Master Spotlight – James Kochalka

James Kochalka is an influential American comic book artist and a rock musician. His comics blend fantasy details into autobiographical scenes and stories. His most ambitious project is an ongoing comic strip diary, American Elf.

James grew up in Springfield, Vermont. He earned an MFA in painting from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He spent six years working in a Chinese restaurant before quitting his job to create comics and music. He documented the story in one of his first graphic novels, Quit Your Job.

In comics, Kochalka draws himself as a long-eared elf, sometimes named “Magic Boy.” Other recurring characters include his wife, Amy; their sons, Eli and Oliver; their cats, Spandy and Nooko; and his bandmate, Jason Cooley, drawn as a Snoopy-like dog. Since 1998, the cartoonist has recorded their adventures in a daily comic strip diary, American Elf. The cartoons can be read online or in a series of collected books published by Top Shelf.

Kochalka’s comics are characterized by bright color, fantasy elements, and simplicity. He believes strongly that simplicity is desirable in comics, and he has debated cartoonists who disagree with him. His “Craft is the Enemy” essays were collected into his 2005 book, The Cute Manifesto.

Kochalka’s other artwork include graphic novels, children’s books, cartoons, and video games. He has created comics for Marvel Comics, Nickelodeon, and Star Wars. His children book characters include Eisner Award-winning Dragon Puncher, a dragon fighting cat; Johnny Boo, a kid ghost; Pinky & Stinky, spacefaring pigs; and more. His superhero cartoon, Superf*ckers, is in production now. And he is collaborating with Pixel Jam to create a Glorkian Warrior video game.

In addition to these endeavors, James Kochalka is the lead singer of a rock and roll band called James Kochalka Superstar. He also teaches comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. It may be premature to called him a comics master, but he has already earned Ignatz, Harvey, and Eisner awards; he continues to apply his skills to new mediums, new genres, and new ideas; and he is an outspoken voice in the comics industry.

In 2011, James Kochalka was named the cartoonist laureate of Vermont. He lives in Burlington with his wife and kids. You can follow his work online at

My students are still studying Shepard Fairey in school. So, this month is my chance to mention any artist that I really like. I have enjoyed James Kochalka’s work since I discovered it in college. It is fun and inspiring. My appreciation grows as I get older though. His autobiographical comics are so candid that they frequently tackle big subjects like parenthood, aging, anger, and death. Read from beginning to end, his diary strips reveal a rhythm to daily life that’s comforting and truly beautiful.

Portrait of James Kochalka by yours truly, Rama Hughes

American Elf comic strip by James Kochalka

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Posted by Rama on 09/02/12 under artists
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