Local author R. Kikuo Johnson talks about his new graphic novel, No One Else
Da book that put R. Kikuo Johnson on the map of his first graphic novel in 2005, Night fisherman, which earned him the Russ Manning Newcomer Award and the Harvey Award for Best New Talent. From the den, this Maui boy now living in Brooklyn has been very busy turning his success as a graphic novel into a realm of commercial illustration. Its client list includes notables like Apple, Atlantic, Coca-Cola, CNN, ESPN, News week, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Nickelodeon, Nike, Puma, Time, Vanity Fair, Volkswagen, The Wall Street Journal and the big companies of planny oddah. In 2012, he took a little detour and released a graphic novel for children, King of sharks. An’den aftah ukubillions of years and one day his fans finally rejoice as Fantagraphics released a special 15th anniversary edition of Night fisherman, plus his highly anticipated new graphic novel, Nobody else.
HONOLULU Magazine: Braddah Kikuo, congra-choo-ma-lations on Nobody else! I like to know, what school did you go to, what year did you graduate? What is your ethnicity? And try to tell us about your family and your childhood in the hinterland of Makawao.
R. Kikuo Johnson: The secondary school was Seabury Hall, Graduated Class of ’99. My mother is mixed Filipino / Japanese and my father is Haole. My dad was an accountant and my mom is a high school drama teacher, first at Maui High and then at King Kekaulike. You know in Makawao it was raining all the time so I was stuck at home with my dad’s printer paper and drawing inside. Or I would go bodyboarding in the backyard when the rain was really heavy. (Laughs.)
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HM: The sugarcane harvest in its final days serves as the backdrop for a story in Nobody else. I love how it plays out in real life, a story of anti-cane peoples protesting against smoke. What do you think of the disappearance of sugar cane in Hawai’i? You’re happy ? Or are you sad? Do you have cane memories?
RKJ: Growing up in Maui, I remember being on the playground and the ash, you know, Hawaiian snow, was raining down on us. It was so much fun and we pinched it and it turned to dust, yeah. I couldn’t imagine Maui without the Pu’unene Mill in the center and the whole valley covered in sugar cane. So when I heard that the last harvest was coming – it was just as I was developing the idea for the book – I was filled with sadness. While I fully understand how destructive sugarcane is to the watershed, it was just hard for me to imagine a Maui without sugarcane. So that feeling of crying for something that I never necessarily liked kind of became a theme of the book and translated into the human characters as well.
HM: Da story in Nobody else stay on the way a family copes with the loss of a loved one. But you make your readers really have to watch to follow the story. Try to talk about your method, your graphic novel philosophy.
RKJ: I love reading a comic that really requires looking very closely at the drawings and living the story as much through the drawings as through the text. This is one of the reasons I wanted to write a comic book about a kid because a lot of times kids don’t express themselves as well as adults, so they don’t necessarily say how they feel. In fact, none of the characters in the book ever say how they feel directly, so I try to use the designs as a subtext or involve the actual conflict that is going on inside each of them. .
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HM: Get so many character moments in Nobody else that we can’t help but laugh because of their truth. Probably my favorite page is still page 51. At the top of that page, an uncle who returns to Maui after a long absence twists when a truck cuts him up and, ironically, a truck has a Live Aloha sticker. I love how his review of a slogan alludes to why he left Maui in the first place. And you get a perfect one-page punchline when smiling tourists in their convertible Mustangs honk at him because he doesn’t notice the light turning green, so he slams, âRelax, Brah! This is not the continent! Do you find them difficult to make humor into a serious story?
RKJ: You know what’s funny, when I originally conceived this story, it was a comedy to me. The whole thing was a full-fledged black comedy. And then as I was working on it and falling in love with the characters and the characters getting real to me, instead of telling the jokes like jokes, I just started writing it as flat as I could and making it as dry as possible. Very quickly, I was writing an extremely serious story. It’s funny because a lot of reviews so far have talked about emotional rawness and realism and I’m thankful you pointed out the humor because it was important to me!
One of Johnson’s cartoons for The New Yorker.
HM: Your second graphic novel, King of sharks (Toon Books, 2012), wuz for early readers. Wuz is this your idea to take your take on the Hawaiian legend? An’den, did you get any criticism for the first day? Did anyone say they should have a Hawaiian artist to tell this Hawaiian story?
RKJ: That’s an excellent question. This is published by FranÃ§oise Mouly; she is the artistic director of The New Yorker. This is her publishing house and she designs books for children to read comics for themselves as opposed to children’s books which are designed for parents to read to children. When she asked me to do one of these books, she told me to find all your ideas and make one based on a myth. Nanaue is a story I grew up with. It has always been one of my favorite stories. It was in 2010 when I wrote it. America has since gone through a racial calculation and the way America thinks about race and the way I think about race has changed. Nobody ever told me anything; in fact, I have had very positive feedback. But I ask myself the same question. Am I the right person to tell this story? Now I am looking at it and I am not sure. I asked myself the same question when I was doing a [New Yorker] coverage on Asian American violence. As a hapa man, am I Asian enough to talk about it? And also being from Hawaii is a different thing than being Japanese American or any type of Asian American on the mainland. So yeah, that’s a big question and I think about it a lot. I am always nervous to speak for others. I try to talk about my most authentic self as much as possible.
HM: Not only did your new book come out, but your publisher also released a special 15th anniversary hardcover edition of Night fisherman too much! I think you told me you were redoing a few signs or something. Is the end of da still ambiguous? Due to what you chose for the end of the story, we are of no consequence. All we know is that the main character’s friend Shane batu, and in the end he’s accepted into MIT. But the story ends before the court date, so it’s unclear whether he’s still going to MIT or what. I’m curious if anyone has criticized you for glorifying the use of crystal meth?
RKJ: No one has ever given me this flak to glorify crystal meth. In fact, it is the opposite; the criticism I usually get is that this is a clichÃ© story that tells people not to use crystal meth. It still bothers me because I don’t think that’s the subject of this book. I personally think that your reading [that it is ambiguous] is more precise. But when you sit down to read a coming-of-age story that deals with drugs, I think people bring a lot of their own ideas to it.
HM: Your books read like movies. Is it your dream that one of your books will one day become a movie?
RKJ: You know what I’m hoping for is money. The best possible scenario for me is that someone has the option and tries to do it for 50 years and every year they pay me more money and it never gets done. It would be my dream. For me, books are history.
âDa Pidgin Guerrillaâ The works of Lee A. Tonouchi written in Hawaiian Creole have gained national recognition. His collection of poetry Pidgin Significant moments in the life of Oriental Faddah and Son won the Association for Asian-American Studies Book Prize. His picture book for children Pidgin Princess of Okinawa: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos won a Skipping Stones Honorary Award. And den his Pidgin game Three year swim club wuz a Los Angeles Times Critics’ Choice Pick.
Read Tonouchi’s pidgin 102 series for HONOLULU: âHow did the unique Hawai’i language begin? “,” Should pidgin be standardized in writing? “,” Who should be allowed to speak Pidgin in Hawai’i? And “Da Future of Hawaiian Pidgin. “