James Kochalka is a comic artist and musician, and now he’s a video game designer too. The awesome, prolific creator took some time in February 2010 to answer Dan Copulsky’s questions about his comics, life, and new venture.
You’ve been doing daily diary strips for over ten years. You’ve created a rather extensive portrait of your life and self, but there are some limitations to the form. You only have a few panels for each comic, and each generally has to focus on one day. Taken as a whole, do you feel like there’s anything missing from American Elf, or do you feel like it shows a pretty accurate picture of you and your life?
Both actually… it’s pretty accurate AND there’s lots and lots missing. But what I omit, either by design or accident, can be just as important as what I show in the strip. For as much as I reveal, I don’t reveal everything, and some things are only hinted at. It’s actually a strength of the strip. It’s a simple fact that our fellow human beings will always remain unknowable on some level. No matter how much you know about somebody, the vast majority of their life still remains secret. And so it goes with my strip as well. You will get to know me quite intimately by reading the strip, yet still the majority of my life will remain veiled. Basically, I reveal as much as one might reveal to a really really close friend.
Your website once required visitors to pay a small monthly subscription fee to read your comics. A couple of years ago you switched it so that most of your work was available to anyone but only subscribers could see some bonus material. Did the change have a noticeable effect on the number of visitors or subscribers?
Ultimately, no. Although there was a HUGE rush of attention when the site changed over from the subscription only model to the mostly free model. I think a few hundred thousand visitors came to American Elf in just a few days. It’s basically evened out.
The important thing about having the archives free is that it’s very useful for attracting new readers, and I can’t really get new subscribers if I don’t attract new readers. In the long run, it’s kept the site making money. Even though it doesn’t make any more than it did under the old system, at least it doesn’t make less… which is the direction things were heading before I switched.
Your two sons have appeared regularly in your diary strips since they were born. Oliver might still be too young to really understand what’s going on, but Eli must be pretty aware of your work. Does it seem like being a character in a well-read comic makes life more exciting or do you think growing up with it just makes it normal?
Both! That’s actually part of the point of American Elf… that the “normal” stuff in our lives is actually magical and exciting, if you’re open to it.
Being a character in my strip is something that Eli really likes, for now at least. He’s only 6. He even seems to like the attention that he receives from fans. The strip runs in our local newspaper, Seven Days, and people often recognize them on the street just by hearing me call their names. People hear “Eli and Oliver” and their ears perk up and they ask, are you from American Elf? He thinks it’s cool.
What happens if your kids become teenagers and are totally embarrassed by your comics about them? Would you stop putting them in comics? Would you take older strips out of your archives?
I expect they both will eventually reach an age where they don’t want that kind of attention drawn to themselves. I’m prepared to navigate those treacherous waters. I can easily just refocus the strip more prominently on myself, for instance.
No way in hell would I remove the strips from the archives. I don’t think they will ask for that, and if they did, well I’ll have to make some other compromise. My friend Steve Bissette suggests just paying them royalties.
How do you manage the time you spend working on art? For projects that you’re not necessarily doing a little every day, do you have deadlines (imposed by yourself or others)? Do you spend a set amount of time working on things every day or work when you’re inspired?
I do very little work that has a real “deadline,” so I don’t have to worry about that. But it’s still a trick to manage the time. I work when Oliver is napping or after Eli and Oliver have gone to bed at night, or sometimes a manage to steal a few minutes here and there. Eli is in first grade, so he’s gone all day, but Oliver only goes to day care two days a week… so I have just two days a week to really concentrate and get work done.
You’ve done a wide variety of creative projects, including diary strips, vulgar superhero comics, children’s books, paintings, and music. Is there anything else you’d still like to do, like drawing a really serious memoir or writing a novel?
One of my big dreams, since I was a little boy, has been to design a video game. So… a few years ago, I just started working on it… designing it on paper, working on the character and gameplay ideas. Then recently I was introduced to a small indie video game company called Pixeljam. I happened to be a huge fan of their games Dino Run and Mountain Maniac… and it turns out that they were huge fans of my comic.
So… we started work on my video game idea together. It’s called Glorkian Warrior. It combines my hand-drawn art style with their low-rez pixel graphics style. The bulk of the game is hand drawn, but Glorkian Warrior has a little pixel-robot version of himself in his pocket who can go into little caves and tunnels, where you play old-school style single-screen levels. We’re trying to fund the project through Kickstarter, and there’s a lot more information about it on our page there.
How much of your attraction to comics and video games is the same (like love for storytelling and art) and how much is different (like love for the interactivity of games)?
One of the things that I love about art is that it opens up a magical space for you to enter and explore. This feeling happens in novels, comics, music… but especially in video games.
Did you expect the game to actually get made when you started designing it?
I think I started work on it when one of my readers said, “Hey, I make videogames, do you want me to help you make a videogame?” We were going to make it as a GameBoy Advance game. So I started work on it, but they were really too busy and I never really heard much from them again. But I kept on working on the game on my own… mostly in my mind, but also sketching things on paper. And then I drew a short Glorkian Warrior comic for Pop Gun, and then I started working on a Glorkian Warrior graphic novel, which I’m about 2/3rds of the way done inking at this point.
Do you think you would have found a way to get the game made if you hadn’t been introduced to Pixeljam? Did those expectations shape the way you imagined or worked on the plans for the game?
My hope was to find someone to make the game eventually. But I wanted to be sure I found someone pretty professional and not flakey that would actually be able to put the work in and get the thing made.
I tried to keep my design ideas simple enough that I could explain them to a collaborator easily. I tried to hone the ideas in the game to something clear and precise and fun that a collaborator could make quickly and easily without much fuss. I actually came up with 2 or 3 clear different game ideas, but when I hooked up with Pixeljam they loved them all so much that they insisted that we combine them into one game. And then we all got so excited that it started to balloon wildly as we got more and more crazy ideas. But we know we can’t explore every idea or the game won’t get made… we’d just go on for infinity thinking up new amazing features, so we’re prepared to cut things back to the core.
Could you describe what the game’s going to be like once it’s ready?
We’ve made a very simple rough prototype of the basic gameplay elements, and it’s fun. The core of the game is good, it’s really strong. Basically, it’s sort of a combination of Super Mario Bros. and Galaga with some gravity flipping.
Here’s the premise: The Glorkian Warrior is supposed to patrol his asteroid field, but he lost the keys to his Glorkian Supercar, so now he has to go look for them. So, he follows his patrol route on foot from asteroid to asteroid, looking for his keys. He has a Super Backpack that he uses to shoot space-invadery type aliens flying above him, but there’s other creatures on the ground that he can jump on and bounce off of and stuff.
But he also has a little robot version of himself in his pocket that he can send into little secret caves to look for his keys and stuff. In the caves you will play an old-school style pixel-graphic version of the game. It’s going to be really cool.