American Elf (Book 2): The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka
by James Kochalka (Top Shelf, 2007)

In his entry for March 6, 2004, James Kochalka dreams the following negative review:

Once vital and passionate, the Sketchbook Diaries is slowly but surely degenerating into a pale simulacrum of its former essence. The strips seem to relate less and less to real life than they do to previous strips. The Diary is becoming increasingly self-reflexive, developing its own internal logic. However, it is a logic increasingly divorced from reality, and increasingly inconsequential.

Well, this is the first Kochalka work this reviewer has read, but in the context of the two years of daily diaries covered in American Elf (Book 2): The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka, the author's subconscious criticism rings true.

We get to see arbitrary snippets of Kolchaka's life, some rather uncomfortable and abrupt, while other instances are of a more tender and loving nature (notably sweet moments with his wife Amy and especially with his son Eli). The artwork is intentionally crude and cartoony, and fits the kind of story Kolchaka tells. The heavy linework and simple palette is reminiscent of Crockett Johnson's Harold & the Purple Crayon (and is probably the best and most consistent element in the graphic novel). But overall, this graphic novel isn't a story or even an autobiography as much as a collection of mostly autobiographical moments. On its own, it just doesn't hold up as a single piece of work.

Who knows, maybe in the context of the first American Elf there's a more introductory setup to the random snapshot method of storytelling. Yes, it's an ongoing diary that follows the author's life, but the starting point and the ending point seem like arbitrary cut-off points (but following a calendar is just as easy as anything else, one would guess). If reading the first book enhances the readability of the second book, then it makes no sense for anyone to pick up this book on its own merits; instead, it serves only as a continuation from another previous work that lays the foundation. This book might be appealing to fans of incomplete puzzles and things of a mostly random nature, but not if a complete story is desired.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

11 August 2007

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