By Matthew Jent
I was born in Ohio and that’s where I grew up. As a grown-up, I’ve moved around the country quite a bit. When I talk about where I’ve lived, there’s an easy explanation as to why I’ve moved where I’ve moved.
Chicago? To escape Ohio.
San Francisco? Grad school.
Los Angeles? To make it big in TV.
Vermont? Because of a comic strip I read.
Baltimore? For a job.
Wait. You moved to Vermont because of a comic strip you read?
It’s more complicated than that. But also, it’s not.
James Kochalka’s Sketchbook Diaries #1 was released by Top Shelf Comix in 2001. It’s since become better known as American Elf, published in phonebook-sized trade paperbacks and as a free online archive at http://americanelf.com. From 1998 to early 2013, cartoonist James Kochalka drew a four-panel strip nearly every day, chronicling his life, the birth of his children, existential crises, artistic woes, historical events, and the mundane and the holy of everyday living. He lives in Burlington, Vermont (“The West Coast of the East Coast,” as either local parlance or my mangled memory has it), and for years I followed his exploits as a husband, eventually a father, and an artist. He walked to the post office, he rode bikes home from parties, he banged his head on tree branches. It looked like a baffling yet pleasing life of figuring it out as you went.
I bought that first issue of Sketchbook Diaries when I lived in Ohio, and James Kochalka signed it when I met him in Chicago years later at a comic show. He drew his own caricatured elfin alter ego, along with a word balloon that read “I own this!” He told me that just that day he’d pulled the strip from a weekly newspaper that had demanded he hand over the rights of the strip to them. But how could he? The strip was his life.
By the spring of 2010 I had lived in L.A. with my girlfriend for about six months. We had it with the smog, traffic, and high cost of living. We wanted to go somewhere new, somewhere smaller, but a place that still had an artistic community. Somewhere fun, somewhere weird, somewhere with recognizable seasons. We were both American Elf fans, and we thought, why not Vermont?
We embarked on a fact-finding mission. The snows hadn’t quite melted in some of the shadowy corners of the Burlington, even in April. But she fell in with the roller derby crowd, and she liked the prevalence of bookshops and the Church Street Marketplace. I liked the bike paths and the nearby universities, as well as the (to me) very real possibility that at any moment I’d bump into Kochalka and become fast friends. We spent another few months packing up our California lives and saying goodbye to our California friends. In early fall we took an almost-coast-to-coast road trip and moved into one half of a duplex located in the woods near Lake Champlain in the New North End of Burlington, Vermont, in pursuit of a comic strip life.
Our second night in town we made chili and explored the abandoned boat in the woods near our new home. None of our neighbors knew where the boat had come from -- it was deposited in the trees and half covered in a tarp, and had been for as long as anyone around could remember. We went out to peek at it after nightfall with our flashlights and a few new roller derby friends in tow. Looking in through the open hatches (do boats have doors?) we could see all the accouterments of a houseboat. Moldy old cushions, bolted down furniture, stacks of old magazines (that’s all the accouterments of a houseboat, right?). I tried to clamber inside, but the floor gave way beneath my feet after a single step.
I didn’t know it -- you never do -- but it was an omen.
The rotten wood scraped my leg up to my knee, and I told everyone I was all right before I knew if it was true.
Kochalka’s diary strip features a character called Jason X-12, a surly dog who is in Kochalka’s band. In life, Jason was a bartender at my favorite local bar. He served tasty tacos from a crockpot, and I liked sitting in the window and eating them and reading the local alt-weekly, the one that picked up Kochalka’s diary strip after he’d pulled it from the paper that wanted to own the rights. It was in that paper that I read about a monthly storytelling series. I went to the next installment and told a story about encountering a man living in the woods behind my friend’s house in middle school, a man who occasionally wore a devil mask and chased us through the trees.
I recognized brewing trouble when I took to not inviting my girlfriend to these events, whether she was working or not. I told myself it was because I wanted to build a social network of my own, something complimentary but individual from hers. It was actually because I was goddamn captivated by the woman who ran the event. I was rationalizing and compartmentalizing each relationship like they were separately board-and-bagged comic books, not even stored next to each other in the longbox. I spent more and more time in my own head, or gchatting with this fellow storyteller, and less and less time engaging with the woman in my living room.
That was all just a symptom of larger relationship problems, of course. We might have broken up in Los Angeles, except we spent months planning a cross-country move together. So we broke up in Vermont instead, with nothing to see up ahead but the rest of our lives together. I think (but don’t know) that there were secrets on both sides. Hurtful things were said, and hurtful things were withheld. Hands were held in public.
There’s a fancy-dress Oscar party held in Burlington every year. It’s thrown by DZ, a local gentleman and bon vivant who, over dinner, once told me the same joke he later told James Kochalka, which was subsequently reprinted in Kochalka’s sketchbook diary. I’d repeat it here, but it’s a pun regarding the name of a Burlington restaurant and an unrelated baseball player. I attended the 2011 iteration of this Oscar party, wearing a cowboy hat and with a certain storyteller as my date. My girlfriend had moved out by then, but we hadn’t-quite-officially broken up. James Kochalka was at the same party, and I shook hands with him and said hello as if I’d never even heard of his comic strip, or met him at comic shows, or moved to town with visions of American Elves dancing in my head.
Shortly thereafter, my storyteller emailed me to say she was removing herself entirely from any personal or romantic entanglements in my life. My girlfriend and I ended things as irrevocably shortly thereafter. I found myself in a still-snowy Vermont in a house in the woods, working from home, occasionally biking into town to see a movie or have a drink on my own. I had my comic books at home, of course, but had alienated two social networks in a town that didn’t have that many to go around. I went to see Arthur at the movies by myself, the Russell Brand remake, and found myself weepy-eyed when (spoiler alert!) his mentor and mother figure, played by Helen Mirren, passes away. As the end credits scrolled, I decided it was time to pack up and move yet again.
After less than six months (“I once spent a winter in Vermont,” is the short version of this story), I packed up my books and my cat and my fancy desk chair, and I drove down the east coast to Baltimore. I had a few friends there, and a job offer. And I could leave my house without feeling guilty and dumb, which was a nice change of pace.
Later, I caught up on the American Elf strips I’d missed while undergoing my own existential crisis. There’s a strip from February 28, 2011, titled “Oscar Party.” The first two panels show anonymous partygoers in their suits and ties and dresses.
I don’t recognize a single one.
Matthew Jent is a writer and a starter and a quitter and a runner. He blogs at http://matthewjent.blogspot.com