Friday, 10 September 2010

Idiocy is Genius: an Interview with James Kochalka

James Kochalka really needs no introduction, does he? Chances are if you like comics and have had an internet connection at some point within the last eight years, you're bound to have encountered his daily American Elf diary strip. Starting his career in the mid-Nineties, he's since gone on to achieve massive popularity and acclaim with a wide selection of books and comics that, whilst diverse, all carry the same unmistakable Kochalka-ness.

Following his recent successes with Top Shelf comes the fearsomely-named Dragon Puncher. Part cartoon, part photo-montage, this action-packed story of a cat in a battle suit features a very special cast. The cartoonist himself, his eldest son, and pet cat take centre stage in this carefree all-ages tale of the joy of beating good for nothin' dragons up

Heartlessly stealing some of his time at the beginning of the week, we interviewed James about the origins of Dragon Puncher, his upcoming video game/ graphic novel Glorkian Warrior, and more. Read on for discussion of those, music, why he doesn't like to be called "prolific", and the chances of American Elf ending sooner than you might think. 

Dragon Puncher, wow. Although you’re all credited as playing roles at the conclusion of the book, essentially you have your cat and son teaming up to beat you silly. What inspired you create this this brutal work of near-patricide?

I started with the idea of a cat in a battle suit. I did one short comic about these characters for a McSweeny's book of short stories for kids.  But it wasn't named Dragon Puncher, and there wasn't a dragon in it. Then I wrote a song called Dragon Puncher, and decided the title was so good that I better write a book with the same title.

The idea of casting myself as the dragon was probably based on the fact that my boys love to wrestle me.  Don't all boys love to wrestle their dads?

Dragon Puncher, the Samus Aran of cats, comes a cropper.

Of all your comics, Dragon Puncher looks like it might have been the most fun to create. Is that fair to say?

It was really fun. In fact, I can't wait to write the next one. Since drawing the first one, I had another son, Oliver, so I have to draw a new book so he can be in it as well. Oh, and I got a new cat, Nooko. In fact, I got Nooko mainly for the purpose of having him be a character in the next Dragon Puncher book.

Dragon Puncher’s cover shares some similarities with the sleeve art of Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly. Was this intentional, or just a reflection of a love of leaping monsters and photomontage? 

If you look over the history of my book covers, there's often a drawing of the characters leaping. Dragon Puncher... leaping. Monkey Vs. Robot... leaping. Fantastic Butterflies... leaping. SuperF*ckers... leaping.  There's probably others too.

It makes the book look more exciting.

Am I right in the understanding that you’re making some of the music for Glorkian Warrior? Obviously, you’ve utilised your GBA and Nanoloop in the past when making Digital Elf, but it must be a little bit different actually making music for the purpose of being in a game. What are the challenges of composing music for a video game? 

It's kinda easy. It's no different than writing music for anything else, I guess. Although, one difference is that I've been writing some super short pieces of music. Like, just a few seconds long, to indicate that something good happened. What we call "win" music. It's any interesting challenge to make just a few seconds of music sound exciting and transcendent and euphoric.

Glorkian Warrior, Glorkian Warrior's nifty backpack and what looks to be an ersatz Octorok. Triple awesome.

We’re dying to know more about the Glorkian Warrior graphic novel. Will it tie into the game, or is it more of a companion piece?

It's more of a companion piece. I started drawing it more than a year before we seriously began work on the game. The final boss of the game and the final enemy the character faces in the book are the same, but the story plays out differently. Anyhow, I only have eleven more pages of Glorkian Warrior to draw, and then I have to color it. I'm not sure who's going to publish it... perhaps Top Shelf, depending on how busy they are. They don't necessarily have room in their schedule to accommodate everything I draw. I put together a book of my little paintings for them a few years ago, that's been continually delayed, to make room for other more commercial works. And they're currently sitting on Book 4 of American Elf.

I feel a great sense of loyalty to them, and it would certainly be easier for me if they had room to publish ALL my work at a pace that keeps me happy... but they really can't. So, I don't know exactly what's going to happen that one. The book is going to be crazy awesome, though. It's just a really silly, funny, adventure comic for kids.

If you could pick one comic (apart from one of your own) to be made into a video game, which would you choose and why?

I think you could make a pretty awesome Point and Click adventure game out of Achewood.

You’ve been described as “prolific” several times, and produced work across all kinds of media. Although there’s an unmistakable difference in tone between works like American Elf, Johnny Boo and Superf*ckers, it seems that the same capricious joy is at the heart of all of them. What do you consider the unifying themes and elements of your work?

I don't really like the term "prolific" because I think the subtext is that the work sucks. Like... boy, there sure is a lot of that crap! But, yeah, it's true... I produce a lot of work. If I'm not producing work, I feel like I'm just wasting away. I need to have books and albums and rock shows and paintings and movies pouring out into the world, or I don't feel right. I'm just trying to validate my existence on earth, I think. 

This is how James Kochalka's uses his Game Boy Camera. Apparently Neil Young, too 

In an interview with Stranded in Stereo, you rejected the notion that things that are “silly” can’t simultaneously be perceived as legitimate. Additionally, it seems that the overriding message of American Elf is that all moments carry their own importance. Why do you think that, in general, there is a cultural bias against silly things?

I'm not sure! But people definitely conflate seriousness with deeper meaning. Seriousness can be shallow, so shallow. And silliness can carry meaning just as deep as anything. I guess somehow silliness came to signify the idiot. I say idiocy is genius.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without American Elf. Have you ever considered ending it? At this point I’d be worried that an internet black hole might form from the void.

Yes. I considered ending it just today, in fact! I was away on a short family trip this weekend, and although I managed to pencil the strip while I was gone, I had to ink and color it and put it up online today to try and catch up. And it was just not something I wanted to do, because I desperately wanted to get back to work on the Glorkian Warrior graphic novel, and I had some ideas for a new Glorkian Warrior video game level that I wanted to work on, and I wanted to draw up a "bible" of my idea for the TV show I've been rolling around in my head for the past few months... and now I'm doing this interview, which is probably a tremendous waste of time, and soon I have to pick my son Eli up from school and take him to a dentist appointment, and then we're going to pick up the Batman The Brave and the Bold videogame that is supposed to come out today, and then I'm going over to a friend's house to record vocals for a few of the songs on the Glorkian Warrior game soundtrack. And last week I bought Metroid: Other M and haven't had a chance to play more than a half hour of it. How am I supposed to do all this? And if I stay up late working, then I get really cranky the next day and yell at my family and act mean.

After reading every interview we could with you, it really dawned on us how much of a challenge it was going to be to ask you something different or extract new information. If you were going to ask you a question, what would it be?

I don't know. But the Mormons came to my house the other night and asked me some interesting questions, and things got really hot and heavy on the porch. They got really upset and intense, freaked out by the stuff I was saying to them, and then suddenly intense things happened in my own brain. I basically had some kind of religious awakening on the porch, while I talked to them. I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that God was real, and he spoke directly to me, within me... and what he revealed to me was that he was utterly imaginary. Kinda like that god is real and imaginary at the same time, powerful and powerless. Perhaps both wise and idiot? And that it's okay to totally ignore him, he doesn't care at all. This has sort of happened to me before, but the feeling was more intense this time. The only way I can really explain what I mean is to say "I am an atheist with a deep, personal relationship with god". Shit, I can't believe I didn't think to draw an American Elf strip about this.


A big thanks goes out to James for resisting the temptation of playing Metroid and taking the time to answer our questions. His latest book, Dragon Puncher, is currently available via Top Shelf's website, along with a whole bunch of his ultra-fun previous work. Recommended for adults, children, dragons, cats and Glorkian Warriors alike (or any combination of the above), we enjoyed it a lot and bet our Game Boy cameras that you will too!