Interview: James Kochalka Pt. 1 (of 3)

Categories:  Interviews

James KochalkaJames Kochalka has built career in cute second only perhaps to Bill Keane and the monsters who created those Precious Moment children. He writes comics about bunnies and elves and babies engaging in all manner of adorable activites. Though, before you go rushing to pick up a Kochalka book for the kids, be forewarned, that the man has uncanny knack for penciling in a well-timed boner, a trait that translates quite faithfully into the man’s musical career, in such James Kochalka Superstar classics as, “Magic Finger,” “Pussy Gangster,” and the ever-popular “Pee.”

However, it’s Kochalka’s daily web diary, American Elf, that will stand as the artist’s true legacy. The strip lovingly captures the mundane activities that make up everyday life, with poignant lyricism. We spoke to Kochalka ahead of the release of the second anthologized American Elf book, and his New York City art exhibit at Giant Robot, which featured 150 paintings, and apparently Phoebe Cates, as well. I sadly, missed the latter. I thought I had seen Judge Reinhold outside of the store, wandering the around the vilalge but it may have just been a very well-groomed hobo…

We spoke to Kochalka about the strip, his music, and the artist’s well-publicized obsession with The Hulk. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that, when we called him up, Kochalka was in the middle of playing a video game.

Is now a good time to talk?

Yeah—I just have to save my place in this game that I downloaded…It’s a game called Cave Story. It’s a homemade game that this guy from Japan made. I read on some blog that the guitarist from Radiohead was writing about it on his blog, and said that it’s a work of art.

Is it indeed a true work of art?

Well, I’ve only played it for like ten minutes so far, but it’s good. It’s like old Nintendo-type game, but an adventure—it’s hard to explain, exactly.

Would you personally ever describe a specific game as being a ‘work of art?’

I think a lot of early games, when the graphics were really simple, are closer to it, and often times they tended to be made by a single person. They tend to be more pure, as far as works of art go. Some of the newer ones have a much higher budget, and twenty or forty people working on them. It’s not quite the same [laughs].

In the same sort of way that a Hollywood movie isn’t a pure work of art.

Right. Exactly.

Your approach to your own art seems very similar to that philosophy. The simpler, the better.

Yeah. Well, with my stuff, I try to get the story into the reader’s mind, with the least impediments possible, I guess. I want it to feel and read smooth and easy. Sometimes I’m so successful at that that sometimes the reader thinks they’re getting something simple, when really they’re getting something more complex.

I’m sure this is the case with a lot of artists, but I know when we spoke to Johnny Ryan earlier, he said that, at some point, before he was drawing cartoons full-time, he was writing really convoluted fiction. Where you ever at a point like that?

I was doing really difficult paintings—I’d be working on these things that would take 10-15 hour days, for six months straight [laughs].

If you don’t get feed back on your project right away, do you feel like you’ve wasted your time?

Yeah. And especially since that was in graduate school in Baltimore, and when it was time to move back to Vermont, these paintings were huge, and I was poor, and couldn’t find any way to get them back, so I threw them all in the trash. I managed to save a couple that were small enough to fit in a friend’s van, but the best one, I had to throw away—actually, the story is a little sadder than. I saved my best one, when I left the school. I couldn’t figure out a way to get it. Finally, ten year later, I was coming back through town—maybe to go to SPX, or something—and I called beforehand, to make sure it was still there. I went to the school and asked for it, and they laughed and laughed and laughed. They said, “oh, we threw that out yesterday.” I had only called a few days before that. They thought it was hilarious. They threw my painting out.

Where you doing comics while you were in school?


Did you ever get to turn any in, as assignments?

Oh, I didn’t have any assignments [laughs].

You were one of those kinds of artists student, eh?

Yeah. Well, in graduate school, you don’t have any assignments, but even in undergrad, I figured out this trick, where I didn’t have to take any really classes. I just made up independent studies. So, I’d be taking three or four independent studies, or even better, because I wanted to spend all of my time painting, I’d make my painting class, like a six credit class, and then just paint whatever I wanted, and my teachers were happy to sign off on it. But since then, they’ve changed the rules in the University of Vermont. I don’t think that you can take any more than one independent study at a time, and don’t think that you can give it any credit size you want [laughs]. I really lucked out.

You’re doing a little bit of teaching now. Is that still going on, the comic school [or, as it’s known amongst those who charge tuition, The Center for Cartoon Studies-Ed.]?

Oh, I’m barely involved there at all…I don’t think I’m doing anything there, this semester, and I was only there two days, last semester.

You’d come in as a guest teacher?

Yeah. The first year, I was teaching part of an actual class—the first five weeks of the drawing class. But last year, I told them what days I was free, and they accidentally put the drawing class on one of the days that I wasn’t free, so I couldn’t do it…Is this the interview? Have we started? It will be completely incomprehensible to anyone who reads this, right?

Yeah, maybe…I’m sure they’ll figure it out…

Well, are you going to cut out all of the stuff where I ask if this is really the interview?

We’ll see. It’s all about flow, I think.

Yeah. That’s how I feel about comics. It’s all about the flow. When you break the flow, you should have good reason. It should be full of emotional impact, or something.

[Tune in for the next thrilling installment!]

–Brian Heater

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