Cartoonist James Kochalka: Imagination, playfulness, and a sense of joy and wonder at the world

James Kochalka is an award-winning cartoonist and author of “American Elf.” He also served as the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont. His most recent graphic novel, “The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie,” was released in March. The game Glorkian Warrior: Trials Of Glork is a current Editors Pick in the App Store. 


Parents: James and Amy

Kids: son Eli, 11; son Oliver, 7

James Kocholka
Photo credit: Wired Magazine

Parent Co: Do you work from home or do you have a studio outside of your home?

I work from home. I have a small drawing studio at the top of the stairs. I have another office with the computer right when you come in the door. I actually like that I have two small offices, and I can go back and forth between them. It makes me, I don’t know, it just …

Do you get different inspiration from each room?

No, I think what I like is I feel happiest when I feel like my art and life are one integrated thing. To have my office spread in multiple locations throughout the house helps me feel more integrated.

Yeah, that’s true integration. My husband sometimes has a really hard time integrating his artistic life with his family life. Is it difficult for you? Or has it always been kind of seamless?

It hasn’t been difficult for me. I think, I feel the work I do is so much … I mean, it’s real work, and I work hard, but it’s also like playing. I don’t know, it’s like playing with long stretches of tedious work.

Will you work for a little while and pop out of your office and pop back into family life?

Yes, absolutely. Probably my favorite time to work is actually when the whole family is around. Because when my wife is at work and the kids are at school, you’d think that would be a great time to work. I feel so lonely. I feel sad that they’re gone. If I’m in the groove of things, it doesn’t matter. If I’m between big projects and trying to get ready, somehow being alone makes it harder for me to work.

You’ve been in the comics world professionally since the ‘90s, right?

Yeah, I think my first book came out in ’94 or ’95.

How were you introduced to comics as a kid?

My dad was a newspaper editor. He was really into the newspaper strips, especially newspaper strips from before I was born, like Krazy Kat or Pogo or Peanuts or Li’l Abner. All the old strips, he would buy me collections of.

Actually, he bought Pogo for himself. I really discovered comics probably through his collection of Pogo books.

What drew you in?

I have no idea. It’s like pre-consciousness. My mom says I started drawing comics before I knew how to write, that I would draw the word balloon. Then, I would just draw little squiggly lines instead of words, because I didn’t know what the words were, how to make letters. To answer why or how I am interested in it, it’s from my pre-conscious days, so I can’t give you an answer.

That’s pretty amazing, though, to still be doing something that you’ve been enjoying your whole life, and to be doing it for a living.

It is amazing. I never dreamt it would be possible. Because I didn’t dream it would be possible, I didn’t try. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I started trying to get published. I hadn’t even thought it was something, that it was possible to be successful.

Somehow the idea of actually being a working artist seemed like just fantasy, that it didn’t actually happen to anybody. Now that I am one and I know hundreds and hundreds of other professional artists, I realize it’s not that rare.

Mentors of various kinds, college professors or whatever, always tell you how impossible it is to make it as an artist. Maybe they shouldn’t tell you that.

What do you tell your own kids about life as an artist?

They observe a lot of the ins and outs of the career as an artist. I don’t know what I tell them, but I know they observe a lot of it.

Would you recommend to parents now that they should introduce their kids to comics or help their kids find their way into that world? What do you think there is to gain from it?

It’s a great way to teach emerging readers how to read. That’s not really particularly a concern of mine. I’m not super into education, but the educational effects of reading comics are super strong. Actually, my older son struggled quite a bit with reading when he was young.

He is a great reader now. In those years when reading chapter books was hard for him, he was reading dozens of comics and graphic novels. He might have been lost to reading altogether if he didn’t have the comics there to fill that gap.

Actually, since you brought it up, I’ve been meaning to ask someone who really knows the answer, what is the difference between a comic and a graphic novel?

Now it just means length, really. A graphic novel is a book length story. When the term was coined by Will Eisner, he wanted a word to mean that these comics were as serious as real novels. It was meant to say that this is something for grownups that is serious. Now, it’s just applied to anything.

You can have a Spider Man graphic novel that is not in any way serious. Once the word started to take off, they just took that word and applied it to all comics.

What do you think makes a comic strip or a graphic novel good? What do you look for?

Personally, I don’t even need the art that I consume to necessarily be good. I’m not always looking for the best thing. I’m just looking for some little spark of life that excites me, I guess. Sometimes I like to read stuff for purely entertainment purposes, so something sort of fluffy and adventurous is fun. Sometimes I like to read something that’s really dense and obtuse and hard to understand. I’m really open to anything.

Did you read “Building Stories?”

Oh, yeah, thanks for reminding me. I own it, but I haven’t read it yet. By Chris Ware. I’ll tell you the reason why I haven’t read it yet. It’s because I really prefer to read things in bed. A lot of the things in that box fold out to be way larger than I could just easily hold, and so I haven’t read it. I will definitely read it. When did it come out, two years ago? I bought it as soon as it came out, and I’ve had it ever since.

Our daughter, who is 6, loves it. She will just pore over every frame. It’s so involving. Like you said, there are pieces you have to fold out and everything. Some of the content is pretty heavy, sad, depressing content but we’ve never felt like we should hide it from her or anything. I’m so interested in the fact that she’s interested in it. She is fascinated by this project.

I don’t think that any harm can come to you from reading or looking at nearly anything. Obviously, there is some content out there that’s really nasty, that it seems right to protect children from. Obviously, there’s a fair amount of adult content that won’t hurt anybody, sophisticated content.

We feel the same way about your book “SuperFuckers.”

I always feel like parents can make these sorts of decisions. I don’t let my kids read that book but, on the other hand, I made a TV series out of it. I caught my son and one of his little friends at the door listening while I was working on that, watching a rough cut of one of the episode or something. I caught them listening at the door. I don’t even say the name of the book anymore. I say, “Super F-ers”.

Really? Do you prefer that?

I prefer it in conversation.

Why is that?

So I don’t have to swear.

But you wrote it.

I know.

Did you always mean for it to be “Super F-ers”?

No, no, no. After I had kids, I just learned to censor myself. I used to swear constantly. I think my kids would be very surprised to know that I did.

Talk to me about the “Glorkian Warrior” video game.

My idea started as a game. I had an idea for a video game, and I made this character. While working on the game, I decided I would … I was just working on the game on my own. I don’t program or anything. I was just coming up with the game concept and doing the drawings. Then, while working on that decided, ‘well, this game is never going to get made.’

I really liked the character, so I started writing comics with the character. I eventually did hook up with Pixeljam to actually make the game. Amazingly, not through any purposeful timing, the game and the graphic novel both came out within a week of each other. Both were in progress for years and both just happened to finish and be ready at the same time.

glork-art-03

I wanted to ask you too a little bit about “American Elf.” As a very poorly disciplined writer, I’m so impressed and amazed that you were able to commit to this project every day for over 14 years. How did you do that?

I’m just really good at commitment.

That’s so enviable.

I just said that kind of as a joke, but I guess that it’s true. Gosh, like with my wife. I met her when I was 18. Now here I am, just about to turn 48. I’m just really good at sticking with things.

Did you have any idea, when you decided to do this daily diary, how long you would keep it going?

No. I thought I would do it for a year. I drew the daily diary comic strip for a year. Then I really enjoyed it, and I kept going. I started trying to find a publisher for it. I couldn’t find any publisher for it. Then I got really depressed, that I couldn’t find a publisher for it because “what’s the point of drawing something that I can’t publish” is kind of what I was thinking.

Then I stopped. When I stopped drawing it, then I got even more depressed. I didn’t really draw anything at all for three months. I think I spent three months playing video games. Then one day it was sunny or something, and I felt happier, so I started drawing it again. Once I started drawing it again, I never stopped again. Until, finally, at the very end I stopped.

A lot happened in your life over that time period, and I’m guessing a lot of it made its way into the comic. How did parenthood affect your work?

I think it had a profound effect on it. One, the strip became a lot less just about me.

Just like your life I bet.

Just like my life. Suddenly it was a lot less about me. Yeah, that’s the amazing thing about being a parent. Suddenly your life is not about you.

It’s really not.

Which is really weird, you know? Your life is not about you?

Some of my early fans of the strip were like, ‘boy the strip has gotten bad since it’s about kids now.’ Overall, it made it a lot more universal. I’m not really a normal guy in a lot of ways. I’m kind of a strange guy, but suddenly the life of this strange guy was way more universal. I think because having kids is a pretty universally human experience.

Now, that’s another thing that I feel like I was done a great disservice from people. Everyone told me, “Oh, man, you’re life is going to change when you have kids.” Or some people would say, “Your life is over.” Which I took seriously. I was really scared of having kids. I was like, “Well, my life is over now.”

It’s just not like that. It’s a big deal and changes you completely, but they forget to mention that it made life better. No one mentioned that it made life better.

It sounds like you think it made your work better in some ways, too.

Oh, yeah, it made my work way better. It’s not like it’s not hard. It’s not like it can’t be incredibly annoying. Here’s the most important thing, there’s so much more love in your life. That’s the really amazing thing.

You can’t really describe that to someone. I find it hard to explain how love multiplies.

It is hard to explain. That’s what the art is for, I guess.

I was just going to say, do you see that love coming out in your work?

Yes, even in the Glorkian Warrior books. It’s hard to tell from the first two, but by the time people read the third one, it’s going to be clear that this goofy space adventure is actually really about parenthood.

Is that the book that’s coming out soon?

There will be three and two are out already. “The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza” came out last March. “The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie” just came out last week. The final one, which is “The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny” comes out next year.

The third one I wrote in the months before my son was graduating fifth grade. I was thinking about … Because that’s a milestone, and he was going to go off to middle school, which is a whole different world. I was thinking a lot about what it means to grow up. The third volume is about these little kid characters wanting to grow up.

Then, what it’s really about is the perspective of a parent watching that happen. So, Glorkian Warrior, who is a total, total, total idiot and is not actually a parent at all plays the role of the parent in the story. In the first book, he fights this guy in his giant robot suit. Then he cracks it open and, of course, it’s just a tiny little kid inside. He has to take care of that kid.

Then he has a battle with this alien space craft. He destroys that and inside is an egg. That hatches and it’s a baby space invaders type alien. Then he nurses the baby alien by letting it suck on his brain. Yeah, I guess it’s not too subtle that it’s about parenthood.

A keen observer could definitely figure that one out.

It’s so relentlessly silly and stupid that I think that people might not stop to consider that I’m dealing with universal tropes of humanity.

There is so much silliness in your work, but like you’re saying there are also these very real, very emotional cores. Is that reflective of your personality in general?

A lot of people who meet me would say that I’m kind of like a big kid. Now I feel like I’ve fought so hard for the … Okay, here’s the thing, when you’re a kid, you have a lot of great stuff going for you, like your sense of wonder, your imagination. All those things are great.

Then you’re also incredibly vulnerable and powerless. I feel like the strength and maturity that you have as an adult, I feel like I fought hard for it, and I won it. I want people to know that I am an adult. At the same time, I’ve done everything I could to hold on to the best parts of being a kid.

The playfulness and the imagination and the sense of joy and wonder at world, I’ve tried to hold onto. Yeah, I’m a big kid, but I want to say, unequivocally, I am an adult man.

How do you hold onto all those great kid qualities?

By playing and having fun.

How are you so unafraid? You seem very unafraid to me. Do you know where that comes from, or am I misreading?

There was a turning point in my life. That turning point was when I got on stage. When I got on stage, I was shy. Before I got on stage, unbelievably shy. Got on stage, I didn’t know what to do, so I just let loose. Then I discovered that I don’t have to be afraid.

Now I can sing and skip down the street, and I’m not afraid. Now I can meet hundreds of people and have conversations with all of them and be unafraid. That would be a terrifying thing previously.

Was it the positive reaction you got from the crowd the first time you let loose on stage? Do you think that was the reinforcement you needed? Or was it just more something internal, where you were like, ‘hey, I feel good when I’m like this. I’m just going to be like this all the time.’

Yeah, I think it’s like that. I just felt really good. Also, the reaction of the crowd definitely helps. Let’s see, what was the first play I was in in high school? It might have been “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and they cast me as Snoopy. I had to do like that Snoopy dance. The first performance, I danced so crazy I went flying right off the stage. Everyone screamed and gasped. I just jumped back up on the stage and kept dancing. Everyone applauded like mad. I was like, ‘yeah, this is fantastic! I love it!’

I think about this a lot because I want my kids to know. Maybe this is something you can’t even teach. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand, but I just want to encourage my kids to always be who they are and not be afraid of anything of who they are, the things they want to do, the things they want to be. I know I watch my husband live his life very much that way, but I don’t necessarily.

I’m taking a selfish moment here in this interview to ask you this because I feel like I have a lot of friends like this, too, who have this other side to their personality, this much more childlike side that they haven’t unlocked, or can at times but haven’t fully embraced. I feel like we could all benefit from a community or a world of people who are embracing their childlike qualities.

I have a good way to start.

Tell me.

Here’s a way to start being more creative: Try rhyming when you talk. Then you start to say silly stuff. Before you know it, you’ve said a whole bunch of silly stuff and you and your family are all laughing. Then you feel good and you’ve been creative and you’re on your way.

I love that. Honestly, this probably sounds silly, but I feel so good when I read Dr. Seuss out loud.

Yeah, exactly.

When you were talking just a minute ago about how you want your kids to be themselves – I always feel like I want them to be better. I’m trying to figure out how to make them grow up to be the most incredible people possible, so I sometimes push them to do things they don’t want to do, or things that even I would never have wanted to do when I was their age.

Sometimes it’s sort of painful and difficult. I was in the desert in Arizona on vacation a month or so ago, during the school break. We climbed up some mountain because Eli saw this rock at the top of the mountain that looked like these creatures called “Ogres” from the video game “Destiny”. We wanted to climb up closer and see it. It was a pretty long climb up there. When we got to it, it was really this gigantic, gigantic boulder balanced on top of this peak. I was like, ‘come on, we’ve got to get up on top of it.’ I get up on top of it, and it was really scary. He was like, ‘I don’t want to. I don’t want to.’

I was like, ‘come on!’ I picked him up and started to put him on top of it, and he got really mad. Then I was like, ‘okay, you don’t have to.’ Later, we were talking about everything about the trip. I asked, ‘what thing from the trip will be the thing that you’ll remember?” He said, ‘when you tried to make me go on top of the boulder.’

All the fun we had is completely erased by two seconds of me trying to get him to go up on the boulder, just because I’m trying to get him to live a life that is bigger and better.

So, you know, I make mistakes… Basically, I want to show them that it’s possible to conquer your fears. If there is something that’s keeping you from being the full person that you could be, that it’s possible to conquer.