Talking Comics with Tim | James Kochalka
When you’re somebody as well known as James Kochalka, both in terms of music and comics, do you really need an introduction? Probably not, but just in case, Kochalka and I recently got a chance to discuss his latest release, the collected SuperF*ckers (Top Shelf [due out in March])–as well as his upcoming graphic novel/video game project, Glorkian Warrior. As described at the Top Shelf site: “SuperF*ckers collects all four fan-favorite issues of James Kochalka’s beloved series, plus the all-new Jack Krak one-shot! Foul-mouthed, filthy-minded, and completely oblivious, these young ‘heroes’ do everything BUT fight crime – they’re too busy getting high, hazing the new kids, playing video games, scheming to be team leader, and designing new costumes.” I agree with the first line of Top Shelf’s Kochalka bio which states he “is, without question, one of the most unique and prolific alternative cartoonists working in America today”.
After the interview, be sure to check out Top Shelf’s preview of the book here. My thanks to Kochalka for the interview and Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton for his assistance. One final piece of advice, as great as this interview is (thanks to Kochalka’s answers), it only touches upon one of Kochalka’s projects. I reference two of Tom Spurgeon’s interviews in my questions to Kochalka and I strongly recommend that you read both of them.
Tim O’Shea: Looking back at a 2005 Tom Spurgeon interview with you, I was surprised to see you say of SuperF*ckers: “Once it turned into a superhero book, I thought I could force it into some kind of all-ages type book, but the characters just would not stop swearing.” Even the interior page marketing of the first issue has cussing: “Hey kids, take your dicks out of the Playstation Three for one god damn minute and read some fucking comics.” Why do you think the cussing bolsters the comedy (and I ask this thinking it would not be as funny without the cussing).
James Kochalka: Not every character swears. The ones that should swear, do. It fits their personality, a kind of “I can do whatever I want because I’m awesome”, and that includes insane wanton swearing. The swearing is also pretty creative at times, it’s often not just straight up swearing. And it makes the action more dramatic. For instance, instead of yelling “I’m going to punch you” or even “I’m going to fuckin’ punch you”, at one point Jack Krak yells something like “I’m going to fuck your face with my fist”. That’s just way snappier sounding, isn’t it?
To me it isn’t even really an issue of funnier or not. It’s just an issue of the characters being as awesome and overblown as they can be.
O’Shea: In the second issue you did a strip with Sculptee, how long did that take? Do you want to do more storytelling with that medium or does it demand too much of your time?
Kochalka: I think it’s the first issue. It didn’t taken very long because I made a pretty shitty little statue. I hadn’t really thought about doing more like that, but maybe someday.
O’Shea: Of the myriad characters in SuperF*ckers, is Jack Krak the star? Where did you come up with the idea for him to become Christian in one issue?
Kochalka: Yeah, he’s the star. Parts of the story are a satire of George Bush 2’s ascension to the Presidency, so that’s why Jack Krak had to become a Christian.
O’Shea: Is this the end of SuperF*ckers? Or could you see yourself returning to the characters?
Kochalka: I would like to do a SuperF*ckers prose novel sometime. Copiously illustrated, of course. And I’m probably going to try my hand at writing a SuperF*ckers screenplay soon.
The truth is those characters could easily go forever, doing stuff, having their emotional ups and downs. But whether or not I have the strength to continue is another matter.
O’Shea: Back in 2008, Spurgeon interviewed you again, and you said then that “SuperF*ckers is extremely difficult, time consuming work.” What is it about the project that it demands so much of your time and challenges you?
Kochalka: It is an extremely difficult book to write and draw. I try to make it look smooth and easy, but juggling all those characters and still keeping the narrative clear is an exhausting task. The narrative could so easily get completely murky and confused, or veer off into complete dead ends if I’m not careful.
The other thing that’s difficult about drawing SuperF*ckers is that there’s so many panels per page. Really, a single issue of the comic has as much content as many full graphic novels.
And finally, the coloring is difficult because I made the decision to make different outlines different colors, so I have to go in the drawing in photoshop and carefully select and color the different outlines.
I had to take a couple of years off to draw fun little Johnny Boo stories, but I could see myself coming back to SuperF*ckers sometime. Maybe. Still, I shouldn’t complain. I’m sure that Chris Ware works even harder on his extremely complex and rigidly drawn comics. At least I have the luxury of drawing loosely. It’s just that Johnny Boo is soooo easy in comparison. I could write and draw those in my sleep practically, and kids love them.
O’Shea: You often compose songs that serve as companion pieces to your comics. Do you ever come up with the songs in the midst of drawing–or do the two separate creative processes not merge in that way?
Kochalka: I occasionally pause in mid draw to compose a song, but I can’t do both at the exact same time. But that happens because I listen to music while I draw, and the music I hear inspires other music in my head, so I have to stop and sing what’s in my head. Most of the songs I write are forgotten minutes later.
O’Shea: In compiling this collection, how did it feel to look at it all at once. Are there qualities of your work that you see for the first time looking at this new collection? Are there any aspects of the project that you have a newfound appreciation and enjoy more than you did initially?
Kochalka: Oh, no. I looked at it really really critically while I was putting it together, and of course I was completely dismayed. It’s very difficult to read my own work. It’s much better if I wait 5 or 10 years and then read it with completely fresh eyes. Then I can enjoy it!
O’Shea: I love the absurdity of your indicia text on these issues, given that the projects are so demanding–do you ever fight the urge to skip them or are they as fun for you as well?
Kochalka: Ha! Well, I wish I could wave a magic wand and just make the comic come together by itself. But if you want to try to make the thing as awesome as you imagine it could be, you’ve got to put in the work.
And the work is fun. Really really really fun. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t tiring. Sex is fun, but it’s tiring! Swimming is fun, but it’s tiring. Drawing comics is fun too, but it’s also tiring.
O’Shea: I was surprised to learn that you consider the first issue to be a boy comic (Spurgeon’s 2005 inteview). Would you consider the whole collection to appeal more to boys or do you think collected it can work for all mature readers?
Kochalka: I think that the comic has the appearance of being a boy comic, but really the relationships between the various characters, especially the relationships between the male and female characters, are complex and thoughtful enough to make it interesting to all kinds of readers. I hope.
O’Shea: Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what’s in heavy rotation at present?
Kochalka: Right now I’m mostly listening to chiptunes style music. That is, music made using old-school videogame and computer systems. Musicians like Bit Shifter, The J. Arthur Keans Band, Oxygen Star, Glomag, Animal Style… and dozens and dozens of others.
O’Shea: Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about SuperF*ckers?
Kochalka: It’s the best superhero book of the past 1000 years. But it’s also more. On the surface it’s fun and breezy romp, but underneath it’s a layered satire of american society, the comic book scene, power and pathos and the human condition.
O’Shea: Creatively what else is ahead for you in 2010?
Kochalka: I created this alien character named Glorkian Warrior, and I’m drawing a graphic novel about his adventures. I’ve also teamed up with a great indy game studio called Pixeljam and we’re making a video game based on the character. It’s going to be really, really awesome. You can learn more about Glorkian Warrior here.