Comic books aren’t just for superheroes anymore. In fact, comic books—or graphic novels, as they’re sometimes called—are quite complex, artistically and editorially. Many contemporary graphic novels combine elements of film noir, drama, mystery, action, suspense and black comedy, looking more like sophisticated cinematic storyboards than the dime store entertainment of yore.
R. Kikuo Johnson is one of the latest rising comic book artists of this genre. Born on Maui in 1981, he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003 and moved to New York soon after. His debut comic book novella, Night Fisher, (Fantagraphics) is a depiction of a teenage boy struggling to find his place in the world and on Maui.
Semiautobiographical, the art and storyline relay a more realistic side of Hawai’i not often represented in mainstream media. I talked to Johnson while he was in New York, preparing for his first solo exhibition and release party for Night Fisher.
Maui Time Weekly: So what do call yourself? Illustrator? Graphic novelist? Artiste de comeec streep?
R. Kikuo Johnson: I really like “cartoonist.” I think it’s the term that best describes the act of writing and drawing simultaneously. “Illustration” definitely has an implication of describing text with image, which I think is really different from actually writing with an image—using the image as the text, almost.
When did you start?
I think the first comic I did was in third grade at Makawao Elementary School during recess. I did “Wind Man”—he has the power to control the wind. And he fought the Dark Destroyer. I think I made like 30 issues of that, actually.
I kinda stopped making comics in high school. I would go out to my favorite pasture lands and stuff, and do these oil pastels and some oil painting—you know, in a kind of George Allen school of Maui painting. I was really pursuing that pretty heavily so I went to art school.
By my sophomore year, I was a full-blown landscape painter. I had some stuff in Art Maui actually. That must’ve been 2001—yeah, I think I was 20 years old. I spent my junior year in Italy and my parents called me and said, “Your painting’s in the show.” They gave me a verbal description of the show so that was cool.
And you were in Italy, too? I hate you. But what did you like best about it?
The thing I liked about Italy is how much it made me appreciate being an American. It was also 2001 so I think there was a definite patriotic energy in the air. I actually arrived in Rome on Sept. 11. I got off the plane and there were smoking towers on the TV. I guess travel is for self-discovery and I definitely felt more American than ever. Being in a foreign country is a great place to write a memoir. It just gets you thinking about where you came from.
Tell me about the process of creating a comic book.
With Night Fisher, I pretty much wrote out an entire plot and loose script, scene for scene. That was four years ago. I would start drawing it and as soon as pencil hits paper, it totally changes—the dialogue especially, even the scenes and the characters become their own people as soon as they’re drawn. A lot of time the gestures will say half the dialogue so you don’t need it.
After this sort of loose script and plot comes together, there’s really kind of a definite simultaneous drawing/writing kind of thing that happens with these thumbnails that I did for the entire book. Even those thumbnails will change once you start inking it and getting it together. Otherwise it would just be awful, sitting and carving away at a drawing board for hours. From other cartoonists I talk to, it seems like a pretty typical method—lots of writing and drawing at the same time.
Who was your mentor?
David Mazzucchelli. He drew Batman for a while, among other things. I think the thing I learned most from David—beyond just learning a lot about technique and the language, the vernacular of cartooning—[is that] he was the first guy I ever met who took comic books seriously. He really pursued it with this fierce academic angle that was completely new to me. It was kinda how I always looked at comics and to see an adult say “comics” three times in a sentence was mind-blowing and really exciting.
So is cartooning your main source of revenue?
I work at a restaurant two days a week to pay most of my bills. It’s really nice ‘cause it allows me total freedom. I’ve been trying really, really hard to work out a situation for myself where I can just have no pressure but my own, as opposed to financial or editorial pressure, and it’s worked out really well for me. I try to avoid working with editors as much as possible. I’m sure you can relate.
Uh, I have no idea what you mean. Do you have any advice for future cartoonists?
Oh man, get a day job. If they just kinda trust themselves and keep trying, they’ll do very well. MTW