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Interview: James Kochalka

words by Nate Pollard | photo by James Kochalka
07.04.2005

kochalkaOriginally published in Verbicide issue #14

If you’ve read his daily comic strip, or any one of his graphic novels, or listened to any of his music, it’s hard not to know James Kochalka. But for the uninitiated, he is the creator behind books Monkey vs. Robot, Quit Your Job, and Superf*ckers, the lead singer of James Kochalka Superstar, and an American Elf. As he explains, “I draw myself as a rather awkward looking elf because it reflects my relationship with the world. The magic and mystery of life and my awkward grappling with it…”

It is probably this awkwardness that lends James’s work an element of truth. His artistic journey is a personal one, unique in that he exposes the workings of his daily life to make a spectacle of the ordinary. In his sketchbook diary, his life is literally an open book available for purchase in most book stores.

As I prepared to interview James Kochalka, it was amazing to think that every night, for over 4 years, he sat in front of a sketchbook and distilled a 24 hour day into a four panel comc strip. But, oddly enough, it is more amazing to think that he did it so well.

I first heard of James Kochalka just as I was graduating from college. I remember that I was starting to think seriously about comics and I needed to know what I was getting into. Basically, I wanted to know the easiest way to get rich by drawing one creature fucking or eating another creature. By doing a simple internet search, I learned two startling facts:

1.) No one ever got rich by drawing the act of fucking or eating. Trust me.

2.) The world of comics yields very few stars.

It was then I noticed that one word kept popping up in my quest for comic book domination. A genuine comic book superstar. Kochalka.

At first, I thought it was the word for some sort of underground comic artist steriod, like an animal growth hormone that would help me draw better. It was later that I realized Kochalka was a man. A great man. And a damned good comic artist. Suspiciously good.

Not long ago, I decided it would be a smart idea to track down James Kochalka and learn his secrets. After a little back and forth, I finally caught up with him on a Sunday afternoon just as he was returning from the movies. The conversation that followed was fashioned by the hand of God.

Is this James?
Yup.

Hi. This is Nate Pollard from Verbicide magazine.
Hey.

What movie did you end up going to see?
Sin City.

What did you think?
I really liked it.

I was totally going to try to see that today. I’m a big fan of Frank Miller…
It’s kind of a crazy movie.

Is it as violent and strange as I hope it’s going to be?

It’s really strange. Totally bizarre.

Prosthetics everywhere?
Yeah.

Ok, well I’ll ask you a few questions and try to make this as painless as possible.
Are you taping it now?

Oh yeah! I’m always taping.
So, that means it’s already started?

Of course it has. Don’t worry, I won’t make ya sound stupid. I’m going to class it up so much. My voice is going to change and then this is going to a whole new level.
(laughs) Cool.

Well, first off, for the benefit of the people who are just learning about you, I wanted to talk about you and your comic career, [and] how you got started. When did you basically start drawing? And then when did you get into it on a professional basis?
Well, I’ve been drawing comics pretty much my whole life, since I was a little boy. It wasn’t until a few years out of graduate school that I tried to do it professionally. And I wasn’t even trying to make money in the beginning. I was just trying to get a little respect. You don’t get a lot of respect as a waiter.

Oh, I don’t know… (laughter) What did you go to graduate school for?
Painting.

That’s interesting ‘cause I was looking over a bunch of your work: American Elf, Fancy Froglin’, Robot vs…..
Monkey vs. Robot?

Yeah. But when I looked into your painting…you put out a painting book?
I didn’t. Not that I know of.

I thought you did. Maybe I’m just thinking of the work you did in the back of American Elf..and the covers? I saw a self-portrait that you did…
I never put out a book, although, I’d like to. I’ve done several hundred two-by-two-inch paintings. I’d like to do a book collection of those. No one really seems to be interested. But I haven’t asked many people. I asked [comic publisher] Top Shelf, but they were thinking of doing a trading card collection.

Yeah, I was thinking, from a fine arts perspective, it must be pretty weird… Because I’ve been doing comics for a little while and I studied fine arts, too. And when I go to pull out comics as art, it’s not the same. The perception [of comics] is totally different.

Well, if I had had any clue how to break into the fine arts world, I might have done that. But I was living in Brownsville, Vermont and I had no clue. And comics… you can break into comics through the mail. (laughter)

Yeah.
You don’t have to be going to all the right parties. You don’t have to move to the big city to break into comics. You can stay wherever you are and do it.

Do you think that it was for the better?
Oh, absolutely. I was never really able to get paintings to do or express who I really am and what I really think about. I sorta thought I was getting close, but not really.

Well, okay. I wanted to talk about American Elf. It’s kind of a personal comic in the sense that it pretty much details your life on a daily basis.
Well, it’s my diary. I call it my “sketchbook diary”— although, I have a friend who says that it’s neither truly a sketchbook nor truly a diary. But, it’s something! I mean, I draw a little strip every day, something that happened to me that day. Yeah, I don’t go into as much detail as a diary, but cumulatively it all adds up to a pretty complete picture of my life. The longer I draw the thing, the more complete the picture becomes. Since October, 1998. That’s a lot of strips.

Yeah, it is.
I really had planned to quit long before now.

Well, I read your book and you say that like every year. You’re like, “Am I stupid for doing this?” Sitting there every night…
Well, last week the server crashed. We were attacked by hackers.

Yeah, I saw that. I went [to the website] and I couldn’t get on.
It’s back up now…in a crippled form.

Good.

People have asked me in the past, is it weird for people to know so much about you, to see the details of your daily life? And after doing it for so long, it would be a lot weirder not to have it…to be drawing the strip and have no one looking was really a weird feeling.

So you don’t want that separation from you and whoever is your comic persona; that person that everybody sees when they visit the website and buy the books?
Yeah, well, I’m really trying to make it so there’s no separation between my life and my art. I want my art to be an extension of my life… Actually, that’s worded wrong: my art is just an extension of my life. That’s the way it was since childhood. But when I went to art school, I started to over-think things or got a little intimidated because me and my art friends were so cutthroat and ambitious. Somehow, I lost that direct connection between my life and my art. But I got it back. (laughter)

That’s good.
Well, if your art really flows directly from your life — if there’s no separation — then you don’t have to worry about writers’ block or anything. It’s like, no one ever gets like, teeth brushing block. Like, they can’t brush their teeth because they’ve got teeth brushing block…that’s ridiculous. Although, sometimes, you can get constipated. (laughter) I mean, I guess that’s similar!

That’s gonna be your quote for the interview: “Constipation as related to writers’ block.” But I get what you’re saying. Something about the academia of art, the way it’s taught, changes it.

Yeah.

I wanted to ask you about your projects. I know you’ve got…are you supposed to say the full name or is it one of those deals…
No, I say the full name: Superf*ckers!

My friends had a comic called Shit Happens, but the “Shit” was…
Silent?

No, it was a string of symbols. And they wanted people to try to say the symbols.
Well, we spell the Superf*ckers with an asterix for a “u” but even that wasn’t enough for Diamond [Comic Distrbutors]. In the catalog they made us reproduce the cover with no title at all! And even in the description we couldn’t even mention the title. It was “Super” followed by however many asterisks.

Diamond wouldn’t let that go through?
It sucked. The catalog’s all ages.

I would think, with the plethora of comics out there, the least of their concerns would be whether the word “fuck” made it through on one of the titles.
Well, I think within the next few years people will be saying “fuck” on normal television. Definitely within ten years.

Slowly but surely it’s getting there.
Like, now you can say “fuck you” to your boss and not even get fired. (laughter) He’d be like, “fuck you, Employee,” and go along with his day. But I don’t really have a boss so…

Yeah, you’re like, “Nate, go say ‘fuck you’ to your boss and tell me if you get fired.”

I think all your readers should try it out. See what happens…(laughter)

So, yeah. Superf*ckers. I haven’t started reading that one yet.

It’s not out yet.

But I saw on TopShelf.com they already have a Superf*ckers [issue] number two?
I finished it about a month ago. That’ll come out in October.

They’re already plugging it.
I was thinking, for issue three, of changing the name to Christian Kindness Club. But I’m probably going to stick with Superf*ckers.

Probably a good idea! (
laughter
) From what I’ve read about it, it’s bunch of kids with super powers?
Well, yeah, it’s a bunch of nineteen-year-olds that live in a clubhouse together. It’s crazy insane, and it’s mostly conversation. It’s probably about as crazy as Sin City but in a different way.

It seems like it’s aimed at an older age group. I read Peanutbutter and Jeremy’s Best Book Ever!, and it seemed like it was definitely for a younger audience than this one.
Well, I just draw everything for myself and don’t worry too much about what the audience is gonna be.

Yeah, but when you draw so personally, doesn’t it give you that satisfaction? Like, if they get your book, it’s like, “They get me!”

I’m definitely pleased that there are a lot of people who care deeply about my work or have been moved by it. But I’d really like to have a book that sold a lot of copies some day! (laughter) But I’m not willing to make any particular changes to make that happen. I’ve gotta wait for the world to catch up with me I guess.

You know what, if you really want to be appreciated, you could die tomorrow and then put out an anthology of everything you’ve ever done. That’s what it takes sometimes…
Yeah, well, I’m not willing to go that far.

You’re not committed?! Man, I thought knew you. (
laughter)

You know, I’m doing fine.

I’d like to talk about the band and the music side of what you do. Until recently, I’d never heard anything from you musically.
As far as my music goes, it never has been easy to track down. It’s not in record stores…well maybe a few. I just signed a record deal with Rykodisc so they’re putting out a greatest hits disc. It’s got the best songs from my first three albums which are The True Story of James Kochalka Superstar, Monkey vs. Robot, and Don’t Trust Whitey. The greatest hits is called Our Most Beloved, and it comes with a DVD with six music videos. I’m very excited about Rykodisc ‘cause it means my album will finally be available for sale. You’ll be able to find it. I can’t imagine what the world’s response will be. Maybe no reaction.

Do you tour?
No, I don’t really tour. And it’s very unusual that Rykodisc signed me. I can’t imagine a record label signing a band that doesn’t tour. But they did because Jeff Rugby, who is the head AR guy, he’s been there forever. He just personally likes my music and comics.

So there are some perks?
Yeah. I play almost exclusively here in Burlington, Vermont. I used to play with some frequency in New York, but I haven’t for a few years. But I did just play a show in Houston last weekend. Basically, people call me up sometimes and they say, “Man, I
really wish I could see your band. Do you tour?” And I say, “No, but if you really wanna hear us play, all you have to do is figure out the funding to fly me and the band out there and pay us.” And most people say, “Well, I can’t do that.” But occasionally they’re like, “Yeah, we can do that.” And they get sponsors and fly us down. That’s what we did in Houston.

Cool. I guess I’ll have to start saving right now. I guess I’ll finish up. Any advice for artists out there? Like, do you look back and say, “Man, I wish I didn’t…”
Well, I probably started getting published before I was really good enough. I don’t know if that hurt me at all. Chances are you’ll always be embarrassed by stuff you did early in your career. But I decided that there’s no way for me to predict what people are going to like. It’s not really up to me whether my books are good or not — it’s up to whatever reader finds them and it means something to them…I don’t worry about it. In fact, I don’t even read my books anymore. I just draw them and write them and keep plowing forward and don’t think too much about it. Actually, that’s not true. I think pretty intensely about it, but not in a wishy-washy, second-guessing type of thinking. That’s the type of thinking to try and stay away from.

James Kochalka Superstar: Our Most Beloved will be available from Rykodisc this summer. Superf*ckers is available in stores and at www.TopShelfComix.com.

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