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Q & A with James Kochalka
Tell us a little bit about yourself - where did you grow up?
I grew up in a little town in Vermont. A dead machine tool town. It's even more dead now than it was when I was growing up. Most of the storefronts on mainstreet are empty, and most of the ones that aren't empty seemed to be filled with stores that don't look like they could make any money. Like someone just pulled a bunch of junk out of their basement to sell, or small weird little church is using a storefront for services.
What is your favorite story from "the good old days"?
My favorite story from when we were in college together? I guess the fact that we were all almost kicked out of grad school at the Maryland Institute in the first three weeks due to general obnoxiousness, is always a little funny to think of. Basically, I don't think much of the obnoxious stuff we did is so cool anymore. It was fun at the time, but it's embarrassing now.

There was that little dog we found in the park that we brought back to live in the painting studios. He liked us at first, but then every day he would obey our commands less and less, till eventually he ran away, I guess. Someone said he ran away, I don't know. At least he stayed around long enough to pee on the paintings of some girl who hated us all.

Now see, even that relatively harmless story is sort of embarrassing now. But not as embarrassing as spitting on people in bars! I can't believe I used to spit on people in bars! Giant Derrick & Riche would back me up, so no harm ever came to me.
What was your first band? What was their "hook"?
My first band was Divot Head. This is back in high school, like 1983-1985. It was a sort of new wave & punk band with a surprising amount of influence from Rush. The next band was Jazzin' Hell. Casio keyboard, saxophone, and vocals. Oh, and one guy had a bass that he welded out of solid steel and played with a drumstick. I still play a lot of Jazzin' Hell songs with my current band, James Kochalka Superstar. I like to resurrect those songs that I wrote back when I was 18, 19, 20... it keeps my music youthful sounding.
Back in grad school you spent most of your time painting and eating peanut butter sandwiches- do you still paint? Do you still love peanut butter? Do you still watch Kojak?
I don't remember ever watching Kojak. I only ate peanut butter sandwiches because it was cheap. I was too cheap to even pay for jelly! I'd also eat plain spaghetti, no sauce. I'd steal butter from my roomates. Microwaved hot dogs. Occasionally a can of vegetables, so I wouldn't drop dead. I think I spent about $5 a week on groceries... this is 1989-1991. What's that in 2006 dollars?
Your comic creation "Dead Bear Circus Detective" was an early favorite of mine. How has your work matured since then? Has it "immatured" as well?
When I was doing Dead Bear, I didn't even try to draw well. I thought drawing badly was funnier. But I was more just being goofy and weird than being funny, anyhow. I guess my work now is similar in that regard, it's still goofy and weird, but now I'm also trying to explore the depths of my own humanity at the same time.

I still paint, but with a totally different mindset than I used to. It's much more casual, and the paintings are really tiny. Most are 2 x 2 inches.
Can you describe an "arm dance" to our readers? When was the last time you did one? What's the going rate to get you to do one in a public restaurant these days? Could you draw one?
Basically, you swing your arms around violently, back & forth and up and down. All the blood rushes to your fists, and your veins will stick out wildly. It's been a long time since I really tried to do a good one. I did a half-assed one somewhere recently for someone who asked about it. But back then, like, the arm dance was the only thing I was famous for, it's all I had going for me. Now, I'm famous for a lot more than the arm dance. I don't so much need it anymore.
Your music and your comics have clearly been very important to you and a very public means of expression. Do you have any other hobbies or passions that have been equally important, but perhaps more private?
I'm really really into having sex with my wife. She wouldn't want me to talk about that, though. I also like video games, a lot. I spend a lot of time on video game message boards arguing with teenage boys.
In your comics you often depict people as animals, or elves, or robots. Have you ever portrayed an animal as a human? How do you make these decisions? Did you ever piss anyone off with how they appeared in your work?
I don't think I ever portrayed an animal as a human, but that's a good idea! I choose how to draw someone on a loose set of guidelines, I suppose, based on what the person looks like and what the person's personality is like. Mutants, that's another category... animals (mostly dogs, turtles, bears and birds so far... oh, cats too), mutants, robots, elves, humans. I have one friend who absolutely refuses to let me draw him in the strip. Everyone else seems very eager to appear. But begging to be drawn into my strip is a real turn off. It lower the chances that you'll get in, that's for sure.
How have computers and the Internet impacted your work? Do you still draw with traditional media? Would you have been able to find your audience without them?
I draw with brush and india ink on 2-ply bristol paper and scan it into the computer. Then I color the drawings in Photoshop.

The main thing that computers have done is put me in direct contact with my audience. Now I can post my latest daily diary strip at americanelf.com and within minutes a reader might be commenting on it on the message board.
You've been an early adopter of technologies like mp3's for your music and web-based serialization for your American Elf sketchbook (you could call it a visual blog). Are you a computer geek, or do you rely on the geekiness of others?
Oh, I'm part geek, in that that I think tech stuff is really cool, but I don't have 3leet techie skillz of my own [sic]. I've got a web guy, Joey Manley, who does all the coding for my website.
Mac or PC?
Nintendo DS or PSP?
Nintendo DS. Although, I'm tempted to pick up a PSP, but one can't get everything. The Nintendo DS just has better games right now, and it's touch screen allows for a lot of interesting and innovative gameplay ideas.
Your autobiographical work indulges often in the playful and child-like, but it also deals quite matter-of-factly with grown up topics like sex and death. Is your innocent side always a little tainted? Do you have to restrain yourself when it comes to projects for the Nickelodeon crowd?
My innocent side is probably always a little tainted, yeah. I wish I could be a little more pure, I don't know. Nickelodeon magazine has never complained, so maybe it's pure enough. I don't have any trouble working with them, it's great fun.
Did you always know you'd be a Superstar?
I always thought I already was.
And now a very special guest question from A.D.D., the host of Kochalkaholic:

James, what do you think are the ten best comics of the past 10 years? Just wondering what comics still get you excited about the medium...
What an impossible question! That's more than 10, and I included myself. I could go on and on... there's a LOT of work that makes me excited about the medium.