The American Elf Speaks
by Matthew Moyer
In an age when mainstream superhero comics seem to be sinking back into the late '80s/early '90s excess that almost torpedoed the medium the first time around, the work of James Kochalka stands out like a breath of fresh, clear, enthusiastic laughter. Kochalka has been carving his own distinctive niche in independent comics since 1994, peopling his four-color universe with monkey-fighting robots (and vice versa), impossibly good-natured ghosts, armored dragon punchers, the shittiest most selfish superhero team ever, a frog with a boner, a cat who thinks she's a businessman and even Kochalka himself, recast as a anxious elf, and new father. All of these characters are rendered in Kochalka's inimitable style, a wonderfully simple and joyous mix of early Peanuts and Gahan Wilson, earnest smiles, wide eyes, and rubbery bodies. Kochalka is ridiculously prolific, this year alone will see the release of a new volume of Johnny Boo, Dragon Puncher, a Superf*ckers collection, and of course his daily diary comic American Elf. All available now from the fine people of Top Shelf Comix. And that's not even counting his musical alter ego, James Kochalka Superstar! Ink 19 sat down with Kochalka in the middle of this year's American Library Association Conference, where, improbably, Kochalka was largely an unknown quantity! We talked about Superf*ckers (this reviewer's current comix obsession), music, Burlington, and how jealousy is the best professional motivation.
Can you tell me about the new volume of Johnny Boo that's coming out?
It's Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy. Let's see, what's it about? Uh, uh... It's a while ago that I wrote it. Johnny Boo has a playdate with his friend Rocky the Rock, which is just a rock. It's not an anthropomorphic rock, it's just a rock. And Squiggle feels bad because he doesn't have anyone to play with. So he decides to go make a new friend. So he meets this mean little boy who thinks Squiggle is a butterfly and catches him with a net and puts him in a jar. And then Johnny Boo's playdate gets canceled. (laughter) And the Mean Little Boy pees his pants. (laughter) That's his comeuppance, I guess!
How did you come up with Johnny Boo?
There's no great story. I was just doing some little doodles and then I... drew him. (laughter) And there he was!
What usually goes into writing a Johnny Boo adventure?
With the Johnny Boo books, I do a rough draft of a chapter and then read it to my sons as a bedtime story, and then the next day do another rough draft of a chapter and if there was a page where they didn't really react or laugh, I'll go back and I'll try and pump it up, y'know.
How about the Dragon Puncher book?
Well, with Dragon Puncher... the backgrounds of the panels are photos and the characters are drawn, but their faces are photos. So the Dragon Puncher is a cat in a battlesuit. It's my cat, Spandy. And the Dragon Puncher's sidekick is Spoony-E, this little furry guy, but it's my son Eli. Eli is six now, almost seven. By the time the book comes out, he'll be seven. but the pictures were taken when he was three. Now I have a new son, Oliver, and a new cat; they are also going to be future characters in new books. But the dragon in the first book is me, the dragon is my face.
Is this the first time you've integrated photographs into your comics work?
I've done a couple of little things where I've done it, including a story with the same characters for a McSweeney's anthology for kids, which came out a few years ago. That's where I did the first one. But it wasn't called Dragon Puncher. That one had a much worse title. Whatever it was. (laughter) And they didn't fight a dragon, they fought a blob.
I like how your children's work avoids some of the treacly sentimentality inherent in the genre. I mean, there is often a moral communicated, but it's communicated through surreal gags...
The problem with a lot of children's books is that the authors and publishers seem to be operating under a cloud of fear that they are going to offend parents. And I guess it's true that if you offend the parents they won't buy the books, but the kids don't care if you offend their parents! (laughter) The kids prefer that you slightly offend their parents! So I don't do anything that crude in any of those books, but it's definitely on the wilder side for kids.
I wanted to talk to you about my personal favorite of your recent works -- the new collected edition of the Superf*ckers comics. Where did you get the idea for that team? Were you a fan of superhero comics?
I do like superhero comics. And I liked the Legion of Superheroes a lot when I was a kid. Which was a group of teenage superheroes living in a clubhouse. And in fact I basically pitched DC a Legion of Superheroes series and they said, "No thank you." Actually they didn't say no thank you. They couldn't decide and they couldn't decide and they couldn't decide. And after maybe a year of them not being able to decide I wrote back to them and said that I'm going to do it myself! (laughter) So it could have been a real Legion of Superheroes book.
So would Orange Lightning be Lightning Lad and....
I wouldn't say that any of the characters are analogous to any of the characters in Legion of Superheroes. It's just the setting. I don't have a Superboy character, I don't have an Ultralad, I don't have a Lightning Lass, or... it's just the setting. Teenage superheroes in a clubhouse.
Were there any other superhero comics that you were fond of?
I like everything. Legion of Superheroes isn't the only group dynamic that I used. It's also a lot like X-Men, it's also a lot like Superfriends...
There's a little bit of everyone in there. Some Avengers...
Yeah, it's a bit like the Avengers. Exactly. But those are the comics that I liked best as a kid.
The thing that I like best about the comic is that these characters with beautifully angelic faces and long eyelashes and wide smiles and earnest eyes are saying unbelievably filthy things...
It is very... I did an alternate version. I did several pages with no swears. I did several pages with made-up swears. And then several pages with actual swears. And the pages with actual swears were just so much better! I had to do it!
It has to be a lot of fun to write.
It is! In a way it's extremely difficult to write because there are so many characters, and to juggle that many characters and still have the story flow and make sense... Because it's drawn in sort of a simple style and because it's funny, I don't think anyone sees the work that went into it. But really it was a lot of work. And after every issue I would say, "I'm never drawing one of these things again!" And then it would get rave reviews, and I'd be like, "Well, if everybody likes it, I guess I could do another one!"
One of my favorite parts is when the Orange Lightning clone decides to go to the grave of the original Orange Lightning to dig up his body and use his skull as a bong. That's a part that I always tell people about...
I was inspired by a couple of news stories out of Vermont. One, a guy at UVM went nuts and was running around naked hugging and grabbing people. (laughter) And then another guy in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which is a really rural part of the state, dug up someone's grave because he was going to use someone's skull as a bong! (laughter) So I thought it was cool to have the clone of the character dig up his own grave to use his skull as a bong. That's pretty awesome! (laughter)
Who's your favorite character on the team?
Ummmm.... I like Jack Krak. He's the most awful character.
You gave him a John Waters mustache.
Oh yeah, yeah. (laughter)
And what's going to happen to the team next? Are you writing any more material?
No. Next I'm writing a movie script about teenagers that are building mechanical battlesuits to fight. The original plan was that it was going to be just like Superf*ckers except it was going to be teenagers in mechanical battlesuits. But it's changed since then. Now it's about a guy making a mecha-suit so he can go to the prom and kill everybody. (laughter)
You had these wonderful little melancholy interludes in Superf*ckers, like how Vortex had this bottle with a moment from his childhood preserved forever. It seemed incongruous, but it worked.
Yeah there's a lot of stuff in Superf*ckers that's not... In addition to all of the really in-your-face, crass stuff, there's a lot of tender stuff too.
And also I thought with Plant Pal you might have even been poking fun at some of your own work. I could imagine him in Johnny Boo...
Plant Pal, a friend to plants! Theoretically Plant Pal might not even have a power. (laughter)
What is a typical work day for you like?
My work days are strange in that I don't work at any particular time or for any particular length of time. So I work kind of here or there. It's weird because I can't tell if I'm hardly working at all or working all the time. I don't know at all how much time I spend working, so... I know in the old days when I started I would draw for eight- or ten-hour stretches. I'd draw all day long. But now I feel like it hurts too much. So I draw for shorter stretches.
Is it every day? I know you're always working on American Elf...
No, it's definitely every day. I have to draw American Elf every day -- that's my daily diary comic strip. I also work on other things every day.
Do you have a studio in your house?
Yeah, I have a... Upstairs, a little landing sort of thing at the top of the stairs, I have my drawing table and downstairs I have a library and computer room.
Does where you live influence your work at all? As far as Burlington, Vermont?
Yeah, all the stories are set there. Even Superf*ckers was set in the field behind my house.
I was wondering about that, it was identical bucolic settings...
Yeah! I live in the city of Burlington, which is Vermont's largest city, but it's very small, only like 38,000 people. But I live right on the very edge of it, it's like a ten-minute walk to downtown. I live right on the edge of the town. So at the front of my house is this city and in the back of my house is the country. So I have all these little fields and stuff, and that's where my work is set. Johnny Boo is set there too! (laughter) A lot of my stuff is... Johnny Boo is really just like a flat stage. There's just a row of bushes and they stand right in front of the row of bushes. There're four books now and they're all set in that same very shallow space. I will definitely write a Johnny Boo book where they go somewhere else and do something else! (laughter) But I haven't done it yet.
What other comics or artists' work are you enjoying right now?
I'm reading a lot of kids comics. I'm really into the Sonic the Hedgehog comics right now. I read them to my son Eli. And Oliver. Oliver's only two-and-a-half, but he likes Sonic the Hedgehog too. But he can't possibly understand the storylines because they're insanely convoluted! I read Invincible. When I talk about the comics I read, I mostly talk about the monthly comics. But the alternative comics and the graphic novels, it's harder to say because I'm not reminded each month. I'd mention good graphic novels I've read in the last year, but I can barely tell you what they are because I'm not reminded each month of their titles. (laughter) I'm trying to think of something. Oh! I read this graphic novel called Rice Boy that I really liked, it's a sprawling fantasy adventure.
Are you following any minicomics or zines right now?
Y'know, people don't send them to me anymore! Not really. I know there are good minicomics out there, but I don't know, maybe I got too old or something. (laughter) I think maybe I got too old and now they don't send them too me!
How did you get your start in comics?
Well, I started drawing when I was a little kid. I was even making minicomics when I was in junior high. When would that have been? The late seventies, early eighties. But I didn't know there was anyone else out there making them. Then, when I was a teenager I did find some other photocopied minicomics at Newbury Comics in Boston. I can't remember everything I got, but I can remember one book called the Tofutti Nightmare or something like that. So all through junior high school and high school I was making minicomics and selling them to kids in my school. But then later, in my late twenties, was when the zine revolution really took off. So I would draw minicomics and I would read Factsheet 5 for reviews of other minicomics and I would send them my comics and they would write back a nice critique and send me their comic. So it was a great peer network, very encouraging. Then really all my early publishers were people that... Highwater, Alternative Comics, and Top Shelf were all people that were buying my minicomics and then when they decided to become publishers they asked me if I would do books for them. And I had sent submissions out to other publishers and they would turn me down. I kind of feel like in some way I changed the world to make it more receptive to myself, so that I could get published. I inspired these guys to become publishers so that they could publish me! (laughter) I mean, that might be a simplification, I'm sure there are other factors to why they became publishers besides just me.
Because we are a music publication, I should ask, what are you listening to right now?
I listen to a lot of chiptunes stuff right now. 8bitpeoples, 8-Bit Collective, and other labels and websites like that. There's an absolutely fantastic local band from Vermont called Blue Button that I just cannot believe how awesome they are. Jason, who is the lead singer and guitarist in that band, is also the guitarist in my band. So... (laughter) But I've known him for twenty years and I never knew he wrote songs. And suddenly he has a band and his songs are incredibly good. So I'm really into Blue Button. You should definitely check them out! A lot of the songs are about breaking up with his girlfriend. He's like 35 and he had a 22-year old girlfriend, of course they broke up! (laughter) But he was very upset about it. I could have told him that was going to happen. The songs that he wrote about her are fantastic. And he has a song called.... it's about, he worked at a sushi restaurant and they'd be closed and people would be trying to get in and he wrote a song about that! (laughter) One of the choruses was like, "I'm trying to get in/ I'm trying to get in/ I'm trying to get in!"
And you're still working on music as James Kochalka Superstar?
Yes. I just had an album come out last fall called Digital Elf. It was all composed and performed on the Gameboy Advance. I'm into the chiptunes scene and I've been into it for awhile and I kind of dabble in it. And I wanted to have a whole chiptunes album. And now I do! I'm making a videogame right now called "Glorkian Warrior," I'm making it with a company called Pixeljam, so I've been writing songs for the videogame too. I wrote three new songs for the videogame, but another Chiptunes artist named Mark Dinardo did the rest of the soundtrack. Hopefully we'll release that on CD, I don't know. We'll definitely release that digitally. We funded the game through Kickstarter, and one of the things is that you get a digital version of the soundtrack. We'll at least give that to the people who pledged, but I don't know if it will be more widely available beyond that. But I would like it to be.
I have some vinyl coming out! A record label from the Netherlands called Senor Hernandez is releasing Digital Elf on vinyl. It's actually going to be a double album with Digital and an old album of mine called Kissers. It's the soundtrack to my graphic novel Kissers and that's long out of print. Digital Elf is very electronic and Kissers is very organic. It's got a lot of piano, regular rock set up drums, guitar, bass, but with piano and other things like that. It's love songs. The graphic novel that it came with is kind of a love story about my girlfriend, now she's my wife. Love story is kind of a wrong thing, because we fight throughout the whole comic book... (laughter) There is also at the same time another love story going on between a bird and a cat. The cat plays pretty rough with the bird, but the bird is in love with the cat. So the cat... I don't even know what it all means. But the album is the soundtrack to that story. The songs on the album do not relate to any particular scenes in the book, but... yeah.
Oh, I should tell you other things I'm listening to! My two-and-a-half year old is really into the Ting Tings, so we listen to that album a lot. And I really like... I was a judge at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and I was judging the music video category and there was this video... I think the guy's name might be Chris Gardeaux, I don't know if that's his name for sure. And the song was called "Fireflies" but I could be confused because there's also that Owl City song called "Fireflies" but I think that both songs are called "Fireflies." But anyway, he sings sort of high and softly and the music is kind of madrigal-y sounding, or kind of fey rock style. But it's really good and I really like it.
For years my favorite band was Gorky's Zygotic Mynci but they don't make music anymore. In the old days my favorite band was the Butthole Surfers, they were good for maybe five albums and then they got very very watered down and mainstream.
The early stuff was pretty out there...
The early stuff was wild! It was great. The only time I ever got to see them, I went to a show in Boston at this place called the Channel, which had maybe a 1500-person capacity. We drove down from Vermont, we didn't have tickets, and when we got there the line looked like there were 1500 people already. And we were like, "Fuck, we're not gonna get in!" So we just walked to the front of the line and cut and when we got inside it was already packed! So if we hadn't cut there's no way we would have gotten in. I guess that means that someone behind us didn't get in. (laughter) But it was really important for us to see that show! And then I actually did a concert in the parking lot afterward, myself. I sang some of my songs in the parking lot and got a great response!
I suffer from a lot of professional jealousy all the time. Many of my graphic novels were inspired from reading other people's graphic novels and being so jealous that I just had to do something better! So the show was fantastic, the Butthole Surfers were just amazing and everyone was just going crazy. So afterward I was like, "Ahhhh, I gotta sing my songs!" (laughter) And I think had like a... We had found on the ride down a Cabbage Patch doll somewhere on somebody's lawn or something and it was all beaten up. So I sang a song while tossing this Cabbage Patch doll in the air and dancing around the parking lot!