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Top Shelf Month continues with an interview with writer/artist James Kochalka, creator of American Elf, Johnny Boo, SuperF*ckers, and the upcoming kids book Dragon Puncher! Here, he talks about what it’s been like creating autobiographical comics for nearly 12 years, why he thinks Johnny Boo is really a superhero comic, and where he got his inspiration for SuperF*ckers.
TFAW.com: How did you get hooked on comics?
James Kochalka: My dad was an old newspaper man, a news editor, and he happened to be really into the old newspaper comic strips. So we had a lot of that kind of stuff around the house. Little stories told with pictures have always greatly excited my imagination. And having an excited imagination is a glorious, heavenly thing.
TFAW.com: What were your influences?
JK: The Pogo comic strip was a huge influence. I think you can see echoes of it in the way my characters talk to each other. My stories are almost always dialogue driven.
The Harvey comics like Casper the Friendly Ghost were important to me too. And now I’m doing my own little ghost series, Johnny Boo.
TFAW.com: How did you get connected to Top Shelf?
JK: Brett Warnock used to buy my homemade mini-comics through the mail. And when he decided to become a publisher he asked if he could publish some of my work. It was just a little anthology, but . . . boy, that really worked out well for me in the long term!
TFAW.com: How did you start American Elf, and why did you choose to draw yourself and your wife, Amy, as elves?
JK: I began drawing us as elves even before American Elf started. I had an idea to draw a strip about some unsavory things that happened to me in my youth, and I used the elf as a symbol of damaged innocence.
TFAW.com: American Elf has been a daily strip since 1998. What’s it like drawing a strip every day? Is it a chore, or part of your daily life?
JK: It’s a little bit strange and dreamlike, since the strip is a chronicle of my life that I’m basically creating in real time as I live. It was fairly disorienting in the beginning, but after 12 years it just feels normal. Weird is the new normal, I guess.
TFAW.com: American Elf has been a chronicle of your family life, including the births and childhoods of your children. How often do you go back to read and reminisce?
JK: Basically never. I sometimes read an odd strip here or there, but I’m more likely to skim it, or just avoid it altogether. I don’t feel like I need to actually read it . . . creating it is enough. Although, I hear from others that reading it is a rather wonderful experience.
TFAW.com: You’re fairly no-holds-barred with the strip, including arguments, bowel movements, and a recent comic about the feeling of your son sitting on your foot while pantsless! So what DOESN’T go in your cartoons?
JK: Plenty. Like a year or so ago when giving a talk about my work at the University of Vermont I accidentally pieced together some dreaded details from my past, and the depth of the trauma I suffered as a kid and the damage I still live with suddenly became clearly apparent to me. I drew some strips about my brief mental meltdown that ensued but laid off most of the gory details.
Anyhow it’s not some kind of contest to see how much I can reveal. I just tell little bits of everything, to try and create a portrait of my life a little bit at a time.
TFAW.com: One of my favorites is, of course, SuperF*ckers. Where the heck did that come from?
JK: For a few years I was thinking of the negative-interconnectedness of all things. That is that everything single thing in the universe seems to have a negative, damaging affect on something else in the universe. It’s what I call “The Evil Universe Theory.” I wanted to draw a graphic novel that would explore this idea.
I didn’t know it would end up a such an over-the-top satirical work. I thought it would turn out more thoughtful and literary.
TFAW.com: It’s hilarious because it looks like a kids comic, but it’s filled with drugs, profanity, and total filth. Was that intentional?
JK: Well I drew about six pages of it in a kid-friendly way, with no swears and different character behaviors, before I decided to go full out with the swearing and filth.
TFAW.com: When Tiny Titans (a bonafide kids comic) came out, it looked a lot like SuperF*ckers to me. Have they ever asked you to be a guest artist?
JK: No . . . but I’d love to write superhero comics for kids. Actually, in it’s own way, Johnny Boo is a superhero comic. Johnny Boo has BOO POWER, Squiggle has SQUIGGLE POWER.
TFAW.com: The contrast between SuperF*ckers and your kids comics, like Johnny Boo, is striking. How do you reconcile the two?
JK: I’m really just trying to explore the human condition from different angles. If you read closely, you’ll see that they’re not that different. Both are full of characters with wild and dramatic mood swings, for instance. I’m just working out my own demons, I guess, even in my kids comics.
TFAW.com: Can you give us an overview of your upcoming book, Dragon Puncher?
JK: It’s about a cat in a battle suit that punches dragons, basically. It’s a really wild, funny book.
TFAW.com: How is this different than your other kids comics?
JK: Well, the art is a lot different. It combines photography and drawing. The backgrounds are photos and the character’s faces are photos. My cat Spandy plays the Dragon Puncher, my son Eli plays Spoony E, and I play the Dragon.
TFAW.com: Do you write and draw these comics with your kids in mind?
JK: Yeah. I read them the rough drafts as bedtime stories. If they don’t laugh or react at all on particular page, I’ll re-write it to get a better reaction from them.
TFAW.com: Do they read comics or aspire to work in the industry?
TFAW.com: What are your feelings about that?
JK: It’s pretty awesome. But he’s much more interested in creating video games, actually. I tell him all the time he can go to video game college when he gets older, if he wants.
TFAW.com: What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
JK: I’m actually making a video game myself, called Glorkian Warrior. Hopefully it will be ready sometime this fall.
TFAW.com: Thanks again!