American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka

By James Kochalka
520 pages, black and white, with some color pages
Published by Top Shelf Productions

In 1998, James Kochalka started keeping a daily “sketchbook diary”. Every day he draws a little comic strip (usually four panels) about what he did. Sounds easy, right? What began as just a humorous little side diversion turned into something much larger, though, and five years Kochalka’s sketchbook diary has turned into a phenomenon of its own right.

It’s interesting to watch Kochalka’s life slowly shift and evolve since he first began his diaries. You get to see his career slowly take off, eventually able to quit his job as a waiter to devote his time to his cartoons and music. You also see Kochalka himself taking the world around him a little bit more seriously (but only a bit), to the point that when he and Amy bring a child into the world, what would have once been a truly terrifying is now something that seems like a natural progression of their lives.

What starts as almost a joke-a-day format slowly turns into an actual journal of a persons life, with little bits and snippits of every day events working as a mosaic to form a much greater whole. Kochalka’s overall tone for American Elf is one of slight whimsy and amusement, but who it’s directed towards shifts on a regular basis. Kochalka isn’t afraid to portray himself as the one off-base with the rest of the world, often making himself the one who you’re laughing at. At the same time, Kochalka journals the absurdity of the world around him, from friends and strangers alike. It’s a good balance because not only does it spread the emotion of American Elf to the entire world, but Kochalka wisely never makes it a black-and-white issue of “the rest of the world is crazy” or “I am crazy”. In American Elf, the lunacy is shared by all.

What really surprised me, though, was the material in the fifth section of the book, once Kochalka and Amy’s son Eli is born. Kochalka had always shown a great deal of love for his wife Amy throughout all of American Elf, but we see a new level and depth of emotion from him in these pages. Is the book a little different? Certainly so; Kochalka can’t resist writing a lot of strips about Eli, which makes sense with the book always being about Kochalka’s life and a new son now being the center of that. At the same time, I think the book still showcases Kochalka’s view on the world around him quite well; there’s still that sense of fun and innocence to the strips while still showing off American Elf‘s offbeat sense of humor, and I’m delighted that Kochalka was able to bring that across to the reader.

Kochalka’s art has always been a real delight; it’s simple and to the point while still remaining expressive. With dots for eyes and button noses, his characters are all overly simplified versions of themselves in real life, but he’s still able to bring across all the worry and joy and confusion that the people in Kochalka’s world carry around. With four small panels it’s hard to pick up a lot of artistic momentum through the strip, but I think Kochalka really does succeed in giving his book its own unique look and telling his stories simply and effectively.

If you’ve still never read Kochalka’s comics, I wholeheartedly recommend doing so. This is a really unique book; there are plenty of autobiographical comics out there (one could stock an entire wall of a store with them) but nothing quite like this. Kochalka’s American Elf really does show the continuing evolution of its creator, both as an artist and as a person. It’s absorbing from start to finish; I can’t imagine anyone not loving Kochalka’s comics. When you’re done with American Elf, you can even read new daily installments at There’s no need to ever again go without more Kochalka goodness.

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