February 18, 2019

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Mechaboys by James Kochalka is Missing a Gear

Written and Illustrated by James Kochalka
Published by Top Shelf

Zeus and Jamie aren't particularly popular at school, so Zeus has a plan: Make a mechanical suit and wreak havoc on everyone who presumably hates them. They don't count on the suit's unpredictability, kids actually being cool with them, or a pervy teacher getting into the mix in this comic that sees Kochalka return to a more adult-themed book, but with mixed results.

James Kochalka is a big reason I got into indie comics over a decade ago. His autobiographical work, with its unflinching look at a personal life that was far from perfect, and characters in his fiction who were strange and quirky and acted really strangely, really resonated with me. He pivoted to a lot of all-ages work, which was wonderfully strange, but always had a little underlying mean streak. With Mechaboys, Kochalka unleashes a particularly awful character, Zeus, who possesses nothing remotely resembling a redeeming feature. And because he's in the real world this time (and not, say, the Dysfunctional Legion of Superheroes that was Superfuckers), it's really jarring. In a world where school shootings are so often they don't even make the national news anymore, a character who wants to use a robotic suit to main his fellow students is really hard to swallow. Given he's the last character we see in the book (albeit misunderstanding what's going on), it's weird to have the book never explicitly say he's wrong or have him punished properly. He abuses Jamie at every step through the book, too. 

When I was reading this one, I kept thinking about how Daniel Clowes is able (most of the time) to write about horrible characters but keep them interesting in some way. I feel like Kochalka is trying the same thing (right down to having caption pages that change the focal characters), but the trouble is that the kids are either one note figures we've seen way too often (Jamie is a patsy who finally wises up by the end, Zeus is an abusive bully, Babs is the kick-ass teen girl who doesn't need protecting, etc.) or are so underdeveloped (like Truck) that what they say or do is just background matter. Kochalka is at his best when the plot and characters don't really matter--you just enjoy the fun ride. Here, he's trying to settle down and tell a story--but he can't get out of his own way or find new takes on these tropes.

The lack of new takes expands to the artwork as well. As far as I know, Kochalka prides himself on not evolving his style, unlike, say, Jeffrey Brown, who is so good now it's hard to believe something like "I am Going To Be Small" is done by the same man who can do detailed Star Wars art. I don't have a problem with Kochalka's decision to remain consistent, but I do quibble with the fact that the attempt to try something new in terms of his story didn't extend to doing something other than another small, square-style book. That means the pacing here is exactly like all his older work--and feels like more of the same.


The limitations of the medium here hurt badly--because of the small size of the book, Kochalka has to rely on one panel, two panel, or three panel pages over and over again. When he moves to a 4-panel grid, the pages are claustrophobic, with word balloons basically dominating everything. Even switching to the size of the Johnny Boo books would have helped this art breathe.

In the end, whether or not you'll enjoy Mechaboys relies heavily on how much you wish for the mini comics of the early 2000s, where dialogue dominated a lot of small panels and details were minimal. I was heavily into that once upon a time, but with the rise of gorgeous indie webcomics, an increase in direct market publishers using high-quality artists for indie-style stories, protagonists you actually like, and anthologies all over the place that have raised the bar, what worked great in 2006 -- or even 2009 -- isn't going to garner the same attention as it did in 2019, at least not for me. My taste has evolved and changed. For better or worse, James Kochalka hasn't. I like to read his current all-ages work, but between the questionable subject material and the frozen-in-time art, Mechaboys was a big miss for me. I'll always have Monkey vs Robot, but it may be time to pass on newer material.