Cartoonist James Kochalka has an impressive CV. He has a sizable body of work, which includes beloved series such as Johnny Boo, The Glorkian Warrior, Glork Patrol, Banana Fox, and Monkey vs Robot. He has won multiple Eisner and Ignatz awards. He was the first ever Cartoonist Laureate of the state of Vermont from 2011-2013. And when not making comics, he’s releasing music under James Kochalka Superstar.
Kochalka’s latest graphic novel is Dragon Puncher Punches Back, the third (and long-awaited) instalment of the award-winning Dragon Puncher series. How To Love Comics was lucky enough to chat with him about his new book and discuss his creative process, what it was like working with his sons, and what makes good kids comics.
How To Love Comics: Apart from the crossover with Johnny Boo in 2015, there hasn’t been a Dragon Puncher book since 2011. What made 2022 the right time to return to the series?
James Kochalka: My oldest son left for college in 2021. My kids always collaborated with me on these books when they were little by being face models for the characters. The month after Eli left for college, I drew the book. It really was a way to celebrate his existence, and to express appreciation for the life we shared together for 18 years. I missed him terribly, it was very painful to have him gone. But it was also a time of joy because it’s such a big important milestone in his life! Working on this awesome book really helped me to turn all my feelings of loss into feelings of joy and celebration.
HTLC: One of the elements of Dragon Puncher that differs from your other work is the incorporation of photography. Do the photographic elements change the way you approach making comics?
JK: The book might not have existed at all except that earlier in the year I woke up and there was an amazing fog that had formed over the field behind our house. Thicker than any fog I had ever seen. And I thought, I gotta photograph this for a Dragon Puncher book!
One of my great strengths as a cartoonist is facial expressions, but in these books I can’t draw facial expressions, because the character’s faces are photos. So my actors have to do the facial expressions themselves. When I draw my rough draft I draw the expressions and then later have the actors match what I drew. Sometimes I actually leave the faces blank in the rough, and then it’s more open to interpretation during the photography session.
So I direct. I’ll say like “smile and look this direction” and point or “make an angry face. No, angrier!” Pretty simple directions like that while I take dozens of photos.
HTLC: The photographic elements of Dragon Puncher also allow you to cleverly cast your sons and cat in the series. What do they think of being in the series?
JK: The cat really really hated having her photo taken, that’s for sure. She didn’t understand what I was doing, and found it mostly annoying, but put up with it alright. Spandy actually passed away back before I did Johnny Boo Meets Dragon Puncher, so I’m now using old photos of her from the sessions for the previous books.
My boys both love acting and have performed in more local theater productions than I could ever count. Dozens and dozens of shows. So they were pretty into it. But the main thing they really love about acting is hanging out with their friends and also the sense of accomplishment from successfully performing a show. I think they think of the books as more my thing that they helped me with as a favor. Some crazy project they helped dad with.
But they LOVED reading the books when they were little. And it will be so cool when they have their own kids and can read the books to them as bedtime stories… like you used to fight dragons when you were a little boy?! That’s AMAZING.
For this book I just reused photos from the sessions I took for previous books backs when the kids were little. At first I couldn’t quite decide whether or not to take new photos or use the old ones. I was going to take a set of new photos, just in case I needed them… but then suddenly it was the night before Eli was going of to college and I just felt it would be better for everyone not to cram one more potentially stressful deadline into our lives.
So Spoony is still like 10 years old in this book, but he was almost 18 in it. Maybe if I do another one, I’ll do it with BIG grownup Eli and big high school Oliver.
HTLC: Why does Dragon Puncher like punching dragons so much?
JK: Cats just LOVE to fight.
Spandy hated almost everyone, really a typical cranky cat. She loved me, though. It was funny to draw her in the book hanging out with the little kids because she really really hated children. But learned to tolerate them, just like the character in the book I guess.
HTLC: You’ve been pretty busy over the past few years, releasing multiple books for series such as Johnny Boo, Glork Patrol, and Banana Fox. What’s it like working on so many different things?
JK: It feels amazing. I really really does. The more I make the better I feel. I kind of loved the early days of the pandemic when I had my whole family home with me, so I wasn’t lonely, and nothing to do but draw and go on walks with them. I’m always productive, but I feel like I was especially productive then.
Coming out of lockdown has been difficult for me, I feel like pandemic lockdown kind of broke my brain and I didn’t notice until restrictions loosened up. I think my stories might be getting crazier and crazier.
HTLC: One thing that appeals to me about your work is the physical energy of your cartooning. What’s your secret to capturing that energy on the page?
JK: I’m so glad you noticed! We can kind of thank my dad for this. When I was little, I was frustrated a bit because I couldn’t draw more tight and polished like the pros could, and he was “I like your drawings better, because the characters have more energy and life.” So… I just worked on that… I worked on accentuating the part my dad liked. He didn’t read most of what I drew, so it’s not like he was my “audience.” But I took what he said to heart.
When I work now the first draft is always incredibly loose because I draw it so damn fast. Very gestural and full of energy. So, to keep that feelling, I just make sure I capture the rough exactly. Often I just straight up trace the rough. Any deviation from that first gestural drawing and the action can very quickly stiffen and die.
HTLC: What do you think makes good kids’ comics?
JK: Initially, with my first kids’ comics, I thought I was drawing for adults. It just turned out that kids liked them! So I really kind of fell into this. I think they liked them because I didn’t talk down to them, didn’t preach lessons at them, just told wild stories.
Now I have much more complex thoughts of exactly how to best ride the emotional roller coaster of the story to make the tension work best for kids. To make it exciting and dangerous but relieve the tension at precisely the rights points. It’s all in the doing, I’m not sure I can explain it.
HTLC: What comics have you been reading lately? Anything you would recommend for readers?
JK: Your Pal Fred by Michael Rex is a really good post-apocalyptic humorous adventure graphic novel for kids that came out recently. I liked that a lot.
HTLC: Finally, what’s next for James Kochalka?
JK: Music-wise I have a new single coming out Sept. 16 called The Mummy’s On the Loose. It’s a collaboration with punk band Rough Francis and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.
And I’ve been serializing a graphic novel called JIMMY’S ELBOW on my Patreon. It’s about a boy named Jimmy who has an elbow. I was kind of overwhelmed by having too many great ideas, so I looked at all my ideas and picked what I thought had to be the absolute WORST. And it’s been incredibly liberating. Just posted episode 100 of Jimmy’s Elbow and it’s still going strong. Lots of crazy stuff happening in this strip. His elbow is “alive.” I think my brain might be broken, but the comic is coming out amazing.