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BAKER'S DOZEN for 02/22/2006
In Pursuit of His Muse
R. Kikuo Johnson on Night Fisher
When I sat down to read Night Fisher for the first time late last year, I was fairly sure that I was going to encounter something not just good, but actually a little more than extraordinary. And as someone with more than a few years as both a reporter and reviewer under my belt, I thought I was well prepared for what I was about to read.
I was wrong.
Night Fisher is by turns wrenching, laugh out loud funny, lyrical and utterly devestating--in a weirdly satisfying manner unlike anything else I've encountered. There are scenes and whole sections of the book which haunt me still, in a way few other novels, graphic-oriented or otherwise, are able to. Quite simply, it's a stunning and formidable acheivement, and made all the more special by the simple fact that it's Johnson's first attempt at a graphic novel.
If you're interested in reading more of my thoughts on this small wonder, head over to www.bookslut.com/gutterslut/2005_11_007061.php and read my review of it. Just bear in mind that you'll likely miss Johnson's thoughts on the making of this phenomenal OGN, what he was trying to accomplish originally and how that changed over the course of making the book, and why Kirby is Kikuo's King of Comics, bar none, among other interesting subjects...
Hey, why not stick around for a few more moments and check out what he's got to say about those topics, and a few others. I suspect it just might be worth your while.
Bill Baker: What was the development process for Night Fisher like, and how long did it take, from your first glimmer of an idea to the point where you began work in earnest on the pages?
R. Kikuo Johnson: For Night Fisher, I really had no idea what I was doing. I totally winged it.
I wrote a rough draft, mostly in words, for Night Fisher, and figured it would take me about 60 pages to do. I figured I would do it in a summer. So, I just went headlong into it, and this rough script, it kind of filled out. I immediately realized, after about five pages, that it was going to be much longer than 60. I didn't expect it to go as long as 144, and the end product is very little like my original script.
I think if I start from scratch again, I'll do something that's [based] more on writing and drawing at the same time, and less of a kind of complete verbal script.
BB: It sounds like the whole organic nature of the process took over.
RKJ: Absolutely, and I loved it! It seemed like every time I knew exactly where it would go...each page that you finish swings the whole thing in another direction, you know? And that's definitely, I think, what kept me going--that it was changing, and that organic process.
BB: So it was a project that kept surprising you in good ways then?
RKJ: Yeah. Night Fisher, a certain aspect of it, was a lot less intentional, and kind of the only book I knew how to make at the time, I was so green. And I just drew in the only style I knew how to draw in, and I told the only story that seemed honest to me. It was definite surprise, what came out at the end, and how it evolved over time.
BB: So, how did you go about creating the art? Did you just jump in and start drawing, or did you use a more studied approach to the page?
RKJ: Near the end, I had a good system down. Usually, I do a thumbnail, or do many thumbnails, until it really read. I found, most of the time, when I laid down the thumbnails in single panels, that my very first sketch was generally the most obvious--and the most clear, for that reason. And usually I would stick with the thumbnails that I'd make, but I'd still do five or so thumbnails of each page until it would read smoothly, and, more or less, design the whole page. And then I would just attack it, right on the final page, right after that.
BB: Did the flow between pages concern you at all, or does that just seem to come naturally?
RKJ: When I first started, I didn't. I was just trying...really, the only thing I was worried about was flow from panel to panel. The book as a whole really didn't start registering until about page 80, and then I really started to think about what a double page spread should look like, how to keep a cliffhanger in the bottom right hand corner of the second page of a two page spread, [etc.] Those kinds of obvious, unique comic techniques really didn't start registering to me until about page 80, and so, of course, when the whole book was done, I went back and redrew about 30 or 40 pages, and basically retouched every, single page in the book--at least once--to bring it all up to where I was when I was drawing the last 30 pages or so.
BB: What was it about those original pages that made you reject them? Was it just the storytelling that needed reworking, or were there some other aspects that needed some attention, too?
RKJ: Absolutely. The original 30 pages, especially the lettering, was really wonky. I pretty much relettered the entire book once I'd finished it. Also, the figure work was definitely rougher and, most importantly I think, as the ending changed from my original script, I went back in to add a few pieces in the beginning to foreshadow the events that I wrote in as the new ending.
BB: It's funny you mention the ending, because it touches on an important question, I think, when you're talking about a creative process that is as organic as the one you're describing, and that's "When do you know it's time to stop?" So, how did you know that final beautifully creepy extended/suspended moment that ends the book was the proper way to end Night Fisher?
RKJ: Without giving too much away, I think the image of the plants growing came to me probably around page 80 or 90.
When I first started, I was 20 years old, and I was definitely responding to the superhero comics that I read as a teenager. And when I wrote this script, I wanted to tell the real story of teenagers--but I still had all this action and adventure stuff that was kind of stuck in my head and I couldn't get it out. So I wrote this big, elaborate climax, with people falling off of cliffs and cars crashing and all this stuff; and after working on it for three years, that all seemed like really false. So I rewrote it with something much quieter. I think it was around page 90, I came up with image of just the plants growing, and it seemed to really fit the themes, and with the character, and with the setting, simultaneously. It just kind of seemed to snap, and I called that the last page.
BB: Since you mentioned it, the setting really does seem important to this book, and especially the concept of invasive flora and fauna being transplanted to the islands. How much of that was foreplanning, and how much part of the organic nature of your process?
RKJ: Definitely. From the beginning, my loose agenda, or at least part of it, was that I wanted to explore Hawaii and some of the conflicts it's going through now. Hawaii has many of the most endangered species in the United States, and that sort of stuff just fascinates me. It felt like a topic I could dedicate a lot of time to, and it felt like a cause I could dedicate a large part of my life to, and feel good about, at the time. The rest of the story is, at times, memoir; writing memoir just felt so self indulgent, it was really a breath of fresh air--and, hopefully, for the readers, too--to learn about something different, and get outside of the story itself a bit.
BB: That is a bit of a break from your superheroic clashes, isn't it? [General laughter]
RKJ: Yeah. Yeah, I hope so!
BB: Now I have to ask, since there's a seemingly-automatic assumption that, being an indy comics creator, you'd now disdain superhero comics. Is that true in your case, or do you still have some love of that genre?
RKJ: I have no problem, I have no animosity towards Marvel, DC, or Image or Dark Horse or anything like that, like I know some other cartoonists have. But I'm kind of still waiting for them to publish something that I'd like to read. As a cartoonist, I'm so interested in craft. I love lettering. I love seeing the writer's hand, and the artist's hand, and I love reading the cartoonist's opinions about things. And I find that those things, while they're in mainstream comics, they tend to get diffused among six people at once, and it's really hard for me to distill who's talking to me, often, when I read a mainstream comic. They just don't appeal to me as much. I also think the mainstream publishers, especially Marvel, show an outright disdain for craft with their overwhelmingly shoddy graphic design and digital onomatopoeia.
But I am obsessed with Jack Kirby. With Jack Kirby, I think he was a genius. Of course. I love reading his comics. I love reading a lot of Silver Age comics, and Golden Age comics, particularly those by recognized auteurs today, like Fletcher Hanks, Jesse Marsh, Alex Toth, Kirby, of course, and some of those other guys. That's really the only stuff that comes from the mainstream action adventure tradition that I'm reading today.
BB: So what was it about Kirby's work that still excites you?
RKJ: The main thing that just excites me so much about Kirby is that the guy never drew the same panel twice. And, more than anything else...
You know, he gets pigeonholed for his "bad anatomy" and people latch on to the cliches of his drawing style, but under the surface, his sense of design is unmatched--especially in mainstream comics. And definitely the figure work, the sense of scale that's constantly shifting, panel to panel, and the inventiveness on every single page just blows me away. In the whole of mainstream comics, I think of Kirby as a 10, and the next closest artist comes in at maybe an 8.5--but I guess that's just me being a snob. I just love his stuff.
I'm much more of a fanboy than a snob, I should say. [General laughter]
BB: Yeah, you're a fanatic, true. But at least you're an aware fanatic! None of that, "All other artists must die!" stuff for you. [More laughter]
RKJ: Exactly! Exactly, "They all suck! It's Kirby, and only Kirby!"
I really almost do feel that way, though--I just love his work.
BB: You've acknowledged here and elsewhere that there are aspects of Night Fisher that are, glancingly at least, autobiographical, which makes me wonder if there's something about the memoir format itself that helped you tap your own inner Kirby when working on this book?
RKJ: I wouldn't say so. I enjoy some memoir comics, and memoir in stories and films. A lot of times that seems to be a really compelling form. A lot of times, it just reads as self indulgent hackwork. It's a really dangerous kind of genre, and one that I'll probably try to stay away from for a while. Really, I think I chose it because it was the only thing I knew how to do, the only way I knew how to put any authenticity into my work. Night Fisher, really, I kind of think of as the only book I knew how to make at the time.
BB: Good point on the dangerous nature of memoir, which for some reason made me think of Bill Cosby's thoughts on some folks' claim that cocaine, 'Just enhances your personality." Which lead Bill to wonder, "Well, what if you're an asshole?" [General laughter] That really is the problem with memoir, isn't it?
BB: Well, since Night Fisher was the only book you were capable of making back then, and without trying to nail you down or swear a blood oath or anything, what are you thinking about doing next? And, perhaps more importantly, were the Kama Sutra illustrations you did for Men's Health a while back any sign of things to come?
RKJ: Yeah, that was great. That was really the first illustration gig I've done. I'm definitely not looking to try to become a professional illustrator. If a good gig comes around, I'm not going to turn it down, but that's not the direction I'm heading in, by any means.
I'm really interested in making more comics. And, right now, after working in the same style for something like three years, I'm just having a great time kind of freewheeling and doing short strips, here and there. Basically, whatever I want to do.
I took a stab at the classic four panel gag strip. Those are going to appear in the third issue of the MOME anthology. I just finished a two page comics essay on a hero of mine, John James Audubon, and it just has a kind of short anecdote about him shooting his bird models for his opus, The Birds of America. And I think if I had to generalize about the direction I'm headed in, it's definitely going away from the cinematic approach I think I had in Night Fisher. I've kind of stopped thinking about the panel as a camera, and started thinking of the page as a space to be subdivided. Most of what I'm doing now I really think of as much closer to pure comics than any kind of film or cinematic approach.
BB: Is it this ability to explore things in ways that give them whole new meanings one of the real draws of comics for you, then?
RKJ: Absolutely. I love the medium. I love comics. I love reading comics. There's nothing that beats a good day with a great comic, for me.
And I love the potential that it has, and its uniqueness as a medium. I feel like there's a lot of space, and a lot of territory yet uncovered--despite whatever The New Yorker writes.
Did you read that recent article in The New Yorker.
BB: I glanced through it, and... [Laughter]
Let me tell you, if Alan Moore still feels he has things to learn and do in comics, then perhaps The New Yorker should just stop acting like any book is the be-all and end-all of the medium's potential-- especially this early in its history. I generally like their work, but...man.
What was your opinion?
RKJ: My initial reaction, when he's saying that 'the masterpiece has been made, and the movement is on its way out,' was, of course, extremely defensive and offended. And I'm, like, "Of course that can't be true! There's plenty of great comics to be made!" That was my initial reaction. But the more I stepped back and thought about it, the more I realized that, yes, he has some very valid points. And I think his pointing out of Jimmy Corrigan as this untoppable masterpiece may be true for a few years. But that's just too easy to stop and say, "That's it," and that we're done. And the impetus for the resurgence of great indy comics in the last five years was also the end? That's just too easy. There will be a lot more great comics on the way.
BB: Yeah. Exactly. Because it's all been downhill since those [R. F.] Outcault and [Winsor] McCay guys, hasn't it? [General laughter] It's always the end of some era for someone, isn't it?
BB: So it sounds like you're going to be playing with the short form comics for a while, and see what comes to you regarding something longer during that time, then.
RKJ: Absolutely, yeah. I've written some rough outlines for some longer projects, and every now and then something will strike me, and I'll tack up a new kind of theme on my studio wall at home--which is slowly becoming a wall of push pins. But, for the most part, I'm really happy writing short stories right now, and exploring new styles of drawing and new ways of telling stories, and really just building up that cache of ideas before I try to tackle something big again.
BB: Well, since I haven't asked it, why don't we get an obvious question out of the way: Are you planning a sequel to Night Fisher?
BB: I didn't think so. And, anyway, if you come up with a killer idea in 20 years, you can always change your mind and do it then.
BB: It sounds like doing comics is just giving your life a whole lot of joy and meaning. What would you like your readers to get from your work?
RKJ: I hope, since in most of the work I've made so far there tends to be a factual backbone here and there, that you might take [some of that] away, and learn something. I don't know if that's going to continue with my work.
I think there's also, I hope, a sense of exploration. That's what I love. The comics I love to read are mostly comics that make me want to make comics--every page seems to have a certain amount of discovery for the artist as much as the reader. I hope there's a little of that, maybe, in some of my work.
But, more than anything else, I just hope it rings close enough to life and truth that people can have any kind of positive or negative reaction to it--just a reaction to it is all I really hope for. There's nothing explicit that I ask from readers.
If you haven't checked out Kikuo's work yet, why not grab yourself a copy of Night Fisher or the latest issue of The Believer and see what all the excitement's about. Or head on over to http://www.paolorivera.com/seabread.com/pages/mainmenu.html, R. Kikuo Johnson's virtual studio, and explore the various nooks and crannies of that very fun and interesting site. In either case, it'll be time well spent.
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