interviews with comics types part 1 james kochalka

i recently came across some old files from my undergrad days when i was still a fiction writing major at columbia college.

way back in 1999 i conducted brief email interviews with a few different comic book artists/writers about their creative processes. it was for an essay in one of my fiction writing classes. in the essay i was going to compare/contrast the writing processes of writers of fiction/prose and that of comics creators.

the writing process info of the fiction/prose types came from anthologies of interviews conducted back in the day with stuffy old writers like hemingway, gertrude stein, etc. i did the interviews and selected relevant bits from the dead author interviews. but i never got around to synthesizing the whole thing. cuz i was a slacker and i lost interest in the project. i find that i’m more interested in what the people have to say themselves than in synthesizing and coming up with something else to say about it. oh well.

the comics people that i interviewed were james kochalka, megan kelso and ed brubaker. they were all super nice and generous with their time and i thank them for that. i also apologize to them for never finishing the project. but i thought that even after all these years, the interviews might still be of interest to people. so without further ado here’s the first of the interviews. this one, with james kochalka, is from may of 1999.

Part One

How long have you been writing?

Well I started writing and drawing comics when I was in the third grade. My mom says I started drawing before I learned to walk. In 5th grade I got interested in writing prose stories, and would spend most of my recesses sitting on the fire escape working on my “novel.” Drew a lot of comics in Junior High and High School, but in college I got into oil painting and pretty much quit doing comics for a long time, several years. Gradually I realized that was a mistake, and dove back into comics more voraciously than ever before.

Did you always write comics or did you start in other forms?

I started writing and drawing comics simultaneously, with a brief flirtation with prose but then back to comics. (see above answer)

When you sit down to write how do you prepare, do you have any rituals that you go through?

I try to relax. Otherwise, I sit and worry and can’t think of anything. Ideas form when I’m active, walking around town. They take months to percolate before I can start making sense of them on paper.

What is your writing schedule and when are you most productive?

I don’t really have a schedule. I don’t have a job so I just work on my comics whenever I feel like it, which is most of the time. I’m always very productive.

How much auto-bio goes into your stories?

A lot! All the important stuff in my stories, the emotional core, comes from my real life. Also the characters are usually based on myself and my friends and usually even have the same names… (people’s nicknames make good comic character names.)

Do you have a clear idea of what you’re going to write about ahead of time, or does it just come to you as you write?

I work over pieces of stories in my mind for months before I put them down on paper. When the time is right and I sit down to work, the pieces all come together quite suddenly.

What is your rewriting method? How many times do you have to rewrite before your happy with a story?

I do my rewriting on the fly while I’m working on the story. And in comics rewriting means redrawing as much as anything else. Also, I don’t even always start at the beginning and work to the end. For my book KISSERS (available soon) I started with a scene at the end, and worked my way back with earlier and earlier scenes then linked them all together and then reworked it to smooth it out.

What books influenced you most? Which authors did you learn from? (comics and fiction)

I liked the Mumintroll books and the Narnia books as a kid. But they don’t reflect the adult nature of the work I do now. In college I read a lot of books for grownups but was never that excited by them. I try and meld the wonder of a childrens book with the emotional weight and intellect of the adult world.

Do you write in any other medium?

I write songs, and record cd’s. The process is similar, however I need help to record (musicians, etc as I don’t know how to play and instrument (sic) and I can draw comics all by myself. The basic premise is the same: mulling over bits of lyrics and melodies for a long time before they very suddenly become whole songs.

Have you consciously tried to developed a style?

My style just sort of happened. After an important period of experimentation, I just grew into it. However, I’m working on a comic now called Sunburn that is drawn realistically instead of cartoony like I usually draw. It just happened to be the right style for the story.

I know it’s a vague lame question, but how do you come up with your stories?

Many seem to be based on real life events, but you twist them into these weird, lonely philosophical things.

How do you decide what will make interesting stories?

Well, if I notice a correlation between various events from my life, if I see that certain events seem to add meaning to each other, I put them together in the form of a story.

Is there anything else that you want to say that you feel is important to the essay?

Gosh, I don’t know! In comics the writing is as much about drawing and vice versa.

Part Two

In the first set of answers you said that your style came about after an important period of experimentation. Could you explain or describe what that period was, what was going on? What you were going through?

Well, I was doing comics in a weird mish-mash of styles, both cartoony and realistic with techniques borrowed and translated from other media, like oil painting. Basically it was a desperate attempt to find some way to tell these stories. Slowly I eased it to my main style as the best way to get the job done.

When a story is forming in your head does it begin as a visual impression that eventually grows into a narrative? Or is it something different?

Usually when a story forms in my head it starts as a collection of real events from my actual life. I notice that a group of my memories seem to be forming a pattern and then I write a story that links these elements together.

Some writers say they feel possessed when they are writing, like the words just spill out of them. Is this how it is for you or is there a different thing happening?

I guess it’s really much slower. I’ll write only a few sentences at a time, which might equal four pages of comics, spend the next few days drawing them, and then write a little bit more. However, my new favorite way to write is with a visual shorthand of little sketched panels and word balloons which I then go back to later and re-do and polish up. This is much more immediate. I don’t really work in feverish spurts of energy however. I feel like I’m always working. Nearly every second of my life as I live it is being considered for its possible use in a future story. For the past eight months, in addition to my other projects, I’ve been working on my journal. Every day I draw a short autobiographical strip in my sketchbook about what happened that day.

What’s your fascination with outer space? Where did that come from?

Fantasy. My mind becomes excited when I’m presented with a change in scenery. I become euphoric when the regular world is covered over by a blanket of snow, or when swimming, or I imagine in outer space as well.

Is there a different process, (or different techniques used), that you go through for a longer work like Tiny Bubbles versus the shorter ones, like the mini comics or short story type comics? Is one more planned out structurally than the others?

Very short comics, one to twelve pages or so are more planned out than the longer ones. The longer ones take so long to complete that I myself have already changed as a person by the time I complete them, so the thrust of the narrative changes as well.

Once again, is there anything else you want to add that you feel needs to be said?

No. Ha ha!

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