Monday , June 24 2024
James Kochalka's latest graphic fantasy

Monkey Vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power

For many comic book readers, James Kochalka is the dividing line between art and genre comics.
The Vermont cartoonist has been prolific and ubiquitous: popping up in alternative comics anthologies (during the recent Free Comic Book Day, his work appeared in both Alternative Comics sampler collection and his own Peanut Butter and Jeremy freebie), then appearing in mainstream titles like last year’s Incredible Hulk annual (with a two-pager that showed the mighty green monster raging comically and ineffectually against a downpour) and finally in his own graphic novels and annual Sketchbook Diaries. Kochalka’s an artist recognized by comics fans who wouldn’t be caught dead reading non-superhero fare, but he’s also a hero to lovers of autobiographical strips.
That he’s able to do this utilizing a drawing style that is minimalist and thick-lined – joyfully handmade in an era where computer crafted short-cuts abound in the field (just read this week that DC Comics, for instance, is abandoning hand lettering for computer fonts) – is a testament, in part, to Kochalka’s tireless low-key self-promotion. (In his small way, he’s alt comics’ answer to Stan Lee.) Add a capacity for playfulness too often lacking among genre and art comics folk alike, and his appeal becomes even clearer.
Kochalka’s simple drawing style hearkens back to some of the earliest comic book artists (I see a lot of Captain Marvel‘s C.C. Beck in him), but for such a seemingly childlike artist, he can be remarkably evocative, especially when it comes to capturing the New England woods around him. His newest graphic novel, Monkey Vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power (Top Shelf), is a peak showcase for these less-is-more visualizations – a follow-up to Superstar Kochalka’s earlier song/video/graphic novel, Monkey Vs. Robot, that can stand by itself. Set in a primeval forest that we first see in the book’s opening aerial view full-page panel (showing pine trees, jutting rocks, river and waterfall that will all play a part in the action), Kochalka makes his setting a stronger presence than either of his two titular competitors.
The nature of the conflict is established quickly: the opening panels depict a lone monkey as he sniffs a solitary flower in the middle of the woods; he’s frightened into hiding by a clunky looking robot who uproots the flower to take it back to a Mother Computer for “knowledge extraction,” a process that utterly destroys the flower. The monkey is similarly scooped up by a second specimen-gather ‘bot, but the simian escapes before he can be fully extracted, disrupting the big computer’s Cognitive Reactors and causing a power surge that destroys one of the computer’s energy crystals. (Sure it’s all gobbledegook, but so’s much of the jargon parleyed in serious s-f comics!) The Mother Computer sends out a troupe of drone robots to gather a replacement crystal; they discover one in a monkey burial ground and remove it – only to face the wrath of a full tribe of outraged chimps.
Lots of potential thematic material imbedded here (nature vs. technology, communal vs. authoritarian tribes, religion vs. science), but as any kid’ll tell you, it’s really all just about a buncha largely indistinguishable monkeys and retro tin-plate robots dukin’ it out. Kochalka effectively seesaws the advantage between the two sides – at one point, recalling the Ewok Vs. Empire battle from Star Wars, at another pulling in robot hero imagery out of the old Ultraman TV series – though in the end, neither side emerges a clear victor. It all goes back to the forest.
As a graphic novel, Crystal of Power is appropriate for all but the youngest comic book readers (there are some bloody monkey deaths in the last quarter’s big battle and quite a few robots get decapitated, though I suspect that’ll be less upsetting to a kid reader). The dialog is minimal – a few robotic comments from computer and the robot commander, a few monosyllabic dialogs among the monkeys that at one point disturbingly reminded me of the goofy Superbaby stories from the early sixties – and primarily designed to move the action along. At one point, though, our lead robot, the antennaed Yellow Commander, anticipates the book’s finale with a simple observation. “Nature is formidable,” he notes, as he struggles through the thick forest growth.
And so it is. Whether suggesting morning haze with a few succinct broken lines or depicting a drenching downpour, Kochalka shows an almost Hawthorne-like blend of fear and appreciation for forces that dwarf both monkey and mechanical man. That he’s able to express this in a storytelling style that occasionally flirts with preciousness (that damn monkey dialog!) is itself a small wonder. In his own willfully naive New Englander boho fashion, James Kochalka is himself a creative force of nature. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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