an ode to an elf

It’s not hyperbolic to say that James Kochalka’s American Elf has been the most influential piece of art I’ve encountered in my own life. I’ve been reading Kochalka’s journal comic since 2002, when on a visit to Boston, my then-future roommate Daniel and Liz Prince took me on a visit to Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square. Liz and Daniel prodded me toward Kochalka’s diary comics with an insistence I couldn’t deny. I picked up the book and was pretty much transfixed by the work’s honesty and gentle humor.

At the time I first encountered American Elf, I was drawing traditional newspaper comic strips for my college’s weekly but with the end of my undergraduate years fast approaching I knew I would not have that particular outlet for my comics much longer. One of the things that instantly appealed to me about Kochalka’s work was the clear ties it shares with at least the format newspaper comic strips. I’m including AE’s ironclad “one a day, everyday” schedule in this appraisal, as well as Kochalka’s economy of line. James was using the format of the newspaper strip to say something strikingly personal about his own experiences and I immediately related. Thousands of other readers did the same.

…that was back in 2003. We’re about a decade removed from my own discovery of American Elf and it’s been a wonderful experience for me, both as a reader and dare I say, a comic creator. Last week, James announced he’s ending American Elf at the close of 2012. Although he’s made noise about bringing the strip to a close before, this time I believe the guy to be serious about his intent.

I guess I just wanted to say “Thank you” in a public way to James for creating American Elf and sharing his life in an artistic way. You can still read the entire archive of American Elf over on his website or pick them up in brand-new digital collections. I more highly recommend buying the books from Top Shelf. I splurged on the hardcover treatment of the first four years of AE; it’s one of the most-read books I own.

From my own experience being inspired by the comic format Kochalka pioneered, I can say nothing but good things. Drawing a daily journal comic has helped in scores of ways with dealing with my life, from the first six years, where I focused on my personal life… to the last four, wherein I lent a sequential eye toward my job, teaching high school English Language Arts. Creating comics about my life helped me to become a better person and I KNOW that sounds like pop psychobabble but it’s true.

I look back on the comics I created in my twenties and… well, I cringe at some of them. A LOT OF THEM, if I’m being honest. However, they now exist as guideposts for the person I’d become… every lousy date, every self-indulgent tic I felt compelled to capture are on the pages of those notebooks. They’re embarrassing, they’re egotistical, and they’re a document of my twenties. There they sit, on the shelf as a reminder of the horrible person I was and, every once and awhile – there’d be some growth. Through the comics, I’d get outside of my head and get some perspective I wouldn’t have normally had. Not everyone can say they have something like to remember what their life was like as they were moving into the adult world… but I can, and I thank James Kochalka for that.

Again, even writing the above sentiment, I know I’m being indulgent. Everyone grows and changes in their twenties… but I genuinely feel drawing comics has made me a better person. I know for a fact one of the reasons my beautiful wife Ellen was initially interested in me was because she knew I drew comics. I have a comic I drew from the first night she and I hung out, months before we were a romantic item.


It’s a living document of the beginning of our relationship. How cool is that?!?

Drawing journal comics about my work has likewise broadened my understanding of what it is to be an educator. As my former principal loved to remind me, he hired me because he saw my comics and knew I’d bring something unique to his teaching staff.

Consciously, I know I did all those things myself… but I also know I never would have achieved them if I hadn’t been so wonderfully inspired by James Kolchaka. I’m going to miss American Elf but I’m excited to see what projects Kochalka’s going to focus on next. American Elf will remain a substantial contribution from a cartoonist whose best work is still to come. Enjoy the next three weeks of American Elf and look forward to the future!

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