American Elf: Book Two
By James Kochalka
Top Shelf Comics
It took Book One to jumpstart my American Elf addiction. Before that, attempting to follow James Kochalka’s daily webcomic with any manner of regularity was an uphill battle, one that involved checking back a few times a month, and generally just scratching my head, attempting to figure out what all the buzz might possibly be about. What after all, was the point of reading the Vermont cartoonist’s work, without all of the, you know, monkeys fighting robots and stuff?
Kochalka’s artwork is perpetually simple: big, basic shapes, brightly colored, with boldly thick ink links. It’s cartoony, but rarely overly-emotive. American Elf’s storylines are similarly simplistic: some—often times banal—moments from the artist’s day, summed up in four panels. It’s hardly the sort of project that demands repeat regular viewings.
Consumed in a larger sense, one that can only be afforded by the miracle of anthologizing, the strip’s appeal begins to coalesce. As with so many other things in the life, the true key to appreciating American Elf lies in the strip’s rhythm, something that can only be realized when lining up the comic’s decidedly subtle beats, as seemingly innocuous, and often unrelated, moments become a cohesive picture of a human life.
The effect is best illustrated via Kochalka’s son, Eli Ray, who became an instant webcomic celebrity when he was born in September 2003, a few months prior to the close of the first anthology. Even the key moments of his youth depicted in this second book, such as his first steps, when taken alone, provide little more than a snapshot into his life—a still photograph, with no back story. Stitched together, with the million other banal moments—those that make up the bulk of all of our lives, a character becomes flushed out, in the way that still images become an animated picture.
Every moment—even those seemingly most inane, take on an equal importance, because all shape the story of what it means to be human. And therein lies the beauty of American Elf. Once you’ve realized the beauty of a chapter as a whole, you can begin to appreciate the importance of every page.