Five Years of American Elf, Reviewed by Xaviar Xerexes
American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka compiles five years of Kochalka's journal comic into one volume. Most narrative artforms engage in at least some bit of hyper-reality, that is condensing stories to leave out the boring or nonessential parts. What can we make of a book then, that is comprised entirely of bits and pieces, and is just as likely to leave out important events as include them?
American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka compiles five years of Kochalka's journal comic into one volume. Published by Top Shelf, it is predominantly black and white, but there is a healthy dose of color pages at the beginning and end of the book.
Most narrative artforms engage in at least some bit of hyper-reality, that is condensing stories to leave out the boring or nonessential parts. What can we make of a book then, that is comprised entirely of bits and pieces, and is just as likely to leave out important events as include them?
James Kochalka began his diary comic in October of 1998 and he has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling the formalistic aspect of his project: he draws a comic every day in his diary. Having been introduced to the Sketchbook Diaries through Kochalka's website American Elf, where each daily sketchbook diary entry is published literally the day after it is created, it is somewhat surprising that a project that seems such a natural fit for publication on the web was not originally created with the web in mind.
In fact, diary comics seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship with web publishing and there are now countless efforts to peruse. But besides the immense volume of Kochalka's work, however, there is another key distinction between American Elf and other diary comics and that is the "character" of Kochalka himself. Very few diary comics feature a main character as engrossing, quirky and yet self-confident as James Kochalka, Superstar. Rock musician, comic creator, husband, father, and videogame enthusiast, Kochalka on the page has an appealing mix of optimism, intelligence and enthusiasm for life.
And the method in which Kochalka portrays the characters in American Elf works, although for a genre built on creating versimiltude it shouldn't. Kochalka and his wife and son are portrayed as elves, his friend Jason as a dog. While many bit characters are portrayed somewhat realistically others get a somewhat off-kilter representation. "New guy", a recurring character in the earlier strips, has a face that is drawn in an almost cubist style. The stylized imagery works probably because the central character of Kochalka himself has not just an optimistic worldview, but a manchild quality that fits well in a world populated with characters who are not always respresented realistically on the page.
One of the interesting aspects of a diary comic is the choices made as to what to portray. Kochalka the creator creates a feeling of honesty in his choices that is essential to creating the sense of realism that the diary genre seems to demand. Across the five years of this book one finds that Kochalka is mainly interested in portraying a moment of emotion from each day and evoking that feeling. He is clearly less interested in building narrative from his life. Although one can piece together much of the evolution of his life from the comic, including his growing musical and comic career and more recently the birth of his son, there is much that he leaves out and the resulting narrative is elliptical at best.
Kochalka in fact seems to have grown more confident in his best instincts over the years. In earlier years he seems to have been at least partially motivated by what would make a "good" comic in the more traditional sense of a single 3 or 4 panel work with a punchline or other payoff at the end. More recently, he seems to have largely let go of that sometime crutch and although some strips are uproaringly funny they are because they clearly portray a funny moment rather than an awkward attempt to cobble a joke out of the day's events.
The central thread throughout The Sketchbook Diaries mostly concerns how Kochalka deals on his own terms with the big bad world out there. He is not quite the stock character of the wounded, vulnerable yet pure artiste but elements of that stereotype appear in Kochalka the character. He struggles with his sanity or the insanity of the world around him. He wants to make music and comics but everyday obstacles like day jobs, procrastination and other distractions (video games for example) get in his way. And yet Kochalka is a self-promoter. A good-natured huckster, but clearly someone who wants to "make it." Given how much joy comes through in his moments of creation, either rock or comics, it is hard, even if you were so inclined, to hold any of it against Kochalka.
The other major theme in the book is the relationship between Kochalka and his wife Amy, and more recently the family that is formed between the two of them and their first son Eli. A great deal of complex emotion comes through in the depiction of the relationship between Kochalka and Amy. Amy the character is given fairly sympathetic treatment, however, for the most part she is also mainly a supporting character to Kochalka himself. Not so for son Eli. With the birth of his first son Eli and the resulting entries focused on him, Kochalka has shifted the focus of the work from himself to his son and himself. The Sketchbook Diaries now regularly covers territory that is familar to any parent or reader of a comic like Baby Blues or Family Circus. There is little comparison between The Sketchbook Diaries and other family-oriented comics, however, beyond the now common subject matter. Even after the birth of his son, Kochalka remains very much the same character as he was before and he continues to struggle with all of the previous challenges his artistic life had presented. Only now he is dealing with the role of "father" as well.
Ultimately, a diary comic works on different levels. One can look at it as any other work of fiction. In that sense The Sketchbook Diaries does work, as the sweep of five years of this life, even if viewed through somewhat unconnected moments of emotions, is an interesting tale about an interesting man. On another level one acknowledges that this is a diary as much as any written diary would be and that the diarist has essentially invited us to read it. In this sense The Sketchbook Diaries works remarkably well as you completely believe in reading the book that one is observing truth as it happened. Moreover, one never has the sense of invading the private life of Kochalka. One could also, I suppose, investigate how truthfully this work actually captures the life of of the creator Kochalka himself. This is perhaps the least interesting way to look at the book. It is Kochalka's portrayal of life in the book that evokes a sense of truth in the reader and in that sense Kochalka succeeds with his work, regardless of how accurately he has portrayed his actual life experience.
Overall, this five year collection of The Sketchbook Diaries is a triumph for Kochalka the cartoonist. It is a milestone in the emerging diary comic genre and a worthwhile read on any level.