Thursday, November 12, 2009

Odds and Gems # 3: James Kochalka and Magic Boy and the Word of God

Words: Gene Kogan

Man, I love that James Kochalka. I mindlessly pick up whatever he releases. I’m a Kochalka Zombie. Which is not easy, considering he’s more prolific than Marvel. From his children’s books to his autobiographical work to his spoofs and his books that connote a certain social commentary, I gobble it all up like different flavors of Jelly Belly’s. And like the addictive jelly beans, his work is curious, colorful, delightful and leaves you wanting more. I’ve always wondered why I’m so enamored with his work. It’s simplistic, childish, cutesy and over the top. But somehow he makes it all work. And not just work, but work brilliantly. Yes, you read that right. James Kochalka is brilliant. And I DO NOT throw that maddeningly overused word around freely. Everything I’ve read from him just hits the spot.

Well, almost everything.

Fairly early in his career, he self published a comic book called Magic Boy and the Word of God. It lists 1996 as the publication date, so it would rank among his earliest published comic books, proceeded only by a couple of comics he did through Slave Labor. I can only speculate as to why Slave Labor didn’t publish this comic. Perhaps Kochalka wanted to publish it himself. But my guess is that it was just a tad too weird for them. It’s an odd comic. Even by Kochalka’s standard.

I purchased this comic at the Alternative Press Expo back in 1998 in San Jose. It was the first time I had traveled for any convention and I was mesmerized the entire trip. I was dazed, and most definitely confused. I must have stopped at every table and purchased something at each one. I don’t know how I got everything home. I don’t even remember how I got myself home. It was one of those weekends. I recall James Kochalka’s name floating around the alternative press of the day. I was aware he made a mini comic called James Kochalka Superstar. But I’d never actually seen his work when I approached his table. I purchased Magic Boy and the Word of God and he was kind enough to put a great little sketch on the cover, which, oddly enough, featured a photo of him in lieu of art. I found this amusing. Upon my return I was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my booty, I ended up putting it all away in a large box while I recuperated from the trip. It took me years to actually go through this box and the treasures that lay within (which is probably how long it took me to properly recover from the experience). So I didn’t end up reading this comic until well after my reverence for Mr. Kochalka was firmly set. A good thing, since I doubt reading it would have inspired me to give his other work much of a chance. A very odd comic, indeed.

Before I rip into this comic, a little recap of my love for all things Kochalka is in order.

The first thing I ever read by Kochalka was Monkey Vs. Robot. A mostly wordless graphic novel detailing the clash between a community of monkeys, primitive, self-sufficient and blissful in their ways, and self-reproducing robots whose agenda is simply progress. The drawing style and the subjects featured suggest the story would be geared toward children. But I discovered, repeatedly reinforced by almost his entire catalogue, that nothing could be further from the truth. While I can see how an older child can enjoy this story on the surface, there is a level of sophistication that would ultimately be lost on them. Sure, at its essence, this is a simple story of nature versus progress, but it’s a layered story both visually and thematically. It comments on the origins of war. It cleverly explores human activities without incorporating any humans, by featuring pre and post human evolutionary figures in the form of monkeys and robots. Visually, the compositions call to mind animation, as it cinematically utilizes parallel juxtaposition in exploring the worlds of the monkeys and the robots and how they collide. The inevitable battles are brutal and violent. Reading this book was an eye opening experience. I was genuinely surprised how drawn into the story I was. It was a quick read, but left a profound, lingering effect on me. I found myself referencing it mentally and it started spilling into my conversation.

At that point, whenever I would see another Kochalka book, I was compelled to buy it. And there was certainly no shortage of Kochalka material over the years: Fantastic Butterflies, Kissers, Peanutbutter & Jeremy, Cute Manifesto, Fancy Froglin (got the t-shirt too), Pinky & Stinky, Tiny Bubbles, Quit Your Job, Johnny Boo, Superf*ckers and many, many more. All of which I genuinely enjoyed in varying degrees, some of which I absolutely loved.

Then I hit upon the Sketchbook Diaries and the subsequent collections titled American Elf.

What can I say about American Elf that hasn’t already been said? It’s unique. If there was nothing else to recommend this book, this would be sufficient. It’s unique in the way Cerebus is unique, in the way Krazy Kat is unique, the way Chris Ware and Robert Crumb are unique. Simply put, there is nothing else like it and never will be. An ongoing daily diary strip that he’s been producing since 1998, touching on one moment in the day, from the singular to the bizarrely irrelevant to the heart-breakingly poignant. But unique is a throwaway description which is no way does this extraordinary work justice. It’s wonderful in so many ways. His childlike characters - light hearted, playful, whimsical versions of himself and his family - are sheer joy to observe: the situations which make him happy, those which infuriate him, the humor of his lovely wife, the birth and growth of his 2 boys, the development of his career, etc. Reading this seminal work helps me appreciate the fantastic in the little moments that make up my life, with my own family. Watching him succeed and fail, anger and rejoice, delight and revolt, sometimes justifiably, something ridiculously, one would have to be alien not to relate. And the whole time being so damn cute. American Elf is as courageous as it is delightful. It’s easily one of my favorite comics on the planet.

But Magic Boy and the Word of God? Not so much. Did I mention it’s an odd comic? Well, it is. I’m going to pretty much lay out the entire story for you, and this is going to be fun. So if you plan on getting your hands on one of these bad boys, I suggest you stop reading. For the rest of you, let’s dive in.


Magic Boy, an elf (what else?), has a crush on his classmate, Spandy, but doesn’t know how to approach her. We also learn that the devil is a cat like creature who is obsessed with a little flower growing in hell, but slowly dying. Magic Boy and the devil meet when they stumble upon the same six-pack of beer, which they decide to share, along with their respective sorrows. The devil encourages Magic Boy to invite Spandy to party with them. But not before he encourages him to throw a can at a passing squirrel, killing it. Moving on, Spandy agrees to party with the two and they proceed to drink vodka, lick frogs and go skinny dipping. When Spandy gets wasted and passes out, the devil steals her soul and takes it back to hell to inject into his flower so that it may live. In the meantime, the squirrel Magic Boy killed goes to heaven and meets God, who decides that it’s not her time yet and sends her “pure soul” back to earth in the form of a sword, which lands besides the distraught Magic Boy. He proceeds to stick it in his gut and finds himself in hell. There he locates the devil, jumps him and forces him to reveal what he did with Spandy’s soul. Magic Boy falls in love with the flower infused with Spandy’s soul and brings it back with him to Earth. He then attempts to mate with the flower (um…yeah) through some scientific experiment (yes, it appears he’s also a scientist). In the meantime, we learn that Magic Boy created an ultra genius robot elf, who he forces to work at the Chinese Restaurant instead of him, so that he can have time to work on his experiments. The robot is resentful and feels that he’s too intelligent to work in a Chinese Restaurant and thinks Magic Boy is an idiot. Back at home, while the experiment is brewing, Magic Boy decides to read to the flower from the bible (WTF?!). He falls asleep and is awoken by the robot returning home after a long day at work. The robot is furious to discover that while he was working his ass off, Magic Boy was sleeping. But Magic Boy has worse problems. He forgets about his experiment, which catches fire and engulfs the entire house. Amidst the smoke, Magic Boy finds the devil has returned seeking revenge. While the house burns, the robot rescues the flower and escapes. Turns out, the robot is also in love with the flower (of course). A sudden explosion sends Magic Boy flying from the house and smack into the robot, who then drops the plant, breaking her pot. From the pot emerges a weird hybrid flower child. The robot is devastated over Magic Boys successful mating with the flower and kicks the flower calling her a slut, among other things. The flower child escapes the rampaging robot. A few days later, a naked and charred Magic Boy emerges from the fire alive. The squirrel (who is no longer a sword) tells him that all the evil has been burned out of him. But Magic Boy is pissed and tells the squirrel, God and the Devil (who is back and now wants to party) that he was done with all of them and to take a hike. The story ends with Magic Boy wondering if he had done the right thing. The epilogue shows the flower child grieving over the body of his dead flower mother. That’s the story, folks.


The comic is beyond absurd. And surreal. It has no rhyme nor reason. It seems almost free associated. And maybe it was. Perhaps it was an experiment in how the creative mind wonders. No question a worthy endeavor. But not every experiment is successful. In the end, you still have to judge a comic by its content. The story is silly, lacks focus and is utterly dissociated. When I finished, I was left scratching my head and wondering at the potency of the drugs Mr. Kochalka was obtaining.

Still, unlike other comics I’ve read and didn’t care for, I held on to this one. There is something quite endearing about this comic, something special. For starters, the cover is awesome. I can’t remember another comic, new or old, that featured a photo of the creator. How egomaniacal, how self-centered, how genius. James Kochalka superstar indeed. Even early on he was already shattering the mold. And the story, as crazy as it was, had hints of the James Kochalka I know and love. You recognize characters from his other works. Spandy is actually the name of his cat, as seen in American Elf, who must have also been an influence on his rendering of the devil. Robot Elf is a recurring concept and was actually a character in one of his earlier Slave Labor comics, the much better and more focused Magic Boy & the Robot Elf. We know, from American Elf, that James worked at a Chinese Restaurant for many years, before leaving to concentrate on cartooning full time. We also get a very clear sense that his relationship with Spandy (the girl in the story, not the cat in real life) is based on his wife Amy, who we know from many of his works, perhaps in the beginning stages of their courtship. These unapologetic references to his real world give this comic an earnestness, an awkward dedication, even if it is all over the place. It’s like a high school poem, it’s bad, but kind of sweet at the same time.

This story also utilizes one of my favorite Kochalka institutions, which you find in almost all his work other than his children’s books: he employs a childlike sensibility, when his stories are most definitely not for children. They feature nudity, vulgarity and mostly adult themes, only with cute storybook characters and surroundings. And of course, there is that unmistakable element of Kochalka’s personality emanating from the story.

To this day, when I think of Kochalka, I think of this comic as much as American Elf or Monkey Vs Robot. It’s a testament to his talent and appeal that even my least favorite work can hold such a special place in my heart.

In a way, this work is as courageous as American Elf, considering how early in his career he produced this comic. Right from the start, he broke conventions and played by his own rules in producing his stories. A rebel, albeit without a clue. He didn’t try to emulate the artists he grew up with. I mean, sure he was influenced by such alternative luminaries as Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge. But there is no one you can point to and say “that Kochalka, look at him ripping off so and so again.” He had no peers. And still doesn’t. He’s sort of like the buttered popcorn Jelly Belly.

Man, I love that James Kochalka.

Gene Kogan first wrote for Yellow Rat Bastard magazine (published by the hipster store chain of the same name), and covered luminaries including Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire and Bill Plympton. Shortly after, he followed it up with online column Back Issue Reviews. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Liz, their son, Shaylem, their dog Mabel Eddie Campbell Kogan and way more stuff than is probably legally allowed in an apartment.

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