The end of James Kochalka’s American Elf
In case you hadn’t heard, James Kochalka is quitting American Elf at the end of 2012. He gave his first interview about it to his local paper:
“‘Elf’ has so consumed my mind for 14 years, I’ve hardly thought about anything else… These 14 years, it’s been the great joy of my life, but it’s also been incredibly painful.”
[…] Kochalka says he’s sad about quitting, but notes, “I felt like I had to make some decision; [‘Elf’] wasn’t meant to be a life sentence. I just wanted to learn something about what it meant to be a human being.”
And did he? “I’ve been so busy drawing it, I’m not sure,” Kochalka admits with a laugh.
This bit reminded me of a commencement speech I read by Nick Flynn, where he talks about the idea of catharsis:
Aristotle, in his Poetics, never promised catharsis for the makers of art, only for the audience. The makers, on the other hand, have to find a way to become the person who can write the poem they need to write (Stanley Kunitz said that). This could be cathartic, or it could destroy you. But you can’t go into it hoping for catharsis.
In the original Greek the sense of the word catharsis was as a daily practice, that we woke up each day with who we were, and each day we had to find a way to carry ourselves through it. This contrasts with our more contemporary idea of catharsis (which I blame on a misreading of Freud) as a one-time event, a revelation, a light coming on in an empty room. In this version, once we find the switch to turn that light on, we then get to see clearly what it was in our pasts (mom, is that you?) that causes us to act the way we do, and then we are able to integrate it (her) into our lives, and we are healed.
And finally, that artists shouldn’t necessarily expect anything from their work:
Don’t expect to get anything from your own work. The [carrot at the end of the stick] is an illusion at best, but more than likely it is a cage. Feel what you feel as you make it, whatever that feeling is. Track it. Trust that you might bring some small cathartic moment to another human being. It might only be one other human being, or it might be a handful. And it might not be now, it might not be for a hundred years. Or ever. Even this has to be enough.
We’ve been given a great gift by James. (In a sense, if you count up all the fans and all the hours we’ve spent reading the strips, we’ve might have gotten way more out of it than he has.) So no more fretting about the end of American Elf. Let’s celebrate it. I’m gonna read my volumes of the books, admire my tiny painting, and be glad for the work James has done, and the work he’s still to do.