James Kochalka: Vermont Cartoonist Superstar

When the everyday is fodder for a comic, it is hard not to be fascinated by life’s little moments: coincidences that might go unnoticed, tangents leading us to dusky-eyed memories or brilliant-blue-sky discoveries, commonalities that we do not even realize we share. Vermont born-and-bred cartoonist, James Kochalka, notices all of these things and more which he captures in his daily diary comic, American Elf. Kochalka is know for many other comics work, his involvement in the comics community, love of rockin’ concerts and will soon be acknowledged for this with Vermont’s first Cartoonist Laureate title.

With over fifty published books and countless pages drawn (2000 pages before he graduated high school) James Kochalka is a fan of slapping work down using the skills you possess. In his book published originally by Alternative Comics, The Cute Manifesto, the Craft is the Enemy essays and comics pontificate on not worrying about what you cannot do when making a comic but utilizing the tools you do have. This inspiring work has touched many a creator and designer including Chris Ross of Top Shelf, the company that now publishes Kochalka’s books. Ross built a font out of Kochalka’s handwriting in addition to laying out much of the American Elf series had this to say about the cartoonist, “Despite his belief that Craft is the Enemy, James Kochalka has beautiful, untouchable lower-case p’s and q’s. In addition, his exclamation points are built in such a way that they don’t just illustrate intensity or volume, but a certain spin on verbosity—it’s the intensity of a circus barker or the smack of an eight ball inadvertently spinning off the table.”

I, myself, was lucky to meet Kochalka at a Maryland-based comics convention, SPX 200, when I sauntered up to his table and demanded to trade one of my mini-comics for one his son had worked on. Within an hour, I was driving Kochalka to the annual SPX Karaoke event and sharing stories.

So small is the cartooning universe it came as no surprise to me when I was assigned to assemble some Kochalka books while interning in 2009 at Top Shelf. In Portland I met Leigh Walton and Chris Ross (Emi Lenox too, of course) who all had interacted with Kochalka and knew him to be completely uncensored in comics and life.

My task for book layout and design was not difficult nor arduous but time-consuming. Brett Warnock took me under his wing and given that Kochalka’s energy-filled panels are not completely square (corners that are 90 degree angles) each page had to be considered on it’s own and as a spread.

Much of my time was spent on three books, two which were for children: Dragon Puncher (pictured above) and Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy (pictured below). Magic Kochalka-style kicks down the door in that he understands how much kids love the disgusting and smelly, the loud and noisy.

But not only kids love that sort of stuff. The serialized SuperF*ckers exists as the quintessential super hero riff. The members of the hero team are rude, crude and selfish from toe to tip. Character Jack Krak in the black shirt and red pants gives you a lesson in SuperF*cking 101.

Kochalka’s use of superflat kid-friendly colors and simplistic drawing style coupled highly imaginative curse words and complex storylines make for the ultimate…well, mindf*ck. I was very lucky to work on this omnibus, compiling 4 previous issues plus one ALL-NEW Jack Krak story. Kochalka made it clear that he loved this series throughout the process from our discussions on tiny details such as color of the page numbers all the way to the size of the book. And any publisher and creator that lets me get away with rainbow-colored indicia will withstand the test of time.

When not creating super heroes with the power of sailor talk, Kochalka is known for visiting the schools in Burlington (and greater Vermont) to encourage the everyone to draw, draw, draw. Back in 2009, Kochalka descended on the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, holding the 4th and 5th graders ransom for comic purposes! Melissa Mendes (CCS ’10) wrangled a bunch of CCS students to help and stated, “It was awesome working with James on Comix Day. He has so much energy, and was able to get kids pumped about comics in 3 seconds.”

Betsey Swardlick (CCS ’11) chimed in too as a leader in the teaching group, “James K’s
energetic read-alouds of the Johnny Boo books brought the characters alive for the kids, and the drawing tips he demonstrated (How to draw Johnny Boo with only a few lines! How to make sure all your words fit in a speech-bubble!) made the act of creating comics inviting and accessible to them. It was kind of like watching a magician explain how a trick works, but instead of spoiling the illusion, he convinced the kids that they could do magic, too.” The kids responded enthusiastically as did the cartooning students, it was fun to watch Kochalka command the tiny crowd with silly voices and then stern-I’m-wearing-my-serious-face cartooning know-how.

The magic of Kochalka can be experienced each and everyday while reading American Elf or even by a pilgrimage to White River Junction, Vermont, where much of the events and activities of the Cartoonist Laureate coronation will take place. Keep your eyes peeled for details about James Kochalka Day which is March 10th, 2011 at the CCS site and for the little nuances that make each day spectacularly different and amusing than the last.

Jen Vaughn

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3 Responses to James Kochalka: Vermont Cartoonist Superstar

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention James Kochalka: Vermont Cartoonist Superstar | Schulz Library Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Meg says:

    Wonderful post! I’ve always been a fan, but was never aware of all of the different things that Kochalka does, or where he got started. Am inspiring story for artists like myself. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Meh. I have always been underwhelmed by him.

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