James Kochalka Trade Post: Sketchbook Diaries Volumes 1 & 4

Written & drawn by James Kochalka
Reviewing a journal comic is kind of a funny thing because it feels like you’re judging someone elses life, which is something I try to avoid. How people live their lives is always interesting to me and I like getting whatever glimpses I can but, for me, there’s sometimes that sense of voyeurism that I’m not always comfortable with.

I’ve had the first and fourth volumes of James Kochalka’s Sketchbook Diaries in my to-read box for years and just never got around to them. I’ve read a few of his works here and there, but have only ever reviewed Superf*ckers over on UGO.com, a book I didn’t like as much as I hoped I would. I purposefully didn’t look the author up on Wiki because I wanted to base my mental image of him purely from these two volumes of one to four panel cartoons he’s done every day. The first volume collects adventures from October 26th, 1998 to October 22nd, 1999 while the fourth covers January 16th, 2002 to January 29th, 2003. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Kochalka draws himself as an elfish character called Magic Boy, often drawing other people he encounters in cartoony ways (his wife Amy also look elfish, his friend Jason is always a dog, another friend has one giant eye and background characters often look like harmless monsters or aliens). Every day he chooses some aspect of his life to draw about and does a comic of it. We’re talking everything from buying the sketchbook he draws these strips in to recollections of dreams to talks of his wife’s pregnancy. Here, I’ll just copy what Kochalka said in the beginning of the first volume:

“I draw myself as a happy elf named ‘Magic Boy.’ Since October 1988 I have kept a diary in comic strip form. I wanted to explore the rhythm of daily life, to become more conscious of what it really means to live. Sleeping, eating, thinking, talking, day in & day out. My body & it’s actions, my surroundings, my mind & its thoughts, and the people I love…Life is not structured like a typical narrative. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Life has ins & outs and ups & downs and backs & forths of endless repetition and endless distraction. The story of my life is not a story at all. But I think you’ll find the reality of one humans’ life compelling enough.”

The most interesting aspect of reading these collections of another person’s interpretation of their life is how scattershot it seems at times, which goes back to the whole idea that this is not a story in the traditional sense. Locations often jump around without any explanation, Amy disappears on trips to places we’re never made privy to and events are discussed but not referred to for some time (like his potential cartoon, something I really need to look up and see what happened to).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book to me is the difference between how relationships are drawn on the page and how they might be different in the real world. The first book has a character called New Guy who seems to be a friend of James’ but there are lots and lots of mentions of them getting into fights, but we never see them on the page. There’s also mentions that Amy and James fight a lot, but we’re mostly shown the aftermath or James snapping at Amy. By distilling his life down into something so short and sweet as a short cartoon a day, Kochalka not only creates a daily newspaper-like strip filled with interesting characters and jokes, but also builds a mystery around his life that sucks the reader in. I want to know more about this guy. It took a lot for me to not jump right on Wiki or find his personal website to learn even more, but I did. I’m also interested in picking up the second and third volumes of Sketchbook Diaries along with any that might have come out after that. Funny and sometimes offensive (depending on how sensitive you might be) I always got the feeling that these strips were nailing down a form of truth, whether that be how events actually went down or how the felt to the writer, there’s a real heart and honesty to these comics that I really appreciate. I’ve tried the journal comic route a few times and I always punk out, partly because my art is terrible and partly because I get busy with other things, so I’m really impressed with Kochalka and anyone else who can keep up on these kinds of things.

2 thoughts on “James Kochalka Trade Post: Sketchbook Diaries Volumes 1 & 4

  1. Hey TJ, you’re missing out on almost 10 years of James’s diary comics! It’s called AMERICAN ELF now and he’s still doing it – the whole archive is available for free (in color since 2002) on his web site http://www.americanelf.com ! Boy, you’ve got some great reading ahead of you. Don’t worry, you should be able to read those without spoiling your image of James.

    Full disclosure, we at Top Shelf publish James’s books – there are three volumes of AMERICAN ELF books if you want to get them. But the whole strip is free on his site.

    1. Oh excellent, thanks Leigh. I’m checking out American Elf online right now to see what I’ve missed. You’re right it’s a lot of stuff. By the way, I’m a huge fan of Top Shelf. Thanks for the comment!

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