Maybe you know him from “Monkey vs. Robot” or “American Elf”. Maybe you know him as an extremely entertaining musician with nine albums to his credit. However you know James Kochalka, you know that he’s one of those rare guys that really does do it all. Now, with a collection of his superb “Super F*ckers” arriving from Top Shelf, we talked to the multi-threat artist about his views on craft, the dangers of making children’s books about punching, and his firm belief that “awesome” does not equal parody.
Newsrama: Super F*ckers seems in part to be a parody of the Legion of Super-Heroes in addition to other tropes of the genre. First then, why the Legion in particular? And why does the general idea of super-hero based comedy appeal to you?
James Kochalka: I don't think it functions primarily as a superhero parody. I consider it to be a real superhero book. I actually consider it to be more of a satire than a parody, and it's not super-heros that I'm satirizing, it's society as a whole.
And although everything I do tends to be "funny", it's not really humor that interests me. I'm interested in exploring the human condition. It just so happens that all the stupid stuff people do is hilarious. We're a planet of morons.
Nrama: Would you say that the Super F*ckers story is more or less suited to super-hero comics fans? Some readers have a good sense of humor about parody, and others, well, don’t.
Kochalka: I love superheroes. SuperF*ckers is intended to be an awesome superhero book. No superhero fan needs to worry that I'm picking on them.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the Jack Krak story in the new collection?
Kochalka: Jack Krak has a bad soda hangover. This is one of those silly little unexplained details but Jack Krak is super into soda and binge drinks it like others might drink beer. Anyhow, he thinks he might be about to manifest a new super power and...
You don't really want me to spoil it for you, do you?
Nrama: With the wide variety of material that you do, is audience ever really a consideration? I can’t picture you saying something like, “Well now I need to do a super-hero parody for THIS segment . . .”. Are do you just do where the inspiration takes you at that particular time?
Kochalka: I draw what I want. I'm very lucky that people are interested in what I do. I don't have a huge fan base, I've never had a hit, but enough people are interested in whatever I do, and they seem wiling to follow me wherever I let myself wander. I follow my nose wherever it wants to go and the readers follow me.
Nrama: You’ve been quoted as saying that “Craft is the Enemy”. You’re also known for a pretty intense work ethic that has included daily art made public and nine albums of music. My question: is daily exercise of one’s ability not part of craft, or are you making a larger point that craft is a mannered approach versus a more free-flowing type of creation?
Kochalka: Obviously there is a lot of craft involved in making my comics. But it's not the part of making comics that in any way interests me. I'm much more interested in the flashes of inspiration, the search for meaning, the thrill of discovery. Craft is not about taking risks and trying something you don't know. Craft is the careful application of your skills and knowledge. If your goal is discovery, then knowledge isn't that important. I already know what I know, using what I know won't give me the thrill of discovery something new.
The New VolumeNrama: A bit of a follow-up to that point: you have formal artistic schooling, but favor an approach that would seem to many to be more simple. Are you an advocate of learning the fundamentals to break them, or was your goal to build a look that would immediately say, “Kochalka”?
Kochalka: Yeah, I do have an MFA. They actually don't teach much technique in art school. When it all comes down to it, in the end you're still self-taught. You learn a LOT of theory in art school though. In fact you probably learn way too much. I was intimately familiar with the work of thousands of artists and the critical theory surrounding their work. I had to forget a lot of this stuff to learn how to just draw how came naturally to me.
Nrama: You’ve done a number of projects with Top Shelf over time. What’s that working relationship like?
Kochalka: It's friendly and professional. We get along pretty well together, I draw the books and they hold up their end of the bargain by selling them and paying me. I consider Brett and Chris to be friends, and I trust them. But they don't necessarily have room in their schedule for everything I want to do, so sometimes I find other publishers or other outlets for certain projects.
Nrama: What can you tell us about Dragon Puncher, which looks, and I mean this in a very complimentary way, completely insane?
Kochalka: It is insane! It's a sorta new art style for me, because it combines drawings and photography. Our cat spandy is the Dragon Puncher, my son Eli is her sidekick, and I'm the Dragon.
Top Shelf initially rejected it. Then I shopped it around to a bunch of mainstream book publishers who all said they loved it but still rejected it. And I know why they all rejected it... because it's a children's book about punching. People are worried about the reaction of parent's perhaps, but every kid I tested this thing out on laughed like crazy. But after everyone else rejected it I showed it to Top Shelf again and asked them to take a look at it again, and this time they agreed to publish it.
Nrama: It’s been a pretty eventful year or so in comics, what with big corporate buy-outs, companies reorganizing, and a larger press toward digital comics all occurring. What’s your take on the industry as a whole? Is it going to get harder for independent artists among all of this, or do you see different avenues and technology as opportunities?
Kochalka: I've never tried that hard to make a lot of money. I'm pretty sure I can continue along in some capacity no matter what happens. I'd really like to expand in more creative directions... film and video games especially. Not because I'm worried about the comics industry but just because it sounds fun.
Nrama: And finally, if you’d favor us with a couple of recommendations, that would be great. What are you reading right now, and what work do you anticipate most in 2010?
Kochalka: I'm reading Sense & Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the re-write of the old Jane Austen novel. I've been reading through the Beanworld reprints by Larry Marder, I'm just about to get Volume 3. I'm working on drawing a kid's space adventure comic called Glorkian Warrior. I've been working on it off and on for the past year. I'll be really glad to get that finished. It looks like I may be making a Glorkian Warrior videogame as well. I think I finally found the right indy game studio to work with. It's too early to really announce, but well... just keep your fingers crossed.
Learn more at AmericanElf.com. The Super F*ckers Collection is in Previews now for March shipping; tide yourself over with the Super F*ckers music video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E20RFAXD-KY