Elf and Cat are Friends

Magic boy has just helped the robot go to the bathroom when he decides to brave a question. They've only met moments ago at this party, where the nameless robot had been on display, painting, before he asked Magic Boy for some help. So after he hoists the robot up to the toilet and opens his spigot, Magic Boy washes his hands and asks the robot about the relationship between his apparent self-awareness and his painting. "When I paint," says the robot, "all other thoughts are driven from my mind." Magic Boy looks down at him and says, "That's it?"

James Kochalka's simply illustrated comics, which star Magic Boy, a bucktoothed, pointy-eared elf, run the risk of striking readers as similarly transparent. How meaningful can cute stories about elves and robots and cats be, anyway?

Kochalka's work includes both the mundane and the casually fantastic. In his newest book, Tiny Bubbles (Highwater Books), Magic Boy and his girlfriend Amy go up to the roof to share a cigarette, and realize that they can temporarily fly. Earlier that day, Magic Boy goes to the art-supply store, asks if his Chartpak shading film has come in yet, and then spends four pages arguing that he can't use a computer to shade his pieces like other artists do.

"That's one of the things that I'm interested in," Kochalka says over the phone from his home in Burlington, Vt. "Basically to explain what it feels like to me to be alive, to be a human being. And that includes a lot of the day-to-day stuff." As recently as three years ago, Kochalka had shown only a glimmer of promise. Something deeper hid in works like his Magic Boy and the Word of God, but it was eclipsed by a poor sense of panel composition and occasionally clunky prose. With the recent release of Quit Your Job and Tiny Bubbles, however, Kochalka has emerged as a talent to be reckoned with. Armed with an effortless sense of sequential narrative and a new grasp of natural dialogue, Kochalka's work now delivers a joyful vitality that's fresh, nuanced, and deceptively profound.

In Quit Your Job, Kochalka delivers an ambling, bittersweet rhapsody on the thrills and dangers of taking risks, with companions or on your own. Tiny Bubbles is a bit more manic, beginning with Magic Boy obsessing about his body: about the titular tiny bubbles he once found under a blister on his finger, about his newfound power of making any body part hurt by thinking about it. ("I bet if I thought about it every day," he says, "I could give myself cancer.") Meeting the newly created robot at a friend's party, Magic Boy sees himself pitifully reflected in the mechanical artist, who tells him, "I'm not very well designed." Magic Boy takes him under his wing the next day, trying to teach him to discover his own connectedness to the vastness and grace of the cosmos.

It might seem like a questionable artistic choice to address the classical Western mind/body dichotomy by using elves and robots. But "if it were drawn as more serious," says Kochalka, "it would make us all sick to read it, it would be so pretentious." Rendered with thick lines, knobby hands, and dots for eyes, Kochalka's characters fly under the radar of an increasingly skeptical and ironic age.

Kochalka, for his part, seems just as interested in conveying a sense of wonder as in unpacking philosophical coffee talk. Much of Quit Your Job, for example, focuses on nothing more intellectual than the intensely affectionate relationship between Magic Boy and his cat, who calls his owner "Daddy." (Not being sickened by their interaction depends, perhaps, on being a cat worshiper.) In Tiny Bubbles, when Magic Boy and his girlfriend first arrive at the party, Magic Boy checks out the spread with glee: "All right! Snacks! I love parties with snacks." There are heavy questions in Kochalka's stories, sure--questions about death and freedom and purpose and happiness. But there are also snacks. And kittens, and snowflakes, and wide, starry nights.

 
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