James Kochalka Explores Silliness in "Johnny Boo"

Tue, March 11th, 2008 at 12:00am PDT

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Van Jensen, Guest Contributor

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"Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World" on sale in June

Even for the typically prolific James Kochalka, 2008 is set to be a full year. The Vermont-based cartoonist has four books set to hit shelves this year, an assorted collection that further reveals Kochalka as one of the most unique and diverse creators currently working in comics.

In November, Top Shelf Productions will release a third collection of Kochalka's long-running online diary comic "American Elf" as well as "Little Paintings," a 48-page hardcover filled with miniature paintings, some of which reflect on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. Additionally, this summer sees the release of Kochalka's newest creation, a silly little children's story called "Johnny Boo." The first volume, "The Best Little Ghost in the World" is out in June, while the second volume, "Twinkle Power," ships in December.

"Johnny Boo" is something of a typical book for Kochalka in that it seems a bit frivolous at first glance – the whole of the plot is two ghosts goofing around with a monster – but somehow manages to be thoroughly memorable. Kochalka took a break from playing in the snow to explain to CBR News the method behind his creative process and how his 4-year-old son helped craft the book. As a bit of a bonus interview, the younger Kochalka also took some questions.

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People who know you best for "Superf*ckers" might be a little aghast by the new book and how much it's directed at younger readers. Are there any similarities?

When you get right down to it, the same sorts of themes are dealt with in all the books, just in different ways. A lot of them are about sort of inter-personal relationships. That's what "Superf*ckers" is about. That's what "Johnny Boo" is about. That's not a Hollywood synopsis or anything. "This is about inter-personal relationships!" [laughs] Really, "Johnny Boo" is about a little ghost and his pet ghost Squiggle. It's about their relationship and their bumbling nemesis.

Page from "Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World"
What was the process like on making the "Johnny Boo" books?

I would do like a thumbnail draft of a chapter, which might be four, five or six pages while my son Eli was in preschool. At night, I would read it to him, and I'd gauge his response. I'd try to hone it down to be as awesome as possible.

So, not a lot of plotting?

Really, it's driven by conversation. They say funny things more than they do funny things. It's not like "Bone" where there's some grand adventure. It's just two little ghosts in a field near some bushes. That's pretty much the whole thing. "Twinkle Power" takes place at night.

But it's a little slapstick too. Basically, the characters get themselves into… They cause their own problems. There's no outside force or anything. They start off pretty simple and they get more out of control. The more they talk, the more out of control they get.

Is that inspired at all by having a couple of young sons?

That's basically what life is like in our house. Eli is 4, and Oliver is just three months.

Is it hard to work with them around?

Right now I'm really not doing any work. I'm drawing the daily diary strip and that's it. Soon I'll have two days a week to work on other things. I'll get started on some new graphic novel or comic book pretty soon.

Page from "Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World"
Do you have any ideas for what the next one will be?

I've got a million. After all these little kid books, it'll be nice to do something raunchy again. I'll probably do a "Superf*ckers" book. Actually, "Johnny Boo" has a lot in common with that book. The characters are driven by their quirks and their personality. They're just there in their clubhouse butting heads with each other. I've got a real itch to do a comic that is an actual adventure. Unfortunately, I can't do everything at once.

"Superf*ckers" is also really labor intensive. "Johnny Boo" is exactly the opposite. It's just a breeze to write and draw. It was a good thing to rest and build up my reserves of strength and willpower to do another book.

What makes "Superf*ckers" so difficult?

Because the cast is so much bigger, I don't know if people appreciate how hard it is to juggle a large cast and keep things moving smoothly. There's only three characters in "Johnny Boo;" it's so much easier.

What is it about ghosts that make them good characters for children's comics?

Really, any sort of magical creature kids like. It's just pleasing to draw those soft rounded shapes. Squiggle is just a little curved teardrop turned upside down. And the ice cream monster, I've been doing a lot of drawings and paintings using shapes from old school video games and elaborating on them. His basic shape starts as one of the monsters from Pac Man and then modified a bit.

Page from "Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World"
I start playing around with shapes until I get a collection of shapes that I feel can become a being on the page. If you get the right shapes together it just feels right. So that's what I try to do. Doodle until the doodles come to life for me, then set them loose in a comic. If you've got some characters with some life to them, they start doing and saying what they want. That's my favorite way to work. It's a lot better than trying to force your characters along some kind of plot you have worked out in your mind ahead of time. The plot goes in much more surprising directions. I hope that also makes it more entertaining to read.

Do you think older readers will enjoy "Johnny Boo"?

I think that the readers, the people that read the rest of my comics, will find something to enjoy in it. But we're trying to get it into the hands of actual kids. [Top Shelf has] been working very intently with the various book distributors to make sure they can get it to kids. We got a great quote from Harry Bliss, who's the illustrator of the bestselling "Diary of a Spider." That should signal that this is something they should buy and stock. That's the thing, you can make a great kids book, but there's one buyer for each of those big chains. One buyer can say no. That's what happened to my first children's picture book, "Squirrely Gray." One guy from Borders looked at it. They said it was great, and they were passing on it.

My books have never had big numbers in the initial orders through Diamond, but they've always been perennial sellers. We're hoping being included in [Top Shelf's] Free Comic Book Day sampler will help the retailers take the plunge. Top Shelf really thinks that Johnny Boo is something special and has potential to sell a lot higher. We'll see. I feel like all my books are special.

Page from "Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World"
What does your son like most about this one?

[To Eli] Hey Eli, can you tell this guy what you like about "Johnny Boo"?

Hey, Eli. What do you think of the book?

ELI: It's good.

What's your favorite part?

ELI: Every part.

Which is your favorite book of your dad's?

[ELI: All of them.

[To Kochalka] He didn't have a thing to complain about.

He acted as co-editor almost. I wrote it specifically to entertain him and to maximize the entertainment he would get from it. The hope is, if one kid likes it other kids will too. When I showed it to him, he would laugh or not laugh. If he didn't laugh, I would rewrite it so he did laugh. I didn't want there to be any pages where he didn't laugh.

There really aren't that many comics for kids out there.

Page from "Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World"
I still think someone needs to make a real superhero comic for kids and not a TV show spinoff. I don't want to insult anybody, I just feel like they've been pretty bad. What we need is somebody who creates their own characters and loves them and emotionally invests in them and writes them for kids. The closest thing out there is "Mouse Guard."

"Mouse Guard" has a little bit of violence in it.

There's nothing wrong with giving kids a little danger in their entertainment. It's actually sort of sick that all the superhero comics are written for 30-year-old men. It's all written for grownups and just the tiniest little sliver of stuff for kids. So, I'm glad to do my part with "Johnny Boo."

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