Lonely as a Rock: A Comic Book View of Prep School in Hawaii
In R. Kikuo Johnson’s debut comics novella, Night Fisher, a high school botany teacher drones to his class, “Asia’s 3,500 miles from here, gang. That’s a long way for a seed to travel… In fact, it’s been estimated that before human settlers, one new species migrated to Hawaii every 50,000 years. That’s how isolated we are here, folks.”
None of the students are listening. Most are asleep. Maybe this is because they are already painfully aware of their geographic seclusion. The book itself begins with a series of deadpan topographical maps: successive stages of the Hawaiian islands’ slow growth from insignificant blips on the radar, to active volcanoes, and on to the geological forms we have today. There is something deeply contingent and unrooted in this vision of contemporary Hawaii—a sentiment bluntly captured by the main character’s unfriendly love interest when she announces: “I can’t wait to get off this fucking rock.”
The picture here is not high-school-as-prison or Hawaii-as-hell. Instead, Night Fisher‘s subject is more like high-school-as-tide-pool, or better, prep-school-as-biosphere. You’re lucky to get in, you’re lucky to get out, and new species enter about once every 50,000 years. Loren, the main character of the book, moves from Boston to Maui, where he attends prep school, and though he sticks out like a sore-thumb, it seems like he’ll be trapped on the island forever; Shane, Loren’s best friend at school, is doing his best to get off the island (and does, to Boston), whilst putting on a convincing act as a beach-bum local who’ll never go anywhere. What we’ve got are two friends on the verge of trading places, intersecting for a brief, awkward moment before the intercontinental swap is complete.
While Night Fisher is an impressive debut in many ways, Johnson’s chosen subject matter (high-school + friendship + loss) has been rather well covered already, especially in comics. At least two towering works of recent comic art deal with that particular nexus of discomfort. One is Black Hole, Charles Burns’ icy romp through the wasteland of the American id. Another is Ghost World by Dan Clowes. The latter features two sardonic high school girls whose friendship eventually peters out when one is admitted to an out-of-town college while the other just sticks around. That, come to think of it, is pretty much the plot of Night Fisher, too—which is a little like writing your first novel about a monomaniacal sea captain intent on slaying a pale-skinned whale. Sounds interesting, but hasn’t someone done that before?
Of course, as a backdrop, Maui is not standard fare, and the setting raises intriguing questions about isolation and emigration. Still, this is a prep school narrative like many others: life is still school, and interesting is still getting your hand under a girl’s skirt or getting high on a drug you’ve never heard of. (In this case it’s called batu, an amphetamine derived from rat poison.) The totality of existence is little more than a fragile Petri dish culture, only here it’s iodine-stained in black and white ink.
Judging from the pedigree of the book’s creation, Johnson himself has rebelled against such a feeling of imposed isolation. He was born in Maui, but attended Rohde Island School of Design, a fancy arts college in Providence, Rhode Island, with an increasingly impressive program in comic art. Night Fisher is Johnson’s first solo post-graduate publication, and it was drawn over the course of three years in Rome, Italy, Wailuku, Maui, and Brooklyn, New York. Still in his early 20’s, Johnson is evidently not the kind of guy who sits around waiting for the seed of an idea to arrive on the wind once every 50,000 years. In fact, the book is full of exciting strands of influence which are otherwise woefully lacking in American comics today.
Most notable is Johnson’s fast, thick, expressive brushwork. It is a technique reminiscent of both traditional Japanese calligraphy and American styles from Jack Kirby to Craig Thompson. But unlike these artists, Johnson manages a refreshing balance of heavy line without exaggerated caricature. In this way his art is more reminiscent of European comic art, particularly of the legendary French auteur Edmond Baudoin. The influence of Frank Miller (the artist whose comics inspired the movie Sin City) is on display here too, in Johnson’s apt use of bold silhouettes, dramatic frozen motion, and dynamically stacked square panels. We might also detect a manga sensibility: the book is full of marvelous sequences illustrating simple, physical actions, poetically extended through time and space.
In other words: Night Fisher is not a typical product of the North American independent comics scene. It’s also full of innovative story-telling techniques which comics aficionados especially will appreciate. Most intriguing among these is the introduction of detailed technical images into the flow of the regular panels. For example, as various characters attempt difficult tasks (changing a tire, tying a knot), diagrammatic images accompany the narrative. Or, in a perfectly executed sequence, sine wave functions appear on an x-y axis above an image of the main character plunging his face into gently waving water. After a long night of druggy fun, he is freshening up for a mathematics exam.
But Night Fisher is frustratingly inconsistent. The kind of ingenious moves just mentioned are delightful, but they don’t necessarily add up to much in the end. Similarly, where Johnson’s art works, it is stunning. He has a gift for capturing atmospheric landscapes, particularly at night, where his ink-loaded brush comes especially in handy. When he slows down enough to render detail along with the usual dashes of black, Johnson’s drawings reveal a shimmering variety of marks, and acute attention to layout and light. Unfortunately, many of the rest of the pages seem rushed, and the heavy brush ends up lending a numbing uniformity to his line and to his lettering. Johnson appears bored with scenes that merely advance the story, and we get bored with him.
Essentially the same fault plagues the emotional life of the book. In the kind of story Johnson is trying to tell—a story primarily about human relationships, and also a story with not that many words in it—it’s important for an artist to visually nail the internal life of his characters with spot-on accuracy. Sometimes this happens: in one scene, Shane winks at the female desk attendant at a hotel. The look on her face—a magical mixture of embarrassment, delight, and annoyance—could not be more precise. Too bad that, in general, the characters of Night Fisher are weirdly mannequin-like, expressing something just shy of human emotions. In general, what’s missing here is detail: detailed drawings, detailed feelings, detailed personalities.
Put it this way: what Night Fisher really needs is more night fishing. Despite the alluring cover, which shows a solitary, silhouetted figure dangling a long fishing line into opaque water, there are only one and half scenes in the entire book where anybody actually goes fishing at night. Clever readers, of course, will be quick to point out that that title is meant metaphorically, and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the same clever readers to figure out exactly what this metaphor is. The problem is that the best scenes in the book are the night fishing scenes, and a few other similar sequences: transcendent moments when mood, environment, and landscape overcome the pesky story playing out before it.
We want less snoozey “real life” high school drama, and more of what Kikuo Johnson has now proved he can do superbly: palpable, sensory, moment-by-moment sequences of experience, especially at night.