I hesitate to single out a personal favorite among the works of James Kochalka, on account of the size of the prolific cartoonist’s output and the fact that my favorite changes all the time, but, at this precise moment in time, it’s probably his 2008 kids graphic novel Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World.
That single book seems to have synthesized the very best elements of some of Kochalka’s very best works into a single, easily accessible package, the perfect answer to the question, “So, who’s this James Kochalka cartoonist, and what’s his work like?”
It was as brightly colored and lettered as Superf*ckers, as all-ages friendly as Pinky & Stinky, as cute as Peanutbutter & Jeremy and I even detected the same sense of humor that emanates from the cartoon avatar of Kochalka’s interactions with his cartoon sons in his American Elf strip.(This one, in particular, seems to have inspired Johnny Boo, as Squiggle Power plays a prominent role in the first volume).
So Johnny Boo? A pretty great comic book. So here’s some pretty great news—Johnny Boo: Twinkle Power (Top Shelf) is now available.
In the first volume, we met Johnny Boo, a humanoid ghost who looks like a dollop of whip cream with limbs, a face and a big swoosh of “hair” atop his head, and Squiggle, who looks like an inverted raindrop with a super-simplified face.
The pair tried to determine which was better, Boo Power (which seems to be the ability to scare people by saying “Boo!” loudly) or Squiggle Power, the power to get all squiggly by flying in squiggly lines. Both had their uses, they discovered, when they were confronted by an ice cream monster (here being defined as a monster that likes ice cream, not a monster made out of ice cream).
In this volume, Squiggle is impressed by the twinkling stars, which seem to have twinkle power, while Johnny thinks they’re just kind of boring. Their disagreement leads to a more serious one when Johnny gets offended at Squiggle laughing at his hair, and more talk of Boo vs. Squiggle power.
Squiggle decides to go into space to learn about Twinkle Power, leaving Johnny all lone in the dark by himself…until the ice cream monster returns. Eventually, the ghosts try to teach each other their individual powers, and in the process of trying to squiggle, Johnny accidentally invents Wiggle Power, which the ice cream monster adopts as his own power, becoming a Wiggle Monster. His Wiggly butt is too terrible to behold, scaring the ghosts away (“Run, Squiggle! Run from his BUTT!” Johnny cries as they flee).
I suppose that all sounds awfully childish in summary, doesn’t it? Well it is a kids book, and while I suppose kids will like it as least as much as 32-year-old comics bloggers, I found the execution of all that silliness hilarious. Perhaps part of that can be accounted for by prior familiarity and appreciation for Kochalka’s simple, cute, colorful art work—I honestly start to smile a bit whenever I see Kochalka lettering—but I’m endlessly fascinated by how much expression Kochalka is able to wring out of two eye-dots and a mouth.
In this book, there are a couple occasions where Squiggle throws himself on the ground with a “flop,” first to throw a little crying tantrum, and later in a fit of laughter, which cracked me up. For three shapes drawn on top of a fourth shape, Squiggle sure talks and acts a lot like a real, human child and is amusing in all the same ways that the toddlers I know tend to be, with the added bonus of being a ghost, emphasizing those human attributes by being literally far removed from humanity.
Er, not to over think it or anything. After all, this is just a story about couple of little ghosts and a monster talking about twinkling, squiggling and wiggling for 40 pages, and why it’s so charming or how it works its charm certainly isn’t anywhere near as important as the simple fact that it is and it does.