This week in Must Read, Dean Reilly takes a long look at life in online comic American Elf.
A wise philosopher once said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. American Elf is artist, writer, and musician James Kochalka’s attempt at examining his: an autobiographical collection of short, four panel stories depicting his everyday life. Less of an ongoing narrative, and more a snapshot-style glimpse into his daily experiences, it’s a brutally honest and ambitious project that gives readers an almost voyeuristic perspective on the artists life, while providing Kochalka and his family with a one-of-a-kind way of capturing the ordinary moments that define who they are which might otherwise be forgotten over time.
Why Is It So Good?
It takes a certain level of commitment to keep a diary, and just as much to keep a regularly updated blog. This makes James Kochalka’s self-imposed task of keeping an autobiographical online comic going, every day without fail, all the more ambitious. What’s truly impressive about this goal though, is not only the fact that he’s managed to do it, but just how long he’s been doing it for: the very first strip was drawn on October 26th 1998. Almost 12 years on, he’s still going.
These honest and simple snapshots into his life depict all sorts of everyday events. Depending on the day, they can be mundane, ordinary, and simplistic, or touching and heart-breaking. Yet although his strips deal with real-world events, the way that he presents them is often much more surreal. Take for example how he appears: rather than depicting himself as a 42 year old Caucasian American man, you’ll find Kochalka being represented as a 42 year old Caucasian American Elf instead – hence the title. He explains his appearance as a visual way of showing how awkward he sometimes feels in the real world. One of his best friends is represented as part dog, part robot, while some of the neighbourhood kids are weird, limbless blue shapes that lurk around the house.
In fact, if you judged American Elf purely on how it looks, how it moved from black and white to vivid colours, quirky artwork and a distinctly independent feel, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a consistently child-friendly, homely tale. While parts of the strips absolutely are, there are sections that are decidedly more mature in tone. Kochalka is as open and honest about his sex-life, fantasies and desires as he is about all other aspects of his life. He explores issues of married life that most artists would keep decidedly behind closed doors, yet no matter how explicit or personal the content, it’s never exploitative, or for pure titillation. It’s part of his life, so it can go in the strip. That’s why it’s true you’ll find depictions of sex, or nudity, but you’ll also see him eating a meal, or going to the bathroom, or potty-training his son.
Through his sometimes surreal cast of characters, Kochalka holds up a mirror to his own life. Whilst much of the stories that are represented are very personal and unique to the Kochalka family (his examination of the mental health of his father or dealing with a miscarriage are particularly touching), there are events that will resonate with every reader that samples the work. The strip that features the September 11 attacks, for example, is poignant, non-exploitative and will inevitably bring back memories of your own reactions to the events of that day. Even less dramatic global events like the recent PS3 network meltdown get a mention, acting as a handy reminder that the world we’re getting a privileged insight to is the exact same one we occupy and share – not just an elaborate work of fiction.
It’s easy to trace the changes in his life through these autobiographical strips. The earlier pieces explore his relationship with his wife, his ambitions to release music, and his work as a comicbook artist. From there, stories of pregnancy, impending fatherhood, the aging of parents and growing critical acclaim start to filter through. He’s written at length that it surprises him sometimes how the things that spring to mind when writing and drawing his strips have changed so much over the years. He acknowledges, for example, that his wife plays a less prominent role in the recent strips, even though she is as prominent as ever in his real life. You’ll share the victories and the tragedies all the more intimately because they unfold in real time. The birth of a child really will take 9 months. The loss of a friend, family member or pet will come out of the blue, and the healing will take time. It’s like getting regular updates from a close friend who lets you in to what’s going on with them, only through a comic rather than emails or a phone message.
Which brings us nicely to how you can dive into these updates for yourself. Uniquely for Must Read, American Elf is the only online comic that’s so far made it to our list. The entire archive of strips is available online at Kochalka’s website for free, but it’s when you pick up one of the trade paperbacks collecting his works that you really understand the scale and scope of the project. It makes for addictive reading, partly because of how easily consumable the short strips are, but also because the more you dive into them, the more you learn about the artist, his family, and his life. Before you know it, you’ll have sped through years of strips, be disarmed by his honesty, familiar with his family and engaged in his story. You’ll forgive the fact that arguments that raged on the previous days post are seemingly forgotten. We don’t see the resolution, but we can tell it’s happened. It’s the nature of the storytelling that you’ll find here: you’re allowed glimpses in, not unblinking stares, and it’s all the more engaging for it.
Let’s ignore the art and the autobiographical nature of American Elf for a minute, and just look at the numbers. Kochalka has produced over 11 years of daily content, much of it while developing other comicbooks, music, and most recently video game projects. Oh, and two baby boys along the way. That’s 138 months, 603 weeks or 4,221 days (at the time of writing this) worth of new snapshots into his life. By the time you read this, he’s probably going to have added more, and so far at least, there’s no end in sight. It’s an incredible achievement that provides the wider world with a unique and personal document of a life. He pre-dated and pre-empted micro-blogging, Twittering before there was Twitter – only doing it better.
It might not feature superheroes, there might not be multi-part crossovers or die-cut covers, but American Elf has revolutionised biographical comicbooks and set new standards for the scope and scale of a comic project. Just like everyday life, it’s simple and complex, infuriating and enlightening, mundane and heart-racing, and it’d be a real shame if you miss out on one moment of it.