This edition of “Palmer’s Picks” holds a very special distinction: It was the last one I wrote as a freelancer. While I was working on this profile of cartoonist James Kochalka for Wizard #69, I landed an interview to become the assistant editor of ToyFare, the newest magazine to join the Gareb Shamus publishing empire. Snagging my first real job after college was a great achievement, but it would also prove to be the first sign that this column’s days were numbered.
Wizard had already published a ToyFare Winter Special in late ’96 and was getting ready for a follow-up Spring Special as a precursor to launch of the monthly in the summer of 1997. My contact editor for “Palmer’s Picks,” Scott Beatty, was tasked with putting together a staff and he asked me to try out for the assistant editor job. We already had a good working relationship, so I think the interview was just a way to meet me in person and confirm that I wasn’t a drooling idiot. I got the gig and hit the ground running—my first week on the job was spent at the International Toy Fair in New York City in early February.
When I interviewed for the job, I was told that I would be able to keep writing “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard. In fact, they wanted me to continue the column. Fine with me! I was excited to get started at the my new day job, and I think I was able to channel some of that enthusiasm into this interview with Kochalka. It ended up being one of the better installments of “Palmer’s Picks”: the interview went smoothly and Kochalka had some great answers to my sometimes rudimentary questions. Even the two comics in the “Recommended Reading” section—by James Sturm and Walt Holcombe—were great picks that I would not hesitate to push on someone today.
Kochalka has of course continued on the trajectory that was evident even at this early stage of his career. He’s just as prolific today—he continues to make graphic novels (including the Johnny Boo books aimed at kids), he still produces music, he was named the first Cartoonist Laureate of his home state of Vermont, he created and designed the video game Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork, and his comics have been developed for animation (most notably his SuperF*ckers series). In addition, his Sketchbook Diaries series is a monumental achievement—Kochalka started a daily comic strip diary in October, 1998 and kept at it every single day until December, 2012. The strips have been collected in four print volumes and a series of digital comics.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Cartoonist James Kochalka refuses to grow up. But why would he want to? The multi-talented comic book creator of Magic Boy is a fine artist who has had several gallery showings. He’s a magazine illustrator published in places like Pulse and Seattle’s Stranger. He’s the lead singer for the band appropriately named James Kochalka Superstar. He’s a waiter at a local Chinese restaurant. (Love them leftovers!) And he also manages to find time to crank out some damn fine mini-comics and graphic novels in between all of that other stuff. So why give that all up and face adulthood?
Since Kochalka has his finger in so many things at once, you might wonder why he sticks with comics. For the 29-year-old Vermont resident, the answer is pretty simple: “Comics are really personal. You make a comic and then you can send it out all across the country and have a direct connection between you and whoever reads the thing, as opposed to painting, where chances are your painting’s not going to go all over the world and people aren’t going to see it.”
It’s easy for Kochalka to have an instant rapport with his readers, because his cartooning style is instantly likable and personable. Even though he sometimes tackles some heavy issues like religion and maturation in his work, he draws in a simple thick-lined style and populates his comics with goofy characters (like talking squirrels, robot elves and green aliens that pee on people) that help keep his strips fun and interesting. “I’m always trying to get at some deeper meaning about existence in my comics, but I enjoy life and I have lot of fun in my own life, so I want to get at these deeper issues in a fun way. I don’t want people to be bored reading my comics.”
It’s almost impossible to be bored reading Kochalka’s books. Take his latest project, for example. It’s a graphic novel called Paradise Sucks, and it features two distinct stories that intersect at various points. Kochalka’s sometimes stand-in, Magic Boy, stars in one of the stories as a geometric painter struggling to find the spark of creativity in his work that he’s long since lost. The other half of the story is Kochalka’s distinctive take on the creation story with Adam and Eve. “You get a little bit of one story and a little bit of another, [going] back and forth for a while until eventually they merge into one story.”
Even though he’s trying to reach a lot of people with his art—which is usually very cartoony and therefore highly accessible—some might be a little put off by the fact that Kochalka pays so much attention to himself. His mini-comic series and band are both named James Kochalka Superstar, and a recent comic featured his photo on the cover instead of regular artwork. But you have to realize that it’s all part of the fun and also part of Kochalka’s grand scheme. “I’ve always felt that I should be famous just for being me, not for anything I’ve done or anything I’ve created,” he says.
Kochalka rationalizes this idea by recalling the way he was taught in school. “When I was a kid, teachers started praising kids just for their individuality. We all grew up thinking that [we] were special. Whether you’re special or not, everyone thinks they’re special, so you start to think that everyone else is not special. You think, ‘Everyone can’t be special, so if I’m special, that means the other people can’t possibly be special.’ Then you walk around looking at other people, thinking what idiots they are.”
It’s no mistake that Kochalka looks to his childhood to explain the way he lives his life as an adult. In fact, the process of growing up is the basis for just about all of Kochalka’s comics. Magic Boy, the main character in the majority of Kochalka’s stories, is a young buck-toothed elf that usually finds himself in all sorts of teenage mischief like drinking beer in the woods, torturing defenseless insects and skinny-dipping.
The change from child to adult is a subject that Kochalka finds endlessly fascinating. “I’m still trying to figure out how in the hell I grew up, because I promised myself I would never grow up when I was a little kid, but it happened anyway. I think I held on pretty well to childhood, to the awe and wonder, but there are definitely ways that I’ve changed. I’m just trying to think about the process. You start out formless and then eventually you learn more and more about the world, and it changes you; you become a person. That process of becoming a person is really interesting to me.”
Even though Kochalka swore he would never grow up, he admits there are a few good things about being a grown-up. “I think it was a great decision to grow up, but [you should] try to hold onto some things about being a kid, because there’s a lot of power in being an adult. You have the power to control your life. Many of my friends will tell you that I’m really immature and barely an adult at all, but I support myself and make a living. I do fine as an adult. I think working and making a living is a good feeling in a way, to know that you can actually make it in the world in some way.”
The one thing Tom Palmer Jr misses about being a kid is wearing a diaper He can’t wait until he gets really old and can wear one again Yup, that’ll be damn fine.
FYI: If you want to join the legion of James Kochalka fans, you can start by picking up Paradise Sucks, which was released in February from Black Eye Productions,
353 Parc Ave. #5, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4G3 (also be on the lookout for Magic Boy Does Laundry, coming soon from Black Eye). Kochalka’s earlier comics, Little Mister Man and Magic Boy and the Robot Elf, were published by Slave Labor Graphics, 979 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose, CA 95128. Kochalka frequently publishes mini-comics and graphic novels, like Magic Boy and the Word of God and The Perfect Planet so you can write to him directly at P.O. Box 8321, Burlington VT 05402. And if you really want the full James Kochalka experience, you can pick up his compact disc, James Kochalka Superstar, from Dot Dot Dash, P.O. Box 1971, New York NY 10009.
James Kochalka’s Recommended Reading
“I loved It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth. I really like The Sands by Tom Hart, Young Bug by Michael Kenny, Silly Daddy by Joe Chiappetta, King of Persia by Walt Holcombe, THB by Paul Pope and The Big Yum Yum Book by Robert Crumb. There are so many good comics that I feel like I should plug all my cartoon pals’ comics, but I can’t even think of them all. I really like King Cat, the mini-comic by John Porcellino. I think that’s one of the best comics anyone can hope to find anywhere. It expresses the natural beauty of the world in a profound and simple way.”
The Revival: This Xeric Foundation-funded title is one of the few comics that truly utilizes the comics medium in a new and exciting way. Creator James Sturm tells “an accurate account of religious life in early America” in this short, unassuming comic. Sturm’s talent lies in his ability to tell his story without resorting to sensationalism or distracting techniques. This comic is an understated masterpiece. If you can’t find a copy at your local comic shop, you can write to the author/publisher directly at: Bear Bones Press,
214 Harvard Ave, Swarthmore, PA 19801.
The King of Persia: This short graphic novel has much to offer. Cartoonist Walt Holcombe (another Xeric grant recipient) has crafted a story that warrants several readings to pick up on all the subtle nuances of the story. On the surface, this just seems to be a simple tale about a lonely king and his attempt to find true love. But Holcombe is able to coax true emotion and sentiment from his cartoony characters. This is a fascinating comic that is only enhanced by Holcombe’s expertly rendered artwork. For more information, write to the author at: Accordion Press,
P.O. Box 49751, Austin, TX 78765.