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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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11/09/2004 Archived Entry: "Comic review: "American Elf""

American Elf
by James Kochalka
Top Shelf Productions

Everyday life may be one of the toughest subjects for comics. Saving the world from alien invasion sounds exciting because, well, it probably would be. But topics like brushing one's teeth or petting a cat are more difficult to work with because they are so familiar. What can the artist find to add to something the reader already understands so well?

James Kochalka tackled this problem in American Elf. In October of 1998, Kochalka started keeping a daily diary in the form of a comic strip. American Elf collects an astounding five years worth of this material. These days when I think of diaries I think of blogs, and in fact the current day's strip can be seen online

Once I realized that the diary would contain all of 2001, I naturally became curious about the entry for September 11. That day so overshadows the rest of the year that I had to skip ahead in the book to see it. I am not sure what I was expecting, but Kochalka did capture the shock and confusion that Americans felt on that day and the day after. After reading those two strips, I could return to taking in the book in chronological order.

These black and white, four panel strips do not sparkle with technical wizardry, nor are they consistently funny. The simple, direct drawing style evolved very little over five years, suggesting perhaps that Kochalka knew what he wanted all along. But even though any given day's strip may or may not succeed as a stand-alone work, American Elf taken as a whole is brilliant. It perfectly captures the rhythms of daily life, and the sheer scale of five years worth of material allows it to gradually draw the reader in to Kochalka's world.

The book has a sweet, charming quirkiness that adds enjoyment to the mundane subject matter. For example, Kochalka draws his friend Jason as a cute dog for no apparent reason, and draws himself and his wife as pointy-eared elves. Though they inhabit the familiar everyday world we all know, it is a world seen through Kochalka's unique perspective, which may be what makes it work so well. Just as Seinfeld was "a show about nothing" but still a great TV classic, American Elf is an instant classic as a comic diary. Recommended.

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