R. Kikuo Johnson

Consider the case of R. Kikuo Johnson and Night
. When he was a landscape-painting RISD undergraduate, Johnson
spent three years working on his debut graphic novel, a tale of growing
up in Hawaii and contending with prep school, crystal meth, and an
enormous, unwieldy lawn. It’s an inky, thick-brush-stroked,
meditative work that stretches out dark intimacies from panel to panel
as if in slow motion. “I wanted this handmade quality to reflect
the more personal elements of the story,” he says. He sold the
book to Fantagraphics Books in 2005, about a year after he had graduated
from college.

Night Fisher was extremely well received.
Invitations to contribute to The New York Times and The New
followed, as did the impressive Harvey Award for Best New
Talent and the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award. New
magazine included him in “Famous by 2010,” an
article about 27 notable New Yorkers under 26. (Johnson, charmingly, has
his eyes shut in the picture.) Three printings and three foreign
translations later, Night Fisher has solidly secured Johnson a
place in the zeitgeist, and one has to wonder: Is he the comic-book
world’s Jonathan Safran Foer? How does one top Night
? Where could Johnson possibly go from here?

As it turns
out, back to work. “It’s really gratifying to sit down and
carve a story out of paper,” says the 24-year-old in the East
Williamsburg loft he shares with comic-book artist Paolo Rivera and
designers Ryan Dunn and Steve Oh. A soft-spoken intellectual, Johnson
works two days a week as a waiter at a steakhouse (“I think if I
did more than two days I’d be suicidal,” he laughs), turning
down most illustration projects so that he can focus on a collection of
historically themed short stories. “After [working in] the same
way for three years, I kind of want to go nuts and work in a bunch of
different styles,” he says, so each story will be drawn in a style
appropriate to its era.

Johnson drew the first piece from the
collection, “John James Audubon in Pursuit of the Golden
Eagle,” to emulate an engraving typical of the early 1800s, and it
has now been published in The Believer as well as in MOME.
Johnson’s current project concerns outsider artist Morton
Bartlett, who created, sculpted, posed, and photographed childlike dolls
in an obsessive and, some suggest, erotic fashion. Johnson is working in
a visual direction similar to a ’50s romance comic “because
[Bartlett’s] is, roughly, a love story.”

A former student
of illustrator/comic book great David Mazzucchelli, Johnson speaks
fondly of RISD classes spent analyzing the “stylistic use of
symmetry” seen in the works of Jaime Hernandez and Will Eisner.
But he’s careful not to take himself too seriously. “To me,
comics are meant to be consumed as entertainment. Just like film, first
and foremost, they should be an engaging story. If you gain some insight
into life in the meantime, you’re all the better for it.”