An Evening with James Kochalka Superstar
Tuesday, August 17th, 2004
The Burlington, Vermont booksigning event for James Kochalka's new American Elf collection was held at Crow Books, an intimate new and used bookstore located in a vibrant downtown marketplace area in Kochalka's hometown.
I've been a fan of Kochalka's comics and music for about half a decade now, and the work that has most directly affected me as a human being is his daily sketchbook diary, which has demonstrated not only the great talent Kochalka possesses as a cartoonist but the great potential comics has as a valid medium for profound and delightful individual artistic expression. The new collection gathers all the strips from their very beginning up until the last day of 2003, compiling four earlier and much slimmer collections, plus an additional year's worth of previously uncollected strips and numerous appealing extras.
Kochalka is perhaps one of the most prolific alternative cartoonists, frequently releasing new comics, mini-comics, graphic novels and music CDs. He is also a frequent presence in anthologies; you never know where he'll turn up next. He's a frequent topic of my writing on Comic Book Galaxy, and in my home as well. To my kids, as I explained to James as he was sketching in my copy of American Elf, James Kochalka is as big as Elvis. And on this night, we were front row center for a magnificent performance by the King of Rock and Roll.
Crow Books closed up so the staff could clear the main floor in preparation for the booksigning and planned performance. My son Aaron and I were sitting on a bench (well, I was sitting, he was running barefoot through the fountain) near the shop when I spotted James hauling boxes to the shop about 45 minutes before the signing was scheduled to begin, at 8 PM.
No doubt a familiar sight to the people of Burlington, to this visitor it was slightly surreal seeing James ambling down the street, and I pointed him out to Aaron, who was amazed at seeing this Capital-S Superstar in person after reading his comics and listening to his music all these years. I first interviewed him in person exactly four years ago this week, so it wasn't the first time I had seen him, but I was excited to see that the reason we'd driven three hours to Vermont was now just moments away from beginning.
My wife Lora and daughter Kira returned from shopping at Old Navy, and once Aaron and I told them James and the band were setting up inside the shop, Kira and Aaron couldn't resist peeking in the windows to get a look at what was going on. They were both excited to meet James for the first time, and each brought along a Kochalka book of their own to have signed. Kira brought The Perfect Planet, while Aaron carried his much-read Peanutbutter and Jeremy's Best Book Ever.
My two peeping toms caught the attention of Amy Kochalka, who came out to greet them, along with baby Eli on her hip. I said hi to her and introduced her to my wife and kids -- it was my first time meeting any member of the Kochalka family (other than James and their family cat Spandy, who I met back in 2000), and yes, they do look just like James draws them. Eli is a bundle of wide-eyed energy, taking in every moment and hardly ever sitting still until much later in the evening (I think the 10 PM end of the evening might have been at least a few minutes past his usual bedtime). About 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time, James came out and invited the then-small crowd to come in to the store and get the party started.
The energy, and there was a lot of it, built slowly in the first few minutes. James signed and sketched in books behind the counter as a forthcoming DVD (to be included with his first major-label CD on Rykodisc) projected onto a screen a number of James Kochalka Superstar videos, kid-friendly high-energy fare like "Pizza Rocket," "Hockey Monkey" and the transcendent crowd-pleaser "Monkey vs. Robot." Eli was a center of attention as he crawled around the floor and rocked out to Dad's music.
When it was my turn in line to get my copy of signed, James told me "I can never remember which comes first, Alan or David," which put to rest any nagging question of whether he remembered me. It was nice to be recognized, especially after so long, and especially with the crowd building in the store. James thanked me for the coverage I've given his work, and I thanked him for creating comics that really have changed the way I see not only comics but, well, everything. We briefly talked about how far he's come in life and in his work since that day four years ago when Marshall O'Keeffe and I shared pizza with him and interviewed him, an interview that would become the first to run on Comic Book Galaxy when it finally launched on September 1st, 2000. At the time, Marshall and I were still formulating ideas for the site, and I remember James taking Marshall's side in his insistence that it should be called "Galaxy O' Comics." Briefly chatting with James as he finished up a drawing of himself riding a strange creature shouting "Hi Alan!" it felt to me like things had come full circle in a way; I was back in Burlington, once again talking to James, once again covering his career for Comic Book Galaxy as he celebrated his greatest artistic achievement with his fans, friends, family and community.
After signing several books, about a half-hour into the evening, James and his band members moved into the performance area and started in on an all-ages set of songs that included a number of tunes he'd written specifically for Eli. Eli was at his father's feet, rapturous at the sound of the rock and roll created especially for him. As James's son became part of the performance, my daughter did as well; she was recruited by one of the band members to carry a colourful, hand-painted rainbow during the song "Rainbow Love." In a starstruck instant, Kira went from loving James's music to performing onstage with him. Perhaps now she knew what I meant when I had told her earlier in the day that this would be a night she would never forget. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what a personal and exciting part she would get to play. She even got to take a bow at the end of the number as James thanked his "Rainbow dancer."
After about 20 minutes, James and the band took an intermission, saying that the second set would be "the swearing set," a warning to parents that now might be a good time to take the children home. Our home was three hours away, though, and besides that I have an enlightened profanity policy for my children; you get to swear when you have a job, a driver's license and your own apartment. They observe this policy well, and have never invoked the Hammer Exception, although they know if they hit their thumb with a hammer they are, indeed, allowed to say "SHIT! That hurts!" Long story short, we weren't going anywhere.
During the intermission, my daughter was making friends (and recommending new friend Kerrie's mini-pizzas); I've noticed that she seems to thrive best in progressive towns like Burlington or Northampton, Massachusetts; as I said to Lora, "These are her people." At the age of ten, she's more than a little iconoclastic already. I have no doubt she'll eventually come to settle in a town like this, where individuality is, if not celebrated, at least not discouraged. As she worked the crowd, she introduced me to Nick, a former University of Vermont student who had become a Kochalka fan when he was creating Deadbear: Circus Detective many years earlier. Nick was visiting Burlington for other reasons, but told me "When I heard about this [booksigning], I knew what I was doing tonight." I noticed during the second musical set that he was absolutely enraptured by James's performance.
There were numerous highlights during the second set; guitar player Jason Cooley's surprise appearance (and my daughter's accompanying sotto voce announcement that "he's a dog with a robot brain!"); my son's laughter during "Wash Your Ass;" the crowd's spontaneous singalong of the endless, hilarious "Justin Timberlake" refrain to the song "Britney's Silver Can;" the wide-eyed woman who walked in the door just in time to hear James sing about his "magic finger" as he cupped his crotch. Just like E.T.'s big finger, it glows. At least, as one person in the audience noted, he kept his pants on.
I've long thought that there is genuine magic in the way James has created his own world of comics, music, laughter and joy. In all he does, he aims not only to define but create his own universe. In his very best works, we're invited in and can see the world as he does. For me and my family on this night, for everyone who came to recognize and congratulate James on his biggest and best book yet, that's what happened. For a couple of hours, capped by James literally hugging every single person in the store as the band played on, we were all living inside his Superstar vision of the world, taken away from all else, applauding in thanks and in communion for one of the most generous performers I'll ever see in my lifetime -- a singer and cartoonist who celebrates both the pedestrian and the sublime with such abandon and dedication that it is all transformed into something spectacularly alive. I've never had as much fun or felt as much energy. It was electric.