By Cal Cleary and Harper Harris
James Kochalka, the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont and an Ignatz and Harvey award winner, has had quite a varied career, ranging from fronting his own band (James Kochalka Rockstar), to creating comics, to collaborating on video games. His long running online comic strip American Elf continues to have a strong fan base, and his SuperF*ckers comic book has become a popular animated series on YouTube’s Cartoon Hangover channel. His newest work, the Glorkian Warrior series, sees the release of both a video game based on its characters and the second book in the series, The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie. We got a chance to chat with Kochalka regarding his career as well as his lovably bumbling hero, the Glorkian Warrior.
How did you get started as a cartoonist?
Professionally? Well, that road began when I bought an early issue of Eightball by Dan Clowes. Then, a couple months later I saw there was an interview with him in The Comics Journal, so I bought that. I had never encountered that magazine before. In The Comics Journal I think I saw something about some mini comic, and decided to order it through the mail. Before very long I trading my own mini comics with other cartoonists through the mail, and soon after that I was a full time professional cartoonist. It all happened within a period of about two years or so… from discovering Eightball to becoming a professional cartoonist and quitting my job as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant.
Did you read a lot of comics as a kid, or was it something you got into later as an artist?
I read them constantly as a kid, and drew them constantly too. I have over 2000 pages of comics saved that I drew when I was a kid. There was only a very brief period of not drawing comics… the first couple years of college I didn’t draw any comics, but the rest of my life I was always working on something. Long before I knew that mini comics were a “thing” I was making them and selling them to my friends at school. I drew my first graphic novel when I was a kid in the 1970’s… which probably marks it as one of the first graphic novels ever drawn, although noone has seen it beyond one of my childhood friends.
The Glorkian Warrior has been a resilient idea, starting with a short comic for Pop Gun, going into a Kickstarter-funded video game with Pixeljam (Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork), before your current three-book deal. What is it that keeps bringing you back to Glork?
I just love to draw him. As soon as I did the first little doodle of the guy, he just felt so real to me, so alive. Basically that’s how I create my characters, I just doodle until one of the doodles has an undeniable spark of life.
Now, with Glorkian Warrior… I was working on this at the same time I was working on my autobiographic comic, the American Elf diary strip. And then when I quit American Elf, and my elf-avator stand-in was gone, I suddenly started to think of Glork as my stand-in. The spark of life that Glorkian Warrior has is my spark of life. What makes me a living being is the same thing that imbues Glorkian Warrior with life.
I hope that doesn’t sound too weird. I just like to draw him. He’s elastic and springy, and he does silly things.
What made you go with First Second as a publisher for the Glorkian Warrior series?
Excerpt from The Blue Drip (1976)
I thought the book would fit in well with their line, and I wanted to see what a new publisher could do for me. I asked Top Shelf’s advice before bringing it to another publisher, and they were all for it. I don’t need permission to do books with other publishers, but I always talk it over with Chris Staros before I do.
Your work has had lots of multimedia crossover…with SuperF*ckers you had the animated series (which you did a voice on too), and with Glorkian Warrior you’ve got the video game. Were these things you thought of initially when formulating the characters, or just natural extensions of the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?
I just love making art, music, anything. I just like making stuff, anything, all the time. I like writing songs, I like making sand castles, I like inventing new recipes, I like to draw, I like to design board games, I like to invent drawing games. I also like to move my body and dance, or swim, or hike in the woods. I just feel like a creative, active life is more fun.
Regarding, Glorkian Warrior I came up with the basic idea for the video game before I started drawing the comics, but then I started drawing the comics before I started actually making the game.
You’ve obviously got a pretty wide range of work…what was it like going from something like SuperF*ckers to Glorkian Warrior?
Easy. The transition is easy. Whether I’m working on books for adults or books for kids I feel like I’m still exploring the fundamentals of human nature.
What inspired you to write books aimed at a younger audience?
First it was accidental. I wrote Monkey Vs. Robot and Peanutbutter & Jeremy and Pinky & Stinky thinking I was making them for an adult audience. Kids just happened to like them. Then once I had my own kids I started drawing books with them in mind as my target audience. So the Johnny Boo, Dragon Puncher, and Glorkian Warrior books were all written as bedtime stories for my own kids.
You were Vermont’s first Cartoonist Laureate. What was that experience like?
It was like being named the State Flower. I’ve always been proud of being a Vermonter, but it was an amazing feeling to think Vermont is proud of ME. Honestly, it just felt so good I think the good feeling might last the rest of my lifetime if I’m lucky. And every time a new Cartoonist Laureate is named, I feel like I’m being honored all over again. Ed Koren, the amazing New Yorker cartoonist, is the current Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont. He’s also a volunteer fireman in the town where he lives. Anyhow, he called me up for advice a few times leading up to his inauguration. It was rather amazing to be in the position of offering advice to such a seasoned master of cartooning. Oh, and we did a drawing together about it. That was really fun.
One of the most charming things about the Glorkian Warrior stories is the fantastic hand lettering. Do you feel lettering plays a strong role in the way you tell stories?
Yes! Oh thank you so much. I’ve been waiting for the last twenty years for someone to notice that there is something special about my lettering. Secretly I’ve always coveted a “best lettering” Eisner award, I don’t know why. Partly because it’s probably the worst Eisner award, the most laughable. But also because lettering is actually incredibly important in comics. Meaning is conveyed through the artistry of the lettering, or at least it can be if you do it well. I try to use my lettering to convey emotion, it’s one more tool to that effect in addition to the words themselves and of course the drawings.
I also letter with a brush and ink, which I think very few people do. Most letter with a pen. And I know why, it’s because lettering with a brush is outrageously difficult. For several years I’ve inked my taxes with a brush and ink… but that’s probably a colossal waste of my time.
What is your technique when it comes to illustrating the Glorkian Warrior books? Have you found your style changing dramatically with new technology?
I draw with a brush and india ink, but I do all the coloring on the computer. I use a Cintiq, so I can draw the color right on the screen. So, all the swirling colors in the backgrounds of the Glorkian Warrior books were drawn on the Cintiq screen, in photoshop. Yeah, that’s a big change. I wouldn’t be able to do that without the Cintiq or something like it.
The Glorkian Warrior stories tend to have an interesting shaggy dog structure. How do you go about plotting these stories? And how hungry are you when you’re writing them?
I write them fairly stream-of-consciousness style, and then I go back and edit to give them some kind of narrative structure. There’s just enough, I think, so you feel like maybe something actually happened.
I’m hungry all the time, except when I’m drawing or when I’m full.
What were your inspirations for the original characters Glorkian Warrior and Super Backpack? Are you drawing from any other bumbling hero analogs?
It comes from me carrying my sons on my back or shoulders when they were little. I sometimes still like to lift my 11 year-old up on my shoulders and carry him around. I plan to continue to carry them both until I’m just not physically able. Anyhow, I’m the bumbling hero. The bumbling hero is me.
By the end of the third book it should be clear that the Glorkian Warrior graphic novels are a sprawling metaphor about fatherhood and raising children.
I know you’re passionate about video games, and Baby Alien seems like the cutest homage to Super Metroid I’ve ever seen. Do you have any plans or hopes to work on another video game anytime soon?
Yeah, I love the baby Metroid from Metroid 2. I was definitely inspired by that for Baby Alien. I also took inspiration from Space Invaders and also my cats. My Baby Alien is like a space invader with a cute kitten face who sucks on your head like a baby Metroid.
Gosh I hope I make another video game. I’ve been designing some games, but I need to find a developer who’s willing to take them on and work with me. But if Glorkian Warrior is the only commercial video game I ever make, at least I had fun and it’s a good one. I’ll never stop designing new games in my mind, though.
A few years ago I invented a new version of chess that I’d like to turn into an iPad app, and I may have just found some guys who want to make it. We’ll see if they can handle it. Last year I invented a really cool new way for three people to play tic-tac-toe. I amaze myself with this stuff, probably more than I amaze anyone else.
What can readers look forward to in the third volume of Glorkian Warrior?
Gonk joins the Junior Junior Glorkian Warriors, we finally meet the Glorkian Super Grandma, and there’s a new villain introduced: Quackaboodle the Space God.
Any other upcoming projects you’re excited for readers to get their hands on?
Yes! I’m making another animated cartoon, a short pilot episode, for a major kids network. I think I’m not supposed to talk about it, and it’s killing me to keep quiet.
The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie will arrive in stores near you from First Second on March 17th.
The Elite Beat Staff is a trained squad of ninja masters.