Driven To Distraction: James Kochalka on Journal Comics, Modern Tales and the Magic Finger

James Kochalka plays a lot of video games. He quit his job (see his graphic novel Quit Your Job) and spends his time drawing Fancy Froglin for Modern Tales and American Elf as well as working on his upcoming projects. He is also a big fan of the cute aspects of Nintendo games. He cites message boards as his biggest distraction from work, though now that he has the American Elf message boards he can hang out there and pretend to work.

Kochalka recently won an Ignatz award (which he traded to Tom Hart for a bite of Pad Thai) for his Sketchbook Diaries collection. He’s also been lauded as the force behind the journal comic movement online. He’s likewise been called various names by the video game geeks he harasses on message boards, but that’s for another article.


How did you start out in comics?

JK: I started drawing comics in the 3rd grade, with my character Captain Drip. He was a drip of water. Well, my mom says I started even before then, but I have no recollection of it. By Junior High I had already drawn a couple graphic novels, and was selling mini-comics at school, although I had never heard minicomics or graphic novels at that point. I guess this would be the late 70’s early 80’s. My first published comic book came out in ’94 or ’95 when I was in my late 20’s.’


Why did you start a journal comic?

JK: Well, I had been struggling with the whole notion of "telling a story." Real life doesn’t fall into a standard story structure. I had already been rebelling against that notion in my graphic novels, but I knew that with the daily strip format I’d be able to utterly smash the story dynamic. I think with the little daily diary comics, I’m able to build a more complete and more "true" examination of life than is possible in a graphic novel.


What do you think of the recent upsurge in the number of online journal comics?

JK: Well, I never guessed my daily diary comic would start a whole movement! But I can see how it would, it’s a very powerful form. It\’s flattering, I guess, that people are following my lead.


Where would you say the roots lie?

JK: Well, there were many autobiographical cartoonists’ comics in the past. My main innovation was melding it to the daily strip format, which changes the whole dynamic to a great degree.

Some people cite Jim’s Journal as a predecessor of my strip, but Jim’s Journal was fiction. Except for that point, which is a big one, there are also other differences. Jim’s Journal seems to avoid any meaning at all cost, where my strip is all about exploring and searching for meaning. Jim’s Journal avoids humor, and prefers to wallow in the utmost blandness of daily existence, where I prefer to show the full spectrum of experience & emotion.


What do you think is most powerful about journal comics? Who else’s have you read?

JK: The autobiographical comics form is well known for its emotional power. The daily strip format has it\’s own particular power. My insight to combine the two together was a small one, but very important. I’ve read about 20 other diary comics from people that were inspired by my own… I’ve found all to be quite interesting. But I think Snake Pit was my favorite, because it was the most unlike mine. It’s mostly about this young punk rock guy getting really drunk at punk shows every night, and having sex with pretty girls and then dumping them.


How does Amy feel about being in American Elf?

JK: I’ve been drawing her for a loooooooong time now. She’s getting used to it. I’m sure she’d prefer to not be in the strip at all. But I love her, she’s got to be in there.


Why do you draw yourself as an elf?

JK: It’s symbolic of my imagination, I suppose. Of the "magic" that exists in the world. I believe the realm of the imagination is as real a part of the world as the physical. Not like elves really exist, but that the IDEA of elves existing is just as important as brushing your teeth.


Since it seems like a given that you’ll draw the baby when it comes, will he or she be an elf like his or her dad?

JK: I don’t know exactly how I will draw the baby, since I haven’t seen him or her yet. But I assume I’ll probably draw it like an elf, like me and amy… but cuter.


How’s Modern Tales working for you?

JK: Pretty good I think. My last check was about $50 for o­ne month. Of course that doesn’t make it economically worth the time it takes to draw the strips, but that’s the way it goes. I could probably make more money if I got a real job. But the important thing is, I’m doing pretty good work I think. The Fancy Froglin strip is getting better all the time.


What does Fancy Froglin’s boner really represent?

JK: Well it means a LOT. o­ne meaning of course is the marriage of innocence & sexuality… I believe sex is awesome, pure, and innocent. It\’s not nearly as corrupt as people like to imagine.


Since Modern Tales is working well, how’s American Elf working out?

JK: I’m told our subscribers are increasing by about 10 a week. So that’s good. One person that I know of quit because they said they decided I was an "asshole". Paypal takes a chunk of my American Elf money, and so does the site administrator, but last I knew I was getting about $150 a month. So, not quite a fair wage for all the work I put into it, but on its way at least. Many more people come by and read the strip for free each day, so that’s good too. The important thing is that people are reading it… and that they can read it daily and keep up with my life almost in real time. This real time aspect is incredibly powerful. It allows a connection between me and the reader that would be impossible with any other medium besides a daily comic on the internet.


Do you consider what you’re doing with Modern Tales and American Elf just comics or webcomics?

JK: Well, they’re certainly comics. There’s no denying that. But I’d say they’re webcomics too, but not just for the fact that they’re on the web. There are different factions of comics that are like communities, and I am a member of the webcomics community now, to some degree. Being a member of this community makes me feel like I do owe something to the webcomics medium… you know, a responsibility to do good work. I’m not just dumping print work onto the web, you know? I’m making comics specifically for the web.

Although, I’m not entirely opposed to just dumping made for print work on the web either. I’ve been doing Peanutbutter and Jeremy as a weekly comic in my local newspaper, and I’ve been contemplating bringing that to … that would sort of be like just dumping some for print work onto the web. So, ahhh… maybe the answer is "I don’t know".


How do you relate your music and your comics?

JK: Well, they both just bubble up out of me. Art and music are just a natural part of life. More people should just embrace it, instead of thinking it’s just for the "artists" and the "musicians".


What’s your new book about? Is there a new song for it?

JK: My most recent book was Fantastic Butterflies, jointly published by Alternative Comics and Highwater books. I did write a Fantastic Butterflies song, but I never recorded it. The song came first, actually.


Why does it glow like E.T.’s finger?

JK: Ha! That’s from my song Magic Finger!

"I can’t tell you how it knows, but I could show you how it grows, and just like E.T.’s big finger….. it glows."

I’m a dirty boy. I guess, the glowing is a way to show how special a boner really is. To make it appear as special as it feels.


What’s your next project?

JK: I’m working o­n a sequel to the Monkey Vs. Robot. graphic novel. The new one’s called Monkey Vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power. Top Shelf will publish that.

Early in 2003, Top Shelf will re-release my first published graphic novel Magic Boy and the Robot Elf. It was originally published by Slave Labor. I drew a new ending for the new edition. I tried to handicap myself to draw as badly as I did back when the original was drawn. That was kinda fun.

Leah Fitzgerald