brave New Worlds and a Saturday-night 8-bit performance at a DIY venue that shall remain unnamed. Before that, we spoke with him about Andy Samberg in a gorilla suit, accidentally making his video game too difficult for amateurs, and how he’s considering ending American Elf at the end of the year.

The A.V. Club: So, your son Eli is turning 8 years old tomorrow. What’s the party going to be like?

James Kochalka: He’s having a comic book-drawing party. I made a bunch of blank comic books with pre-drawn panel borders that the kids are going to draw in. And then we actually drew a Johnny Boo comic together, a new one, that I made a mini-comic of, and we’re going to hand it out as party favors. I’ll also bring those down to Philadelphia to sell. It’s Johnny Boo And Oakie. Oakie is [Eli’s] character; it’s an acorn.

AVC: An acorn?

JK: Yeah. It’s an acorn with a face and, you know, arms and legs.

AVC: Why do you think he went with an acorn?

JK: I don’t know; he only used him in that one story. He has a whole bunch of different characters. My little son Oliver, who is 3 now, he invented his first cartoon character when he was 2, a character named Puff Puff who’s just a scribble.

AVC: You started doing comics when you were about Eli’s age, right?

JK: Yeah, I can only remember the things I drew from second grade on. My mom says that I started earlier than that, but I just have to take her word for it. [Laughs.] But I definitely remember drawing a big battle drawing between monsters and robots [when I was] in second grade. I spent pretty much all of second grade drawing big, giant battle drawings of monsters fighting robots on computer paper, which, back then, was really big, like 2 feet wide and 1 foot tall. And then it would be perforated. I don’t know if you’ve seen that stuff; they probably don’t make it anymore.

AVC: When you were a kid, like Eli and Oliver and most kids, you were mainly interested in drawing monsters and robots and other things that weren’t yourself. When did you start doing autobiographical comics?

JK: Probably after I read Maus, sometime in the ’90s—mid-20s, late 20s, something like that?

AVC: The tendency to turn the camera on yourself seems to be an adult thing; when I was a little kid writing stuff, I was never writing about myself.

JK: Oh, right, no. But there’s a little boy who lives down the street who’s 7, and he started drawing autobiographical comics inspired by seeing my American Elf strips in the local newspaper here [in Kochalka’s hometown of Springfield, Vermont].

AVC: I saw a recent strip in which you get recognized on the street, even though your American Elf character doesn’t look much like the real you.

JK: Well, there’s several reasons that I get recognized in town. I guess one would be people who have seen my photo. Two would be people that recognize the names Eli and Oliver, so if I’m on the street saying “Hey Eli, hey Oliver,” they’ll ask. And then I often wear shirts with my own characters on them. [Laughs.]

AVC: I read that you were involved in a junior-high comics war.

JK: In junior high, I had a comic book company called Gurgle Incorporated and would make photocopied comic books, and then my friend Kevin had a comic book company called—E.T.C.? No. Whatever “et cetera” is, but he spelled it wrong. He said that it was misspelled on purpose.

So I was drawing all my comics myself, and he was lining up other kids in class to draw comics for his company. And we were rival comic book companies.

AVC: Did that just end when junior high ended?

JK: The other kids ran out of steam after a few months; I kept going.

AVC: What exactly do you think it is about yourself that you’re able to keep going on projects where other people get bored and stop? In particular, tons of people have tried to do something along the lines of a daily diary strip, but very few are still doing it.

JK: Um. [Pauses.] I don’t know. [Pauses.] If I commit to something, I tend to—do it. [Laughs.]

AVC: [Laughs.] Fair enough.

JK: Like, when I was 18, I told my girlfriend that I loved her, and we’re still together.

AVC: [Your wife] Amy, Eli, and Oliver are pretty much the co-main characters of American Elf at this point. Has the way you’ve depicted real people in that strip changed as your relationships become more permanent? Do you think you’ve gotten a bit gentler, knowing that you’re going to be around some of these people for the rest of your life?

JK: Yeah, I probably have. Lately, I’ve been drawing almost everybody else in my diary strip, any peripheral friends or other people, lately I’ve been drawing them all off-panel, not even drawing them at all. Just to avoid—annoying them, I guess.

AVC: Do you think that boxes you in?

JK: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through. But I’m worried about it.

AVC: Were there any particular strips that made you start doing that more?

JK: Well—I don’t want to talk about it. [Laughs.]

AVC: Okay! So how is the Glorkian Warrior video game coming along?

JK: It’s coming along pretty good! We still have a lot of work to do. We sent a demo out, and somebody wrote back saying, “When you jump and hit a platform, it’d be really great if your character would pull himself up.” That was a big change, but they were right. There’s a lot of jumping and falling, and everyone was having a really hard time. Well, I wasn’t having a hard time, but I play tons of video games. Maybe I’m not normal.

It took a few weeks of coding to change everything, and I had to redraw a bunch of animations, but it was worth it. All that’s left for me to do is design and draw the last few levels, but they are going to be extra big. Then it’s up to Pixeljam to finish the rest of the game. I hope there won’t be much more, because it’s been, like, a year and a half, and we were planning to finish it in three months.

AVC: What’s the gameplay like?

JK: It’s sort of like Super Mario Bros. mixed with Galaga. The main part of the game is hand-drawn by me: You have the Glorkian Warrior, which is a three-eyed alien, and his super-backpack, which is an intelligent laser backpack.

The first part is a side-scrolling game—you run along the surface of a planet, you’re jumping over things while invader-type aliens are swooping down on you from above, and you shoot at them. Then you reach a vertically scrolling area, and as you go higher and higher up, gravity gets less and less and less and less until you eventually come into the gravitational field of another planetoid and the gravity flips, and then you play the whole next level upside-down.

And in your pocket you have a little pixel robot version of yourself, a tiny little Glorkian Warrior that looks like old-school computer graphics. [The Glork-Bot can] run into holes, then you control [it] in what’s basically an old-school computer graphics version of the same game.

AVC: You’ve clearly been very involved with the gameplay. As a big gaming fan, did you come up with any of that yourself?

JK: I came up with most of the gameplay mechanics myself. I actually worked on a game, just designing it, for a couple years before I met up with Pixeljam. So I had the basic design figured out before they started working on it with me.

AVC: The Friday event here is a party for your book release. What’s the book about?

JK: The book is called Fungus. Two of the characters in the book are these little mushroom guys who are a couple of enemies in the Glorkian Warrior video game. So in a weird way it’s a spin-off of the Glorkian Warrior universe. But it was based on some field research I did on vernal pools—basically pools of water that form in the woods from the melting snow, or whatever, in the spring. And they last just for the spring and then they go away in the summer, and that’s where all the frogs and salamanders and stuff go to mate.

AVC: Why vernal pools?

JK: One of my wife’s best friends lives in Maine, and she went to go visit her friend, and they happen to have a big vernal pool just a few hundred feet from their house, so I said, “Okay, we’re going to go study the vernal pool.”

AVC: So what’s Fungus about?

JK: These two mushroom guys go to a big party in a vernal pool, except they get there too late or too early or something, and no one else is there. That story is called “Rotten Little Cuties,” and they also argue about the nature of God.

AVC: As fungi do.

JK: The second story is also sort of about God; it’s called “Facebook,” and it’s about two lumps of moss in the forest called the Winklemoss twins, and they talk to another mushroom guy and have an argument about who created Facebook. The story’s also about cell phones and Justin Bieber and The Fonz.

AVC: This spring, you were appointed Vermont’s first cartoonist laureate. What does that entail?

JK: Well, it doesn’t really necessarily mean anything; it means whatever I what it to mean. Mostly what it means is a lot of schools and libraries now ask me to come and speak, which I do if I can. Since I became cartoonist laureate, I’m doing probably a couple events a month, which is really more than I planned to do, but I figure I’ll do more now while it’s fun and less later when I start to get bored with it. [Laughs.]

AVC: Speaking of getting bored with things, there are a few breaks in the early days of American Elf. Why did you take them, and what made you come back?

JK: There’s only one break, in the second year. It was a break of a few months. Drawing the strip is really difficult, and I thought maybe I’d get a lot of other work done if I stopped drawing the strip, so I stopped drawing it. And then I didn’t really do anything else; I just played video games for two months. [Laughs.]

Then, one day, I just felt kind of good—I think my hair was fluffy—and I picked up a sketchbook and drew a strip about feeling kind of good. And then a couple days later I drew another one, and maybe a couple days later I drew another one, and then I was back in. And I haven’t quit since then. But I’m considering quitting at the end of this year.

AVC: Oh, are you?

JK: Yeah!

AVC: Same reason, just don’t have enough time to go around?

JK: I don’t know! I don’t want it to be a life sentence. My brother says I should not quit. In fact, everybody says I should not quit, so—I don’t know. [Laughs.]

AVC: Would it be hard for you to quit doing it?

JK: I don’t know! I think it might be easy! [Laughs.] It’d be easy to quit, but I don’t know if I’d be happy. I think doing the strip helps me regulate my stress or something like that, so I don’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t. I could maybe replace it with therapy, but I’m against therapy. I don’t know; I’ve never done it. I assume that I’ll have to talk to someone about my deepest, darkest problems, and I don’t want to talk to anyone about my deepest, darkest problems.

AVC: So, at the moment, instead of talking to one person about your deepest, darkest problems you talk to…

JK: Everybody? [Laughs.] Right.

AVC: Lastly, Andy Samberg was in the “Monkey Vs. Robot” video?

JK: That’s true! He was the monkey. It was before he was famous; he was in college with the filmmaker who made the movie, and they made it while they were friends in college.

A guy who’s played in my band, Neil Cleary, was at a bar trivia contest, and a question came up, “What music video stars Andy Samberg in a gorilla suit?” It was a 50-point question or something, and he was like, “I can’t believe they wrote this question just for me!” He won the contest. [Laughs.]