Several years back, James Kochalka created what by rights should've been the last Hulk comic ever made. A gloomy but cartoony version of the green-skinned giant slogs through the mud as a torrential storm rains down on him. "Go ahead and rain on Hulk," he tells the sky. "You think Hulk care? Rain nothing to Hulk! Hulk can SMASH!" He takes a huge swing at the raindrops, slips and falls on his ass in the mud. Staring up into the downpour he flails his arms and legs helplessly. "I AM HULK!"
Leave it to James Kochalka to not only sum up the profound tragedy behind a dumb pulp character, but to create a metaphor for humanity's relationship with nature in the process. Or, if you prefer, leave it to Kochalka to turn the Hulk emo.
Elfen magic: Excerpts from American Elf: Book Two.
Saturday, May 3, is national Free Comic Book Day, and to celebrate Kochalka has managed to fit a trip to Dearborn into his busy schedule. As well as being an art teacher, the father of two young boys and a rock musician with a number of albums to his credit, Kochalka is one of the most prolific comics artists working. His graphic novels — Monkey vs. Robot, Fantastic Butterflies, Magic Boy & the Robot Elf, Squirrelly Gray, the (sort of) superhero parody series Super F*ckers and many others — are drawn with a bold, flowing brush line that has a kind of rock 'n' roll energy to it even when the scene it's describing is a quiet, poetic one, which is often the case.
In his most extensive project, American Elf, the comic strip diary he's kept since 1998, Kochalka chronicles the sweet, not-so-sweet and endearingly mundane details of his daily life — work hassles, bodily functions, teasing his cat, bitching at and kissing on his wife, walking in the rain, raising his kids, rocking out, making art. It's beautiful and banal and gross and twee, usually funny as hell, and you're a hard-hearted bastard indeed if it doesn't occasionally bring a happy tear to your eye and make you want to squeeze someone's hand.
Excerpt from The Cute Manifesto.
The most prominent feature of his elfen self-caricature is a protruding upper lip capped with buck teeth, but the real Kochalka leads with his chin. On stage, his rocking can get exuberant to the point of self-injury, as seen in some of his diary strips. (I saw him play once after a comics convention out east. Nearly naked, he kicked his feet into the air during one song and sent his shoes crashing into a hotel chandelier.) He's known for his provocative proclamations about the nature of art, most notoriously for a letter sent some years ago to the magazine The Comics Journal. It excitedly declared that "craft is the enemy" of anyone, particularly cartoonists, seeking to make great art.
"You could labor your whole life perfecting your 'craft,' struggling to draw better, hoping one day to have the skills to produce a truly great comic,"Kochalka wrote. "If this is how you are thinking you will never produce this great comic. What every creator should do, must do, is use the skills they have right now."
The "Craft Is the Enemy" letter and similar remarks he's made since have triggered wide-ranging, heated debates in the comics scene and beyond. He's pissed off a lot of illustrators, comics industry pros and their fans, but he's also inspired a lot of young up-and-comers, especially a growing number of webcomic creators, to get off their asses and get to work.
But if his rhetoric is inflammatory, Kochalka's comics are just damn cute. Not Hallmark cute or Hello Kitty cute, not cloyingly or commercially cute. They're authentically cute. Cute like a bad haircut, cute like a baby fart. Cute like when you hop on one foot after stepping in cat barf, cute like a morning boner. He even manages to make cuteness provocative in his "Cute Manifesto" (two words that don't normally go together, and two things that usually get viewed with suspicion and scorn).
Cute is a philosophy for Kochalka. It's not about pretending ugliness doesn't exist. It's about being open to the cuteness around us and expressing it — vigorously, defiantly —back out into the world. It's cuteness as another word for beauty, which is just another word for truth.
Kochalka and other guests appear May 3, for Free Comic Book Day at Green Brain Comics, 13210 Michigan Ave., Dearborn. And yes, they really are giving away free comic books! Call 313-582-9444 or visit myspace.com/greenbraincomics.Sean Bieri is design director for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]