“Johnny Boo Is King!,” the new graphic novel for kids from James Kockalka, the former Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont, begins with the ghost Johnny Boo discovered hiding in a bush by his ghost friend Squiggle. Johnny Boo finally pops out, shouting: “I’m King Johnny Boo! And this bush is my castle! And as king I say fawuzzle is not a word.”
“Fawuzzle” is, of course, Squiggle’s word. “No fair, Johnny Boo,” he cries. To win the squabble, he declares himself King Squiggle and takes a random rock as his crown. They argue and make up and a giant yellow and pink yeti-looking-thing known as the Ice Cream Monster arrives and complains that they’re not sharing ice cream and eventually sits on an ice cream cone (“with my butt!”) and they journey to the moon. It’s a pretty typical day in the life of the little ghosts.
Kochalka, who resides in Burlington, was named the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont in 2011. “It was basically created for me,” he says “There were no real duties, but I would get asked a lot to speak at libraries or churches or schools.” (Since then New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren and “Fun Home” creator Alison Bechdel have held the post.)
For 14 years, Kochalka drew the landmark daily diary comic strip “American Elf.” His books for children include “Johnny Boo,” “Pinky & Stinky,” “Glorkian Warrior” and “Dragon Puncher” (which his publisher, Top Shelf Productions, says is about: “a cute but ruthless kitty in an armored battle suit, dedicated to defeating dangerous dragons wherever they may be”). He has performed with his rock band James Kochalka Superstar since the early 1990s and has produced three “Glorkian Warrior” video games. In the works are a new “Glork Patrol” book, a 20th anniversary “Monkey Vs. Robot” collection augmented by a new story, and, this fall, a tenth “Johnny Boo” book, “Johnny Boo and the Midnight Monsters.” Kochalka says, “We hope to have a new Johnny Boo book every year.”
His diary comic “American Elf,” he says, “started off as a comic about a kind of, I don’t know, carefree rock star artist and turned into a dad strip, for sure. But it got a lot better. I think because being a dad turned me into a lot better cartoonist. For one thing, it made me pay attention to things outside my own head more, I guess. Like taking care of the kids. Their interests and their needs seem way more important to me now than pretty much anything. Rather than worrying about writing some song or … I’m just not worried about that. Writing the song or drawing the comics are stuff that just bubbles up out of my everyday life.”
Drawing the diary comics, he says, “I learned that life is beautiful and very difficult. It’s both those things. I really learned a lot about how stories relate to life. Which is that I think the form of the novel or the way most people write it doesn’t have to do with real life at all. … Stories have a beginning, middle and end, and life doesn’t.”
“The format of the story is too neat and tidy to express what real life is like,” he explains. “My stories rarely follow the structure of a typical story because I’m philosophically opposed to it. Maybe also incapable.”
Kochalka wandered into kids comics as a sort of sidetrack from the comics he was creating for adults. “I was already a guy who was well suited for it. I had been drawing comics for grownups, but kids liked them.” His original Monkey-Robot tales, he acknowledges, were “probably a little too violent for young kids. I got a letter from a 5-year-old once: ‘Why did you write that comic for children?’ I said I didn’t.”
Johnny Boo, Kochalka says, began when “I drew a whole page of ghosts and then picked out my favorite one. I didn’t really think. I just drew.”
Johnny Boo is a blobby, little, kid-shaped guy with a dazzling pompadour. There was probably some inspiration from old “Casper the Friendly Ghost” comics and cartoons in the back of his head, but “I don’t think I was thinking of Casper the Friendly Ghost when I drew it.”
Johnny Boo, Kochalka says, is “a little friendly. He’s a little egotistical sometimes. He’s his own person for sure.”
In eight previous books since the series began in 2008, Johnny Boo and Squiggle have used a magic pencil to draw ice cream and a tiger that became real. Also the Ice Cream Monster stole Johnny Boo’s trademark pompadour, put it on his own head, and claimed, “I’m the real Johnny Boo!” One time Johnny Boo invented an Ice Cream Computer that turned all sorts of wacky ingredients into wacky flavors of ice cream—and also cloned about a million Squiggles. Then there was the time when Johnny Boo rode his skateboard to the moon, where he met Susie Boom, “the awesomest girl-ghost on the moon.” It’s been an eventful afterlife.
Kirkus Reviews has said, “Two ghosts, a monster, melted ice cream and burping. If that’s not a foolproof formula for pleasing the Oshkosh set, nothing is. … A true crowd-pleaser.” School Library Journal has called it “A landmark book for the kindergarten crowd.”
“He’s the best little ghost in the world,” Kochalka emails. “And he has Boo Power. That’s all you need to know to understand Johnny Boo!”
Why a ghost? “I just didn’t want to be tied down to realism,” Kochalka emails. “By making my character a magical creature that lives in the bushes, I’m not tied to any mundanities of daily human life. Johnny Boo is free to follow his imaginative whims, because he doesn’t have a mom and dad or a house. No one tells him when to go to bed, he can stay up all night and go to the moon if he wants to. And he doesn’t even have a bed, anyway.”
Why a pompadour? “I think it fits his sense of ego. He thinks he’s cool, so he needs a haircut that fits his sense of self. All the other characters think it’s cool too. It’s particular funny when the tiger gets Johnny Boo hair, to emulate him.”
But is Johnny Boo dead? “That’s a funny question. He certainly seems alive to me! Don’t you think so?”
On the phone, Kochalka tells me, “Many of the Johnny Boo books, I developed the rough draft of a couple chapters and read it as a bedtime story to my sons,” Oliver, who is now 11, and Eli, now 15. “I would gage their reaction.” And make adjustments. “Mostly I was going for laughs. But really any kind of reaction.”
“Just trying to read something that got them pumped up,” he says. “Which is probably the wrong thing at bedtime. Just trying to make life fun and exciting.”
“I’ve finally reached the point when my older son is not interested in letting me read anything,” Kochalka notes.
Is there a moral to the Johnny Boo stories? “That’s not my goal. If there’s a moral or a lesson, it’s secondary to the entertainment value,” he says. “Kids are human beings. They experience the whole gamut of emotions. … I’m just exploring what life means, but in a format that appeals to kids.”
Kochalka adds, “Life is like a rollercoaster. You’re emotions go all over the place. That’s what it’s like for me. I’m just trying to make sense of that. That’s what Johnny Boo and Squiggle experience.”
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