When I say the name James Kochalka, many of you may think of his books American Elf or SuperFuckers or even his essay on the importance of simplicity in comics, “Craft is the Enemy” – but I want to tell you about a little book he published in September of 2000 through Alternative Comics: Sunburn.
Sunburn is a different type of Kochalka comic. Described by Alternative Comics as a “Casual philosophy-adventure that delights the eye,” this 28 page black and white rumination on the purpose of existence, examination of the mind/body duality, and dissertation on the expansiveness of static living feels meaningful, personal, and true.
In Sunburn, Kochalka fills his four panel pages with aspect to aspect and non-sequitur transitions, punctuated by highly detailed and intricate splash pages of every-day objects, to create a rhythm and flow to what otherwise would be a narrative told in expositional text boxes. Through his realistic drawing and perspective choices, Kochalka takes his thick and dark thoughts and infuses them with a light sensibility, allowing his eventual pay-off to flow naturally from its murky source.
And there are some dark places in Kochalka's mind in this book. The phone rings. It is a wrong number. This mundane moment launches him to write: “Five billion people across the planet desperately sucking in air and blowing it out through their voice boxes which gurgle and vibrate in a feeble attempt to communicate.” Isolation, purposelessness, and death echo through page after page in this tale.
But Kochalka uses his existential constestation as a means to an end here. There is a moment towards the conclusion of this book where he breaks out of his narrative and, in one panel, his narrator stares doggedly out from the page and addresses the reader him or herself. This quick beat, funny and precise, marks a turn in tone from gloom to acceptance. It is a moment that exemplifies the inherent manipulative nature of timing in the works of a great cartoonist – one who is attuned to the beats of story-telling and the precision of his or her craft.
It works and transforms this book from a puerile navel-gazer to a work of art. The philosophy behind Kochalka's turn is, at heart, basic and easy – a bit banal, a bit of a platitude – but within the intersection of words and pictures it becomes more ardent, personal, and gains gravitas.
Sunburn functions to cleanse both its creator and its audience. Together we have to roll in the dust of the cosmic expanse in order to understand the purity of the mundane moment. It's a simple reminder of what is so easily forgotten as we bury ourselves with our own lives.