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R. Kikuo Johnson

Consider the case of R. Kikuo Johnson and Night Fisher. 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 Yorker followed, as did the impressive Harvey Award for Best New Talent and the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award. New York 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 Fisher? 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.”

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