Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic. James Kochalka. Top Shelf Productions. 432 pp, $29.99.
There’s a scene in The Big Chill, the landmark 1983 movie about the sighs and regrets of the Baby Boom generation, when the Kevin Kline character says, “They don’t make music like that anymore.” The Boomer group of friends have been reunited and they’re listening to Motown hits. In fact, The Big Chill soundtrack led to a big revival of interest in some great classics from the ’60s. Well, the comics of James Kochalka could be one of the beloved artifacts to Generation X, a generation smart about a lot of things, like nuance and understatement. So, the legend goes, James Kochalka walked into the offices of Top Shelf Productions stark naked and screamed that he was an elf and began scrawling a series of simple but compelling drawings on the walls with his own excrement. After the Top Shelf top guns, Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, had subdued him, they surveyed the damage and concluded they had a wild genius on their hands. Well, maybe I just made that up but, no doubt, Top Shelf and Kochalka did form a very tight bond and you can argue that the very best results were comics dealing with an epic battle between monkeys and robots. It was, to be sure, in sync with a zeitgeist and something that has stood the test of time.
Monkeys and robots do not mix. Monkeys are real. Robots are artificial. When robots and monkeys collide, blood will shed. Cartoonist James Kochalka was thinking about monkeys and robots and collisions during a house party some twenty years ago. As he puts it, he was just having fun when he was struck by the idea to take his monkey and robot thoughts over to a drawing board. The first collection of Monkey vs. Robot comics was Published by Top Shelf Productions in 2000. The rest, as they say, is history: indeed, the book had a huge impact on the indie culture of the time. This was well after the game changer boom of The Simpsons; well within the era of the alternative comics boom; and well before the expansion of the twee attitude in youth culture we’ve seen in such places as Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. For a golden span of time, if you were looking for a comic with a cute aesthetic but also packed a nice punch, then the go-to comics were coming from Kochalka.
Now you can own the Monkey vs. Robot collection which includes the original graphic novel with its sequels. Having just read the whole book, I am pleased to revisit the original and compare it with the whole vision. It strikes me how the whole Monkey vs. Robot saga reads like a true epic! These comics are far too sophisticated to be considered only to be storyboards for some amazing animated feature. Instead, while the comics do make me wonder about an animated version, the quality of movement and pacing keeps me moving along from panel to panel in the unique way that only the comics medium can provide.
James Kochalka rose from the ranks of the indie crowd to follow through on his specific vision. While there have been many imitators, his comics are the real deal, authentic and resonant, like his sharing something personal with the reader. Kochalka tapped into a way of drawing that reads as something unique to that artist, like his own handwriting. Many aspiring cartoonists put the cart before the horse, feel entitled to be recognized as cartoonists, but forget to create anything compelling. The secret to how Kolchalka makes his deceivingly simple artwork come to life is the fact that he’s invested the time and effort to bring his comics to life. So, you end up with elves you care about as well as monkeys, and even robots, you care about! That said, this 20th anniversary collection is truly epic!
Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic is available as of October 27, 2020. For more details, visit Top Shelf Productions right here.