by James Kolchalka
The title gives you the wrong impression about this book. Sketchbook implies something knocked out in a haphazard manner and nothing could really be further from the truth of James Kochalka’s diaries. He’s redefined the idea of diary comics, having done a 4 panel strip every single day for the past 10 years, with this volume containing everything from 2006 and 2007 and every single one is less sketch and more completely finished, full colour comic strip.
And with these strips Kochalka does a very wonderful thing, documenting various interconnected day to day events, focusing on every aspect of his life and doing it with such variety and interest that you as a reader cannot help but be sucked into the book, turning page after page and enjoying every tiny little moment. It does, of course, help that Kochalka’s life is a varied and interesting one that takes in family life, comics, teaching and his alternate career as “James Kochalka Superstar” rock musician with numerous bits of indie success to his name. I sat down with the book intending to just dip in and out over the course of a few days, figuring that would work well for something that, by it’s very nature, would be bitty and fragmented. Two hours later I closed the book having read the whole thing from start to finish, thoroughly engrossed in exploring every aspect of Kochalka’s life day by day. It’s an addictive and marvelous thing, a total celebration of the day to day moments we may all take for granted.
(Been there, done that, had my heart melted just the same way. Eli offers a helping hand in James Kochalka’s American Elf Book 3.)
From what I’ve read previously it’s obvious that Kochalka’s life has settled down since the earliest strips and much of the work here concerns itself with his daily family life with wife Amy and son Eli. In fact, the majority of the strips here feature Eli in some way, filling his parent’s lives with the simple joy that any child so completely and instinctively does. But there are very few saccharine sweet moments in American Elf, just a perpetual wonder and love through it all. It’s a joy, over the two years of these strips to share in Kochalka’s love and pride for his son that grows and grows as his son grows from tiny toddler to confident and creative child.
But there’s also a dichotomy in the strips, as Kochalka is able to slip back to dealing with other, less child friendly moments, such as his band relationships, his career, his and Amy’s relationship, even day to day neighbourhood troubles. And he’s certainly not afraid to venture into darker moments; his father’s slow and painful mental disintegration is touched upon repeatedly and the heart-rending moments that he and Amy realise that she’s going to miscarry, something that’s handled in a straightforward and sensitive way, but carries all the heartbreak, sadness and despair you know they’re both going through. It’s all beautifully handled and you’re so involved with the strip at this point that you suffer it all with them.
(The serious side to American Elf, something Kochalka’s never afraid to highlight.)
American Elf is also something that works so much better in this collected format, when the everyday magic build and builds into something really compelling. There’s a real joy in the everyday on display in American Elf and it should find you finishing it off very quickly and looking around yourself with remarkably fresh eyes, ready to take on this lovely, varied, wonderful life for yourself.
Should you want to see the complete American Elf, every single strip is online at americanelf.com and there’s an awful lot – he’s been doing this for just over ten years now, one a day, every day – quite an achievement in itself but made all the more so because the quality of his daily strips is staggeringly high. The American Elf webcomic is actually considerably larger than the versions that fit, four per page in each collection. But I’d still recommend you do just what I did and sit down in a chair one weekend morning and get engrossed in page after page of Kolchalka’s wonderful cartooning.
(Great news for the Kochalka’s right at the end of American Elf Book 3. Welcome to the world baby boy.)
And the book does have a wonderfully happy ending with the birth of Oliver Jonco Kochalka. By this time you’ve shared so much with James, Amy and Eli that the elation you feel is genuine and real. And that’s just the best reason I can think of for telling you that American Elf is well worth your time. Pick it up and try it. I’d be surprised if you don’t find it just as wonderful as I did.