I have mixed feelings about both James Kochalka and Craig Thompson, and for similar reasons. Both are very masterful in the art of making comics, and at their best pull of flights of pure whimsy that can’t help but inspire a smile: at their worst, they are so precious and manipulative that their works seem more like those little “inspiration” books that old women read (the type with angels and cute little sayings in them). Conversation #1 confirmed my fears, showing moments of delightful whimsy right alongside moments of not-so-delightful whimsy.
First of all, the cover is terrific, showing the artists’ cartoon versions of themselves standing in a monochrome blue thunderstorm while holding a patch of non-outlined negative space that resembles an umbrella. It perfectly illustrates the kind of visual playfulness that both men are so good at, and it’s almost worth buying the book just to leave it out and look at the cover.
The pages of the booklet seem to have been alternately written and drawn by one artist, then the other. The narrative begins with Kochalka philosophically musing about the nature of art and its limitations, then on the next page Thompson responds in kind. The backgrounds reflect whatever their discussion point is: for example, the artists will be washed away by gigantic waves as they discuss how art allows people to make sense of the overwhelming nature of existence. If you think that sounds incredibly pretentious, you’re right, but it at least makes the book visually interesting. Had this technique NOT been used (say, if they had just drawn themselves sitting in a coffee shop), I think the result might have been more pretentious, not less.
At times, these guys mercifully take a step back to make fun of themselves. At one point Kochalka says “Wait, I’m getting confused. What does the flower represent?” to which a nearby fish replies “The human spirit?”. At other times, however, the dialogue just veers off into self-parody: a dolphin says, “Play is divine!” to which a shark replies, “Laughter is the Devil.” (Yeah.)
I’ve always enjoyed Thompson’s religious musings: he’s a very liberal Christian who frequently expresses anger and frustration with God, while being unable to shed his faith. It’s tough not to respect this after reading his “Blankets”. He does a little bit of that here, before veering off into more directionless musing.
After a certain age, one grows bored with philosophical conversations that conclude with both parties saying “Well we didn’t really resolve anything, but it’s all about the journey, man!” Thompson and Kochalka are both very good at what they do, but I’ve never read anything by either that wasn’t at least a little bit cloying.