October 21, 2010

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Dragon Puncher

Written by James Kochalka
Illustrated by James Kochalka
Top Shelf

I don't often read children's books because I don't have any kids and they're often skewed too young for me to enjoy them. However, when the author is James Kochalka, any comic is worth reading. Add on the idea of a cat in a giant suit that punches dragons, and you had me at "cat in a giant suit."

The story itself is a fairly familiar one. A tough hero (the kitty-cat dragon puncher) meets up with a weaker adventurer that he feels is inferior. The brash and pompous-talking puncher wants nothing to do with the smaller, human-faced Spoony-E, who hits things with his spoon. (See this is why I love Kochalka so much. That's a simple concept that's not only funny but would appeal to any child who ever used his imagination on ordinary things. I know *I* was that child, and I bet a lot of you were, too.)

When we finally face the rather Elfen dragon, our gruff hero cannot stop him alone. Will Spoony-E save the day or are they both destined to be dragon food? I'm sure you know the answer, but I'll leave it out anyway.

There's an enjoyable good versus evil story here, but Kochalka also gives it just a subtle hint of morality, as the dragon puncher must reluctantly accept help and we see the value of Spoony-E never giving up. Neither concept is thrown in a young child's face, which I think is part of why this book works so well.

Dragon Puncher also features Kochalka's positive philosophy front and center (Spoony-E is relentlessly cheerful) mixed with some good verbal gags. "I got drooled!" is sure to be a part of any child's vocabulary after reading the book, while adults and slightly older children will snicker at the times when sarcasm creeps in to the edges of the narrative.

Artistically, this is a bit of a change mixed with the familiar for Kochalka. All of the backgrounds are real photos, with his signature curvy lines and primitive artwork over the top of the pictures. Each face on the characters is a real one: Kochalka's cat for the puncher, his son Eli (at 3) for Spoony-E, and Kochalka himself, in a set of great mug shots, as the evil dragon. The effect is both cool and a bit disconcerting at first. However, once you get into the feel of the book, the intense contrast between Kochalka's art and the photographs lessens. I really liked how his art pops out at you from the green grass and blue sky in the photographs, and Spandy, Eli, and the author have more facial range than Kochalka's pen. This book is definitely worth a look for fans of Kochalka's other work just to see how it plays out against a photorealistic backdrop.

I had a wonderful time reading Dragon Puncher, and I'd definitely recommend it without hesitation to any parent or library. Kochalka is a man who leaves any place a little bit brighter than when he left it due to his personal outlook and that carries right into this book. Kids could use that positive influence and sense of wonder in their life. I think some adults could use a dose of this book, too.