R. Kikuo Johnson, Night Fisher: A Comic Book Novella (Fantagraphics, 2005) paperback $12.95
by French Lunning
There are a plethora of male coming-of-age stories out just now, in all aspects of American popular culture. Most offer poignant stories in which the protagonist comes to some sort of epiphany or insight at the end of the story, which catapults him into an adulthood we are made to feel will be successful, though not without some hard knocks. This “Hollywood” sort of story give us the impression that men, because of the insight gained during their adolescent adventures, will grow up to lead satisfying lives. Most men would tell you a different tale if they could; and lucky for us, R. Kikuo Johnson can and does in this comic book ‘novella’ (properly categorized, for once).
Loren Foster is a 16-year-old boy living with his single father on Maui Island, Hawaii. We are brought into his story through the scientific images of the formation of Maui in ancient Jurassic history, which is the book that Loren is reading as he fishes on the shore late at night alone. Loren speaks to us in a first-person narrative: he tells us his view of the story, a view that is silently enlarged through Johnson’s exquisitely detailed and nuanced art. Loren is an observer of life: through his large glasses that serve to emphasize his observer status, he looks at life from the sidelines, but yearns to be a player. This story is about his attempt to emerge into the active adult life.
His life is centered on the tenuous high school relationship with his best friend, Shane, who from time to time ditches Loren because he is not hip enough. Loren admits to always “playing catch-up” with Shane, clearly the more “popular and cool” guy. Loren goes down a dangerous path to achieve coolness: he experiments with “Batu” (I am guessing crack here, if the paraphernalia is anything to go by), and is introduced to another side of life. He begins hanging out at night with Shane, Eustace and Jon, and “night fishing” becomes fishing for drugs and experience.
The story is structured around their nightly pursuit of drug-related pastimes: stealing and endlessly waiting in the car for Jon to do deals. During the waiting, the complex hierarchies of these young men emerge through a constant banter and rough play. Loren is low-man, and yet Eustace and Jon (who are part-native) ruefully acknowledge Loren’s destiny as a “rich” white kid. They know, even if he does not, that Loren will be able to “make it” without much trouble, since they understand the painful inevitability of the privileges of class and birth. As the story reels out, other characters play minor parts in what is to be the climax of the memory, for clearly, this is autobiographical: in feeling and atmosphere if not always in narrative. A girl named Lacey with whom Loren had a sexual tryst; Jem, the school bad boy and druggie who is the deus ex machina in the climax in the story; and Loren’s father, who Johnson allows us to see in his bumbling isolatio--all are observed by Loren through the lens of adolescent narcissism.
And this is the compelling crux of this story of manhood, for although it is a coming-of-age story, it is also a tale of fathers: Jon the dealer, who in the eyes of the young men is the model of the cool experienced adult; Loren’s father, who Loren sees as pathetic and hopelessly uncool; and Jem’s dad, who, we are told is an alcoholic who is always bailing Jem out trouble with money. Yet, Johnson is masterful in his quiet disclosure of the other sides of these men, the side we are not sure that Loren sees. Jon is a loser, and Loren’s father who has bet everything on moving Loren and himself to Hawaii, is now seeing it all unravel and fall into ruin.
Written beautifully and clearly possessed of a literary gift, Johnson writes in the tongues of these young men, in the language and sounds of awkward adolescence. The story, seemingly simple in structure, is actually complex and interwoven with beautiful and scientific images from manuals and textbooks. These images create their own commentary on the life of islands, the complexity of knots, the strength of tire repairing: all symbolizing the tough poignant skills of adult manhood it is Loren’s duty to absorb. Johnson wields ironic turns and coincidence through both the text and the images, in the way in which comic art, when it is as good as this, is uniquely adept. His black and white brush drawings are perfect in balance, tone and expression for the honesty and forthrightness of the story. He moves us in cinematic continuity through the close confines of conversations to stunning long views of nights among the detritus of obsolete industrial sites juxtaposed with an infinite sky of blackness and stars.
My only critical comment would be on the ending: not that I dislike how it ended, but simply that Johnson does not give us enough time to absorb it. The ending is satisfying, but too quick. I needed more panel time to fully appreciate the full implication of Loren’s position. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful read that I am already passing around!