James Kochalka and Comics and Me
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Our memories fall into snippets of information.”
– James Kochalka
Author of Robot vs Monkey, creator and performer of its related song and video, James Kochalka is pure comics. He makes very pure comics, but he, himself: pure comics.
A 1999 one shot published by Alternative, The Horrible Truth About Comics is a thirty page black and white comic is explanation, rumination, and evocation of comics. Comics is not prose. Comics is not illustration. “Illustration,” as Kochalka tells us, “is superficial no matter how skilled.”
Reprinted in the currently-available The Cute Manifesto, Kochalka talks, in clear, non-academic language, in a monologue to us, as his elf-eared, toothy avatar goes through a night. This is walking tour of comics as a form and of one person’s relationship to comics, without ever dipping into memoir or truism or self-promotion.
Kochalka also talks of the pitfalls of creating and of reading comics. The things that can hold you back, like, “Timidness, dishonesty, fear and pretension.” He evokes these by pouring a glass of water from the bathroom sink and trying, and failing, to drink it through the bubble glass of a spacesuit helmet.
Kochalka rakes leaves in his pajamas. He rests clutching his pillow. Jumps in puddles. He drinks a number of glasses of water.
“Our memories fall into snippets of information, and so do comics.”
– James Kochalka
Most arguments for what is comics come down to panels, or ratios of text to image, debate on whether both text and image are needed, if one takes precedent, are single panel comics actually comics. Kochalka gets past all of that with his qualification of “snippets of information.” This is not a precise qualification, and it cannot be the dictionary definition, but I think it gives us a clearer idea than more precise, technical explications.
Single panel comics are comics. They have to be.
The argument that when the art and the text are separated into clear spaces are not “real comics,” cuts out much of early comics, even some of the most quality, most popular pre-Golden Age comics.
The Horrible Truth reminds us that comics is beyond careful precision, that comics is not only the physical artifact, but the results within us as audience, as makers, as aware. Comics people are aware of comics, and fundamentally, really, we are all comics people by degrees.
Comics haunt. I think of comics as the basic hauntology medium, but that is because I am most aware of being the ghosts of comics haunting my rooms and keepsakes. There is no medium more infused with, more primed for hauntology, but when you are deep in.
The cover to The Horrible Truth About Comics mimics a famous image from Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations to his The Little Prince, the cover image of one tiny figure standing on a tiny world, a few flowers and leafless trees, the stars and spheres beyond. Published posthumously, Saint-Exupéry was lost, and remains lost, only a few pieces of his airplane ever being recovered.
Bracketing, bolstering Kochalka’s views, the inside front and back cover are tiers of one panel comics by divers hands, bringing us the cartoonists’ intimate takes. By framing them as panels on pages, without clear titling or distinction, these single panel comics become a continuum, not of a chronology, but a narrative, a movement. Seth, Ivan Brunetti, Tom Devlin, Tom Hart, Dylan Horrocks, Megan Kelso, Kerrie Mathes, Jen Sorensen and others join in like community around Kochalka and around Kochalka’s thoughts, his pages. Dreaming of ducks making comics, cartoon heartthrobs, making comics while asleep, comics suffuse these moments, and believably, their lives.
The first lines of the comic proper, excluding the bracketing one panel tales of other comics-makers, is the protagonist, in bed, being told, “Stop wiggling,” and his reply, “I can’t stop thinking about comics,” just before he again closes his eyes. The second page gives us our third line, as the lecture begins: What is art?
“We process what we’ve experienced and recreate it in simplified form.”
– James Kochalka
I am a fifth generation of six generations of comics-reading Hedge Cokes. Our connection to art and entertainment goes back much further, but that is true of all families, whether or not they believe it. We are all more creative than we allow ourselves, and we all enjoy more entertainment than we sometimes let ourselves admit.
Art contains our lives, and our lives use it as a skeleton to keep the flesh and fats in place. We live in and with art and frequently forget. Even those who do not commit art to a page, a screen, a sculpture, commit art in their minds.
“Unconsciously,” Kochalka tells us, “play and art are the same thing!”
We ignore that, willingly, when we try to distinguish qualities of art outside of our own engagement, the idea that if art moves someone else but not us, we must be missing a quality that is connected to the lack of enjoyment, lack of engagingness.
Art moves us, or it does not, but it is meant to. Art is better at moving that proving, moving than educating. It is not purely illustrative, but has to be evocative.
Paleoart, the attempt to illustrate animals and other life from the distant past, is hampered as illustration, by its tendency to simplify possibilities, the tendency to simply stretch skin over skeletons and to engage with long-extinct life via received wisdom or religious percept by precept. Paleoart is often brilliant art, though, because it is evocative. If you do not and never have been excited by dinosaur art, well, you are in the minority. Yet, can we bring ourselves to call it art, to call it, high art?
What pretentiousness we swim in.
– James Kochalka
Art is not illustration, and illustration is not experience, experience is not art.
All tends to merger, however, to suffusion, to a reality both larger, broader, deeper, smaller, more intimate, and of the same dimensions as before. Kochalka calls this, “a super concentrated ultra vivid reality.”
A comic is not only panels or characters. More, when we limit our understanding a comic aimed, initially or primarily at children or youth, we limit not the comic, but just our understanding. When we apply a status of evocation and quality to the finished nature or the show of skill, what we are dealing with is our interpretation, our understanding of those things. The high/low art argument, fundamentally classist, fundamentally unworkable from an honest perspective.
“Using a secret code that works in the simplest and most direct way possible,” saying Kochalka, “comics are a way of creating a universe and populating it with characters.”
“Rhythm,” says Kochalka, “is the key.” The key is not, according to Kochalka, “communication.”
Many comics fans are obsessive about summaries and statistics. Many genre fans, from several different genres, can be thrilled by a diagram of character relationships or the cutaway diagram of a skyscraper or clubhouse that looks like an upside-down rocket. Where do Wolverine’s claws go, up inside his arms. Who does Maggie Chascarrillo know? Is Hobbes real? Who is actually yellow or yellow-orange and who is just unfortunate enough printing methods are cheap and people are racist?
Artists, it is important to always remind ourselves, do not necessarily know anything. Some great messages are unintended. Some great art is the product of accidents and happenstance. Strongly felt, strongly believed truths imparted by the vehicle of art may be pap and nonsense.
Where Wolverine’s claws go when they are retracted into his arms can be a vehicle to evoke other understandings, other intuitions, but it can also be simply dressing a skin over a skeleton and calling that an animal.
Most often, when we think of an era, a writer, an artist, a character, a particular comic as being junk, pap, super simple and super simplistic, upon actual investigation, on re-engaging, we find depths and niggles we forgot or did not expect. Everything has depths and angles, but most people are more complex than we let ourselves remember. We only let ourselves see brilliance little by little, so that we are not dazzled, to warp a phrase. We preserve ourselves by not letting art, in general, be too bright and too faceted.
Because comics do not exist entirely on the page, comics that we are very familiar with, believe we remember well, when examined panel for panel, page for page, line by line, may not hold scenes we remember, scenes that are present may lack a depth or pursuant we recall.
“Illustration is superficial, not matter how skilled,” says Kochalka, “because it is secondary. The idea comes first and the illustration explicates it.”
I would argue that a lot of illustration, really is not, and that it becomes less so with age and familiarity. Story illustrations, for example, often change our reading of the words they sought to illustrate, and sometimes overtake the words, in our understanding and in our memories.
I have a story out, concerned with a round “very brown” young woman, from her teens to her thirties, dealing with her developing understanding of her own queer sexuality, the investigation of her father’s death, and her struggling with her place in the world. The photograph chosen by the publisher to illustrate this story, often seen before the audience can read any words, is of a light-skinned man and woman, thin, embracing romantically, their heads and lower halves cropped away, graffitied lettering behind them.
I have no control over how that illustration changes my story. I have to embrace it.
Illustration as, simply, illustration, is chasing a dream. It is reaching for high clouds from the ground. What that does not get you, is a cloud in hand. What it does achieve is making a decent metaphor and allowing folks to see you reach.
“Timidness, dishonesty, fear, and pretension.”
– James Kochalka
“There’s so much,” says Kochalka, “waiting to drag you down.”
Life pulls forward, even as sentimentality and memory draw us back. We are an emotional and cognitive trebuchet.
The ways in which Kochalka evokes comics, making comics, reading comics, living comics, is with sleeping, being thirty, raking the yard, exploring space, exploring junk.
The only quality you need,” he says, “is the ability to open yourself with honesty and pluck out the truth.”
I think it is not only important to keep in mind that this truth may be untrue, but it is important to remember that it can be very good when it is.
James Kochalka and Comics and Me
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