Sunday, September 28, 2008

Comics Review: Night Fisher, R. Kikuo Johnson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

R. Kikuo Johnson's debut graphic novel, Night Fisher, is a fluidly told slice-of-life treatment of prep school adolescents in contemporary Hawaii. It's probably going a bit too far, as the jacket copy does, in describing the book as a coming of age story. The book ends with the protagonist, seventeen-year-old Loren Foster, at a crisis point and with an uncertain future, rather than as a newly mature young man. But it's a modestly affecting portrait of bourgeois teen anomie just the same.

The reader is introduced to Loren as he comes home from an all-night fishing jaunt. There's a complete absence of human connections in his life. Motherless, and with no brothers and sisters, he lives alone with his dentist father in an affluent neighborhood in Maui. Loren and his father have little rapport, and he doesn't have much of a social life, either. He's still awkward around girls, and there seems to be a growing chasm between him and his best friend Shane, who stood him up on the fishing trip. Everything is school, school, school, but he's avoiding thinking about what's next for him after he graduates from the local prep academy. One evening, Shane calls Loren up out of the blue, and he introduces Loren to the world of crystal meth, empty thrill-seeking, and petty theft.

The most striking aspect of the story is Johnson's visual treatment. The art style is very similar to the approaches of Alex Toth, Paul Pope, and David Mazzucchelli: frequent use of deep-space compositions, loose but highly knowledgeable draftsmanship, and painterly ink brushwork with stark contrasts between black and white. Night Fisher is an absolutely gorgeous book to look at, but its visual appeal never takes precedence over dramatic values. The panels are always compelling in narrative terms. Johnson is especially deft at rendering character nuance; he takes one right into the heads of Loren and the other characters with his observant, elegantly understated figure attitudes and facial expressions. His sense of setting is also exceptional; the lush, detailed panels strongly convey both the Hawaii milieu and the sense of oppression Loren and his peers feel.

However, Johnson's storytelling skills are far stronger in visual terms than they are on the literary side of things. Like Jaime Hernandez, whose work the book most recalls, Johnson has a good ear for characters' voices and a strong sense of narrative flow. But he's also like Hernandez in that he doesn't seem to know how to craft a story in terms of dramatic conflict; there's no dynamic in the narrative, and nothing has any lasting weight. The story ends just as it comes to a boil. The book reads smoothly enough, and it's never boring, but it has no staying power. The story drifts away as soon as one closes the covers.

But this is Johnson's first effort, and one can attribute Night Fisher's failings to a lack of experience. The ambition and execution are such that one fully expects him to learn how to pull a story together so that it builds in intensity--so that it has some lasting resonance for the reader. Johnson is a first-rate cartoonist in so many ways: he sees the artwork as a narrative tool, he has a superlative sense of how to dramatize individual scenes, and he even demonstrates a strong degree of technical inventiveness. He's definitely a cartoonist to watch, and I look forward to reading his next book.

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