Blood and Thunder: Craft is the Enemy

The "Craft is the Enemy" debate, which ranged over several years, several issues, and several continents, began with a letter by James Kochalka (American Elf) in The Comics Journal #189 (in 2005, Kochalka would expand on his theory in The Cute Manifesto). Some readers found this letter inspirational; others, notably Jim Woodring, wrote in refutations.

From The Comics Journal #189 (August 1996)



Burlington, Vermont

I'm not exactly sure why I'm writing this letter, but I've been reading TCJ #188 for a couple hours now and my mind has just been racing and blood pounding. My excitement with the power and possibilities of comics mixed with the fear of a royally screwed-up marketplace... well, let's just say I've got a weird, shaky adrenaline rush.

I just felt suddenly like I had to write and say craft is the enemy! You could labor your whole life perfecting your "craft," struggling to draw better, hoping one day to have the skills to produce a truly great comic. If this is how you're thinking, you will never produce this great comic, this powerful work of art, that you dream of. There's nothing wrong with trying to draw well, but that is not of primary importance.

What every creator should do, must do, is use the skills they have right now. A great masterpiece is within reach if only your will power is strong enough (just like Green Lantern). Just look within yourself and say what you have to say. Cezanne and Jackson Pollock (and many other great painters) were horrible draughtsmen! It was only through sheer will power to be great that they were great. The fire they had inside eclipsed their lack of technical skill. Although they started out shaky and even laughable, they went on to create staggering works of art.

This letter is not for the established creators... they're hopeless. This letter is for the young bucks and does... let's kick some fucking ass!

From The Comics Journal #190 (September 1996)



Chapel Hill, North Carolina

I'm surprised to see you printed James Kochalka's near-moronic letter in the latest Comics Journal (#189) regarding craft being the en­emy. I might agree that trying to draw well is not of "primary" importance—but at the same time I think it is, in fact, incredibly important! What makes comics a unique medium is the combination of words and pictures — and while a naive  artist/writer's work can occasionally be amusing, to advise that technical skill is to be avoided is a ridiculous philosophy.

If you take Kochalka's statement that both "Cezanne and Jackson Pollock (and many other great painters) were horrible draughtsmen" as being true, and that despite that they still made great art — it's horribly bad logic to imply that that means that technical skill isn't worth acquir­ing or working hard to achieve. I can think of a fuck of a lot more artists who were great draughtsmen, who made timeless worthwhile art, then artists who didn't have those skills whose work is worth studying and admiring. Yes, art doesn't have to always be technically strong to be "good," but it certainly tends to help.

"Pyramid of Skulls" Paul Cezanne (1901)

The last thing modern comics is in need of are more naive artists lacking technical skills, when the majority of comics that are currently being published are already so horribly drawn that there's little to be gained by looking at them. I'd be much more interested in a new artist's work that was original and well drawn, that actually had something interesting to say, then looking at a bunch of felt-tip pen poorly drawn comics about elves and robots.

This letter is for all the young bucks and does... learn to write... learn to draw... having a professionally published comic is a privilege, not a right — and it has to be earned. Let's kick some fucking ass!

From The Comics Journal #191 (November 1996)



Burlington, Vermont

O.K. I'll say it again in a different way for the idiots who couldn't understand me the first time.

When you're shooting for immortality, anything less than stunning achievement is a failure. Creating a powerful work of art is like running and leaping across a chasm. It takes all of your strength and you'll probably be dashed on the rocks and fall to your death.

Being a craftsman is like sitting in your woodshop all day carefully building a chair and when you're done, you sit on it.

Are comics craft? Well, certainly any cartoonist you are liable to meet will tell you "yes." And that's a big problem. Craft is boring. Ever been to a crafts fair? Not unlike a comics convention. Craft sucks.

When a cartoonist sits down to draw, and their goal is to draw well, they are doomed to failure. No matter how much they practice the best they can hope for is to become a polished hack aping their preconceived ideal of "good comics," to become a mere hollow shell of the cartoonists who came before.

For one reason, there is no objective "good" in art. Someone could conceivably think Spawn is well-drawn and think Peanuts is poorly drawn (although that sounds insane to me). So if you're trying to draw well what you're shooting for is illusory. There is, objectively, no such thing.

However, if you're burning up inside with the need to express yourself, if there's something you desperately need to say, when you sit down at the drawing table you think "How am I going to say this? How am I going to express myself so that people will understand?" The art will be slave to the content. Either the artist expresses the meaning, emotion, and power of their vision or they do not. The comic succeeds or fails on these terms. The notion of quality is meaningless.

From The Comics Journal #192 (December 1996)



Seattle, Wash.

As one of the "idiots" who disagreed with James Kochalka's first anti-craft letter I want to reply to his brazen follow-up.

Kochalka, you are wrong. Craft is control; it is the ability to create according to one's intentions, not in spite of one's limitations. Imagine saying that a writer doesn't need to know how to write, or that an architect need not be concerned with "craft." Well, I can imagine you saying it.

Was your point that craft without content is not great art? Well, no shit. Everyone knows that. Craft fairs not your cup of tea? Tut tut.

"Composition" Willem de Kooning (1955)

To describe Pollock and de Kooning as artists who were great despite a lack of craft is absurd. They may not have been great draughtsmen but they both had oodles of craft as painters, which is after all what they're known for. Both men were obsessed with getting exactly the effects they wanted and they worked like demons to develop their particular crafts.

You say there is "no such thing" as good drawing. Wish it into the cornfield, Jimmy! I've got an idea; why don't you re-draw the pictures of Heinrich Kley, preserving only the ideas. We'll see what role craft plays then.



San Diego, Calif.

I'm ticked off! When I read James Kochalka's letter in #189, it gave me just the kick in the ass I needed to put pen to paper and pursue in earnest writing and drawing the comics I'd pre­viously spent more time daydreaming about than bringing to fruition. Then along comes Jeff Levine's letter in #190 raking Kochalka over the coals for his "near moronic letter."

Jeff, you need to go back and reread Kochalka's letter — you completely missed its point! Nowhere does Kochalka imply that tech­nical skill "is to be avoided," as you put it. What Kochalka was stressing was the importance of cartoonists — of any skill level — saying what they need to say right now instead of forever putting things off — as I'd been doing — until they'd reached some fantasized, far-off plateau of artistic perfection.

Now that we've got that straight, all you young bucks and does, let's kick some fucking ass!



Seattle, Wash.

I don’t know if Kraft is the enemy, but they make a fine macaroni and cheese.

From The Comics Journal #194 (March 1997)



Burlington, Vermont

It may be folly to keep writing back, but oh well. I don't feel too much real need to respond to Jim Woodring's answer to my letter specifically, but it does give me a good starting point to continue and expand on my rant.

I don't think Woodring read very carefully because I never even mentioned de Kooning in my letter, let alone set him as an example of someone being great despite lacking craft. De Kooning is a craftsman through and through, and a marvelous one at that.

However... his very best painting, the first "Woman," has nothing to do with craft. It was a violent attack, an error, in fact he rejected it and threw it away… luckily a friend rescued it. And it’s got so much more life than his many countless well-crafted works, which get a little boring actually.

"Woman I" Willem de Kooning (1952)

Craft allows you to be pretty good most of the time. Which is absolutely useless. The only thing that allows you to be great is taking massive risks.

Craft is knowledge. You perfect your craft, slowly adding to what you know how to do. But great art only comes from risking to attempt what you do not know. No matter how much craft you have under your belt it will not help break the magic barrier to creating a truly great and immortal work of art. Only a complete abandonment of your mental safeguards will allow you to do that. Craft will hinder you, keep you forever tied to the world of the known.

So, while craft may give you tools to express yourself reasonably well, it's just not enough. I'm not talking about "craft without content." I'm saying that craft is not enough to express content in a way that will have any real effect on anyone. For instance, who could better express anger... a professional session musician who is a technical expert, or the punk rock kid who can barely put two chords together? My money's on the punk.

But beyond that even, to get to the real heart and soul of what makes us human it takes a wild leap away from the safety of our conventions, our craft. Craft is a rope tying us to mediocrity of expression! We're all too timid to untie it! "But we've worked so hard to learn how to draw, how to write. We can't give that up. If we untie the rope we'll just float off into space," we whine.

I'd rather fucking choke and die in the vacuum of space than anemically craft a series of smarty pants sequential pictures and pat myself on the back for my skillful accomplishment.

The joy of comics is their stupidity, their simplicity. The way they can cut right to your soul so easily. Just a simple string of symbols and pictures, how can they do that? Magic! It’s magic, pure and simple, not craft. I refuse to accept that the magic of comics is crafted. It comes out of nowhere, I know it.

Yet, at the same time, clearly the opposite is true. Comics is a visual medium, and all there is to see is ink on the page. What we see is processed by the brain and in turn causes an electro-chemical emotional response inside our bodies. The composition within panels, the transitions between them, every minute touch of the brush will affect the meaning of the comic and the reader's response. Can the artists really control all of this well enough to produce the response in the reader that they intend? Especially considering that each reader's response will be tempered by their own lifetime of experience, can anyone possibly predict any of this reasonably well enough to craft a comic that will actually function as they desire it to? And that's assuming that the universe is truly governed by laws of cause and effect. What if things occur randomly?

You don't want to be thinking about any of this crap when you sit down to draw, I'm pretty sure. Better to let it flow out like magic, or lash out wildly like a beast, than to try second guessing the universe well enough to actually craft greatness. I'm sure you'll have little trouble learning how to craft mediocrity, however.



Houston, Texas

How pompous can James be, to assume that because someone disagrees with him they don't understand his argument. It seems to me that his argument is simply not defensible.

If Burne Hogarth, Neal Adams, or John Byrne were to make the same argument, I might have some respect for their position. Why? Because they have skill and are therefore able to select an appropriate style of art based on the ideas they are trying to communicate. I have never seen any work by Kochalka (the self-proclaimed su­per-star) to indicate that he has any significant talent. Therefore, his rant against craft sounds to me more like an excuse for his lack of ability than a truly defensible philosophical position.

I simply find him and his work pathetic.




I have been following the debate between Jeff Levine and James Kochalka, as it's an interesting topic for discussion (though the calling of names could be spared).

I think cartoonists can be divided into two camps, namely the 'anti-craft' camp of James and the 'craft-is-important' camp of Jeff. The argument here is whether craft is important to create good comics, or if it actually hinders the cartoonist to create equally good comics.

Let us take punk music as an example. There would not be The Sex Pistols if Johnny Rotten and company had been spending their whole life perfecting their guitar-playing skills in their garage. Without doubt, punk music has since gone on to become an important music move­ment and The Pistols are considered an influential band by many critics and fellow musicians. In fact, punk even spilled its influence into comics at its helm.

The above shows why craft can be the en­emy like what James fear. While being obsessed with perfecting one's craft, one might forget the initial aim, which is to produce good comics. One good example is John Porcellino, creator of King-Cat Comics. It is John's almost child-like art that brings out the charm of his stories. Even Jeff agreed that 'this comic is past due for greater recognition...' (TCJ #192).

Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man ©2005 John Porcellino

On the other hand, Jeff has got a point too in refuting James' point of view. Without the nec­essary craft and skill of drawing and composi­tion, it can only frustrate the cartoonist who is trying to create a good comic. Unless you're a natural like John Porcellino whose naive art complements his story almost perfectly, the lack of craft can only hinder you to create a good piece of work. I believe it would not be possible to create a work like Seth's "It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken" if he did not have the nec­essary drawing skill to execute it.

I can go on to quote examples of cartoonists who continue to create interesting comics with nothing but sheer enthusiasm and determination (e.g. Mark Beyer), and those who do it with great technical skill (e.g. Chris Ware), but I think the point is, it takes all kinds to make the world. And we need both James' and Jeff's schools of thought in order to have more variety in comics and make comics a continuously exciting medium.

From The Comics Journal #195 (April 1997)



via the Internet

Poor James Kochalka.

I think I know what he was trying to say way back in TCJ #189 with his "Craft is the Enemy" letter, but it got kind of garbled (more due to a deficiency in his command of the "craft" of rhetoric — no dig intended — than a weakness in his basic argument).

There are a significant number of young artists who believe that great work is just the inevitable result of the gradual accumulation of skills and those are the artists J.K. said he was talking to. Maybe he deserved a slap or two for slingshotting [sic] so far in the other direction (and from no less than Jim Woodring — ouch); and I'm on the record saying that craft is an inseparable part of the creative process. But in the real world, a lot of comics artists really do put cold skill on a pedestal, and never make those great intuitive leaps that put those skills in perspective.

Weathercraft and Other Unusual Tales ©2010 Jim Woodring

There's no way to skip the hard work of learning our craft. But I hope we haven't given anyone the impression that hard work is all it's going to take. Getting from poor to fair to good to great isn't some kind of straight path of incremental steps. If you're working on your skills every day and just assuming that inspiration will come if you work long enough, you could be waiting for the rest of your life.

No one ever reached the moon by becoming a really good mountain climber.

From The Comics Journal #196 (June 1997)



London, England

Like a boxer who has just felt the power of his opponent's punches and realizes he has stepped out of his league, Mr. Kochalka is left defiantly flicking out his jabs in an effort to disguise the fact that, in reality, he is backpedaling.

In defense of his original "rant" and in re­sponse to Woodring's criticisms, Kochalka per­forms a classic textual sleight of hand (TCJ #194). He clumsily shifts the ground of his argument from his original assertion that craft is at best useless and at worst detrimental to the production of great works of art to a new posi­tion in which he claims that craft is not everything. Gee, James, no shit. As Kochalka knows fine well, nobody has argued nor would argue with this latter view and if he had initially expressed this view it would have proved to be as uncontentious [sic] as it would have been insane.

And, true to form, Kochalka is soon up to his old tricks again. As one would expect from a nobody who awards himself the status of "Su­perstar," Kochalka's pri­mary goal is attention and he is clever enough to un­derstand that is something much more easily obtained by spouting simple-minded provocative mumbo-jumbo than by undergoing the la­borious task of thinking. As a result, he rapidly lapses back to his former position that "Craft is a rope tying us to mediocrity of expres­sion!" because he realizes this statement will provoke those who admire skill in a way that his earlier, more rational claim that "while craft may give you tools to express yourself reasonably well, it's just not enough" simply would not. For Kochalka, it is far better to be wrong and noticed than right and ignored.

This time when Kochalka returns to his craft is crap stance, it has an interesting addition, however. Not it is accompanied by the kind of quasi-mystical hogwash that one would expect from somebody who thought that philsophy [sic] sounds like a "neat idea" but felt that actually taking the time to read any would be too much trouble. Mechanistic models of human thought are in­eptly linked with a vision of a relativistic human subjectivity perceiving randomly in a chaotic cos­mos and all in one crazy, rambling paragraph.

Of course, the question of the stability of the concept of the cause/effect relationship was addressed with considerably greater insight by the Scottish philosopher David Hume some two and a half centuries before it stumbled its way into Kochalka's conscioiusness [sic]. However, in his response to Hume's skeptical questioning, Kant demonstrated that while it is possible to partake of the academic exercise of doubting the exist­ence of the cause/effect relationship in the object world its presence in the structures of the human mind cannot be similarly doubted be­cause it constitutes a prerequisite of the act of perceiving itself. Kochalka's theories insofar as they are coherent set us adrift in a world (?) of nonsense in which not only meaningful com­munication but the very act of perceiving is rendered impossible.

We can see that a certain universality exists between us in our reading of works of art even if we cannot entirely explain it. If there were no commonality in our response to art then why are almost all moved by Hamlet's tragic plight but feel nothing for Liefeld's Captain America. (I confess I have not read the later. I'm just guess­ing.) If the production of great art occurs by chance alone as Kochalka suggests, why is it that certain individuals such as Picasso, Scorsese or Kafka consistently produce a high standard of work while Kochalka consistently produces me­diocrity?

The Cute Manifesto ©2005 James Kochalka

The fact is that craft is not simply the ability to adhere to a set of anatomical measurements, rules of perspective or antiquated schemata, but rather the ability to adequately translate one's vision into its externally presented form. The more accurately the final result matches the idea the artist sought to express the more accom­plished the artist's craftsmanship. In order to produced great art, the artist must, as Kochalka repeatedly suggests, have a great vision to ex­press and no amount of craft will make up for a deficiency in this area. Nobody would contest this and in raising it, Kochalka seeks to win a war that no one is waging. Naturally, inspiration, ideas and creativity are crucial components in the production of great art, but without the ability/skill/craft to make such things manifest, one can be a great person but not a great artist. Because to be an artist, great or otherwise, one must produce an artifact and the transition from inspiration to manifestation requires the perspi­ration of craft.

From The Comics Journal #198 (August 1997)



Burlington, Vermont

Let's say you're a painter, and one day perhaps you hit upon an interesting way to paint grass that you had never thought of before. If, from that day forward, every time you need to paint grass you paint it in this same manner, then you've become a craftsman. You were an "artist" when you invented this technique, and a "craftsman" when you repeated it.

In this way, every artist becomes a craftsman. You learn to become consistent. There has never ever been an artist who has not lapsed into formula. However, it's the rare flashes of brilliance that we all hunger for, not the consistency. Craft is important because it gets us through the days when we're not brilliant. It can also be a hindrance, because if we adhere to it, it keeps us from that brilliance.

It's funny to me that no one seems to notice that there could possibly be any danger in devotionally adhering to craft. I suppose it could be because the great cartoonists of the past were such strong craftsmen and we think it would be nice to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately, their footsteps don't lead very far. So fuck them.

Whoops! I promised myself I'd play nice this time. In many ways, the consistency of craft is quite valuable, especially for comics. There's a cumulative power that grows page after page in a comic that is consistently crafted to conform to a particular mood, for instance.

It's a very tricky business, though. To utilize the power of craft, without suffocating and kill­ing your work. Craft can be a crutch which keeps one from making his next exciting discovery.



Tampere, Finland

It is very likely that by the time I finish typing this letter and get it mailed you may very well have chosen to abandon this rather silly conver­sation sparked by James Kochalka's attacks on the craft of cartooning. As it stands, I read his latest missive (in TCJ #194) just a few moments ago and felt sufficiently pissed off by his claims to write to you.

I am what you might call an "amateur car­toonist" (not that there are that many profes­sional cartoonists in Finland, but that's another story). I have drawn comics for the last 15 years, and I have been fortunate enough to have gotten most of my work published in Finnish fanzines. I draw mainly for my own amusement: if people like the stuff that I produce, fine; if not, well, I really don't give a shit. When I draw, I'm mostly concerned with what Kochalka would label as "craft." My object is to make illustrations come out as I intended them to be, not to produce some great and meaningful works of art by accident. I can, however, understand the other point of view: some cartoonists might have an irrepressible need to communicate with their audience, and they think that craft gets in the way of this. To claim that this is the one, true way to make comics is, of course, bullshit. In the end, it is just a question of taste, not about who is right and who is wrong.

As Kochalka has seen fit to compare comics artists with musicians, I guess I should continue that line of thought. Kochalka says that a "craftless" punk rocker can express anger a lot better than someone who actually knows how to hold a guitar. Bollocks to that. Punk was, is and always will be just a marketing gimmick. The music of the "great" punk bands of yesterday did not have any staying power or real values. Oh yes, DJ's all over the world are still playing "God Save the Queen" and the serious rock magazines are praising its importance. But when the Sex Pistols finally do a reunion tour, what happens? They get booed off the stage. What's the matter? If the music is that great, surely it should still work live, even if the musicians are already middle-aged beer-bellies? To get a good impression of how anger is expressed with a guitar, I advise Kochalka to listen to King Crimson's Red from 1974. Robert Fripp plays with real craft, yet his tunes are more chilling than anything Steve Jones ever got out of his guitar. And when you listen to KC's version of the same song in 1995 (B'Boom-live), it still sounds chilling. And even the audience is cheer­ing. This is craft at work.

The Cute Manifesto ©2005 James Kochalka

Mind you, I don't think that you can com­pare comics with rock music that painlessly. Still, I'm pretty sure that Kochalka cannot stand bands like King Crimson: again, it comes down to the question of taste. It's useless to say that the Sex Pistols suck because they are not "crafty" enough. Likewise, claiming that KC suck be­cause they are excellent players does not lead anywhere. Just for the record: I have never read any of Kochalka's comics, and I pray to God that I never have to.

(By the by, I'm sure that I do not have enough "craft" in the English language to ex­press myself as fluently and wittily as the other writers in your splendid letter column do. Does that then make my letter a serious work of art or what?)

FILED UNDER: , , , ,

47 Responses to Blood and Thunder: Craft is the Enemy

  1. Danny Ceballos says:

    “No man,
    having put his hand to the plough,
    and looking back,
    is fit for the kingdom of God”

  2. Roger Benson says:

    It’s surprising the low-esteem with which Kolchaka views craft. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was describing the routines of white-collar work, rather than a type of activity that usually evokes notions of artisanal care and slow painstaking development. But the excepts from his _Cute Manifesto_ seem to get at some of the concerns motivating his position — Kolchaka, it seems, wants to legitimate comics as an expression of rarefied artistic genius, not workaday slobs.

  3. Briany Najar says:

    Sounds like JK overly conflated “craft” with “tradition.”
    Cezanne deployed a huge amount of craft, but he had the ingenuity to develop it for his own ends.
    Craft isolated from inspiration, and vice versa, seem inevitably monotonous. Craft for its own sake can be formally constrictive, and the exclusion of it, likewise.
    The Sex Pistols are hardly exemplary of the Punk movement. Furthermore, many other Punk bands engaged with their instrumental means – at their own discretion and in ways determined by their own passions – and thus were able to express music which carried qualities of experience both broader ranging and more specifically nuanced than boring one-trick ponies like the Pistols ever did.

    Is Kochalka’s work lacking in craft? Seems quite refined to me, maybe even formulaic, and he did that 4-panel diary thing for ages, which seems like a classic tactic for honing one’s skills.

  4. Dominick Grace says:

    Given the consistent mediocrity of Kochalka’s comics, his anti-craft position was risible almost twenty years ago and remains so today. Even assuming his argument has some merit (and the less hyperbolic elements of it do), he’s hardly in a position to make pronouncements about what great artists do and do not do.

    Craft IS important, though perhaps moreso in some work than in others. If there are many, or any, great works of art that show no craft, though, I can’t think of them off the top of my head. Even punk, the music notoriously played by bands that couldn’t play, is actually not at all craftless. For one thing, Steve Jones COULD play the guitar. Sid Vicous COULDN’T play the bass, but he didn’t play on their records (some of his noodling may be buried deep in a track or two) and they turned his amp off when they played live–because he couldn’t play. If punk was really that anti-craft, Vicious’s massive inability owuld have been front and centre, not buried or silenced. No punk band I can think of really COULDN’T play at all; their records may sound ragged, and they may not have the virtuooso skills of, say, Clapton, but they’re not out of tune, they don’t have inconsistent time signatures, they sing in unison on the choruses, etc. But lay aside the deliberate rawness and roughness of their sound and actually look at the songs. Every Sex Pistols song is in fact an absolutely standard pop song, structurally. Same with The Clash, The Ramones, etc. They may be simple, loud, raucous songs, but they’re not just noise made by folk who couldn’t play.

    As for the comics most folk are likely to agree represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the medium, would anyone seriously say that, say, Crumb, or Spiegelman, or Ware, or the Hernandez Brothers, or Herriman, or Schulz, or Chester Brown, or [add your own] lack or don’t care about craft?

  5. Briany Najar says:

    Maybe he was right.
    Maybe young, aspiring cartoonists should set aside their insecurities regarding lack of craft and just Create Truly Great Works of Art, fueled by Vision and propelled by The Fire Inside.
    It really is as easy and accessible as it sounds, so let’s get those Masterpieces rolling, children, Immortality is only an Immediately Authentic gesture away!

    (Sigh…) Why can’t more people just Believe in their own Importance?

  6. L.Grahn says:

    I can only cry when I see this type of useless “anti -craft” BS spreading into the media of comic books.The early modernist artists didn’t rebel against craft, they rebelled against the mindless use of it, the “craft for craft’s sake” mentality they found in the stifled and stale dogmas taught at art academies in the nineteenth century.Van Gogh spend years working on his theories on how to use colour, as a means of expression, but some people seem to think he just walked out in a field one day and started doing masterpieces. I Challenge people like Kochalka to apply their theories to the world of medicine, or engineering – surgeons and doctors: forget the craft! just start cutting people us as you see fit! construct air planes without wings, make bridges from cardboard…express yourself freely!
    The punk band Black Flag rehearsed eight hours a day, six days a week… if you want to play fast and tight, you need the craft…ask any speed metal band, jazz musician, classical musician. Every classical composer was put in front of a piano at age five or six, it probably created a good many unhappy childhoods, but also gave Mozart and Haydn and Bach the ability to create music we still listen to today… Charles Bukowski? the drunken writer, the grand father of slacker culture? he spent all day drinking and f..king, and then threw off a few poems every now and then, right?… wrong…, he sat at the typewriter for hours EVERY day many years before he was published, fine tuning his style, learning how to build a story, how to make the words work the way HE wanted them to work, how to write realistic dialogue. Andy Warhol drew thousands of drawings as a commercial illustrator before he was even near a silkscreen frame or a Polaroid. One of the best examples of the significance of craft I think is the early style of Robert Crumb, like in the first Fritz the Cat stories. This style is very loose, it could look like Crumb has very little craft but the proportions of the bodies are right, the hands and feet are drawn just right, the perspective is right. Loose, but not sloppy. Not inept. Big difference: Craft.

  7. J. Overby says:

    Kochalka ♥♥♥

  8. Nat[e] C says:

    Roger Benson said: “Kolchaka, it seems, wants to legitimate comics as an expression of rarefied artistic genius, not workaday slobs.”

    Is that what he meant when he said: “The joy of comics is their stupidity, their simplicity”?

  9. Pingback: Lettres à un jeune dessinateur de bande dessinée » Le Rapide du Web

  10. Nat[e] C says:

    “I Challenge people like Kochalka to apply their theories to the world of medicine, or engineering – surgeons and doctors: forget the craft! just start cutting people us as you see fit! construct air planes without wings, make bridges from cardboard…express yourself freely!”

    Oh please! This is hardly the same as discussing art.

    James clearly “cannon-balled” into this discussion initially, but he’s not saying so much that it’s this “either/or” type of thing you all are making it out to be. Take a breath and read what he wrote. He’s basically saying to not focus so much on becoming technically proficient that you don’t actually create anything. He’s saying well-made art without passion is dull. He is urging the young and idealistic to “carpe diem.” What is so terrible about that?

    Just as with his art, James paints with broad strokes, but his message isn’t wrong, and his enthusiasm is contageous.

  11. Julian says:

    Also, the Pistols were a ‘crafty’ concoction of Malcolm McClaren, meant to be a marketing tool.

  12. BigSlime says:

    Lotta venom in this discussion. There are some nuggets of brilliance in Kolchaka’s argument. I think the kind of thing he is arguing against is especially prevalent in Japanese comics. Lots of formulaic faces and buildings and the like, cut-and-paste character archetypes, etc…still, I would rather have a reliable set of skills on which to build my story instead of going at it blind. Does that mean my comic has to be a slave to a host of impersonal conventions , devoid of creativity and spark? No. Rules and conventions are there to aid you, and help you realize your vision. I think if Kolchaka could have said that formula is the enemy, or maybe he should have distilled his argument to what he said about aspiring artists who practice drawing conventions regularly but are wholly disengaged from the creative process because they think they think brilliance will fall into their lap if they continue their slavish, drone-like behavior.

  13. BVS says:

    “wish it into the cornfield, Jimmy” what a line!

  14. L.Grahn says:

    Ok, Kocholka is not Satan, of course…. I just see him as a representative of moving comics towards the world of universities, MFA’s, professors and assistant professors etc..

    First you remove the low-brow “proletarian” (and commercial) element of craft, and then you replace it with the “hi-brow” elements of analysis, lecturing, etc, etc

    I don’t think that is to the benefit of comic books as an art form, it’s like “putting the tiger into a cage”

    Soon we’ll have cartoonists quoting French philosophers and applying for grants, I don’t think anything good will come of this.

  15. L.Grahn says:

    Who’s name is Kolchaka! ok, enough screwups! – I’m out of here!!

  16. Juhawh says:

    I kind of like JK’s point, even though I think there’s a lot of points of views on this and it’s interesting.

    All I can say is that with the drawing skill I have right now, everything is incoherent. I have friends look at a drawing of someone holding something and they’re like “what is that?” Not a good sign.

    I could probably still create THE NEXT GREAT whateverdy whatever, I suppose, but without it appearing in a way that people can tell what the frig is going on, there’s not much point to it.

  17. Tim says:

    Bah! When I look at Moebius, I don’t think stupidity, or simplicity. Ya know?

  18. Tim says:

    I agree, agree, agree and agree.

  19. ant says:

    So, Mr. Kochalka, DO you enjoy the music of King Crimson?!?! TCJ readers deserve to know!

  20. Ian Harker says:

    Regardless of who won the battle i think James definitely won the war. The last 15 years of development in art comics has been driven by artists who’ve challenged traditional craft values.

  21. Greg Fontaine says:

    Which may be why I don’t read them anymore.

  22. Goodbye Mr. Chops says:

    Kochalka certainly wouldn’t be able to churn out the ceaseless torrent of his stuff if he were forced to care about what it looked like, or consider whether content is value. So there’s that.

  23. Nat[e] C says:

    So then you, too, would take issue with what Mr. Benson said? It’s not always wrong to “legitimate” [sic] comics as a “rarefied” art form?”

  24. Gauthier Przyblyski says:

    In this reader’s humble opinion, the “Craft is the enemy debacle” isn’t as noteworthy as Ian Harker’s daring “Mini comics are outsider art” theory, not to mention his insightful contention that unskilled artists like John Holmstrom were well known only for their inclusion in the hipster comics elite. Sure be do!

  25. Roger Benson says:

    Nat(e) — perhaps “rarefied” isn’t the right word, but Kolchaka certainly points in that “arty” direction when he uses words like “magic.” Perhaps the extremes of his two descriptions – “stupid,” on the one hand, and “magic,” on the other – suggest the idea that Kolchaka thinks being lowbrow or being highbrow is always better than being middlebrow.

  26. Roger Benson says:

    … perhaps I could say ‘perhaps’ more.

  27. Gee, I wonder if James likes Drew Friedman’s early comics.

  28. Briany Najar says:

    Whether it’s commercial graphics, Romantic Irony, or something else altogether, everyone’s just joining in with something they’ve been impressed by.
    What’s really laughable is this whole “My teacher’s tougher than your teacher” chauvinism.

  29. Briany Najar says:

    Something just sprang to mind which expresses anger more convincingly than any ramshackle 3 minutes of devolved R&B, something which began with arbitrary youthful determination but, rather than burning out for want of underpinning, was nurtured and developed, growing both teleologically and via praxis into a cyclopean raging that all but consumed its creator in his relentless devotion. A piece of work which is unbearable to many who’ve attempted to taste its bitter fruit. A gesture of fury sustained not for a few frenetic seconds or minutes, but for decades. So infectious is its refrain that it’s hard to witness it without feeling a reciprocal anger oneself.
    Although much of it was finely crafted, it didn’t begin quite so exquisitely hewn. Mind you, it would be churlish to expect that from a comic written, drawn, lettered and published by the same person for 300 issues.

  30. Ian Harker says:

    Lol @ 2006

  31. Nat[e] C says:

    I guess I’m not sold on that … “magic” can happen just as easily in low- or middlebrow works … if one’s a fan of Kirby or Ditko, for example, that would pretty much cover that. Like I said, I think the way James expressed himself was probably ham-handed, but I think his basic points are valid.

    And like the song says, “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps … “

  32. Nat[e] C says:

    Again, I am not seeing this … when he talks about the brilliance of comics being “stupidity” and “simplicity.” How is that taking it away from the “proletarian” and “low-brow” elements? And clearly he isn’t talking to those artists who’d prefer – dream of – working for Marvel or DC, etc. Does that not seem clear?

  33. Nat[e] C says:

    All you’ve done is make me want to know who this John Holmstrom is, and find out where to look at his work!

  34. patrick ford says:

    When I first read this I took it as designed to encourage young cartoonists. The basic idea being, don’t let your lack of a developed craft discourage you. If a cartoonist keeps working the craft will come. If a cartoonist looks at their work and freezes up because it doesn’t look like something drawn by which ever cartoonist is their personal standard of greatness, then the ideas that cartoonist has and would like to express, will never come to fruition.

    Where Kochalka goes off the rails is in mentioning Pollock and conflating draftsmanship with craft. As Jim Pollock had a highly developed level of craft. Kochalka saying Cezanne was a “horrible draftsman” is flatly absurd. Cezanne was a tremendous draftsman.

    Pollock began as a representational painter influenced by Thomas Hart Benton (and of course many others).
    To fully understand Pollock you have to look at the way if developed over a period of years.

    I assume what Kochalka was really trying to say was, “You don’t have to be Norman Rockwell in order to create great art.

  35. patrick ford says:

    …as Jim Woodring mentioned, Pollock had a highly developed craft.

  36. mateor says:

    Everyone is gonna come around on that one eventually, fear not.

  37. Kochalka definitely won the war, if for no other reason than the fact that to this day his manifesto inspires young artists to relieve themselves of the burden of hard, irritating, and spirit-weakening things like anatomy, storytelling, composition, and proportion. “That’s just how I draw hands,” a young man once informed me loftily after I inquired what the hell those fat cartoony squiggles were at the end of his otherwise seriouslike fantasy character’s arms. “It’s my style.” Oh, well, never mind then.

    I dunno. I think if not Kochalka himself then certainly some of the acolytes of his philosophy are simply looking to cut out all that hard work shit and shortcut their way to a world where they hit it big and have billion dollar movies and toys and happy meals made out of their stupid, badly-drawn crap, and yay! They are akin to Tea Partiers who want to protect the rich from taxes because they, too, are going to be rich one day. Oh, I’m such an old crank.

    I gave up on taking Kochalka seriously when he informed me years ago in some message board thread that Elvis Presley was not a good singer because, he told me, good singing is that which most closely resembles one’s speaking voice, which, hey! just happened to be the way Kochalka sings (therefore, unspoken, James Kochalka = better singer than Elvis). That was my first real glimpse at the cheap huckster under the goofy elf mask.

  38. Aaron White says:

    I’m relieved that my naive and nasty letter was not included in this roundup (probably because I’m not a cartoonist). I love Kochalka’s work and think he’s entitled to any goofy opinion he wants.

  39. Robert Cook says:

    John Holmstrom is one of the founders of PUNK Magazine, which helped give that name to what had been known as “the New York Underground rock scene” (centered at CBGBs). In other words, Holmstrom is materially (though not solely) responsible for the popularization and spread of “punk” as a cultural phenomenon simply by providing a catchy name that could easily define a variegated motley of bands and musicians, united more by a scene and bohemian sensibility than by similarity of musical style. Holmstrom also provided the back cover and record sleeve drawings for The Ramones’ 3rd album ROCKET TO RUSSIA and the cover illo for their 4th album ROAD TO RUIN. He also published COMICAL FUNNIES and STOP MAGAZINE in New York in the early 80s and introduced Peter Bagge to the world in these publications.

  40. Robert Cook says:

    I forgot to point out to those who may be unfamiliar at first hand (or at all) with PUNK Magazine, that it can be described as the MAD Magazine of rock music mags, full of cartoons, wacky humor and fun! This makes sense given that Holmstrom was a student of Harvey Kurtzman’s at the School of Visual Arts.

  41. Jack says:

    There’s a funny line in an Evan Dorkin comic where an alternative-comics wannabe says, “I don’t know if craft is the enemy, but it’s no friend of mine, let me tell you!”

  42. Phil Dyess-Nugent says:

    Anybody know if Mitch Carlton ever did kick any fucking ass?

  43. Mark Philip Venema says:

    Amazed that there is so little discussion about the narrative. What good is any graphic novel or comic without something worthwhile or gripping to tell? How would you include that into that discussion?

  44. Oliver_C says:

    Harmony Korine, Kochalka’s near-contemporary, was saying much the same thing about cinema, in much the same late-90s timeframe, and to much the same effect.

  45. Mr Panda says:

    This is a poor debate, full of false dichotomies, straw-men arguments, emotional sniping and erroneous cultural dissection. Apart from hearing about Heinrich Kleyan, an artist whose work had previously been unknown to me, I’m not sure I learned anything of value.

  46. R. Fiore says:

    You know, Mr. Panda, I think you’ve captured the essence of Comics Journal debates . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *