Issue 20.3: June/July 2017

The Illustration Man

R. Kikuo Johnson’s art has covered everything from Hawaiian mythology to the New Yorker magazine
Story by Cathay Che. Photos by Bailey Rebecca Roberts.

When R. Kikuo Johnson was a child walking home from Makawao Elementary School on Maui in the early 1990s, he sometimes spotted local painter Eddie Flotte along the sidewalk doing plein air watercolors. “I had never seen an artist work before, and as a young kid who liked to draw, watching Eddie turn dark green globs of watercolor into sunlit trees was pure magic,” says Johnson.

Twenty-some years later, after establishing himself as a successful artist in his own right, Johnson reached out to Flotte. Meeting your childhood idols as an adult can be disappointing, but Johnson’s meeting with Flotte went better than he imagined. “Not only did he invite me to his studio for a look at his latest work,” Johnson says, “he sat me down for a three-hour impromptu painting lesson.”

Johnson made a name for himself in 2005 with the hit graphic novel Night Fisher, and now his thought-provoking, cartoon-inspired illustrations regularly enliven publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Times. He’s become a Brooklynite, but he returns to Makawao regularly. After Flotte taught him how to use watercolors, he went back to his parents’ house and did a watercolor study of their wildly verdant Upcountry yard. It features a pair of soggy work boots, a centipede crawling along a leaking garden hose, and a kōlea (Pacific golden plover), the closest thing the family has to a pet. The painting hangs in his parents’ dining room, a gift from a son who—like the kōlea—faithfully returns to Hawai‘i each year.

With his artwork in galleries from New York to Los Angeles, a growing number of New Yorker covers to his credit and a job as an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), his alma mater, Johnson has clearly found his place on the Mainland. Nonetheless, he still identifies strongly with Hawai‘i. “I feel like I have one foot planted firmly on Maui and always will,” he says.

At 18, Johnson was excited to leave home for college, but he found the gray-green East Coast unappealing. “I liked my classes and made friends, but winter was the worst,” he says. “I one-hundred percent thought I’d be going right back to Maui after I graduated.” And that might have been his path if in 2001 he hadn’t gone to Rome to spend his junior year abroad, which proved to be life-changing in unexpected ways. “The day after I landed in Italy, it was September 11th and the towers fell,” he says. Along with the shock of it came a wave of patriotic emotion. “I still had my identity of being from Hawai‘i—I didn’t lose that—but I had expanded to embrace being ‘from America’ as well.”

Johnson also had an artistic awakening in Rome and began writing and sketching what would become his breakthrough work, the semi-autobiographical Night Fisher. “Art school is very competitive, so my first two years at RISD, I was proving I could paint like John Singer Sargent,” he says. But in a more relaxed environment abroad, Johnson stopped trying to impress. “I remembered why I had always drawn and the thing that had always appealed to me about art—using my imagination and telling stories,” he says.

On a trip home to Maui, the now Brooklyn-based Johnson visits the sewage treatment plant he used as a setting in his breakout 2005 graphic novel, Night Fisher.

Night Fisher puts a Maui spin on a classic story of teen disaffection. Two friends begin to drift apart when one of them starts running with a new crowd and experimenting with drugs, in this case, crystal methamphetamine. Johnson realized it might be controversial. “As a writer from Hawai‘i, anything you write that doesn’t fit the narrative of Hawai‘i as a paradise is going to be a surprise to readers,” he says.

Night Fisher, which won the 2006 Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award and the 2006 Harvey Award for Best New Talent, started as an account of an actual period in Johnson’s life but then changed direction. “I began writing it as my story, but as I progressed, I started to fictionalize it to develop some narrative symmetry,” he says. “I think that’s why I adopted my middle name as my professional name, Kikuo, to give me some psychological space.” Until then he had gone by Reid.

After graduation, Johnson and a classmate from Rome, Paolo Rivera, moved to an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Rivera, now best known for his award-winning work on the Marvel comic Daredevil, says Johnson had and still has a significant influence on him. Before they met, Rivera’s end goal was simply to become a master draftsman. But Johnson approached art differently and it rubbed off on Rivera. “He was looking at things through the lens of subtext,” Rivera says. “Simply drawing things well wasn’t quite enough for him, and it made me realize maybe it shouldn’t be for me either.”

Inspired by Hawaiian legend, The Shark King follows a boy named Nanaue as he searches for his father, the shape-shifting shark god Kamohoali‘i.

Johnson had a chance to join Rivera in the professional world of comic book illustration—his childhood dream job—but he passed on the opportunity to finish Night Fisher. To support himself, he returned to the restaurant chain where he waited tables on Maui as a teenager, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which happens to also have a location in Times Square. He expected the book would take him a year to complete. Instead it took three.

In 2004, when Johnson’s instincts told him that his lushly drawn, melancholy story was finally finished, he submitted Night Fisher to Fantagraphics Books, a publisher of comics and graphic novels. “When they accepted it, they said, ‘Just change the cover,’” Johnson says. “It was pretty much exactly as I drew it, with a few typos and all.” He went from being completely unknown to getting good reviews and winning awards. Calls and commissions from art directors at publishing houses, advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers and even a skateboard company soon followed.

In 2009 Johnson began teaching a class at RISD called Comics: The Grammar of the Graphic Novel. On the syllabus he states that we are currently in the “second golden age of comics.” Comic books and the stories they tell were once considered to be just for kids and adults with arrested development; they were lowbrow and uncool. But over the past fifteen years or so, the illustration-driven medium has tackled subjects including from how to achieve world peace and how to attain enlightenment. It has also powered an explosion of blockbuster films and hit television series. Johnson explains that a graphic novel is like a comic book except it has enough pages (usually more than a hundred) to merit a spine. It’s also like a comic book in that it is a visual story told with images, often hand drawn, although many artists, including Johnson, utilize digital brushes and software such as Cintiq and Photoshop. A graphic novel also has fewer words than a non-graphic novel, and the tension between the image and the words forces the reader to be active and involved in deciphering the story.

Aware that this interplay between image and words could help kids learning to read, Francoise Mouly, art editor at the New Yorker since 1993, founded Toon Books, a publishing company specializing in hardcover comic books for early readers. When Mouly approached Johnson about trying his hand at a children’s book, he looked to the Hawaiian legends he loved while growing up. His second book, The Shark King, published in 2012, focuses on Kamohoali‘i’s half-mortal son, Nanaue. Johnson says he read every version of the story that he could get his hands on, deciding to focus on Nanaue’s experience as a child given in W.D. Westervelt’s 1916 book, Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost-Gods. “I did not want to dumb it down for kids—I wanted to keep some of the horror and alienation in the story.” And he did. The result is an almost psychedelic rendering of precontact Hawai‘i and a portrait of a mischievous child longing for his absent father while discovering his own unique appetites and abilities.

“He did a magnificent job—he is such a great observer and researcher,” says Mouly. “The plants look like some kind of fever dream, and the story is resonant with the longing and the heartbreak of the unknowable parent—a reality for many kids.” The clean lines of his execution combined with the emotionally nuanced quality of his writing is what Mouly finds unique and impressive about Johnson’s work. She points to the cover illustration Johnson did for a May 2016 issue of the New Yorker, titled “Commencement.” It depicts a class of 2016, merrily dispersing after its graduation ceremony; meanwhile, a member of the class of 2015, now working as a groundskeeper, cleans up after the event. The image, Mouly says, is“at once a celebration of the New England landscape and a story triangulated between three figures—the 2015 graduate raking the caps out of the trees and the 2016 graduate, walking across the lawn with his companion. It is so rich. There is what you see first, what you see when you look again—a discoverable, ha-ha moment when the reader gets the joke and feels complicit. The reader is invested in making it come to life.”

It’s an example of how a single thoughtful drawing can cut through the hundreds of thousands of images we are barraged with each day, Mouly says. “It’s been very gratifying to see how a single image can stay in people’s mind with the New Yorker covers,” she says. “People save them, some even put them on the wall and live with them.”

Anyone under the age of 30 might find it hard to imagine what life was like in pre-internet Hawai‘i, when growing up in a sleepy Pacific Island town meant not just limited access to news of the world, pop culture trends and the exploits of celebrities, but also limited interest in these things. Reflecting on his childhood, Johnson sees advantages to being at a distance from the mainstream. “I’m grateful that my parents didn’t sign me up for soccer or piano lessons. They just brought me printer paper, and since it’s always raining in Makawao, I’d just sit inside and draw,” he says. John-son laughs about the stacks and stacks of comics he illustrated with his own made-up Maui superheroes, such as Wind Man. But it helped him develop his artistic skills and his imagination.

His advice to other artists: “You have to be able to create your own content. Waiting around for your dream job will never work. You have to find and express your voice explicitly for anyone else to notice it.”

The problem for Johnson now is that his illustrating hand and artistic voice might be a little too popular. Or maybe the cost of living in New York City is a little too expensive. Either way he finds himself working even during his winter sojourns to Maui (thanks, internet), which leaves little time for his personal work: a new graphic novel he’s kind of hush-hush about. He says we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s also set in Hawai‘i. “Left to my own devices, all of my work would be about Hawai‘i,” he says.

He explains that it doesn’t matter how long he’s lived away or where else he travels. “I’m rational to a fault, so I don’t want to use the word ‘spiritual,’ but I might have to—I feel a body-and-soul connection specifically to Maui. What else would I write about?” HH