James Kochalka is a prolific cartoonist known largely for his autobiographical comic American Elf (1998-2012), which ran daily for almost eleven years before he called time on it last year. The early years of American Elf chronicle his transition from working as a waiter to becoming a full-time cartoonist, with candid portrayals of the trials this career choice brought with it. Kochalka has also written some short and pithy essays about his own philosophy of comics and cartooning in prose and comic form, which are collected in a short book called The Cute Manifesto (2005) and have titles such as ‘The Horrible Truth About Comics.’ He has a clear vision of what comics, art and cartooning should be, with an aversion to craft and technical skill.
Conversation #2 (2005) is a minicomic that Kochalka collaborated on with fellow autobiographical cartoonist and Top Shelf contemporary Jeffrey Brown. They share the drawing equally and democratically, each cartoonist drawing himself and lettering his own speech, with the background being a conflation of both their uniquely concise black-and-white styles. Both cartoonists share their philosophies of comics and art, and extend these to life and work, fighting and eventually agreeing not to ‘spend too much time thinking’ (50) while, we infer, they agree to disagree on other points.
Most significantly, however, they discuss the economics of cartooning in relation to their own work towards the end of the comic. At the time, Kochalka had quit his job to become a full-time cartoonist but Brown hadn’t, and was still working full-time at a Barnes & Noble bookshop, though he is now making a comfortable living from his comics, largely as a result of the popularity of his Star Wars titles. In his typical hyperbolic style Kochalka, a Lilliputian figure in the comforting, stable hand of a giant Jeffrey Brown, whines that having a job was killing him (Brown and Kochalka, 34). A few pages later, Brown tells us that ‘Actually, I kind of like my job. I get to work with books and music, and it gives me insurance. And I still have time to draw comics a lot’ (43), which Kochalka follows up by whacking him with a vomit-soaked mop and telling him off for “rationalizing” his life and his art, when he should just be living and creating art, two things which are inseparable for Kochalka.
The dialogue between the two cartoonists touches upon a conundrum familiar to all artists, but to cartoonists in particular: a day job is necessary to provide stability and insurance, but it eats into the time needed to create comics and is a source of worry and discordance which is apparent in the work of many cartoonists today. Brown and Kochalka are some of the more prominent examples, but Chris Ware has also touched upon this in one of his oversized ACME Novelty Library pages which invites the reader to ruin their life by drawing cartoons with the sharing of thirteen supposed professional secrets. The fourth of these is a reminder that ‘You will not be compensated,’ (25) which expands this to tell us, ‘It is assumed you hold down at least two jobs in addition to your little cartooning hobby,’ (25) denigrating comics as a trivial undertaking – certainly not an art form.
The use of the word ‘hobby,’ laced with Ware’s cutting irony or not, would likely offend Jeffrey Brown and cause James Kochalka to vomit all over the page were it included in Conversation #2, but it is not a concept they engage with. For Kochalka, drawing is a way of life, while Brown is more realistic – he uses comics as a way to ‘feel like [his] life has a sense of purpose’ (15). Either way, comics are more than a hobby for both of them, and despite his playful mockery of this attitude, nobody would assume from any of Chris Ware’s works that comics are a hobby for him either. It is, of course, the co-workers in Ware’s scenario who perceive comics to be a hobby; for Ware’s cartoonist figure, a crumpled, despondent man hunched painfully over a drawing board, comics are all-consuming, just as they are for Kochalka, who calls them ‘the pounding of the human heart’ (10).
It might seem, therefore, that having a day job is not compatible with being a cartoonist, or at least with producing great comics. However, Brown’s comments make clear his satisfaction with his job’s provision of stability – he still has time to draw comics. And despite his melodramatic aversion to his previous day job, Kochalka’s oeuvre also betrays him in this instance: he managed to draw an entertaining and engaging daily comic strip for several years before quitting his day job, and it is of no discernibly poorer quality than any of his later work, which we would assume should be better (at least in his own terms) as he is now free to make his art as he wants to make it. Whilst Kochalka is clearly happier for having quit his day job, Brown managed to strike a balance between his comics and his job.
The cartoonists’ concern with their day jobs here is echoed in other art forms. Re-reading this comic recently I was struck by its similarity to a short book on the philosophy of creativity by writer, artist and blogger Austin Kleon, entitled Steal Like An Artist. The book is Kleon’s manifesto for making great art in any given art form, and his philosophy is similar to Kochalka’s – both are advocates of not waiting around or overthinking, and of making your art by diving into it and creating. The similarity between the two is in fact no coincidence. In a recent blog post, Kleon revealed that he chose the square format of Steal Like An Artist because this is the format of The Cute Manifesto. Seen side by side, both books are almost the same, but with different covers. Kleon and Kochalka come from different artistic backgrounds but share creative ideals that help to contextualize comics and work within popular culture.
Significantly, one of the mini-chapters in Steal Like An Artist is entitled ‘Keep Your Day Job.’ It consists of a few short paragraphs which remind us of the benefits of having a day job: money, ‘connection to the world’ (123), routine, human interaction. Kleon also posits that ‘freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art,’ (123) a view which would certainly be shared by the Jeffrey Brown we see in Conversation #2, though he concludes by stating that freedom should be balanced with control and discipline (49). Where Brown and Kochalka don’t reach a definitive conclusion, Kleon does:
The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time. Good day jobs aren’t necessarily easy to find, but they’re out there. (125)
If this is the trick, then both Brown and Kochalka have accomplished it in Conversation #2, despite the copious amount of vomit that appears throughout the comic. Kochalka’s day job is comics, which suits him because he lives and breathes comics and can’t find another job that doesn’t make him want to vomit; Brown’s day job is at Barnes & Noble, which suits him because it is not demanding or time-consuming and is of sufficient interest to him to keep the vomit down.
Cartooning, at least for creators of alternative comics such as Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka, is therefore an art which must be examined in the context of the cultural work that surrounds it and the practical considerations surrounding the labour of cartooning. I have here discussed comics in relation to day jobs and financial imperative, and I conclude that day jobs and cartooning are more than compatible, in light of the context offered by Steal Like An Artist. There is much to be said, too, about Kochalka’s almost bizarre aversion to craft. In Douglas Wolk’s words, this is ‘a raspberry in the face of…fine-art tradition,’ (205) – but why would a cartoonist want to make such a raspberry? This too is a discussion for a longer article and one which could be contextualized in comics studies by Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art, among other recent texts. Kochalka’s raspberry is a telling example of the numerous questions which arise from considerations of comics and cultural work, and one which has been discussed at length amongst cartoonists in the pages of The Comics Journal. I hope this article it makes a contribution to moving comics studies towards more analyses of the context of work and political economy, distinct from the previous prominence of formalist analysis.
Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
Brown, Jeffrey and Kochalka, James. Conversation #2. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2005.
Hodler, Timothy and Nadel, Dan. ‘Blood and Thunder: Craft is The Enemy.’ The Comics Journal. 5th June, 2013. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL http://www.tcj.com/blood-and-thunder-craft-is-the-enemy
Kleon, Austin. Steal Like An Artist. New York: Workman Publishing, 2012.
Kleon, Austin. ‘Craft is the Enemy.’ austinkleon.com. 2nd June, 2012. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL <http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/24261617931>
Kochalka, James. American Elf. Online archive of daily comics. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL <http://americanelf.com>
Kochalka, James. The Cute Manifesto. Gainesville: Alternative Comics, 2005.
Ware, Chris. The Acme Novelty Library Annual Report to Shareholders. New York: Pantheon, 2005.
Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.
Paddy Johnston is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, currently working towards his PhD in English. His thesis is entitled ‘Working With Comics’ and will examine what it means to work as a cartoonist, with attention to art pedagogy, materiality and the influence of literary modernism. He has recently given papers at the Transitions 4 symposium in London and the Comics and the Multimodal World conference in Vancouver and has been published in The Comics Grid journal and is a contributor to the comics blog Graphixia. He is also a cartoonist, singer/songwriter and writer of fiction for the One Hour Stories podcast.
This article is part of a series on comics and cultural work, guest edited by Casey Brienza. To read the other articles in this series click here.