#BĀS TALK with R. Kikuo Johnson
R. Kikuo Johnson was born in 1981 on Maui, Hawai’i. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and is an illustrator, educator, and graphic novelist based in Brooklyn. His bold, graphic, comic-styled illustrations have appeared on multiple covers of The New Yorker, book covers, and the acclaimed children’s book, The Shark King.
His most recent publication, No One Else, is a graphic novel of great tender truth, as Charlene, Brandon, and Robbie learn to navigate life day to day with their plans, fears, and desires. Gorgeously drawn and set in Johnson's hometown on Maui. It is the long-awaited follow up to his acclaimed debut graphic novel, Night Fisher.
On December 10th, 2021, we invited the artist to talk about the concept and the philosophy behind his work. The event ended with a Q&A and a book signing by R. Kikuo.
Purchase R.Kikuo Johnson's Newest Book No One Else from HERE
Your style from the Night Fisher to No One Else has changed. What was the impetus?
Part of it is just the different styles of the stories. Black and white lent itself to Night Fisher, so it was a crime noir. Growing up, especially wanting to be a landscape painter, that seemed like the default method. I’ve also picked up that if you read a novel and on the first page, you’re like, “Oh my God, this is beautiful.”, and you’re on page 20 and thinking the same thing, it’s a terrible font. While visually pleasing, it’s distracting. So between those two things, the subtly became more and more appealing to me. There’s a middle point that’s functional.
Are there any other graphic artists you’d point to as inspiration?
I grew up reading my uncle’s Peanuts collections, and later in the 90’s reading it in the newspaper. I went back and explored it later as an adult. He [Charles Shultz] could take a giant idea and rework it into a basic image. What is the symbol that encapsulates all of that?
I have a question about your color use. When you approach the story line did you think color plays a role as a character?
Great question. Orange is used judiciously. It’s a symbol. On a base level it’s the sugar cane fires. I’ll let you guys read the rest and figure it out for yourselves.
When did you start going by Kikuo?
My first name is Reid and I grew up being called Reid. But as I got older, I could feel myself not wanting to tell truth to sort of protect myself. A smart person would have used a fake name but I used my real one, haha. It actually helped me write and be more revealing. Now it’s like, my alter ego. And half of the people in New York call me Kikuo anyway, so.
Your first book was at 21, and you were able to start with Fantagraphics. Fantastic place to start with, who were your inspirations there?
The artists who made me feel so much at that time were Charles Shultz like I mentioned earlier, and Dan Clowes. He wrote Ghost World and Wilson, for those who’ve seen those movies. Also, Chris Ware. Every three or so years he comes out with new work and it always becomes my favorite thing.
The theme of grief, can you touch more on it?
I was sitting around on my kitchen table and my friend comes in and told us this crazy story. Her grandfather had just died. Once he was cremated, his ashes were placed under the sink with the cleaning supplies, just before they were buried in the yard. For some reason, that story stuck with me forever. The emotion in that story is so conflicting and I’m sort of addicted to the confusion. Any work that you end up working for a period of time ends up being something you tend to be working on in personal life. Thinking about my immediate family and the relationships within them, all four of my grandparents passed, and with each death, relationships shift in both small and big ways. You could write about it [grief] forever.
What is the editing process for this?
At 21 when I was doing Night Fisher I thought, “I don’t want anyone messing with my story.” I went to Fantagraphics back then because I think there’d be no intervention with my vision. Of course, later I asked for more editorial input. When David Mazzucchelli became my teacher, I would have a comic and have him read it to me. Having someone else explain the comic to me allowed me to be a reader in this new way. But the best people to ask for feedback are people who don’t read comics.
What is your writing process like? How does it all come together?
Generally, I like to write myself into a corner. Then I’ll draw myself into a corner. And I’ll do that 5 times. It’s a pure combo of words and pictures. Then you’ll notice fifty percent of these words are unnecessary.
You said you grew up in Maui. At the time you grew up, was there a comic store you went to? Where did you find those influences?
Never wanna miss an opportunity to shout out amazing book stores. We had Complete Comics before Borders. Perry was the guy there. When we were little, there were milk covers, anime was emerging… and Perry was our dealer. Whatever hobby came and went, the comics were always there. It was a huge influence with the black and white compositions, and that told me a different story. Really grateful for bookstores.
How did you end up going to Providence from Maui?
I went to a college counselor and asked about art school and she only knew of one was in Rhode Island. My intention was to come back. When I first got to Providence, I was like, “This place is terrible!”
Any culture shocks?
I remember wearing my aloha shirt on a Friday in January and people would say “You look like summer!” And I would think “You guys wear different clothes during the year?”
Do you meet other illustrators from The New Yorker?
Unfortunately I’m always in Hawai’i when those parties happen. The parties are always in the same church. [Angel Orensanz Center] It’s the same church where the cover for Wu Tang Clan’s [Enter the Wu Tang] 36 Chambers was shot.
Have you thought about animations?
Yeah. I’ve done a little bit of work in that. I’m actually doing something now and I can’t talk about it. My favorite cartoonist is Chester Brown. Interestingly, one of the most appealing things about comics to him is the silence and the stillness. If you read No One Else, there’s a lot of that. There’s something about seeing a still image at your own pace and deducing its meaning. I’ve noticed the minute it’s moving, any compositional mistake disappears. It’s like sleight of hand. Ah I didn’t mean to sound so mean.
When I was reading No One Else, I couldn’t figure out who was the main character of the book.
Good question. It breaks a rule of storytelling: only one protagonist. I’ll leave it at that.
Did it take you a while to land on those colors for No One Else?
Once I knew it was going to be set in the cane fields, I knew I wanted orange. I know some of you are like me in the crowd who do graphics. Most books are printed with 4 colors, and that gamut is actually pretty limited. But when you see bright orange, it stands out. Especially when it’s next to its complement color, blue. It adds an emotional punch.
How does being from Hawai’i inform your work? Do you assert in consciously or does it show up in unconscious ways?
Yeah. I have a suspicion that if I leave New York I’ll write a story about it. The whole story takes place when sugar cane is still operative. And sugar cane stopped as of 2016. Am I writing about a crystallized Hawai’i that I experienced? Not sure.
Text/ Shanda Delos Reyes
Photo/ Brandyn Liu