Sixteen years is a long time between books. That’s the gap between R. Kikuo Johnson’s acclaimed debut graphic novel Night Fisher, published in 2005, and his new work No One Else, out this month. Both books are published by Fantagraphics.
The publication of Night Fisher marked the arrival of a major new cartoonist. Johnson was just 24, driven by dreams of making it as a literary graphic novelist like his comics artist heroes Craig Thompson (Blankets) and David Mazzuchelli (City of Glass: The Graphic Novel and Asterios Polyp). Although in some ways a typical coming-of-age story—a young man struggles with drugs, bad influences and an overbearing father as he finishes high school—Night Fisher stood apart for its Hawaiian setting and Johnson’s lush, heavily inked artwork.
At that time Johnson was a shooting star that lit up a new and growing North American literary graphic novel publishing scene. Born and raised on Maui in a mixed-race family, he’d studied cartooning at the Rhode Island School of Design (where he’s now a teacher) with Mazzuchelli. After receiving a 2006 Ignatz nomination for Promising New Talent, winning a Harvey Award (Best New Artist), as well as the Eisner Awards’ Russ Manning prize for Best Newcomer, he was off to a fantastic start.
And then for 16 years, no comics appeared under Johnson’s byline, aside from Shark King, a slim 48-page children’s tale published by Toon Books. To be sure, his name and stylish drawings could be found everywhere good illustration was still prized—most notably in The New Yorker magazine and in The New York Times—but Johnson seemed to have left comics behind.
Not quite. Earlier this year during an interview with Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds on another topic, he said Johnson was working on a new graphic novel. I was both shocked and excited—even more so when I was finally able to read the new book.
No One Else and Night Fisher share similar elements—an Hawaiian setting and family dynamics—but in the new book, his cartooning has shifted its emphasis to a fine, careful reduction of the story’s moments and implications. The spare lines of his drawing shift slightly from panel to panel and stand-in for the wordy dialog that often crowded Night Fisher’s pages. His characters rarely reveal their emotions, and subtle changes in the background and the book’s duotone color scheme disclose far more than its sparse dialog.
No One Else is an impressive reemergence and Johnson’s growth as a cartoonist over the last 16 years makes you long for all the books that went undrawn. In a different industry—and, he acknowledges, if he could draw faster—maybe there would be more books. Indeed, back in 2005, Johnson says he had many graphic novels planned. But, he tells PW via Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment: “I think what got in the way was just trying to eke out a middle class life in Brooklyn.”
Working on Night Fisher was very much the passion project of a student—he drew the book during the day and worked nights supporting himself as a waiter at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Manhattan. “I look back at the crazy hours I put in and I guess you only have one point in your life when you can do that,” he recalls. At the time, literary graphic novels were just getting recognized by the book publishing world, led by the clamor over Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2004), Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003), and Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button (2008)—all of which influenced Johnson’s career choices.
When Thompson’s then-agent approached Johnson post-Night Fisher to work on more books, he found himself overwhelmed by the attention even as he jotted down ideas for more comics, ideas which all ended up going nowhere. “Some of the books that I abandoned, I realized I was not making for myself, I was making for critical response. I didn’t have skin in the game.”
By this time his drawing skills had caught the eye of art directors. “Editorial illustration was not a career I was ever aiming for, but I fell into it and learned the ropes,” he says. That gold rush moment in 2005 when the publishing world seemed focused on graphic novels lasted only a few years, but the illustration world quickly offered Johnson work that paid more than comics ever would. Eventually, he went from never having enough work to having more work than he could finish. “Making comics became almost like a very expensive hobby,” he recalls.
It took several years and New Yorker covers for him to realize that his career and finances were stable enough to risk making comics again. The Covid lockdown, and his partner’s decision to go back to grad school, created the perfect moment in time to work on a comic. The result is No One Else.
Johnson’s story is as spare and understated as his drawing technique. Charlene is a single mom who lives on Maui with her young son, Brandon, and her elderly father. When the father dies in an accident, Charlene decides to go back to school herself, and her rootless musician brother, Robbie, returns to Hawaii. All three struggle with expressing their grief and anxiety, even as the island itself evolves and the once omnipresent sugar cane industry shuts down. The tension of the family’s silences—their seeming inability to communicate with each other—leaves the reader questioning whether these relationships will shut down too.
Although there’s an important character—a missing cat—named Batman, the book is as far from superheroes as you can get. 16 years ago, he says, making lowkey comics about family dramas just wasn’t a viable way to make a living. And, he says joking, it still isn’t, “unless I win Powerball.”
Johnson says the story in No One Else was inspired by a friend’s anecdote about a relative whose cremated remains sat under the kitchen sink for awhile until they were buried in the backyard. He tried a version of the story set in Cape Cod, but on a trip home to Maui, he witnessed the last year of harvesting sugar cane by setting enormous fires, and somehow the pieces of the narrative came together. “[Sugar cane] was such a huge part of the economy and even the culture. I found myself mourning this destructive thing that I never actually liked or cared about.” This mourning for things we don’t even like became a major theme of the book, he says, while also losing a lot of black comedic elements along the way.
“I played it straighter and straighter as I went along,” he says speaking of the book’s plot and characterizations. “At this point, if there's any humor in it at all, it's very dry. It's about three family members who never really say what they're feeling,” he says. “In No One Else you have to look at it and infer what these people are feeling. That was the challenge.”
The powerful yet fragile beauty of Hawaii itself also looms as a protagonist alongside Charlene, Robbie, and Brandon—a theme Johnson has returned to in all of his books. It offers a chance, he says, to shed some light on the rural, agricultural side of Hawaii that tourists and the media don’t often represent. He jokes that despite being “marooned on the right coast,” in Brooklyn for years, the scenes of his youth in Hawaii are always with him. “Growing up with those landscapes just burned them into my mind. Growing up in Hawaii you don’t go look at the waterfall, you go in to the waterfall, you climb the cliff. It's very tactile. I had a great childhood, maybe that's part of it.”
It’s been a busy year for Johnson. This spring a cover he did for The New Yorker went viral. Called “Delayed,” it’s an understated response to the rise in violence against Asian Americans: an Asian woman with a young child stands on a subway platform and checks her watch, waiting anxiously for the train, surrounded by a palpable sense of unease and hidden danger. The cover captures the constant threat of attacks against the Asian community.
Johnson’s cover hit the zeitgeist and got so much attention that the Chinese government retweeted it as a critique of American xenophobic attitudes. “Delayed” has the same oblique, quietly articulated storytelling that fills No One Else. It’s a style influenced by such cartoonists as the late Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and Nick Drnaso, whose 2018 book Beverly was the first graphic novel nominated for the Man Booker Prize. “Someone like Charles Schultz works like that; where one little ink mark, just a tiny line, will imply a completely different expression. That was the kind of energy and storytelling I was trying to capture,” Johnson says.
As for the future, don’t expect a new book from Johnson every year—unless he gets faster or wins that lottery. But there won’t be a 16-year gap either. He has a lot of ideas to work on. “I think the only way I know how to make comics is something I learned from David Mazzucchelli. Disappear for a long time, get it sorted out on my own, and then come back when it's ready.”