Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I've never understood why James Kochalka is considered a great, or even good, comics creator. In my Comics Journal review of Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions, I said that Kochalka's contribution to the volume left me with an impression of overwhelming narcissism. And Ian Brill's glowing review of American Elf in TCJ #266 (which listed the book as one of the "autobiographies of the year") merely confirms me in this opinion. The few pages I'd read of the book itself struck me as being like "Jim's Journal," only not as good. But Brill's review makes it sound unbelievably fatuous. By the way, the book's title comes from Kochalka's portraying himself as a long-eared "elf" named "Magic Boy"; and unfortunately, he's not being in the least ironic.

Here's some of what Brill has to say: Kochalka "believes in the wonderful notion that everything in life has its own magic to it, and that everything in life can create its own set [sic] of wonder."

"We see Kochalka apologizing to the dust as he sweeps up for his wife's birthday party: 'It's for your own good,' he tells it."

"One strip has Amy crying and asking Kochalka why he's so mean, while the cartoonist ponders helplessly to himself that he doesn't want to be mean. In the very next day's strip Amy comes home, gives her husband a kiss on the forehead and asks him why he's so nice. (Answer: 'I'm a happy elf.') In just eight panels Kochalka has turned the elf versions of himself and his wife into characters as complicated and alive as their real-life counterparts." Kochalka's answer made me want to gag. And as for Brill's last sentence, can he possibly think that just by having Amy call James mean one day and nice the next, Kochalka has created a "character as complicated and alive as [her] real-life counterpart"?

In one of P. G. Wodehouse's golf stories, one of the characters begins writing poems about his young son, which are parodies of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin poems. In response, "The child has become a ham. He never ceases putting on an act. He can't eat his breakfast cereal without looking out of the corner of his eye to see how it's going with the audience. And when he says his prayers at night his eyes are ostensibly closed, but all the while he is peering through his fingers and counting the house." More than anything else, it's of this child that the examples of Kochalka's work in Brill's review remind me of. Kochalka pretends to be reacting to the world with spontaneous childlike innocence, but in reality is well aware of how "cute" he is, and is always putting on a show.

I feel a bit guilty about singling Ian Brill out like this. On his blog he's an intelligent guy and a good writer, with less of a tendency to gush. And I know from experience that there's a lot more pressure in trying to write an official review of something than in just posting off-the-cuff thoughts on a blog. But this review was way over the top.

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