MEMORY IS UNRELIABLE: a conversation with James Kochalka

On December 31st, 2012, James Kochalka ended a fourteen year run on his daily diary comics strip, American Elf.

15 days later, I sat down with James to discuss those years and what he’d documented.

Interview conducted on January 15, 2013

John Rovnak: It’s been two weeks since you drew your final American Elf. How are you feeling?

James Kochalka: [Laughs] Well, strange I guess, because I have not thought of any other comic that I want to draw, really. I have ideas, but I’m a little afraid to start. It’s funny because the entire time drawing American Elf I felt pretty much super, super confident, and fearless about art. But I think that’s because I knew I had this one thing I was doing that was basically as good as it gets.

Rovnak: And it was yours, in a format that you pretty much invented…

Kochalka: Yeah. And then I could do any sort of crazy thing I wanted to, and not worry about it. But now anything that I do, I have to think, “Is this going to be as good as American Elf?” And the answer of course is NO! Of course there’s nothing else that I’m going to do that’ll be as good as American Elf. So now I just have to adjust to the fact that it doesn’t matter if it’s as good as American Elf or not.
Before American Elf I did autobiographical stories where I’d mix in science fiction and fantasy elements. Well I went back, and read some of those, and I couldn’t believe how awful they were. [laughs] But I don’t know, I might just be being really harsh on myself. They’re nothing like a story. I mean other people write real stories, and mine are not stories. I don’t know what they are. At the very least, I suppose, they’re unlike the stories I’ve read by anyone else, so I suppose that’s a plus. And I imagine that’s what people saw in them back in the day. But I look at them, and I’m like, “I don’t even understand what I was doing. I don’t understand why I wrote those comics.” For one thing, the pacing is really slow. And American Elf is really really really fast paced, because it’s just tiny tiny tiny small vignettes, and it’s constantly moving. But pages will happen in my old books and nothing really happens. People are talking really slow. So I guess what I have to do is take the pacing of American Elf and put that into a…. [long pause]

Rovnak: So if nothing else, it’s forcing you to rethink your comics and storytelling. Which is a plus, right?

Kochalka: Right. Oh yeah, it’s good. I could have drawn American Elf forever because I was in the rhythm of it. And as long as I stayed in that rhythm, I could have done it forever. And in a way it was easy for me. It was hard, of course, as a physical task, doing it everyday. And sometimes it was hard emotionally to draw about things I didn’t want to draw about. But artistically, I guess it was easy because I had the format down. In fact, I was getting better and better at it. I think every year I got better at it. But stopping gives me a chance to really think about art, and really think about what I’m doing. I didn’t really have any time to think as long as I was still doing American Elf. I mean, I could think about American Elf, but I couldn’t really think about anything else. And that’s not entirely true, because of course I wrote Super F*ckers, and I wrote the Johnny Boo series and the Dragon Puncher series, and the Super F*ckers cartoon. I did plenty of other stuff, but somehow I was able to do all that other stuff without thinking. Now I feel like I’m forced to think. [laughs]

Rovnak: One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gone back and read the entire run of American Elf is that now that you’ve ended it, it reads like a novel. It now has a beginning, middle and end; where before it was so open ended.

Kochalka: Right, I think it’s stronger with an end.

Rovnak: I think so too.

Kochalka: And if you go back and look over the strips, I think you’ll see that over the last couple years, you can tell I’m building up to the end. Like there are clues that the strip is ending, [laughs] even before I really knew. It’s funny because – and I’ve said this many times before in interviews – the reason I started American Elf… well, one of the reasons is because I had grown dissatisfied with the whole idea of a graphic novel. That I didn’t think the stories of our lives had beginnings, middles and ends. I felt that there’s just thousands of stories in your life, all twisting around each other constantly, and some of those stories stop suddenly, and then start up again later. Some things happen every single day. And I just felt like the typical way of writing a story doesn’t really capture what it feels like to be human and to live a real life. So I thought that with the daily strip format I could accomplish that. And just by showing a little bit from each day, over time you’d see the kind of rhythms a real life goes through, and I think I’ve drawn enough to capture that rhythm. [laughs] I probably learned everything there is to learn and know within the first two years. Actually that’s not true…
Here’s one reason why I quit… there are thousands… but I felt like the strip will end sometime. There’s no way to prevent the strip from someday ending. At the very least I’d draw it up until the day I died, or something would happen in my life that prevented me from drawing the strip. And I thought, what a horrible tragedy that would be, if something changed in my life and made me unable to draw the strip. It is so much better to make the decision now, when I have some control over it and I know what I’m doing.

Rovnak: Between you and me, did you produce a strip for January 1st 2013 just for yourself? How was it to not pick up your sketchbook and not document something from your day? Was it a strange feeling?

Kochalka: No I didn’t [laughs]. I did draw a strip, but it wasn’t American Elf, and I didn’t ink it… yet. I drew a strip about my mushroom characters from Fungus. In a way I still have been drawing American Elf everyday, because everyday I pick out the thing that would be the strip. I just don’t draw it.

Rovnak: In your head you do?

Kochalka: Yeah, in my head. [laughs]

Rovnak: That leads directly into my next question. I’m sure you’re quite conditioned to view your days with the perspective of choosing an event or sequence for a strip. Are you finding you’re still viewing your days that way?

Kochalka: Everyday I would go about my day, and I’m thinking about what would be a good strip, and I haven’t stopped. I still do that all day long, every day. [laughs] That might never end. But the truth is that I did that before I started drawing American Elf. I was always translating in my mind whatever was happening into a comic strip format. Now I think I’m starting to stop thinking about what would be the American Elf strip for the day, and thinking about how can I use these moments in another story. Which is good because if I wanted to draw another autobiographical story mixed with science fiction and fantasy, I really couldn’t because all the material is put into American Elf. There would be nothing to draw about because it was all in there. But now if I stop for a while, hopefully I’ll accumulate enough of these little bits of information in my mind, that I’ll have enough to make another story.

Rovnak: You would have to lead two lives otherwise….

Kochalka: Right. [laughs]

Rovnak: Did you ever consider just stopping the strip publicly, and continuing the strip just for yourself? Why end American Elf entirely?

Kochalka: Oh yes, I did consider doing that. But then I thought, I don’t like doing anything that’s not going to see publication. I have no interest in creating any art, or any time-consuming art, that’s not for public consumption. I could never continue to draw the diary strip, and then never publish it. I would have to at least publish it eventually in some collected form.

Rovnak: In preparation for this interview I spoke with quite a few cartoonists about American Elf, and one common response from many was a real excitement and pride if they had at some point made an appearance in one of your strips. Why do you think this is? Is it every comic fans dream to appear in a comic? What makes appearing in American Elf so special?

Kochalka: Well this is going to sound really egotistical [laughs] but let’s say you’re hanging out with Picasso, and Picasso painted you into his painting. You’d be excited! I imagine these people know it’s an important work, and who would not want to be part of that? Although, when I announced the strip was ending, one person wrote to me to tell me that something I had drawn about them a decade earlier had terribly embarrassed them, and I guess they had been worrying about it ever since. So they just wrote to patch everything up since the strip was ending. That was interesting. Something that I’ve learned over the years is that drawing a strip like this is incredibly dangerous. There’s another reason to quit. I had nothing to lose in the old days. Now I’ve got a family and everything, and they don’t need any kind of drama, weird art drama… I don’t know. [laughs]

Rovnak: Did you find many acquaintances or family members trying to make appearances in the strip? Could you sense interactions from some people that seemed manipulated or motivated entirely by a desire to stand out in your memory so that they might be drawn by you?

Kochalka: Well the only ones I would notice were the people who were super obvious and would say, “Put me in the strip!” That obviously is clear… But my friend Jason (Jason X-12), who’s in the strip many times, he would always be angling to get in the strip, and I never would notice. He would just try and say awesome things hoping that I would draw those awesome things into the strip. And then he would always complain later that I’d just draw a leaf I saw or something, instead of the awesome thing he said. [laughs]

Rovnak: One person’s awesome moment is not another’s, right? [laughs]

Kochalka: That’s right!

Rovnak: So deciding to begin a daily strip back in 1998, I would imagine it must have been a bit daunting. Was it? And at what point, or how far into the process, did you find a rhythm with it? Do you remember a time when the strips just started happening, becoming part of your daily routine, versus the conscious decision to sit down and draw one everyday?

Kochalka: I would say it took a little over two years to get used to it. There was a period in the second year where I quit for two months, because it was too hard. It wasn’t until after that, that I really got into the rhythm of it. And the idea of starting the strip was daunting. I drew it for a week at the San Diego Comic-Con in the summer of 1998, just a sort of a little travel diary kind of thing, and it was great!! I couldn’t believe how great it was! And the whole reason I started was because Brian Ralph was on a plane with me, and he was like an aisle over, and I noticed he was doing work. He was working on the book Cave In, and I was like, “Brian Ralph is getting work done, and I’m just sitting here!” [laughs] So I pulled out a lined notebook, and I drew the first strip in that. And then I did it everyday, sometimes twice a day, in that week at the San Diego Comic-Con. And then got home, and photocopied it and made a tiny little mini-comic out of it. And I thought, “Boy, that was such a great thing. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I did that for a whole year?” Then I thought, “God, that would be so much work!” So I put it off for a couple of months, until October 28th. And then I just started. I went to the store, and I picked out a sketchbook that I thought would be pretty good, and then I started. Now I didn’t invent autobiographical comics, but by combining autobiographical comics with the daily strip format, I was the first person to do that that I had ever heard of. I don’t know if anybody had ever done that before? Of course there’s Jim’s Journal, but that’s fictional autobiography. It’s Jim, drawing his journal, but it’s not real. But that certainly was a strip that I was aware of that played some role in creating American Elf. Anyhow, it turned out to be a great marriage of two forms; and really, in retrospect fairly obvious. [laughs]

Rovnak: Did you find yourself doing or saying things that you knew would make for an interesting strip? Would you find yourself making statements that would allow for you to passive-aggressively communicate with people in your life?

Kochalka: Well I would sometimes set people up. Like I would have an idea for a line that I wanted to say, and I would say it to them, and then I would draw their reaction. And sometimes if I didn’t get the reaction I wanted, I would say the same line to someone else. [laughs] And the strange thing about that, and the strange thing about the whole strip, is that it’s definitely true. It’s autobiographical, but it’s also fictional. But that means my actual real life is becoming fiction if I am saying lines for the idea of getting a response. So suddenly my strip is autobiographical, but my real life is fictional. [laughs] And then, towards the end, there’s this weird feedback loop too, because I’m putting it up online, and I’m putting it in the newspaper, and I hear responses back from people, and make adjustments to my life based on reader reaction. I mean, that is insane! So I began to feel like I was trapped in some sort of strange dimension where nothing was real. You know it’s like the philosophical question of are you a person, or are you butterfly dreaming they’re a person? Are you a brain locked in a box on some distant planet being fed stimuli?

Rovnak: Are you a cartoonist, or are you a cartoon?

Kochalka: Right. Exactly.

Rovnak: Throughout the 14 years, what was some of the criticism you’d receive about the strip? Was there a reoccurring complaint or issue from family or friends? Were there people just outraged with how candid you were?

Kochalka: Some people really disliked me, or disliked my persona as I portrayed myself in the strip. I seem to generate enemies without actually doing anything to anybody. Without even ever talking to me, people would just decide they hated me. [laughs]

Rovnak: One thing that always stood out for me was how frank and honest you were with your portrayal of parenting. Did you receive much criticism about that?

Kochalka: Oh yeah. You know I got a letter once from a guy who said he liked the strip. But then I had kids, and he just thought that I was an awful person. That I was kind of mean to the kids, or that I was mean to my wife, and he just thought I was a bad man. And then he had kids, and then he saw that absolutely everything I drew about in the strip happened to him too [laughs] and he wrote me another letter to apologize. He said he was sorry to have judged me so harshly. It’s funny, because until he wrote me a letter saying he was judging me harshly, I had no idea I was being judged harshly.

Rovnak: How do you view your place in the comics industry? Will American Elf be remembered as your definitive work, and does that scare you? Are you scared of having your future work compared to American Elf?

Kochalka: I guess. I think it’s okay. [laughs nervously] I mean, Art Spiegelman did Maus, and he can’t really top Maus, right? And he’s fine.

Rovnak: Is it scary to now go back to the drawing board and start something new?

Kochalka: Sure. Luckily I have something else to distract me, which is that I have to paint between 100 and 200 paintings before April for a show at Giant Robot in L.A. So I’m just painting paintings, and I don’t have to worry about comics for a while. Although I do have to start a new strip in SevenDays. It’s supposed to start next week, and they keep asking me what it’s going to be, and I haven’t decided. [laughs]

Rovnak: Maybe you could just do an autobiographical strip about you struggling to come up with a new strip that’s not autobiographical? [laughs]

Kochalka: Yeah. Well I do have a brilliant idea for what to replace American Elf with, but I don’t know whether I should dive right into it. I almost dove right into on January 1st, the very next day after drawing American Elf, which is Zamerican Skrelf. [laughs] Zamerican Skrelf is American Elf, but not true. It would be sci-fi and fantasy stuff, but with the same characters, with some autobiographical truth, but a lot of made up events. So I still might do that.

Rovnak: Have you ever had an interest in producing someone else’s biography in comic form?

Kochalka: No. Sounds terribly boring. [laughs] You know it’s impossible for me to draw all the little details of what’s in a room, if it’s a room I haven’t seen. Or more specifically, if it’s a room I can’t actually look at while I draw it, or know intimately. I couldn’t draw a story that took place in someone else’s house, unless I was going to live in that house, and then I could look at the things I was going to draw. I can’t even imagine what another house looks like. [laughs] There are so many little details. Even in American Elf I would get details of my own house wrong all the time. If I draw from memory, the details are definitely wrong. But occasionally, or fairly often, I would draw a mixture of from memory and from life. If I wanted to know what some part of the room looked like, or some object in the house looked like, I could go up and go look at it. And sometimes I would. But I didn’t always. Sometimes I would just do the best I could just from memory. And certainly every time I did it from memory, I got it wrong. I always drew the phones wrong, but it’s not that important. That’s just the way it works, and it’s not unique to me. It’s the same kind of thing I guess where somebody witnesses a crime, and no one can describe what the person actually looked like, or what actually happened. Everybody gets it wrong. You just can’t trust memory. What I found recently is that memory is so unreliable that I’m not sure what’s real anymore. I remembered very clearly that this friend of mine built a fire in my sink last New Years Eve. And I was like, “Is he gonna build another fire in the sink?” And Amy was like, “You dreamt that! You dreamt that he built a fire in the sink.” Because I had really remembered it as a real event, something that actually happened, but it was just a dream. Then I thought, “How many other things from my life didn’t actually happen?” [laughs] There could be all sorts of things that I remember that didn’t actually happen.

Rovnak: And maybe by drawing them in your strip, you somehow made them more real.

Kochalka: Yeah, that’s right!

Rovnak: Is there one strip that stands out to you as your favorite or definitive American Elf?

Kochalka: I do have a favorite. I can’t remember the whole thing, but it’s just a single panel one. I’m standing on the corner of Elmwood Ave. and North St., and Eli is in a little sling on my chest, and there’s a dead bird. And I’m pointing at the dead bird, and I say something profound. [laughs] I don’t remember exactly now. It’s something like, “Look, Eli. Death.” That’s my favorite strip. You’d think if it’s my favorite strip I’d remember it a little better, but…

Rovnak: …memory is unreliable, right?

Kochalka: [laughs] That’s right. Memory is not reliable.

Rovnak: That’ll be the title of this interview. [laughs]

Kochalka: [laughs]

Rovnak: I noticed you seemed to take some more risks artistically with the layout on some of the final strips. Was this a conscious choice? Did you find the pressure of what to do for the final strip overwhelming, or was it liberating because you were ending it anyways?

Kochalka: More deviations from the form? Well that was the great thing about American Elf. Because I drew it everyday, any individual strip didn’t really matter that much. So I felt like it was okay to try something else. I could have gone a lot wilder, I suppose. I just did it when I felt it. If I deviated from my standard format, it wasn’t because I was like, “Oooh, let’s experiment!” I did it because I just thought it would work to show whatever it was I was trying to show. I mean you could start a strip where you’re just going to do crazy experiments everyday, but that would be a different strip.

Rovnak: So if someone were to go to americanelf.com today, what would they find?

Kochalka: Well on the front page, you’d see the very last American Elf strip. But if you scrolled down, there’s a list of other strips on the site, and there’s a new thing now called ‘Little Paintings’. And everyday I’m putting up a little painting.

Rovnak: Now remind me, where are you in your tenure or term as Vermont’s first Cartoonist Laureate?

Kochalka: Hmmm, when did I become Cartoonist Laureate? I think I might be in the final year now. It’s a three-year term.

Rovnak: So what have you done during your time as Cartoonist Laureate?

Kochalka: What have I done? [laughs]

Rovnak: Yeah, what have you done?

Kochalka: [laughs] Well I’ve gone to teach comics at a few different schools and libraries. But you know, I did that before I was Cartoonist Laureate, and I’ll probably do it after I’m done being Cartoonist Laureate. It’s just that …

Rovnak: …you do it with a title. [laughs]

Kochalka: There’s no official duties. [laughs] It’s really just an honor.

Rovnak: Will there be another Cartoonist Laureate after you?

Kochalka: I don’t know. I imagine. I think they should. We have quite a few world-class cartoonists here in Vermont, and we’re getting more cartoonists all the time. As people come to the Center for Cartoon Studies, a fair amount of those cartoonists end up settling here in Vermont afterwards. And we’ve begun to attract other cartoonists who just think, “Hey, there seems to be something interesting going on over there in Vermont. Maybe I’d like to go to Vermont?”

All images © James Kochalka

Interview © John Rovnak

About John Rovnak

John Rovnak can hardly remember a time when comic books were not a part of his life. He has bought them, sold them, written them, drawn them, collected them, bought them again, and sold them again. He has endured a lifetime of ridicule and shame for his hobby, but that hasn't stopped him. Most recently he's written and edited a book about comics. He's planning more.
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Comments

  1. [...] My mailman conducted an interview with me about ending American Elf.  You can read it here. [...]

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  3. Dan K says:

    Great interview. I’m sad AE is over, but I get that it’s important for an artist to occasionally step away from his work and regroup and I’m looking forward to what comes next.

  4. [...] importantly, he pioneered a whole new genre: journal [...]