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American Elf by James Kochalka, reviewed by Matt Trepal

Webcomics are the result of the adaptation of an established art form to a new environment, which allowed the comic strip to develop in a manner and direction that had been previously unimaginable, and the diary comic is one example of this new form that would be impossible without the Internet. The immediacy of web publishing allows a creator to draw a comic now, post it to the Internet within a scant few minutes, and get comments upon it almost instantaneously. The diary comic, by presenting a snapshot of the creator's day, is about as immediate as you can get.

Unfortunately, most lives are dull.Webcomics are the result of the adaptation of an established art form to a new environment, which allowed the comic strip to develop in a manner and direction that had been previously unimaginable, and the diary comic is one example of this new form that would be impossible without the Internet. The immediacy of web publishing allows a creator to draw a comic now, post it to the Internet within a scant few minutes, and get comments upon it almost instantaneously. The diary comic, by presenting a snapshot of the creator's day, is about as immediate as you can get.

Unfortunately, most lives are dull.

Even in exciting lives, about one-third of the day is spent asleep, and lots of other time is spent engaged in such mundane tasks as eating, excreting, waiting in line, and navel-gazing (your own or someone else's), and when noteworthy events do occur, they may only be interesting within the context of those individuals involved. This is the challenge that a diary comic creator faces: "How do I make sure I've got something interesting to write about?" Well, if you're James Kochalka, creator of American Elf (affiliated with Modern Tales), sometimes you have to work at it.I approached Kochalka's strip with some interest and excitement. I was aware of his reputation, even if I was not all that familiar with his work, and was eager to see what all the buzz was about. About halfway through the archives, however, I became dissatisfied with American Elf, feeling that I had waded through one too many strips that were incoherent or that were presented out of context. At the same time, there were strips that I could indentify with and which made me laugh.

So I took a break from reading the archives for a few days, and when I returned to them found that what had irritated me before was no longer doing so. Perhaps it was a distinct shift in the subject matter, but even strips that I didn't find very good didn't affect me as negatively as they had done previously, instead triggering a recognition that everyone has an off-day. And in re-reviewing the archives I had trouble even remembering what had rubbed me the wrong way in the first place.

It turns out that Kochalka has the sort of life that makes for a quality diary comic. He has an unusual occupation mix (a cartoonist and a singer); he and his wife are very much in love; he has a large group of friends; and by traveling the comics convention circuit he comes in contact with a wide variety of people.

Kochalka's art style is distinctive and unique; even though his strips are sometimes drawn quite simply, at other times they can contain more detail than the reader is aware of at first. On some occasions, it is this very lack of detail, almost iconic in nature, that makes the strip work. The strips are usually text-heavy, often using Kochalka's narration in lieu of dialogue, while the pictures illustrate the text.

Diary comics are not about the coherent advancement of plot and the development of characters, they are about what happened to the creator the previous day, whether it was funny or not, whether it was interesting or not, or whether it even made sense or not. Like a written diary, American Elf is a stream-of-consciousness exercise that allows Kochalka to let the reader peek into a tiny corner of his life. Like anyone's life, sometimes it is funny, or thought provoking, or confusing, or banal, but it is always real.

Newsarama Interview with James Kochalka

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

Newsarama has a story on Kochalka this week - more about his upcoming dead tree work.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.