Is art a form of excretion? That's one of the subtexts of James Kochalka's fascinating and unique meditation on the art of comics. He never goes so far as to say it is; but his alter-ego Magic Boy demonstrates rudimentary drawing by scraping off some crap he stepped in on the surface of a rock. The closing scene of the book continues the motif with a scene of noturnal urination; and the cover depicts a planet expelling a fissure of gas.

The effect is to demystify the act of creating art, but not to denigrate it. Kochalka views art as a form of 'play', but with a serious purpose-- 'Art is one of our most basic means for understanding the world around us. We process what we've experienced and recreate it in simplified form. Often this brings revelations that we could not come by through sheer reason.'

Kochalka conceives of art as a kind of virtual reality. 'When we encounter a great work of art, the physical world fades away as we step into this new reality. We are alive in a living world.' What makes this world so captivating is that it's a reinvention of the actual world, and a revelation of the artist's secret self. 'Art turns us inside out,' says Kochalka.

Kochalka also has firm convictions about what art is NOT. 'Art is not about communications. Art is not a way of conveying information. It's a way of understanding information.' Kochalka thinks attempts to use art to convey pre-conceived notions are 'superficial', 'tedious', and 'naturally doomed to failure.'

This makes an interesting contrast with Eisner's view. In COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART, Eisner says 'In its most economical state, comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols. When these are used again and again to convey similar ideas, they become a language-- a literary form, if you will. And it is this disciplined application that creates the 'grammar' of Sequential Art.'

It'd be interesting to see Kochalka in a debate with Eisner. They might invite Scott McCloud along too. After all, isn't UNDERSTANDING COMICS a comic that conveys information?

Although obstensibly a book about comic art, Kochalka has little specifically to say about comics. He believes that the panels of a comic book are analogous to experience because 'Our memories fall into patterns of snippets of information.' He also equates panels with the melody and rhythm of music, but doesn't elaborate.

Rather, he endeavors to reveal the art of comics by demonstration, punctuating his discussion with characteristic sequences of childish and unpredictable behavior. Magic Boy splashes in a puddle, plucks a leaf from it and takes a bite. He's transported to the moon in a fishbowl helmet, and finds it littered with beer cans. These non-sequeters enrich the discussion, and suggest ideas beyond the dimensions of mere words.

Expectedly, Kochalka restates his controversial 'Craft is the enemy' thesis. 'Technical mastery of one's medium does not an artist make. The only quality you need is the ability to open yourself with honest, and pluck out the truth.' But he doesn't dismiss craft altogether: 'Craft really is just a matter of personal pride and respect for one's medium.'

In its conception and rendering, it's elegant simplicity and high ambition, this comic is indeed a work of craft Kochalka can be proud of.