Friday, February 11, 2005

Forever, Vermont II

This is a long-belated followup to an earlier post -- and is the second in a series of archival reviews of comics, zines, and records produced by participants in Burlington's indie-rock and -media scene. If you participated in the Burlington scene in the early '90s and would like to share your stories, insights, and experiences -- or correct any factual errors I make in this series of reviews -- please add a comment to contribute to the context! Special thanks extended to Brad Searles for loaning me his B-ton collection for more than a year and a half now.

James Kochalka Superstar #2
The hyperactively prolific independent comics creator opens this photocopied 14-page issue with yellow cardstock covers (a 1994 Konk Book by Konk My Konk Comics), by sharing some trade secrets. "This comic book was drawn on Hammermill Tidall DP Long Grain 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper with the Papermate Flair fine plastic point pen, and [Kochalka's] secret weapon, the Staedtler Mars Graphic 2000 Duo Japan, and each page is shrunk to 83% of its original size."

That kind of explicit exposition belies the ongoing balance of art and artifice that characterizes James Kochalka's work. Kochalka, as James Kochalka Superstar, makes comics and music because he has to, but also because he wants to make people want to make comics and music. Kochalka epitomizes the combination of personality, productivity, self-promotion, and professionalism.

This early example of his self-published comics output largely consists of "Satan's Walk," a piece that draws more on his fine art background (as represented by the cover to Kissers, published by the now-defunct and much-missed Highwater Books) than on his largely cartoony work. Including a photocopied photo of a Chinese restaurant's staff as well as an actual receipt, Kochalka shares a story about working as a waiter, not being able to call his wife Amy for a ride, and a half-hour walk home.

Leaving the Peking Duck House, Kochalks crosses a bridge and walks up a hill, imagining why Amy couldn't answer the phone. As he considers the gruesome possibilities, Deadbear, Nancy, and Sluggo make cameo appearances, prompting Kochalka to analyze the work of Ernie Bushmiller before a disappointingly anticlimactic ending.

The comic itself ends with several shorter pieces, including one featuring the band the Philistines Jr., Tarquin, Flip the Bird, a spider, noodles, and Whitey (who may have been later rejuvenated for the "Don't Trust Whitey" recording project). The band-related strips are more cartoony than the primary piece, which includes an interlude that reminds me of Max Traffic. And the lettercol features missives from Tom Hart, Ariel Bordeaux, David Lasky, Chris Ware, and S.A. King.

In the end, then, this comic represents the three sides of Kochalka as creator: the artist as character, the self-analytical comics activist, and the community organizer. An impressive example of Kochalka's craft. (Kochalka continued to operate out of P.O. Box 8321, Burlington, VT 05402, and this issue cost $2.)

James Kochalka Superstar #4
Sporting a badly off-register two-color cover, this 28-page 1994 comic continues Kochalka's evolution as character and creator. "Magic Boy! and Girlfriend" features an early version of Magic Boy and a consideration of penis envy and sexual exploration. A more stylized, older Kochalka remembers his childhood and introduction to Amy.

The two-fold approach to memory and self-development works. Kochalka checks in on Magic Boy (nice interruptive boundary breaking on p. 5 in which Kochalka grabs a speech balloon), and Magic Boy and his girlfriend in turn eavesdrop on Kochalka and his friends as they play dice.

That playful game leads to an uncomfortable sexual interlude telegraphed by Kochalka commenting on his craft. "Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, the world seems like an elaborately designed set or a full-scale model. ... Ink and paper." Despite the philosophical implications -- creator as character, memory as comic -- Kochalka's sense of humor and delight takes off the existential edge.

The two-page lettercol name drops Jeff Zenick, Ron Rege, and Scott McCloud. Amy King contributes a four-panel piece on her short-lived life as a boy. And David Lasky offers a cover design. "Fuck yeah," indeed. (This issue cost $2.)

James Kochalka Superstar #5
Maintaining the same P.O. Box and cover price, Kochalka precedes the comics in this pink cardstock-covered 20-page edition also from 1994 by shouting out to various Vermont-based projects and anthologies to which Kochalka contributed. The latter include Animal Review, Duplex Planet Illustrated, and Jef Taylor's old Don't Shoot It's Only Comics.

"Konk My Konk," the first comics piece, retells an experience in which Kochalka encounters a person at whom he once threw a rock. The older, wiser Kochalka explores how a rash act while in Boy Scouts may have led to a one-time friend's "never [being] the same." Kochalka's memory, guilt, and efforts to pin down the truth falls shy of the magic he's trying to realize, but his ongoing attempts to translate his existence into comics are definitely worth not giving up on.

The five-page "Kashitta" takes on a high-school nickname, a schoolyard bully, and the pettiness of adolescence. And the closer "Why Zipatone?" delves into the creative use of background patterns to "recapture and crystallize distant emotions."

A letter from Ed Brubaker and a comic strip by then Winooski, Vermont's Jason Cooley, who published the comic School Bus, cap the issue. For the most part, I found this issue disappointing. Kochalka's self-analysis doesn't seem to lead him any closer to the truth, and he sabotages the possibility of an epiphany by ending "Kashitta" with senseless, insensitive laughter. Similarly, he dismisses the seriousness of "Konk My Konk" by blowing on a "dandylion going to seed."

"I'm glad I didn't kill you." "It's OK." Is this how we reconcile our past actions?

James Kochalka Superstar #7
Presaging Kochalka's three-issue limited series, Little Mister Man, published by Slave Labor Graphics, this 24-page, pink cardstock-covered self-published comic from 1995 may very well mark the transition to the more widely published creator we know today.

Combining his cartoony simplicity, near-realistic fine art approach, and childhood comics featuring Dripsy and Mysterio (perhaps later included in Low Jinx #4?), "The Good Boy" touches on comics creation, childhood exploration, drug use, and honesty. "I was 'cool' 'cause I didn't 'rat,'" says one caption before the older Kochalka waxes on about belief in faeries, the maturation process, and mind-altering substances such as coffee, No-Doze, vodka, chocolate syrup, and acid.

Perhaps Kochalka's need to remember and reevaluate the past began with a mourning of the passing of childhood. "In growing up, you lose innocence but gain power," a full-page panel on p. 19 says. The question is, "How do we use that power?"

The edition ends with several short jam pieces with Dan Clowes, the Danish Anders Arentoff, Jason, and Amy (the latter two, "who are drunk"). After featuring a one-page column on "Color Theory for Black & White Comics," this issue may be the most internally consistent edition to date. From the cover -- "I'm riding in a rocket, and I'm looking for drugs!" -- to the main story and p. 23 beer jam, Kochalka looks at how the ways to search for ecstasy can be numerous and nefarious. Regardless, Kochalka pulls back from being overly didactic.

James Kochalka Superstar #8
Seemingly delayed by the publication of his Slave Labor Graphics miniseries Little Mister Man and graphic novel Magic Boy and the Robot Elf, this self-published, 36-page, blue carstock-covered comic from 1996 firmly steps into the mode Kochalka later modeled until recent years. Gone are the letter columns. Gone are the essays. Gone are the many one pagers.

What we get in this now-$2.50 edition is the 33-page piece "Magic Boy Wins the Moon." Trading the punk-rock process of zinemaking for longer-form storytelling, Kochalka matures as a publisher as well as a creator. And while I miss the community-oriented shout outs and lettercols, I think the new approach works well.

As is his wont, Kochalka alternates between two realities -- one in which Magic Boy goes to the moon and back, and one in which Kochalka remembers going to graduate school in Baltimore. The two threads intertwine nicely, and the comic ends up internally consistent between "Fuck you, Earth!" (p. 3), becoming acclimated to city life (p. 19), and nature boy in paradise (pp. 27-28).

Additionally, the theme of companionship crops up several times: "Wake up, Robot Elf!" (p. 6), a "roomate" (pp. 7-8), leaving Amy behind (p. 11), harpooning the moon (p. 13), and not being along (p. 20, numbered 18 -- I include covers in my manual page counts). Partnering real-life experiences, emotional reactions, and fantastic representations, Kochalka continues to look inward as he reaches outward.

While this issue does shed the trappings of the previous editions, Kochalka doesn't exclude community or short-form storytelling entirely. John Porcellino scripted the one-page piece on p. 35.

James Kochalka Superstar #11
Still using the same P.O. Box -- and this came out in 1998! -- Kochalka begins to experiment with yet another form of storytelling. Later reprinted as part of his recently published Top Shelf book American Elf, this 12-page, self-published comic with grey cardstock covers and a $1 price is the first installation of his daily one-page personal journal comics.

While traveling to the San Diego Comicon to support his book Tiny Bubbles (for which I served as production assistant at Highwater Books), Kochalka was inspired by Brian Ralph, who was at the time working on his Highwater Book Cave In. Deciding to draw "simple strips" in his journal every day regardless of where he was, Kochalka firmly embraced a form also used by Snake Pit's Ben White.

Items in this mini portray Highwater publisher Tom Devlin, consider the wonder of showering, invoke poo humor, cameo Megan Kelso (with whose Queen of the Black Black I also assisted), and recount the risk of urinating outside of a cheap hotel room after one of Highwater's infamous beach parties.

This comic particularly appeals to me because, well, I was there. Even moreso, it marks an evolutionary step for Kochalka. Rather than combining his various approaches to comics storytelling -- the artist as character (American Elf), the self-analytical comics activist (Conversations), and the pure storyteller (Peanut Butter and Jeremy). Does this fracturing bring clarity and cohesion or confusion? Only time will tell.

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