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James Kochalka

Alumnus James Kochalka '91

MFA, Mount Royal School of Art

Class of 1991

from: Springfield, Vermont

“Seeing your work in print changes the way you think about it.” 

MICA alumnus James Kochalka's success as a cartoonist should come as no surprise. After all, "my mom says I started drawing comics before I could write," the 44-year-old artist said. In 2011, the 1991 graduate from the Mount Royal School of Art was fitted into a new role by becoming the state of Vermont's first cartoonist laureate.

"It's an honor," Kochalka said of the distinction. Each day, he writes American Elf, a daily comic strip that is basically a diary of his own life. He's also written more than 30 books for children, young adults, and adults, including Johnny Boo and Dragon Puncher. "Almost all the stories are set in Vermont," he said. "Many take place in the field by my house.

Though Kochalka first honed his talent at an early age, he stopped drawing comic strips when he went to The University of Vermont for his undergraduate studies in art. But when he'd arrived to study at MICA, he worked part time on campus as a guard during his second year, when he rediscovered his forgotten talent. "A couple of different guard desks had sketch books on them, and people were working on comics," he recalled. "So during your shift, you'd draw a few panels and then the next person in their shift would draw a few panels."

That experience led Kochalka to submit his work to a local zine called Uno Mas, where it was published. "Seeing your work in print changes the way you think about it," he said.

When he'd left MICA, he continued to create comics, and sent his work to other cartoonists hoping they would critique it, and many did. Over time, he developed a following as he continued to chronicle daily life in Vermont through his books and comic strips.

"There's something sort of magical about the way the pictures fit together to tell a story," he said. He also respects the power that cartooning can have in the life of the reader. "Reading a comic can cause in the reader the same sort of revelatory experience that great literature or great painting does-that sort of transformative experience," he said. "The right comic can change your life just like the right novel or the right painting can change your life."

That love for cartooning has certainly changed Kochalka's life. When his position as cartoonist laureate was announced, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said: "A cartoonist laureate is the kind of thinking outside the box that Vermont supports. Cartooning promotes literacy and literature, two things we can't have enough of."