Sunday, 21 June 2015

American Elf, Volume 4 by James Kochalka Review

This is the fourth (and, sadly, final) collection of James Kochalka’s daily diary strip, American Elf (so-called because he draws him and his wife with elf ears!). The series began in 1998 and came to a close at the end of 2012. This awesome volume collects all the strips from January 1st, 2008 to December 31st, 2011 (the 2012 strips are available separately - try Comixology for a cheap digital edition). 

Reading this book is a bit like time-travelling. There’s the tension of the 2008 election and the euphoria of electing America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Michael Jackson passes away. Bin Laden is shot. Kochalka gets a new cat, Nooko, who joins his other cat, the beloved Spandy. He puts together a new album, Digital Elf. And Kochalka, an avid gamer, stresses over whether he should buy an Xbox 360 or a PS3. In 2011 he’s also named Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont!

American Elf paints a unique and intimate portrait of the artist’s life. Everything is packed into these daily strips which range from one panel to four. Kochalka writes about his boundless love of his wife Amy and catalogues all her cute sayings:

James: They should make a Barbie version of the Bible.
Amy: Oh yeah, the Barble. The Holy Barble. 

Amy: I dropped some yogurt on the floor… now it’s floorgurt!

But also writes about their daily fights. They have two kids, Eli and Oliver, whom both parents dote on. 

James: After we read all the Spiderwick books, do you know what we’ll do?
Eli: Poop our pants!
James: Well… I was going to say ‘watch the movie’ but that’s good too. We’ll poop our pants.

Numerous strips show the kids’ development, particularly Oliver who starts the book as a baby and ends it a walking, talking infant. The day to day joys and frustrations of being a parent are sprinkled heavily throughout. 

On having two kids: I’m just really confused all the time… And I can’t think… And I’m cranky and nothing I say or do makes any sense and I don’t know what’s going on.

Emotional depth crops up here and there as well. Kochalka unexpectedly shows himself having a minor mental breakdown as his childhood abuse at the hands of older kids surfaces, leaving him emotionally fragile (but still drawing) for days after. We also see his elderly father put into a home because of his dementia and Kochalka’s relationship with him. It’s quite touching as Kochalka’s life - comics, music, games - is quite child-like in outlook so he gets on well with his dad who’s basically regressed to a child-like state (even though he doesn’t remember his son). 

Kochalka’s a creative whirlwind. Besides the diary strip, he writes the Johnny Boo series, and his adult superhero-parody comic, Superf*ckers, was developed into an animated series. He also makes music with his band James Kochalka Superstar (surprisingly good by the way - check out his record Spread Your Evil Wings And Fly, you will have Justin Timberlake stuck in your head for DAYS!), acts in occasional movies, writes screenplays and pitches TV shows, puts on art shows to sell his little paintings, and develops his Glorkian Warrior character (whose books are fantastic!) into a computer game. Seeing this guy’s output is just inspiring and his enthusiasm and energy for everything he does, especially comics, comes across so strongly. 

A lot of strip collections are tough to read a lot of in one go because they’re very stop/start. Kochalka’s is different because the format, tone, and subjects change all the time. One day he’ll do a strip about scratching his cat’s back with his pen, the next he’ll do a single panel of a natural landscape, the next he’ll do a profound strip about his state of mind, the next he’ll do one about teaching a class on cartooning, the next he won’t do one at all, the next he’ll tell you about a book he loved reading or a game he liked playing, the next he’ll be in San Diego meeting Sam Jackson or on a train in France with Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. They’re really varied which holds the attention but also Kochalka’s attractive drawing style and good eye for colours makes them irresistible. I’d glance at the book, meaning to read only a couple strips, and fly through 100 pages instead! 

It’s romantic, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s boring, it’s sweet, it’s colourful, it’s dull - it’s a life. It’s James Kochalka’s life! And that’s what’s so great about American Elf, it’s that because Kochalka puts so much of himself in it, the strip is the most true and personal thing he’ll ever do. It’s a daily diary strip and it’s art. 

There are a lot of strips that feel throwaway and are forgettable but most of the book is an incredibly rich and vibrant collection of memories and scenes - and it’s fantastic! It’s a shame the strip is over but at least we still have the ones he made over 14 years. 

American Elf, Volume 4 - like the other three volumes - is a joy fun to read and a really compelling look at the life of this cartoonist, warts ’n’ all. Recommended to all comics fans - everybody needs some James Kochalka in their life! 

(Kochalka briefly returned in March 2013 to do a strip called Am I Alive? and then again in February 2014 to draw a couple strips for Spandy, his first cat, who died. Read them all for free here:

American Elf, Volume 4

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