It’s hard to tell the difference between what James Kochalka does for fun and what he does for work. The Burlington comic artist’s day job as a stay-at-home father of two — Eli, 4-and-a-half, and Oliver, 6 months — might sound like work, but the tots are his central inspiration and key artistic collaborators. At the same time, the 40-year-old is paid to document the minutiae of his family life in a comic strip, write romping children’s picture books that double as his sons’ bedtime stories, and compose quirky music that he records with his band, James Kochalka Superstar, and sometimes uses to sing the boys to sleep.
All of this has made for a contented family in the Old North End — Kochalka and his wife Amy King, a teacher at Lawrence Barnes Elementary School, live in a small house on Manhattan Avenue. It has also earned the artist awards and an avid international following. During a recent visit, Kochalka is jiggling the smiling, saucer-eyed Oliver in his left arm. He puts down a bottle and disappears through the kitchen to retrieve a hefty French compendium of the first five years of American Elf. The daily graphic diary, carried in Seven Days for the past five years, turns 10 in October. It has also spawned a two-volume Italian edition of the first two years and a Spanish edition of the first year. The whole decade’s worth is now available online at Kochalka’s website. And this is just a fraction of his prodigious output.
Recognition abroad, he says, came when he began exchanging letters with cartoon artists in other countries and submitting early work to European anthologies. But his following in America, usually described as “cult,” was sui generis. The movement is typified by fan blogger Alan David Doane, a devotee who was inspired to go into comics criticism because of Kochalka’s work. Doane named his blog “Kochalkaholic.”
“I guess I’ve always had a cult following,” the artist says candidly. “My fame in the comics world definitely outpaces my sales, though,” he adds with a grin.
Sales are not likely to be a problem with Kochalka’s latest creation, a graphic novel for children ages 4 to 8 that will hit bookstores in early June. Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World is the first in an adventure series featuring a diminutive ghost with a massive quiff and two stubby legs, and his permanently airborne friend Squiggle, shaped like a tiny, upside-down raindrop.
In six brief chapters set in a sunny, blue-sky-and-green-grass world, the book depicts the two friends’ encounter with a bumbling ice-cream monster. This gangling cyclops, striped with cheerful bands of yellow and pink scales, is more harmless than his adult size and scary reputation would suggest: All he really wants is ice cream. Unfortunately, along with the pint he devours in one gulp, he accidentally swallows Squiggle. Each friend helps the other out of a difficult spot by prompting him to use his eponymous special power: The ghost’s “boo” power can knock any creature off its feet, while “squiggle power” is a godsend for inducing regurgitation.
Kochalka has already completed Johnny Boo, Book II: Twinkle Power, due out in December. He’s now working on a third installment with his preschooler’s help. Eli, an accomplished pen-and-ink artist himself, is the arbiter of Kochalka’s plot developments. The father describes the process that generated each story in the series: “While Eli’s in school, I’ll do a chapter; then I’ll read it to him as his bedtime story that night. Whatever he takes as exciting in the chapter gives me an idea of where to go next.”
Of course, Kochalka adds, “I don’t always take his ideas.” When he turns to his son for corraboration, Eli announces that we are now underground, and the upstairs is the Earth. The budding artist is busy imagining a world for the plastic Shrek figure he’s playing with.
Kochalka gives his characters the same attentive respect he accords his kids. “I just doodle until I find a character; you go with the one that has a certain little spark of life,” he explains. “After that, I really can’t force them to do anything. They know what they want to do if they’re strong characters. And they surprise you! If they want to do something, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”
Kochalka doesn’t object if those characters turn out to be aggressive, either. The benign version of violence in Johnny Boo — monster eats child, but inadvertently — is far from the horrors of a Hans Christian Andersen story. But in a 2007 interview, the artist asserted that, when it comes to children’s lit, “kids like a little danger and excitement.”
His previous book for children, Squirrelly Gray, features a face-off between the title character and a large, fanged fox that uses a club to kill his prey. Fortunately, a twist of fate transforms the fox’s club into a flower. “Oh, I’m so confused!” cries the fox, looking from the drooping flower in his paw to the escaping squirrel, oblivious to the potential uses of his own long rows of teeth. (Teeth suggest a whiff of danger-as-fun in many of the artist’s creations — including Eli’s T-shirt adorned with a yellow, wide-mouthed creature and the found painting on the living-room wall, an unidentified man’s portrait that Kochalka embellished with two giant, toothy pink worms.)
He distinguishes his brand of minatory humor from actual violence. “I wouldn’t show Eli that Star Wars movie where Anakin gets cut in half and burned alive,” Kochalka declares.
In any case, he and his kids are too busy creating. Kochalka has an upcoming exhibition of his 2-inch-square creature paintings at the Giant Robot Galleries in Los Angeles. Eli has his own sketchbook to maintain on Dad’s website, called “Monster Attack.” And Oliver is the “test market” for Kochalka’s new album, which he’s composing on a modified Gameboy using an electronic cartridge called a Nanoloop. “It was invented by this German guy. You can buy it off the Web; it costs something like 57 euros,” Kochalka enthuses, handing over Oliver so he can serenade the wide-eyed infant with his latest composition.
He sings the song in a peppy voice from start to finish, pushing the unit’s tiny buttons to keep the music going. It’s a lullaby, Kochalka assures. Sure enough, Ollie’s head begins to droop. By the time the reporter leaves, Eli and his father are discussing their video-game-inspired drawing of a battle between two made-up monsters: Eli’s has a fire-blasting horn; Kochalka’s uses laser beams.
And it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning.
Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World by James Kochalka, Top Shelf Productions, 40 pages. $9.95.VIDEO: Interview with James Kochalka on "Stuck in Vermont" (1.26.07)