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Man-Child vs. World

The righteously awesome adventures of James Kochalka, Vermont’s first cartoonist laureate


Published March 2, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

As a child in Springfield, Vt., James Kochalka devoured the works of fantasy writers J.M. Barrie and C.S. Lewis. He pored over the pages of Peter Pan and the Chronicles of Narnia novels. The books opened doors for the young Kochalka to worlds thick with make-believe and adventure. They celebrated wit and whimsy. They pitted wily children against hapless adults and hailed the youth as victors. And they shared a common theme: When you become an adult, you lose.

So Kochalka, like Peter Pan, vowed never to grow up. Because when you do, you are cut off from the world of magic and delight.

That childhood pledge isn’t an uncommon one. Who hasn’t wanted to inhabit the worlds of fairies, pirates and talking animals, where youth prevails? Yet, at some point, most of us drop those fantasies; we grow up, get jobs, have families and take care of ailing parents. We cross the threshold of adult responsibility and don’t look back.

Not James Kochalka. Miraculously, the 43-year-old cartoonist has managed to cling to childhood and its untainted sense of wonder, despite growing older, marrying and raising children. In Kochalka’s world, monkeys fight robots, cats slay dragons and pigs fly to Pluto. He is at play all the time, whether he’s in front of his drawing board, sledding with his two young sons or composing nonsensical songs on his Nintendo Game Boy. He is the ultimate man-child.

Since the mid-1990s, when Kochalka first began commercially publishing his work, he has created more than 30 volumes of comics that range from the sublime to the profane. His most notable series is his “American Elf” strip, a daily sketchbook diary that he has produced with religious dedication since 1998.

In addition to his autobiographical comic, which runs online and in Seven Days, Kochalka has penned three children’s book series — Dragon Puncher, Johnny Boo and Monkey vs. Robot — and an outlandish superhero series called SuperF*ckers.

He has written countless comic strips, including “Deadbear,” “Circus Detective,” “Fancy Froglin” and “Peanutbutter & Jeremy.” He has created music videos for Nickelodeon featuring songs he wrote and has recorded a number of albums with his band, James Kochalka Superstar. One of his songs, “Britney’s Silver Can,” earned a place on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 songs of 2006. Another tune, “Hockey Monkey,” — a collaboration with the Zambonis — was the theme song for a FOX television show. A slew of side projects bear his name.

Kochalka is currently putting the final touches on a video game that will serve as a companion to his graphic-novel work in progress, Glorkian Warrior, and he’s writing a screenplay. Soon he’ll be pitching a “SuperF*ckers” television series with a former writer from “The Simpsons.” In a word, he is prolific.

Kochalka’s fecundity is no accident — if he stops being able to make a living through play, he’ll have to grow up. His output is also what makes him a force in the indie-comics world. Few cartoonists working today can boast Kochalka’s impressive oeuvre, spanning the medium from sweet children’s books to raw autobiography to gratuitously filthy adult strips.

It is that broad body of work and its influence on the comics industry that recently garnered Kochalka the title of Vermont cartoonist laureate. The first cartoonist to receive such an honor in Vermont, he will be recognized on March 10 at a ceremony at the Vermont Statehouse.

The governor’s office signed off on the cartoonist laureate position earlier in the year. In a press release, Gov. Peter Shumlin lauded the idea of such an appointment: “A cartoonist laureate is the kind of thinking outside-the-box that Vermont supports. Cartooning promotes literacy and literature, two things we can’t have enough of.”

During his three-year honorary appointment, Kochalka is expected to share his craft with people around the state through workshops, lectures and exhibitions. It sounds like a lot of responsibility for the boy who never grew up, and Kochalka admits feeling trepidation about accepting the honor.

“I’m kind of like the state flower now. I can’t really expect myself to be the state flower, can I?” he asks. “I can’t be that pure. Can I be as pure as the clover?”

Until now, no one’s been scrutinizing Kochalka for “purity” — certainly not the fans who visit his blog from as far away as Japan. Not long after the laureate appointment was announced, he caught some flak on a Seven Days staffer’s blog for a questionable cartoon depicting a friend’s ex-girlfriend, which he’d published exclusively online. Kochalka quickly removed the cartoon and apologized.

With an official title come burdens of accountability, as well as more eyes on his work — something the cartoonist says he feels “a little paralyzed by.” But Kochalka’s artistic peers think he can handle the load.

James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, which spearheaded the push for a cartoonist-laureate appointment, says Kochalka’s vast catalog of work deserves to be recognized. And his Peter Pan persona perfectly conveys what it is to be a cartoonist: to create and play with just a pencil and an imagination.

Kochalka was born in Springfield in 1967, the last of four children, to an “eccentric” homemaker and a hard-bitten newspaperman. For as long as he can remember, Kochalka was smitten with comics. It began with the funny pages of the newspaper. He loved all the classic strips — “Li’l Abner,” “Peanuts,” “Pogo.”

Kochalka’s mother, Ruth, says her son drew comics even before he could read them, and before he could write the words himself. He would pencil the panels with word balloons and then make scribble marks where the words should go.

Kochalka doesn’t remember that, but he does recall producing his first comics when he was 8 years old. He still has those rudimentary strips, as well as everything he created through the end of high school. The early efforts live on a shelf in his Old North End home surrounded by Wii games, Dr. Seuss books and the “Battlestar Galactica” DVD box set.

“Do you want to see them?” Kochalka asks me during a recent visit. He smiles a full grin, exposing a sizable gap between his front two teeth.

I agree, and he skips off in his stocking feet to grab his early works. In his baggy corduroy trousers and stretched-out sweater, the wiry Kochalka looks like a child wearing his big brother’s hand-me-downs. If he weren’t balding, it would be easy to mistake him for a teenager.

He unearths four identical gray boxes labeled “Telecopier Recording Paper.” Each is a treasure chest of comics scrawled on yellowing paper — 2000 pages in total. Kochalka is particularly proud of his first major work, a graphic novel from 1976-77 called The Blue Drip, and a few other drips that run about. It features a drop of water called Captain Drip and his son, Dripsie.

“It’s one of the first graphic novels,” he says, beaming.

Kochalka thumbs through some more of his early work and marvels at its sweetness. That innocence of his elementary-school comics was not to last, though. Not surprisingly, by the time he reached junior high school, Kochalka’s work had taken a sinister turn.

He penned a series called “Anarchy Today,” whose protagonist is a chainsaw-wielding killer named Chainsaw Sam. In the strip, someone is always getting killed with his signature weapon.

“Someone probably should have sent me to a psychiatrist,” Kochalka says. “Maybe if someone had sent me to a psychiatrist in junior high or high school, I wouldn’t be a cartoonist today.”

It wasn’t just Kochalka who wrote for “Anarchy Today.” He created a cartoonist collective of sorts by soliciting drawings from his friends, making carbon copies of the comics and selling them for 50¢. The cottage industry sparked competition, and soon there was a rival comic-book group in school. Students picked sides in what Kochalka calls “crazy junior high drama.”

Despite the popularity he got from his off-color comic strips, Kochalka suffered at the hands of high school tormentors. He was a strange kid and, as such, was bullied. He downplays the abuse now, suggesting no one was immune from torment.

“If you played the violin, you were called gay. If your pants were too short, you were gay. If you wore yellow on Thursday, you were gay,” he says. “It was very hard not to be gay.”

Audio: The Music of James Kochalka

"Beyonce" from the album Digital Elf.

"Magic Finger" from the album Our Most Beloved.

"Britney's Silver Can" from the album Spread Your Evil Wings. (Rolling Stone named this song one of its Top 100 Songs of 2006.)

Kochalka’s comics — and later his music — were an escape. But the subject matter was disturbing, at least to his parents. When he was in high school, his brothers found a tape of dirty songs Kochalka had made and shared it with them. Mortified, his parents did wonder whether they should seek professional help for their youngest son.

But the brothers intervened, insisting he would grow out of it. Anyone who has listened to James Kochalka Superstar — whose lyrics include gems such as “Before you make love to your lady friend / You’ve got to wash your ass” and “It’s my dick, it’s my dick, it’s my magic finger / Pointing at all the pretty girls” — knows that never happened.

After graduating from high school, Kochalka entered the University of Vermont, where he studied studio art. There he met like-minded people, drew a lot of comics and played a lot of music. His first college strip, published in the student newspaper the Cynic, was called “Seaweed Man.” It was a collaboration between Kochalka, a bandmate and Kochalka’s girlfriend, Amy King. (Now his wife, King was 16 and in high school when they met during Kochalka’s freshman year at UVM.)

Something changed for Kochalka in college. Comics evolved from silly, fun doodles to a more serious pursuit.

“[In high school], I wasn’t trying to make serious art. I was just telling little stories,” he says. “Then I went off to college and studied painting and learned a lot about art history. Then I realized I could use comics to explore the depths of my humanity. The same way that painting or literature does.”

When explaining his work, Kochalka talks a lot about his own humanity and his attempts to puzzle it out through his art. His entire catalog is a reflection of himself, making it overtly or covertly autobiographical, even the works of fiction.

For example, Johnny Boo, the sweet, gentle ghost at the center of the eponymous children’s books, is prone to flights of confusion and despair. So is Kochalka. Jack Krak, the soda-addicted, insensitive and egregiously vulgar protagonist of the SuperF*ckers series, just wants people to like him. So does Kochalka.

“Every character is some part of my personality,” he says. “I’m basically trying to make sense of why I am who I am.”

Sturm, of the Center for Cartoon Studies, surmises that much of Kochalka’s appeal has to do with his willingness to put himself in his work. Rather than trying to impress anyone, he’s staying true to his muse — himself.

“His work covers a broad range of human experience. It’s all in there,” Sturm says. “It’s not overly precious; it’s just an extension of his personality.”

Kochalka’s efforts to tease out his inner workings through his comics have struck a chord with readers, though he didn’t have immediate commercial success. After graduating from UVM, Kochalka continued to draw a comic strip for the Cynic called “Deadbear, Circus Detective.” It attracted many fans, including fellow Vermont cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who created the longtime series “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Bechdel says she loved Kochalka’s work from the beginning, because of the “simplicity of its style.”

While “Deadbear, Circus Detective” slowly earned him respect among comics fans, the cartoonist spent time in Baltimore pursuing a graduate degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. As a small-town guy, Kochalka hated the bustle and violence of the city. More than once, baseball-bat-carrying gangs jumped him.

After earning an MFA, Kochalka returned to Vermont and continued drawing strips and making music. He waited tables to support himself and began sending minicomics (’zine-like, handmade strips) to Factsheet 5, a DIY magazine that reviews comic books. Through that publication, Kochalka met dozens of other independent cartoonists who critiqued and recommended his work. It was a watershed period.

“That’s when I realized there was a path I could take, that I could get my comics out into the world beyond people who were just close to me,” he says. “I completely transformed from amateur tinkerer to a full-fledged cartoonist over a couple of years.”

Soon comic book shops wanted to carry Kochalka’s work; comic book companies wanted to publish his books. One of the latter was Marietta, Ga.-based Top Shelf Productions, which still publishes Kochalka’s work today. Chris Staros, Top Shelf’s editor and publisher, recalls the initial attraction: “No one’s work looks like James’,” he says.

“It’s very refined. It’s definitely his style,” Staros adds. “It’s really evolved into something very nice. His stories have a l ot of subtext and a lot of heart. And James also has a certain je ne sais quoi about his work.”

While indie-comics fans were enchanted with Kochalka’s whimsical, subversive strips, the cartoonist was becoming disillusioned with the burgeoning graphic-novel form. It wasn’t realistic for autobiographical work, he thought, and didn’t accurately reflect daily life — something he was trying to portray in his comics.

For Kochalka, real life didn’t have a tidy beginning, middle and end. There were always a thousand things happening at once.

“The storylines stop and start. Something will disappear and make a sudden reappearance,” he says. “And there are certain things you do again and again and again. Like, how many times in your life do you brush your teeth?”

In 1998, after much consternation and crises of confidence, his daily diary strip was born.

James Kochalka’s workspace on the second floor of his compact house looks not unlike a child’s playroom. Toys cover the floor, comic book figurines clutter the windowsill, and everywhere there are scattered shoeboxes, CDs and books of all kinds. His drawing table, situated under a drafty window, holds cans of brushes, pencils and pens, glass jars of black ink, and a 10-year-old bottle of Wite-Out that never seems to run out. When the ancient correction fluid runs low, Kochalka just adds a splash of water, and it reconstitutes itself.

In the middle of the desk sits a black sketchbook full of “American Elf” four-panel strips. The pages are slightly rippled by the application of wet ink. This book, and the 41 others like it on a sagging bookshelf in the foyer (each containing 100 strips), are what Kochalka has built his career on.

“American Elf” was one of the first strips to chronicle a cartoonist’s daily life. While previous strips drew on their artists’ personal lives, the immediacy of Kochalka’s work has made it a “touchstone” in the autobiographical comics subgenre, Top Shelf’s Staros says.

Kochalka has faithfully drawn “American Elf” every day for the past 13 years. The topics have run the gamut of the quotidian: video games; friends moving away; the family cat, Spandy; gun-toting neighbors; raking leaves; making snow forts; pooping. Kochalka’s friends often make appearances in the strip, and many have their own characters. Bandmate Jason Cooley is always portrayed as a floppy-eared white dog. Fellow musician Colin Clary invariably appears in profile with one gigantic eye.

No subject matter is too intense or personal. “American Elf” strips have broached Kochalka’s wife’s miscarriage, the couple’s sex life, his issues with rage and his feelings of inadequacy. As a result, King prefers not to read the strip. But, Kochalka says, she doesn’t have to: “It’s enough that she loves me.”

The genius of “American Elf” for those who love it — and plenty don’t — is that Kochalka is able to distill an entire day of fleeting moments into a snapshot. It’s an exercise in devoted observation, bordering on navel gazing.

“What he has taken on in this diary strip is just a really impressive feat to me,” says Bechdel. “Boiling down a moment of life to a four-panel cartoon is a very disciplined undertaking. I find it really fascinating, though I understand others might not.”

When Kochalka resolved to draw a daily diary, he knew it would be hard. The prospect terrified him. But, he says, he knew if he could do it, it would be his best work. And many would argue that it is.

Over the years, fans of “American Elf” have seen Kochalka transform on the page. His life has changed with the birth of his two children and his growing fame as a cartoonist. Increasingly, his strips are about his boys, 7-year-old Eli and 3-year-old Oliver.

Recently, two consecutive strips dealt with Kochalka’s volatility. On February 22, he drew a strip in which he yelled at Eli for not putting his pajamas on fast enough. The following day’s strip showed him raging over spilled granola, then feeling contrite about the previous evening’s pajama episode. By drawing these private exchanges between father and son, Kochalka seems to be grasping for some sort of understanding, or at least acknowledgment, of his own shortcomings as a parent.

That’s not to say Kochalka is a bad father. On the contrary, he’s attentive to his children nearly to a fault. When he’s not drawing for work, he’s engaged with them. They, at least, allow him to never stop playing.

On a recent Saturday morning, Kochalka shows me a few of the drawing games he invented for his sons. The first is called “battle drawing” — each Kochalka boy, including James, draws a figure on the same piece of paper, and then the creations fight each other. Some parents might simply humor their children by playing along, but Kochalka is clearly committed to the game and the sense of make-believe that underpins it.

“Uh-oh, you cracked my shield again,” Kochalka says as Oliver mounts an attack.

“I hit you on your neck,” Oliver says in triumph.

“Oh, you hit my neck. OK, here, I’ll draw a bruise,” Kochalka says, swirling a pen to make a splotch on his character.

This goes on for a few minutes, as each Kochalka adds new weapons to his creations — eyeball lasers, rocket fists, long-range spears. Both boys bombard their father’s drawing. Finally, he is bested.

“When they gang up on me, I have no chance of defeating them both,” Kochalka says, smiling.

“I winned! I winned! I winned!” Oliver shouts.

“Yes, you winned,” his father agrees.

Next they move on to “drawing toys” — that is, they make a drawing, cut it out and play with it. Then the three create video-game levels on paper and challenge each other to find ways to master them. Kochalka invented these games, he says, because initially his older son didn’t like drawing.

“I think part of the problem was, because drawing is my job, when I was doing that I couldn’t play with him. So then he thought that drawing was some bad thing that he’d never want to do,” Kochalka explains. “I came up with these games so he’d realize it was fun. He doesn’t have to grow up to be an artist. I just want to be able to share some of this joy with him.”

In that way, Kochalka is not so different from the average parent; most want to preserve a sense of unmitigated joy for their kids. It’s natural to want to protect children from the reality that, as people age and face hard truths, life’s luster begins to dull. There are bills to pay, illnesses to treat and heartaches to endure.

But, unlike most parents, Kochalka keeps his own sense of wonder and play intact. Perhaps it’s because he’s allowed to be an artist and has a family that supports him in that pursuit. King, a special-education teacher in Burlington, takes care of much of the household business and is the rock of the family.

Having a supportive spouse and children who encourage his often-outrageous career makes Kochalka the envy of his peers. He actually makes a living off his man-child persona, something many artists can only dream about.

“When I was younger,” says Kochalka’s friend Colin Clary, “I thought it would be amazing to figure out a way to get paid for being yourself. That’s the riddle: How do you get who you are to be what you do? And James has actually done it.”

Like a character in a comic book, Kochalka has become a hero to some by doing the impossible: He has found a way to stay young forever.