State of the Arts
How does it feel to be the first cartoonist laureate of Vermont? “It’s amazing. There are very few things that ever happen to someone that make you feel this good. I just feel great!”
So says James Kochalka , the Burlington-based, internationally beloved cartoonist, musician and writer. Even over the phone, you can tell he’s beaming about the title recommended by the Center for Cartoon Studies  in White River Junction and approved by Gov. Peter Shumlin. “Cartooning promotes literacy and literature, two things we can’t have enough of,” the gov pronounced for CCS’ press release this week.
Kochalka’s diary-esque “American Elf” runs in this newspaper and appears on his website daily — in fact, Tuesday’s installment is titled “Laureate.” In it, “Leigh,” his agent, calls to talk about the PR opportunities afforded by this new honor. But Kochalka begs off; he’s busy being a dad, making grapefruit-peel candy with his boys. Those would be Eli, 7, and Oliver, 3. Along with mom Amy, cat Spandy and an array of friends, they populate the cartoons, and provide Kochalka with some of his “kids say the darndest things” moments. As well as moments to muse over, sometimes darkly.
Though some readers don’t get his sensibility, Kochalka’s “American Elf” is a veritable “Family Circus” for the indie set, sans the sap. Since the cartoonist embraced children and family life, the naughtiness of previous work has largely disappeared. (One exception: the current adult superhero comic “SuperF*ckers.”) Of course, 43-year-old Kochalka’s fans are aging right along with him, raising families of their own. Not to mention buying his unending stream of sweet children’s books (Johnny Boo), listening to his music with James Kochalka Superstar, and watching one of his animations on Nickelodeon. And then there are the T-shirts. A personal fave? The one where the words “God is cute” encircle a supreme being who looks like a cross between an Amish elder and a troll doll.
What particularly pleases Kochalka about being named laureate, he says, is that “I’ve always been sort of wildly patriotic about being a Vermonter — I just love being a Vermonter, and it’s always informed my work. All my stories take place right here in Burlington.” Including the kids’ books. Even “SuperF*ckers” storylines, he points out, are generated in a field behind his house. Born in Springfield, Kochalka was studying art at the University of Vermont when his meteoric rise began — in those days, he gained notoriety as much for stripping naked during his punk-rock shows as for his emerging comix.
On March 10, CCS will celebrate Kochalka’s appointment with a series of events in Burlington, Montpelier, Springfield and White River Junction. CCS — which is attracting, and training, a new generation of cartoonists — will host an exhibit of Kochalka’s work. Look for more details on these pages.