James Kochalka’s one of the biggest names in indy comics with his ever-growing library of graphic novels, shorts, illustrations, and of course his albums as James Kochalka Superstar. Now he’s entering one of the biggest phases of his career…as the webcomic that started it all comes to an end.
We initially got up with Kochalka through Frederator Studios to talk about the animated adaptation of his Top Shelf book SuperF*ckers – the tale of the worst team of teen heroes ever assembled. Produced weekly through Frederator’s YouTube channel Cartoon Hangover, it’s the very-not-safe-for-work tale of a team “led” by Jack Crack (David Faustino), whose obsession with sex, bodily functions and anything that will briefly satisfy his short attention span outweighs all other concerns, including rescuing his teammate from a deadly dimension.
You can watch the un-bleeped version of the latest episode, “Burger Brothers,” here...though make sure you have headphones if you’re at the office.Shortly after we conducted this interview, we got more news from Kochalka – he was ending American Elf (www.americanelf.com), the daily “sketch journal” he’s recorded since 1998. Its daily depictions of an elf-styled Kochalka have been a mainstay of his career through his many other graphic novels and albums, producing many hilarious and sometimes poignant depictions of the everyday moments of everyday life.
In the first of a special two-part interview, we talk with Kochalka about turning SuperF*ckers into a cartoon, his involvement with the show, and his deep and abiding love of Jar Jar Binks. In our second part, we’ll talk more about the show, and about the end of American Elf.Newsarama: So James, the show’s still very new, but the pieces posted on YouTube have already gotten thousands of views – that’s got to be very exciting.
James Kochalka: Sure! In a way, the number of views is doubled, because there’s the regular and the uncensored version. I think the uncensored version is slightly ahead right now.
Nrama: Do you have a preference – the censored or uncensored version?
Kochalka: Uncensored. For one thing, the content of the uncensored version is exactly the same, just without bleeps for the swears. I think that the bleeps are distracting, and accentuate the swearing too much. The swearing’s not supposed to be that important – it’s just the way they talk! (laughs) It’s not like the whole point of the show is that they swear.
Nrama: It seems like it could go either way, though – the bleeps do have some shock value.Kochalka: But shocking people has never been my goal. I’ve never written the stories that I write for controversy. I’m just trying to explore the characters and the situations, and trying to upset someone on purpose is the farthest thing from my mind.
Nrama: I get that, because there’s always something fundamentally gentle in your work – when I mentioned to some friends I was doing this interview, they instantly knew you from Johnny Boo. …I would not recommend this to fans of Johnny Boo.
Kochalka: No! Yeah, I sure hope none of my young fans know how to use Google, because…that’s just bad. I think parents should keep their young kids offline, anyway.
Nrama: So how did the animated series come about?
Kochalka: Someone at Frederator, the parent company of Cartoon Hangover, bought the book. It wasn’t us – we didn’t hand them a copy of it. It was just that someone gave them SuperF*ckers and they read it and said, “Hey, this should be a show!” And they were really surprised that we had not already been in discussions with anybody about doing anything like this at all.
I didn’t go out trying to make a SuperF*ckers show – they just made us an offer, and we’d be dumb not to try it. So we did it! (laughs)
Actually, for a while -- we argued back and forth a little bit about the points of the contract, and at one point some lawyer dropped the ball and Fred Seibert, the head of Frederator, flew to Vermont to talk to me about why we couldn’t make a deal, and then we realized that I thought they had given up and they thought I had given up! But really, some lawyer somewhere had forgotten to send the right paperwork from one person to another. Anyway, I thought that was funny. (laughs)Nrama: You’ve had some experience with the Frederator guys – I know Pen Ward’s a big fan of your work.
Kochalka: And I’m a big fan of Pen Ward! He used to write me letters when he was younger, before he had a show or anything, and I…guess I met him a few times at conventions, but I think he got the impression I dissed him. I didn’t mean to diss him! I don’t mean to diss anybody!
Nrama: You’ve done some adaptations of your work in the past like Monkey vs. Robot, but in this case, you’ve got a third party working on this, though it’s obviously your designs, your music, your voice in there –
Kochalka: And I wrote all the episodes. And even did a little hand-lettering here and there in the cartoon.
Nrama: But it is a more collaborative process, and I’m curious as to what the experience has been like for you.Kochalka: What’s the experience been like? It’s been an amazing experience! Everyone I’ve worked with is just incredibly talented, and everyone’s been really supportive of my vision. They have so many talented people working hard to create this thing just the way I want it to be, and that’s amazing.
It certainly is different, though, to work with a whole group of people, some of whom I’ve never met, to create something. It’s definitely a different experience than sitting at my drawing table all by myself.
Nrama: What’s an example of that difference?
Kochalka: Well, it’s the difference between being alone and talking to people. (laughs)Nrama: But I am curious as to what the other people bring to the process and the final product, as opposed to something you just create on your own.
Kochalka: When I do a comic, I tend to just sit down and draw the comic, and then it’s done and we publish it. No one suggests in any way it could be better. (laughs) I’ve never had editors, at least not any who work with me that way!
In this case, I write the script and send it in, and they’ll go, “Okay, but you kind of go off on a weird tangent here, and this has nothing to do with the rest of the episode,” and I’ll go, “Okay, here’s how I can tighten that up, or change it so it makes more sense in the context of the episode.”
So that’s made the scripts a lot tighter, more focused, and probably a lot better – definitely more entertaining. It’s still pretty weird, though – it’s not like we took all the hard edges off it, or polished it to make it some kind of mass-market product. It still looks and feels pretty raw and wild to me.Nrama: Have you found this process has affected how you approach your own work in comics?
Kochalka: Well, I haven’t written anything new! (laughs) I still write and draw American Elf every day, and that’s always a by-the-seat-of-your-pants proposition, because that’s my daily diary I more-or-less write in real time. (This part of the interview was conducted before the end of American Elf was announced)
Other stuff I’m working on – during the time I was working on the SuperF*ckers show, I think I inked and colored a new Glorkian Warrior graphic novel that should come out in 2014, and I inked and colored a couple Johnny Boo stories that I had already written before.
So I haven’t written a new comic since I started this new way of working. But I imagine…who knows? If I start writing new comics and starting doing the heavy rewriting and reediting I did on SuperF*ckers, who knows?Nrama: You’ve done how many of these cartoons?
Kochalka: There’ll be 12.
Nrama: Are there plans for more at this point?
Kochalka: At this point, there’s no plans for more. I mean, I have plans for more, but at this point, there’s no executive decision to make more, unless I’m unaware of it!
Nrama: Well, animation can be a pretty slow process, though it is getting faster.Kochalka: Well – let me think. Last fall I wrote rough drafts for a couple episodes. But it wasn’t until this year that I started writing all the episodes in earnest. So here it is, the end of the year, and we’ve got all 12 episodes finished and ready to go. I think that’s pretty fast! It felt fast. (laughs) There was a lot of exciting stuff happening. So it was a pretty interesting year, I guess.
Nrama: You do the voice of Grotus on the show – obviously, you’ve done some songs with your characters in the past, but what’s it feel like to do a giant, belching, horrible glob-thing?
Kochalka: For the voice of Grotus, I sort of combined Scooby-Doo and Jar Jar Binks – those were the two biggest influences on the voice. I know a lot of people hate Jar Jar Binks, but personally, I love him! I think he’s amazing!
Nrama: Yoosa loves him?Kochalka: One of the most amazing things about him, though, is how much everyone hates him. If people didn’t hate him, he wouldn’t be nearly as amazing as he is, but he is amazing. I always say to people, “If you don’t like Jar Jar Binks, you’re not a real Star Wars fan.” You’re either all in, or you’re out.
Nrama: You have now made this the most controversial interview in the history of Newsarama.
Kochalka: Well, I take it back then! (laughs) People care about their Star Wars, but I love Star Wars in a very non-judgmental way. I’m never going to go on a message board and complain that George Lucas should or shouldn’t have done this or that.
Just that it even exists is amazing, and I don’t care if it’s perfect or not. Is anything perfect in the world? There’s plenty of good in Star Wars, and it doesn’t matter if there’s some things you don’t like.
Nrama: “Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Jar Jar Binks.”
Kochalka: That’s right! (laughs) The boy deserves so much more love.
In Part Two, Kochalka talks about working with the other actors on SuperF*ckers, the end of American Elf, his other works, and more.