Conversation All-Stars

The crossover has always been the mega-event in the comic book kingdom. Fanatics easily spout off titles like Aliens vs. Predator or 1978's Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (wait -- we thought Ali was Superman).

But the latest coupling from the realm of superheroes and supervillains doesn't feature limited-edition, varied-ink chromium covers or even Victor von Doom, but pairs a shy, introspective Cheesehead with an extroverted, aging rocker -- and the two take on the Almighty himself.

Craig Thompson and James Kochalka, two darlings of the indie comics world, are activating their wonder-twin powers on the "Conversation Tour 2004" -- and are making an appearance Tuesday, July 20, at Samurai Comics, where they'll pimp their collaborative project, Conversation #1. The "comics jam" covers everything from art to religion, a forte of Thompson, whose latest graphic novel, Blankets, is a touching, coming-of-age memoir based on his experiences growing up in an evangelical household in rural Wisconsin.

He's probably the greatest artist to tackle teen angst and the Almighty since Jack T. Chick created his infamous 1961 series of tract comics (available at finer refuges of the damned). Thompson, admittedly, is a fan: "In my 20s, I collected them from bus stops and phone booths, and even picked up ones handed out on the street," he says.

As for Conversation #1, Thompson's "dismissive of the project and the tour," considering it a marketing stunt by the publisher. He'd rather promote his travelogue Carnet De Voyage or Kochalka's American Elf (a Life In Hell-style diary of his goofy outlook on life, featuring his wife Amy and their cat Spandy).

"They needed something to justify the tour, and the book is sort of a gimmick to tie it together," says the soft-spoken Thompson. "That's how I've interpreted it, because basically it was a little jam we did together. I'd hate to hype it up beyond that."

Kochalka goaded his contemporary into working on the book, especially when things got preachy. "I knew he still had a strong spirituality," says Kochalka, "so I stirred things up by leading off with, 'Making art is like getting into a wrestling match with God.' After that first panel, he changed his mind and didn't want to do it, but once he did, he really enjoyed it."

Both doodlers have had brushes with Hollywood: Blankets is being optioned by an unnamed studio [Thompson refused to comment], and Disney was interested in Kochalka's Monkey vs. Robot, his most famous work. The battle of apes against automatons is so popular that it's spawned its own song (sung by Kochalka's band, James Kochalka Superstar) and music video.

But the ultimate homage might come from ASU, as researchers there have implanted microchips into the brains of Rhesus monkeys to control their arms. The prospect of cyborg-simians running amok isn't frightening to Kochalka inasmuch as it's fodder for a lucrative lawsuit. "I'd better get a royalty, or I'll call my lawyer," he quips. He concedes that an out-of-court settlement of his own army of robot-monkey hybrids might be acceptable.

"I'd have them do my bidding," laughs Kochalka. "I don't know what exactly -- whatever whim passes through my brain. I'd have them clean out the litter box, that would be excellent. Also, our cat needs a good brushing."

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.