Set in the author’s hometown on the island of Maui, Hawaii, R. Kikuo Johnson’s next graphic novel, “No One Else,” centers around a young boy, Brandon, and his divorced mother, Charlene. . At the start of the book, Charlene, a nurse, juggles with little help and uneven success the responsibilities of raising Brandon, appeasing a difficult supervisor at work, and caring for her ailing father. The reader feels that the status quo cannot be maintained, and soon enough it is not. Johnson’s dreamlike vignettes capture a family in the aftermath of loss, during a time of transition and, perhaps, renewal, as they experience moments that are both everyday and monumental. We recently spoke to the author about drawing inspiration from memory, its influences, and finding points of connection with others through his work.
What kind of feedback have you received from people back home in Maui?
I placed “No One Else” among the cane fields that covered vast swathes of Maui until just a few years ago, when Hawaii’s commercial sugar industry closed. I don’t go into the details of this story in the book, but I made the theme of grieving the loss of something you never loved central to the story, and early readers seem to relate these son. Plus, I’ve slipped in a few jokes that the locals seem to like.
Are there other Hawaiian writers and visual artists who inspire you?
Herb Kawainui Kāne (1928-2011) was an artist, historian and author who was a key figure in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. His paintings of ancient Hawaii and Hawaiian mythology are ubiquitous in the islands; I grew up seeing his paintings in museum dioramas, textbooks and hotels. I suspect that I am not the only child in Maui who cannot conjure up an image of old Hawaii that is not filtered by Kāne’s vision. Until recently I wouldn’t have cited him as an influence, but as I accumulate years as a professional illustrator he increasingly strikes me as the rare designer who drew narrative images that really matter.
Has the publication of your April 5, 2021 cover for this “Delayed” magazine changed your career?
This blanket was my very first piece to go viral. The experience broadened my vision of artistic creation in general. I used to think that the ultimate goal was personal expression, but the generous and emotional messages I received in response to “Delayed” showed me that the right drawing can give voice to others.
This excerpt is taken from “No One Else”, by R. Kikuo Johnson, which will be published in November by Fantagraphics.