American Elf: By James Kochalka By Megan Pants

I first heard of James Kochalka through Ben Snakepit. I found the American Elf website (www.americanelf.com), and started reading some of the posted strips. It had a strange effect on me: I didn’t necessarily like it, but I kept reading. When I saw this in the review pile, I moved it, and moved it daily, but didn’t commit to taking it for about two weeks.

This is a collection of over five years of Kochalka’s daily one- to four-panel journal comics. He draws himself as an elf, his friend as a dog, another friend kind of looks like a walking popover, and the majority of everyone else looks probably pretty close to how they appear in real life, except with only one eye, or no eyes, or sideways eyes. I was hooked quickly and read through the whole thing during three nights before-bedtime reading sessions. The majority of the strips concentrate on his relationship with his wife, his cat, several friends, and himself.

There were more than a few panels that had me laughing out loud, but those were equalled, if not outnumbered by those that just left me with little more than a “huh.” The relationship Kochalka has with his cat, Spandy, actually made me laugh the most. I’m not much of a cat person, but the Kochalka interacts with Spandy as if she is human, which actually becomes really funny.

It’s impossible for me to read this, let alone write about it, without drawing a parallel to Snakepit. There is something addictive in learning about characters/authors/artists through not only the highlights, but also through the small and mundane daily acts. Unlike how I feel towards Ben, I don’t know if I’d like to know Kochalka. He seems like the kind of person that I would know as an acquaintance, but we’d never get beyond that because we approach similar situations in very different ways. This might be why I felt like it was too awkward to be comfortable reading it. I wanted to step in and tell him to take back his words, or to let something go. I got annoyed that so many of his downfalls were, to me, transparent. I could see the outcome when the triggers had barely begun. My annoyance came because I thought the problems were easily avoidable, but I’m sure that if anyone had a chance at an objective look at the mistakes and choices I’ve made, those decisions could easily appear avoidable just as well. The uneasiness was caused by feeling trapped between liking Kochalka and grimacing through his troubles, or not caring about the problems, which led to a general apathy for not only his troubles, but for him completely.

As I said earlier, I felt tied to it: almost like an unwanted addiction. So much of me wanted to put it down, but I can’t say that I wasn’t getting some sort of satisfaction out of it. What part of me was satisfied by which elements in the book, I’m not sure I’ll know. –Megan (Top Shelf, PO Box 1282, Marietta, GA 30061-1282)