Robot 6 Q&A | James Kochalka on the end of American Elf
After 14 years, and more than 3,500 cartoons, James Kochalka is bringing his diary comic American Elf to an end. Since October 1998, Kochalka has been chronicling small slices of his daily life in short comics, seldom longer than four panels, and if you read the comic, you already know he has mixed feelings about ending it.
Of course, Kochalka has plenty still going on, including the animated version of his comic SuperF*ckers, plus teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, playing rock music and being the Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont. He’s going to keep the American Elf site live, and of course, you can get the collected editions from Top Shelf (and digitally via comiXology).
Keeping a diary comic for 14 years is a singular achievement, so we asked Kochalka to talk a bit about the experience of creating — and living — American Elf.
Robot 6: When is American Elf going to end, and why did you decide to end it?
James Kochalka: My plan is to draw the last strip on Dec. 31, 2012.
There are many, many complicated reasons for why I’m quitting, and some are private. I’m not sure the Internet is a safe place to bare your soul, for one. I have so many other ideas I’d like to concentrate on for a while, is another. I’m hoping that the change will jumpstart a period of rapid growth and experimentation. Who knows! Maybe I’ll just disappear and go all J.D. Salinger on everyone.
I’m sure the death of my dad had some effect on my decision to quit. I actually quit the strip a day or so before he died, but then started up again a day later so no one even noticed.
I’m intensely sad about quitting, but also very, very relieved, and super-excited about the future of my work. I may never create anything as “great” as American Elf again, but I’m going to create something interesting, I know that. First off, I’m going to paint a couple hundred new paintings for a show at Giant Robot in LA.
And of course I’m hoping to do a second season of the SuperF*ckers animated series. Plus something, or several somethings, totally new.
Why did you decide to start it in the first place? And did you think it would run so long?
I wanted an ambitious project … something that I could stand toe-to-toe against Art Speigleman’s Maus and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. I wanted to make my mark on the world, so I was looking for a project that would help me achieve my ambitions.
And I had begun to think that the format of the graphic novel … with its beginning, middle and end … was too artificial a construct to examine what it really felt like to live life as a human being. I thought maybe the daily strip format might have something special to offer. The real stories of our life stop and start, repeat, and twist around each other endlessly. I thought I could express these rhythms more accurately with a daily strip… or that by examining them in this format that I might learn something about the human condition.
When I began, my publishers thought I was nuts. Why would I switch my focus to the daily comic strip when graphic novels were finally starting to take off in the public consciousness? They felt it was a bad marketing decision. And in many ways it was … the books have never sold well.
About half-way through the second year, I quit, because it was just too difficult to continue, especially since it seemed like I had no hope of being published. But it turned out I was really unhappy not drawing it, so after a few months I began again. I thought I’d try to keep it going for as long as I could. I figured about a decade would be my limit. Now I’m well past that … 14 years, total? It would be amazing to continue it right up until my death, but I don’t know as if that’s a good idea. Never underestimate the power of quitting! This also will give critics a chance to examine what, if anything, I’ve accomplished.
Was this your first experience with a diary comic, or have you kept a journal in any other form?
I drew autobiographical comics before beginning American Elf. I used to combine events from my real life with fantastical elements or science fiction. I’d like to get back to that, actually.
My dad kept a diary on and off for large chunks of his life. I inherited them when he died this year. Well, they weren’t willed to me or anything, I just claimed them from my mom’s house. My dad had the heart of a philosopher-poet, and the diaries document his wonderful searching soul. The memories of stuff he witnessed in World War Two kept him always trying to unearth the beauty of the world, I think.
How did you manage to do a comic a day, every day, for 14 years?
In some ways, it was extremely difficult. I drew the strip even if I was sick, or on a camping trip in the woods, or whatever. There’s a few drunken strips over the years that are simply amazing … strips where I black out partway through drawing them. But mostly it wasn’t that hard because it was a great great joy to draw.
How did your family and friends feel about being in the comic?
I don’t think my wife ever liked being in the strip. I definitely regret any embarrassment I’ve caused her, and I’m sure it’s been a lot. She doesn’t read my stuff, but her friends at work do and they sometimes tease her about it.
My brother loved the strip intensely. When I considered quitting last year, in 2011, he begged me not to quit. But we had a lot more time to talk about it over 2012, and he was super supportive of the decision this time around. He says I should quit the strip on Dec. 21, the Mayan apocalypse.
Most of my friends really loved appearing in it. A lot of people would beg to be in it, but begging doesn’t help you get it, it just annoys me! My sons really enjoyed being in the strip, but I was wary that would start to change as they got older and more self-conscious. I’m happy to stop the strip before it becomes a big problem. Being a good dad is more important than my stupid comic strip, although I was really happy to be able to combine the two.
Was everything in American Elf true, or did you change things to make for a better comic?
I don’t think I ever changed events to make the strip better, but I did do selective editing and condensing. Possibly occasional exaggeration? Sometimes people who were actually there would argue with me about how I portrayed certain events. It’s possible that I’m the classic unreliable narrator. I consider the work to be non-fiction, but I would have no particular qualms with it being labeled fiction. Certainly my cat can’t talk, but I’ve drawn the cat talking on more than one occasion. But if the strip is fiction then in some weird way my actual life is fiction. It’s a bit strange!
Did you ever find yourself changing your behavior in real life because it would make the comic better?
Yes, I’m sure that I did. A weird feed back loop is established between the strip, the audience, and real life. I’m looking forward to escaping from that nonsense. Also, all day long I’m converting my experience into comic strip form in my head. That has gotta have some effect on how you live your life. I seriously doubt that quitting the strip will stop me from doing real-time comics conversions in head though, I’m pretty sure I was already doing that before I began drawing the diary strip.
Do you get a lot of feedback in real life? Are there things you wish you hadn’t put in the comic?
Yeah, in a couple cases I’ve gone a removed things from the strip that people objected to. A couple times I accidentally caused people emotional pain, when I really had no intention. Drawing a diary strip is a dangerous thing. Many times I even caused myself emotional distress by drawing the strip! Over the last 14 years, drawing this strip has been one of the great joys of my life, but it’s also been incredibly painful. Never underestimate the power your art has to hurt you.
Are you conscious of how your style and your life have evolved over the past 13 years? Do you ever look back at the earlier comics and reflect on that?
I actually haven’t gone back to read my own strip, but I do lightly browse the collections. I have to proof them just to make sure all the strips are there and in the right order and that sort of thing.
At one time, you had a subscription model for American Elf. How did that work out, and what did you learn from that?
Under the subscription model, my readership was on a downward spiral. Making the archives free made readership increase exponentially, but made revenues begin a downward spiral. I’m actually considering re-instating the subscriptions for American Elf, so that people have to pay to read the archives.
And something will continue at AmericanElf.com … something new. I have no idea what, or when that will begin. But I’m not going to let the site die, I plan to keep it going in some way.
Do you ever read other people’s diary comics?
I have dabbled in it, but there’s too many to keep up with them all. My favorite right now is Joe Decie.
I gotta tell you, I love that I’ve inspired so many people all over the world. Hundreds of cartoonists! It’s absolutely amazing. Drawing is a beautiful thing, everyone should do more of it.