I might read mainstream comics, but my heart is with independent comics. When I think of my favorite comics, it’s the ones with verve, originality and heart that I think of first. The comics that move me, that genuinely touch me deeply, are usually works by one creator and not products of the standard factory system of comics. Comics by one creator are generally animated by a genuinely personal sensibility rather than the idea of moving action heroes through their paces. There’s nothing wrong with hero comics – there are many good ones out in the marketplace – but those comics are always a bit compromised by the systems they live within.
I was excited to read The Cute Manifesto because I heard so many positive things about the book’s creator, James Kochalka. Kochalka had received a good amount of critical acclaim in the last few years for his originality and creativity. He appeared to be the new poster child for independent comics: thoughtful, unique and very, very independent. His comics seemed to epitomize indy comics, blazing their own independent trail wherever Kockalka’s creative spirit led them.
In other words, Kochalka seems to march with pride along with his indy comics brethren in terms of commitment to his ideals.
It’s too bad that The Cute Manifesto is a painfully pretentious and frustrating book.
This is not a graphic novel as much as it is a philosophical diatribe wherein readers are ordered and scolded repeatedly that we must open ourselves up to new experiences, that we must be willing to let ourselves give up our banal lives to see the beauty that surrounds us: “Whatever lies in the future is the natural course of things and I accept it. It accepts me. Learn to embrace the physical. Enjoy the flowers, at least. Savor the aging process and love whatever life you have.” is the conclusion to his dull and pedantic first extended piece, “Sunburn.” It kind of makes my teeth ache in a sort of Hallmark card way. Still, maybe as a sort of counterpoint to something said later in the book, a scene like that might work. But no. Choose a random page and you’re likely to find words like “Accept the beauty in everything. Waves crashing against the shore or smokestacks belching sour clouds. Stumbling baby kittens or exploding buildings.” Not only is a line like that insipid, but it’s actually offensive in more than one way. If you find joy in everything, doesn’t that imply a simple-minded love for the world, an acceptance that everything is positive, even the tragedy of September 11th? I wonder what Kochalka’s take is on the New Orleans floods. In his simple-minded banality, I’m sure even that has a silver lining.
What I desperately wanted from Kochalka was a grounding for his philosophy. Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical comics are life-affirming because they embrace and celebrate the joys of life, from sitting in a bar to friends to enjoying life with family. Harvey Pekar’s comics celebrate life by showing that even the most banal moments may contain moments of great truth and insight. R. Crumb’s comics are great because they are perfect manifestations of the artist’s amazing inner life, set loose on the unsuspecting comics
page. Crumb’s comics are life affirming because we see the full life of a man, all his obsessions and dreams and aspirations set loose on a comics page. All three creators are grounded in their personal worlds, creative spirit and intelligence colliding with life as they experience it. Kochalka’s book is life affirming because, well, Kochalka tell us it is.
I know it’s unfair to compare Kochalka to three comics legends, but he aspires to join their ranks. It’s only in one story, the short “Reinventing Everything, Part Two”, that there’s a glimpse of possibility that he is anything more than the flipside to the famous emotional crank Steve Ditko. In this story, Kochalka talks about the decision he and his wife made in light of the September 11th tragedy to have their first child. Finally his suffocatingly cloying philosophy could be seen with the real world in the background, and there’s poignancy in his words: “However, after a period of nothing, a period of something happened in the void. A tiny idea took shape of its own volition. An idea that I couldn’t shake, that followed me around for over a year. ‘I think I’d like to have a baby.’ Yes, ugliness, hatred, death and destruction stared us in the face. However, when faced with ugliness, there was only one choice: beauty. Faced with hate, there was only one choice: love. Faced with death and destruction, there was only one choice: life.” Sure, it’s the same philosophy as before, but at least Kochalka is now applying it to the real world, finding solace in his philosophy to sustain his life. The scenes where Kochalka and his wife have a child are the only ones that are genuinely moving in this book. First-child stories can be banal – after all, every parent has had a child – but the shortness of the story works to its benefit. We get enough philosophy to understand his thoughts, but the real-life events provide a grounding for his thoughts. Both pieces fit together.
Overall, though, it’s hard to find much to like in this frustrating book. For the same price, there are many other comics that explore these themes in much more adroit and sophisticated ways. Kochalka might be a fellow traveler in the indy comics movement, but based on this book, he’s not in league with the best of them.