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Well, no one’s ever faulted James Kochalka for being not being colorful — and you can take that literally or figuratively. That certainly won’t change with his latest series from Top Shelf Comix, SuperF*ckers, about a teenage superhero group. James talked to CF about what went into his new title and what it means to be a superstar.
How do you decide what your daily strip is going to be about? What’s the thought process?
I could decide to draw the most “important” event of the day, or I could draw the least important event of the day or something somewhere in between. Sometimes the same event (or similar events) have to occur several times before I will draw about it.
I try and make all the strips add up to some kind of complete emotional picture of my life. I can’t capture everything in one strip, but as the days go by I try and cover everything, bit by bit.
How has your perception of the world changed since you started doing your daily strips?
My life seems more connected. Everything feels like it’s part of a greater whole now, my life, my art, my thoughts, the people and things around me … it’s all one thing. Drawing the daily diary strips makes and cements the connections between all my experiences.
How have you grown as an artist?
I’ve grown more confident in my abilities. I’ve lost almost all my artistic fear.
How does working in a 4-panel grid affect you as an artist and storyteller? Is it confining? Repetitive?
It’s not that confining, for several reasons. One, although I only draw about four panels of the diary a day, the work as a whole is thousands upon thousands of panels and growing. Two, I don’t stick very strictly even to the four panel a day format. Many strips are three panels, a few are only two, and some are only one. Very, very rarely a diary entry might be more than four panels. Three, there’s an infinite variety to what I could choose to put in the panels.
What do you do differently in terms of pacing for your daily strips versus bigger projects like SuperF*uckers?
The scenes in SuperF*ckers are longer. The diary strips are more like poetry; SuperF*ckers is more frantic. But SuperF*ckers has a lot more in common with the diary strips, also. It too is made up of a collection of short, interconnected scenes.
What is your thought process in page design of your bigger books and graphic novels that have grids of nine or more? Are you more conscious of the visual aesthetic of the overall page?
I am always conscious of the overall page, but that has to be secondary to the flow from panel to panel. Comics is all about the flow; pure visual beauty is comparably inconsequential to the feeling and the flow.
In the diary comics, I don’t think of the page as unit, I think of the individual strip as a unit. I don’t really know which strips will all be on the same page together. However, in the graphic novels I am aware of what the page as a whole will look like. I just don’t think it’s ultimately as important as other aspects of the comic.
What should every young, aspiring artist/writer know, but probably doesn’t?
They probably don’t realize how deeply they misunderstand themselves.
You have the nickname “James Kochalka Superstar.” For you, what is the highest level of success? What do you need to do to do become a “superstar”?
In my mind, I’ve always been a superstar. What level of success would satisfy me? Always just a little bit more. It’s nice out here on the cultural fringe, but I would love to enter the hearts and minds of the public at large. The prospect of doing that is very exciting and energizing.
Both music and comics so intertwined to your everyday life — is there a difference between the two in how you creatively output them?
The main difference is that I need collaborators to make the music sound the way I want it since I really can’t play any instruments. I sing the songs to my band and they figure out how to play them. Actually, with time I can figure out how to play them myself, but I just don’t have the chops to play them well enough. If I have to, I can figure out the notes and chords on a keyboard, but I can’t really play the things. But yes, I write and draw comics every day, and I compose and sing songs every day. Thematically they have a lot in common.
I’ve read in a lot of interviews that you haven’t had the best luck pitching projects. What advice might you have for amateurs?
Get an agent, and let them make pitches for you.
With your strips being a real simplification of life experience, do you ever feel like you’re not able to tell the whole story? Does it matter?
As the days and weeks and months and years of daily diary strips add up, collectively they are not that simple anymore, and the “whole story” emerges.
—Interview by Tim Leong
You can visit James’ daily strip at www.AmericanElf.com