Kochalka, James 1967-
Kochalka, James 1967-
Born May 26, 1967; married 1995; wife's name Amy; children: Eli, Oliver. Education: Maryland Institute College of Art, M.F.A.
Home—Burlington, VT. E-mail—[email protected]
Comic-book artist, writer, musician, and songwriter. Exhibitions: Work has been exhibited in Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United States.
Ignatz Award for Outstanding Minicomic, 1997, for The Perfect Planet; Ignatz Award for Outstanding Series, 2002, for The Sketchbook Diaries; Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic, 2003 and 2004, for American Elf; nominated for and/or winner of many honors, including Eisner Award, Harvey Award, and Firecracker Alternative Books Award.
Magic Boy and Girlfriend, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 1991.
Paradise Sucks, Black Eye Books, 1997.
Mermaid, Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 1998.
Tiny Bubbles, Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 1998.
Quit Your Job, Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 1998.
Kissers (includes CD), Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 1999.
The Perfect Planet and Other Stories, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 1999.
Monkey vs. Robot, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2000.
(Editor, with others) Expo 2000, Oni Press (Portland, OR), 2000.
Peanutbutter and Jeremy, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2000.
Sunburn, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2000.
James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries, Volume One, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2001.
Peanutbutter and Jeremy: The Flibbledibble File, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2001.
Peanutbutter and Jeremy: Nest and Window Exchange, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2002.
James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries, Volume Two, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2002.
Pinky and Stinky, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2002.
Fantastic Butterflies, Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 2002.
Peanutbutter and Jeremy: Free Comic Book Day, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2003.
Monkey vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2003.
Magic Boy and the Robot Elf, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2003.
Fancy Froglin's Sexy Forest, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2003.
Peanutbutter and Jeremy's Best Book Ever, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2003.
James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries, Volume Three, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2003.
James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries, Volume Four, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2004.
American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka, October 26, 1998 to December 31, 2003, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2004.
The Cute Manifesto, Alternative Comics (Gainesville, FL), 2005.
American Elf, Book Two: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka, January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2005, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2007.
Squirrelly Gray, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.
Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World!, Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, GA), 2008.
Creator of series and strips, including American Elf, 1998—, The Sketchbook Diaries, James Kochalka Superstar, Peanutbutter and Jeremy, Little Moon Pig (for Nickelodeon magazine), and Froglin; cocreator, with Tom Hart, of "Monica's Story." Contributor to comic books, magazines, and anthologies, including 9-11: Emergency Relief, Alternative Comics (Marietta, GA), 2002; Compact disc recordings include Carrot Boy the Beautiful, Sudden Shame Records; The True Story of James Kochalka Superstar, Dot Dot Dash; Monkey vs. Robot, Tarquin Records; Kissers, Highwater Books; Don't Trust Whitey (self-released); Danger Force Five Singles Club, Dangerfive Records; Our Most Beloved, Rykodisc; and Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly, Rykodisc.
James Kochalka is a celebrated alternative cartoonist who is best known for American Elf, his daily comic diary strip, and for graphic novels such as Fantastic Butterflies and Monkey vs. Robot. Although most of his work is aimed at adults, Kochalka has created a smaller body of work for children, including the books Peanutbutter and Jeremy and Squirrelly Gray. "Although he may not be the most successful cartoonist of his generation," Tom Spurgeon remarked on the Comics Reporters Web site, "Kochalka's career makes admirable sense: a constant flow from play into work, from art into life, and back again."
Kochalka began his "Sketchbook Diaries" series (later titled American Elf) in 1998. Described by Publishers Weekly contributor Laura Hudson as a "deceptively simple strip rooted in observational vignettes about his family, friends, and the small joys and frustrations of living," the comic features Kochalka as a buck-toothed, pointy-eared elf. The strip, which can be viewed online, draws 20,000 page views a day. "In some ways it's not really a big deal, because it's just this thing I do every day, like brushing my teeth," Kochalka told Hudson. "But it's also more than that. I'm contemplating my life; I'm contemplating existence. It's an hour or two every day actually trying to make sense of where I am at that moment. It's a fairly profound experience, and I think it's kept me from going off track many times, because I can watch myself going off track and readjust my life."
In 2008 Kochalka celebrated the tenth anniversary of American Elf, an occasion that prompted him to reconsider the strip's influence. "When I reached the anniversary it suddenly became clear to me that discovering some secret truth about human existence was not necessarily important," he admitted to Spurgeon. "That the really important thing about drawing the daily diary strip was the way that it had utterly transformed my life for the better. I am more unified and whole because of the strip. There is no meaningful separation between my art and my life. They have become one."
Top Shelf Productions has published periodic collections of Kochalka's "Sketchbook Diaries" series, for which the cartoonist has received two Ignatz Awards, as well as a number of other volumes of his work, including American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka, October 26, 1998 to December 31, 2003. Reviewing James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries, Volume Four, in Time, Andrew D. Arnold stated that "the delights of the book are in Kochalka's endearingly quirky personality and simple, but not uncrafted graphical style. We could take lessons from his focus on being in the moment." In an interview with Mars Import contributor Dan Nadel, Kochalka stated: "The diary strips condense my experience in a much more direct and immediate way than I could ever do with a graphic novel. But the amazing alchemy comes when the individual strips are read together in sequence. The rhythm that emerges is quite infectious somehow, but I really can't explain why. A lot of readers have used the word ‘addicting’ to describe their experience of reading the diary strips. It's not uncommon for people to reread those books again and again."
In addition to his work on American Elf, Kochalka has penned numerous comic books and graphic novels. A reviewer for Silver Bullet Comic Books online called Fantastic Butterflies "intoxicating," and "a beautiful song of love and friendship." The story, which features Kochalka's wife and friends, among other characters, examines life's absurdities, such as a cancer sufferer who defends the right of his tumor to exist. Reviewing Fantastic Butterflies for Comic Readers online, Stephen Whitworth observed that the book "shares stylistic affinities with two earlier quasi-autobiographical Kochalka works, Tiny Bubble and Kissers. Together they form a neat trilogy, representing some of the artist's best work. Read as a whole, these graphic novels show that the characters James Kochalka is most interested in writing about are based on the people closest to him."
Monkey vs. Robot demonstrates the link between nature and technology. In the black-and-white panels, Kochalka draws a robot factory that is encroaching on the natural habitat of a monkey community. The monkeys frolic and play until contamination from the factory spoils their forest, and the robots are dismayed when a robot is destroyed by the monkeys. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book a "charming little fable."
The protagonists of Pinky and Stinky are two pigs who crash on the moon while on the way to Pluto. Once there they meet the indigenous moon people and discover some disturbing facts about the U.S. Space Program. Pinky is the serious half of the duo—efficient, serious, and cynical—while Stinky is trusting and naive. Jennifer M. Contino, who interviewed the cartoonist for Sequential Tart online, wrote that Pinky and Stinky "wasn't just influenced by any one genre or theme, but rather an eclectic mix of medias helped foster these characters and situations within the mind of Kochalka." Kochalka told Contino that he was inspired to write
In Peanutbutter and Jeremy an unlikely twosome demonstrate the value of friendship. A silly cat who believes he works in an office, Peanutbutter flees after he ruins some paperwork. He meets Jeremy, a crafty crow who loves pranks, and together they search for buried treasure. Young readers "will laugh at and sympathize with" the vulnerable kitty, noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. A squirrel who tires of watching television ventures outside and finds adventures galore in Squirrelly Gray. After leaving his drab, colorless existence behind, Squirrelly saves the Tooth Fairy from danger and is rewarded with a magic acorn. When a ravenous fox confronts Squirrelly, the acorn bursts open, revealing a brilliant rainbow. According to a critic in Kirkus Reviews, Kochalka's "simply drawn art and jaunty protagonist will draw readers."
Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World!, another work for young readers, centers on an amiable ghoul, his equally friendly companion, and a not-so- terrifying cyclops. When Johnny Boo and his pal, Squiggle, encounter the Ice Cream Monster, the one-eyed creature accidentally swallows Johnny's friend while downing a snack. After Squiggle uses his special powers to force the monster to belch, thus freeing him from the monster's tummy, Johnny must employ his own "boo powers" to help the creature stop burping. Johnny Boo is "a true crowd-pleaser: playful, clever and ever ready to forgive," remarked a critic in Kirkus Reviews, and Snow Wildsmith, writing in Booklist, observed that the "simple line drawings and bright crayon colors stand out in this sweet, silly graphic novel."
Although now best known for his comics, Kochalka has long been a musician, recording albums and touring the East Coast, and he is popular on the college radio circuit with his band, James Kochalka Superstar. He told Nadel that comics and music are "both so intertwined into my daily life and both so important to me. Everywhere I go, all day long, I'm thinking up little songs in my head, and walking around singing them. I often break into song in the middle of conversation with people, and sing a little song about what we've been talking about, or about something we've just walked by, or something. At the same time, I'm
observing everything around me and organizing it into potential diary strips in my mind."
Kochalka believes that comics are so appealing because people have an intrinsic need to blend text and art to tell stories. "I think there's an unconscious synergy at work that makes it irresistible," he remarked to Nadel. "Somehow, this combination of little packets of words and series of discreet pictures more closely resembles the way our brains work and the way we call up memories than mere prose or movies do."
Although he still considers himself a cult success, Kochalka notes that his audience is widening. "My readership started off as almost exclusively 20-something hipsters, but now it is much more diverse, I think," he told Spurgeon, adding, "Although it's definitely an adult-oriented strip, there's plenty of kids that read American Elf in the newspaper. A lot of couples tell me that they love to read American Elf to each other in bed. The readership seems to include male & female, young & old, couples & singles. The comics that I do specifically for kids, like Johnny Boo, also have a pretty substantial adult readership. For a guy like me who is kind of a freak, it's astonishing that such a wide crowd seems to get my work."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, July, 2004, Ray Olson, review of American Elf: James Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries, p. 1831; April 15, 2007, Gordon Flagg, review of American Elf, Book Two: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka, January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2005, p. 47.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2007, review of Squirrely Gray; May 1, 2008 review of The Best Little Ghost in the World!
Kliatt, May, 2005, George Galuschak, review of American Elf, p. 38; July, 2007, George Galuschak, review of American Elf, Book Two, p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, September 4, 2000, review of Monkey vs. Robot, p. 87; May 12, 2003, review of Fantastic Butterflies, p. 47; February 19, 2007, review of American Elf, Book Two, p. 154; October 28, 2008, Laura Hudson, "This American Elf."
School Library Journal, May, 2004, Steve Weiner, "All You Need Is The Milk," review of Peanutbutter and Jeremy, p. 28.
Time, May 14, 2004, Andrew D. Arnold, "Small Comix in the Big Leagues," review of Sketchbook Diaries, Volume 4.
Comic Readers Web site,http://www.comicreaders.com/ (January 2, 2004), Stephen Whitworth, review of Butterflies; Dana Tillusz, interview with Kochalka.
Comics Reporters Online,http://www.comicsreporter.com/ (November 23, 2008), Tom Spurgeon, "CR Sunday Interview: James Kochalka."
Daily Cross Hatch Online,http://thedailycrosshatch.com/ (March 2, 2007), Brian Heater, interview with Kochalka.
Dangerfive Studios Web site,http://dangerfive.com/jks/ (January 2, 2003).
James Kochalka Home Page,http://www.americanelf.com (December 15, 2008).
Indy World Web site,http://www.indyworld.com/ (December 15, 2008), "James Kochalka."
Mars Import Web site,http://www.marsimport.com/ (April, 2002), Dan Nadel, "An Interview with James Kochalka."
Modern Tales Web site,http://www.moderntales.com/ (January 2, 2004), "Fancy Froglin" strips.
Sequential Tart Web site,http://www.sequentialtart.com/ (April, 2002), Jennifer M. Contino, interview with Kochalka.
Silver Bullet Comic Books Web site,http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/ (January 2, 2004), review of Fantastic Butterflies.
Top Shelf Web site,http://www.topshelfcomix.com/ (December 15, 2008), "James Kochalka."