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Comics Review: American Elf: Book Three by James Kochalka

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For 10 years, the best comic strip in America hasn’t been in your newspaper. It’s been online, over at James Kochalka’s hilarious, surreal and silly daily diary strip, “American Elf.” Cartoonist and musician Kochalka began drawing “American Elf” on a bit of a whim back in 1998, but seen from the vantage point of 10 years’ worth of strips — that’s 3,600 and counting! — it’s clear this is his finest achievement as an artist.

The latest handsome volume, American Elf: Book Three (Top Shelf), collects all the strips from 2006 and 2007 in a colour edition. “Life is not structured like a typical narrative,” he noted in an introduction to his first collection. “Stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Life has ins and outs and ups and downs and backs and forths of endless repetition.” It’s saying something then that the strip has remained vibrant, frequently hilarious, as it focuses on the mundane realities of one guy’s life.

Kochalka wasn’t the first person to do a daily comic diary, but he’s certainly the best. Not every installment of “Elf” has been a winner in the past decade, but he’s shown a consistent willingness to experiment with the form, to challenge himself. Admittedly, the strips collected in Book Three veer more than ever to kid humor, but his two children are the focus of James’ life right now. As a dad to a young kid myself I find “Elf” rings wonderfully true about the ectsasy — and occasional agony — of raising boys. Occasionally it can all be an overdose of cute, but the real moments that sneak in provide a balance. A series of strips dealing with a pregnancy miscarriage are heartbreaking in their simplicity. True, Kochalka doesn’t quite live a “normal life” any more –- jetting off for comic conventions, performing his rock shows while being a stay-at-home dad to two kids — but that just provides grist for the mill. He may not be a starving artist any more, but he remains a quite interesting one.

Kochalka’s style is simple of first glance, but he has a real command of the language of cartoons. The goofy “elf” characters he uses to portray himself and his family (and other oddball icons, such as his friend Jason who’s always seen as a Snoopy-esque dog) mask an eye for dialogue (the kid-speak coming from the mouth of his son Eli is right on with what a 4-year-old thinks like, I find). Life in Kochalka-land is frequently quite absurd, but the strip is never less than real.

Without getting too fancy-pants pretentious about it all, American Elf: Book Three shows us that life is art, and art is life, and, gosh darn, it makes for some pretty good comic strips along the way.

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