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Sequential Art
by Matthew Peckham
This week Matt scrutinizes Craig Thompson and James Kochalka's Conversation #1, and rediscovers the joys of heartbreaking dialectic.

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21 July 2004

Conversation #1
Writers/Artists   Publisher  
Craig Thompson, James Kochalka Top Shelf

Conversation #1 Writing comics is essentially a compressed dialogue between artists. A writer pounds out a script, an artist scratches pictures in pencil, an inker strengthens or tapers lines, a colorist manipulates light, and all along there is that unseen exchange of creative forces, a pulse of ideas, supplemental or refined or contrary, reverberating between the creators behind the word processors, graphite pencils, ink pens, digital color manipulation software, and so on. Craig Thompson and James Kochalka's Conversation extends this idea by bringing two award-winning writer/artists together in a series of intimate quasi-philosophical discussions that lead us haphazardly through dreamlike single-panel pages drawn by Thompson or Kochalka (or both) in a style best described as "stream-of-conversation." The result is a deliriously touching meditative work of art, without a hint of sentimentality, that zeroes in on the way in which sequential art can transcend standalone pictures or words.

Craig Thompson is the multi-Eisner-nominated and Harvey-winning writer/artist behind last year's Blankets, a book Neil Gaiman described as "...moving, tender, beautifully drawn, painfully honest, and probably the most important graphic novel since Jimmy Corrigan." James Kochalka is also an Eisner- and Harvey-nominated writer/artist, whose graphic collections like Peanut Butter and Jeremy's Best Book Ever and Monkey vs. Robot are affecting meditations on humanity's merits and imperfections captured in deceptively harmless cartoon style. Put them together and you're splitting atoms.

If you're looking for profound philosophical revelations the way you might turning open a copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, or Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, you'll be disappointed…and missing the point. Thompson and Kochalka certainly launch the conversation with a galactic bang ("what is art?"), but quickly realize that road leads to endlessly repeated platitudes ("making art is like getting in a wrestling match with God," "art is more a surrender than a competition"). Segueing to a series of kinetic and symbolic transitions (land to water, water to cavern, cavern back to land, rainstorm, forest, etc.) Thompson and Kochalka thus begin exploring each other -- and here's where the idea really starts cooking with gas -- by investigating not just the textual symbolic, but the total visual symbolic of deliberate lines (words, pictures, or otherwise) on paper. What begins as two pages each of opposing panels, each safely drawn and corralled around one or the other artist's thoughts and visual style, begins to blur and overlap half a dozen pages in, until Thompson and Kochalka's avatars are swimming, figuratively and literally, in each other's ideascapes, rationalizing God, seeking forgiveness, and searching for inner peace (visualized as a return to the womb). In what is perhaps a moment of serendipitous illumination, Conversation asks the rhetorical question: what might the world be like, if people (leaders, scholars, critics, any of us, etc.) illustrated their discourses and textual debates, instead of merely scribing them.

The little visual tics liven the somewhat heavier scripting, like Thompson's "doot-doot" birds and Kochalka's limp flowers, giving the entire piece (which is really less a piece than an installment) a lighthearted temperament that offsets the occasional disagreement. Speaking of disagreement, you'll find much of the debate familiar stuff, the sort of debate you've had with a friend family member, teacher or colleague. Ask yourself how many times those debates have gone sour, something misspoken, something misunderstood, then pick up a copy of Conversation, and notice the way words work by themselves (a book, a story, a message board) as opposed to words encapsulated in iconography, as here.

The first in what promises to be a hopefully lengthy series, Conversation is an automatic buy for Thompson or Kochalka fans, and a shamefully inexpensive ($4.95US) introduction to either creator for those new to the alternative comic scene. If you want to see where the form continues to be triumphantly going, here's another must-have to flesh out what McSweeney's #13, for all its wonders, was missing.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com


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