Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Kudos to Kochalka

By Kelle Schillaci

MARCH 8, 1999:  Comic books rank somewhere above graffiti and somewhere below klezmer music in the pantheon of "Legitimate Art Forms." It's not for want of trying, though, that dooms comic books to such a lowly ranking in the popular mindset. Indeed, comic book writers and artists have netted themselves reverent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and at least one Pulitzer Prize (for Art Spiegelman's stunning graphic novel Maus). Still, most folks regard them as little more than juvenile entertainment.

Uncowed by such pervasive attitudes, certain comic book creators are still laboring to find a legitimacy in their chosen medium. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (Harper, 1994) was one of the first texts to treat comic books as an art form unto themselves. McCloud, a respected writer and artist, turned the medium inside out by using a comic book to examine comic books. The dazzlingly self-referential Understanding Comics became not only a groundbreaking analysis of graphic storytelling, but a first-rate textbook on the language of art in general.

Now, popular underground comic creator James Kochalka (Paradise Sucks, Tiny Bubbles, Mermaid) has followed up on the promise of McCloud's comic book wake-up call with two new books that both challenge and embrace the boundaries placed upon the medium of "sequential art."

The Horrible Truth about Comics (Alternative Press, 32 pages, $2.95) is a wonderfully philosophical musing on the art form which obviously obsesses Mr. Kochalka. Taking the form of a lengthy monologue, Horrible Truth employs a graphic stand-in for its author and artist (in this case, a Matt Groeningesque rabbit). While drifting off to sleep, our narrator spits out a stream-of-consciousness narrative examining what it is about the world of comic books that so engages him: "Comics are a way of creating a universe and populating it with characters using a secret code that works in the simplest and most direct way possible to enter the 'reader's' brain."

Less technical and more philosophical than McCloud's hallmark work, Horrible Truth seems most interested in finding out the "whys" of comic books and not the "hows." As he drifts in and out of an iconic dreamworld, Kochalka's artistic avatar comes to some stunningly lucid conclusions: "Art is not a way of conveying information. It's a way of understanding information. That is, creating a work of art is a means we have of making sense of the world, focusing to make it clearer, not a way of communicating some understanding of the world that we already hold. If you already hold a clear understanding of whatever, then there's no reason to create the work of art."

Monica's Story (Alternative Press, 32 pages, $2.95), also by James Kochalka, seems to follow up, in a narrative way, on the promise of Horrible Truth. Monica's Story is simply a graphic retelling of the recent presidential sex scandal--this time told from the perspective of White House intern and journalistic whipping girl Monica Lewinsky. After all the tiresome hype surrounding the scandal, the biggest surprise of Monica's Story is that it's both engaging and refreshing. Taking his info straight from Kenneth Starr's infamous report, Kochalka employs simple, cartoonish drawings to turn the sordid affair into some warped, sex-fueled version of "Cathy."

As hard as it is to believe, Kochalka's book actually elicits a great deal of sympathy for Lewinsky, who comes off less as an opportunistic starfucker and more as a lovestruck schoolgirl. Reducing (elevating?) the Starr Report to a series of cute cartoon illustrations allows it, as Kochalka states in The Horrible Truth about Comics, to work in the simplest and most direct way possible to enter the "reader's" brain. It really is amazing how a few simple drawings can so radically alter the perspective on such an over-exposed story.

Kudos to Kochalka for his continued efforts to reinterpret this under-appreciated art form.

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