November 2005

Bill Baker


Nightswimming: Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson

In a year filled with some truly outstanding original graphic novels, and collected editions of excellent comic series, I'm hard pressed at present to point to any single volume which has flat-out impressed me as much as R. Kikuo Johnson's slice-of-life debut novel, Night Fisher. By now, many of you might have read or heard some other critics raving about this book, and perhaps even have wondered if Johnson could honestly be as good as the hype.

Quite simply, he and his work are the real deal. Miss this one, and you're needlessly depriving yourself of a sublime and arresting reading experience. Night Fisher is a debut of stunning power, delivered with more than a dash of real authority. Every moment depicted, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is imbued with its own weight and reality, its own raw beauty and ugly truth. The story begins effortlessly, it unfolds with precision and concision, and the ending is devastating in its simplicity, in its implications, and in its seeming inevitable nature.

This isn't just a good or great debut; it's a bravura performance which introduces a major literary talent. Think Andy Runton. Think Chris Ware. Think Paul Pope. Think Art Spiegelman. Hell, think Will Eisner. Really, this kid's that good. And I honestly believe -- even knowing Will as glancingly as I did -- that if we were still lucky enough to be graced with Eisner's continued presence on this plane, he would have been among the very first to champion Johnson's premiere with some real gusto and verve.

Regardless, Johnson's command of the craft is clearly apparent in every panel, on every page. One need look no further than the opening pages of the novel for a fine example of the author's command of page design, and an incredible use of the tension between the negative [i.e. black] spaces and the white, using the former to define and even reveal not only his shapes and figures, but also indicate -- via juxtaposing the relatively quick action of the first page with the serenity of the double page title spread following it -- that the readers' eyes should linger on this composition, as if they, too, were scanning the star-speckled night sky.

This introduction might be short, but it's mightily indicative of all that follows. There's not a misstep, not a blot to be seen. Johnson's choices of moments to depict in this, the story of Loren Foster, an increasingly disaffected and disengaged over-achieving high school student, and her fall from grace, are impeccable. The same can be said for the various points of view the creator employs, all of which interact with the characters' sparse verbal and relaxed body languages to create some truly impressive and -- more importantly -- telling storytelling moments.

Consider, for instant, Loren's introduction to "batu, his adoptive Hawaiian home's slang for crystal methamphetamine, via his sometimes-distant best friend, Shane. It's Shane's new taste for batu's high which accounts for his most recent bout of standoffishness. But rather than being upset, Loren finds himself following his buddy's lead in seeking out his first hit. It's a recipe for disaster of epic proportions, and could make for a story that would read like a really sappy and exceptionally bad Afterschool Special. However, Johnson avoids all the obvious and hidden traps this topic presents, and in so doing has achieved something spectacularly rare: a depiction of reality which rings true on most levels, yet has a distinct artistic life of its own.

Notice how the use of the large, essentially empty night sky in the first panel above enforces and reflects Loren and Shane's alienation and sense of isolation, while the largely unseen but still felt shape of the silo, looming over the two errant boys, proves foreboding even as it foreshadows the random, nonsensical violence which follows on the next page, and which peppers the novel as it does life itself. And that's to say nothing of the double release of tension which a preceding bit of humor, followed up by this burst of violent action, delivers. Nor does it really pay enough tribute to Kikuo's subtle delivery of character information during these moments. Suffice to say that the pages show are not simply the "star turns" or a "highlight reel" by any stretch of the imagination; Night Fisher offers 144 pages of these brilliantly effective and moving moments. Still, perhaps one of the better examples of Johnson's sly characterization might be found in our introduction to Jon, the thirty-something addict who acts as the young men's guide and obtainer of the drug. Coincidentally, it also showcases many of the points already made about Johnson's abilities.

Here the ushering of Loren and Shane into the presence and influence of batu, as manifested by the shadowy Jon, is clearly shown as a dark and somewhat uncertain passage of perhaps questionable wisdom, and also clearly reflective of Jon's own emotional state. As the stoned man notes a few pages later, "I don't feel great about turning you [Shane] on to this shit. Now you want me to put this kid on too?" An addict with feelings, and perhaps filled with real misgivings? You betcha. And while this attitude on Jon's part is never fully explained, as with much of what happens in this novel it still seems right, given the presentation of the character, along with the other characters' interactions and reactions to him. Here, as elsewhere, there's a weight to both the presentation and performances which results in a veracity which is both assured and sustained throughout.

Even better, this is not a book about easy answers or simple endings. While the final consequences of the various characters' different actions aren't necessarily clear or even spelled out by book's end, it's obvious that these will be brought to bear, for good or ill, upon the characters and their lives. We get a few indications, and more than one strong hint of what might be to come for Loren and company, but those details are left effectively off stage, relegated to a period after the incidents portrayed in the novel are well over, to be completed in the readers' imaginations. Which fits, and this reviewer finds genuinely satisfying. There's an unuttered assurance herein, just as with the real world we all coinhabit, that life began long before and will continue to go on a long time present events, despite what appearances and some pessimists might otherwise suggest. For even if these characters are not, and in fact never were in fact capable of actually "living through" those events portrayed in Night Fisher, because of R. Kikuo Johnson's abilities as an artist and writer, there's more than a little assurance that they will live on in the hearts and minds of readers.

I know they will be staying some time with this reviewer. And I honestly can't think of higher praise for a creator's work, myself.

Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson
ISBN: 1560977191
144 Pages