Drawing Inspiration

R. Kikuo Johnson - illustrator from Maui

At eight years old, R. Kikuo Johnson read his first comic book from Compleat Comics, a bygone of old Wailuku. After completing his first book, Johnson can’t recall a time he wasn’t consuming comics, other than when he was illustrating his own. 

In third grade, Johnson felt the inspirational pull of the comic world. He immediately started crafting a story and production plan. “I remember drawing the comic and telling my friend, Dustin, ‘You ink it.’ He did and it looked so bad. After that, I was like no one touches my work and I’ve been working solo since that day at Makawao School,” Johnson recounted over Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment.

On his walks home from elementary school, Johnson often passed local artist Eddie Flotte painting plein air on the streets of Makawao. He witnessed Flotte in the process of capturing the spirit and charm of his surroundings in real-time. To this day, Flotte continues to paint moments of small-town life. 

At 40 years old, the Brooklyn resident is still drawing comics as a professional illustrator, and the artwork Johnson saw on Maui imbues his work. He has written and illustrated three graphic novels inspired by Hawaiʻi. “Growing up on Maui, the only art I ever saw was in comic books and all the landscape paintings,” Johnson said. “To this day, my work is still focused on those two things—comics with a lot of landscapes.” 

R. Kikuo Johnson

The Maui-born artist draws from his apartment in Brooklyn, but much of his work is inspired by Maui.

Johnson’s third graphic novel, “No One Else,” is available this November. The short novella follows the October release of the hardcover edition of his debut book “Night Fisher.” Like his first novel, the panels of “No One Else” are filled with subtle yet exquisitely crafted details that distinguish Maui as a singular setting. 

No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

“No One Else” is Johnson’s third graphic novella. The panels are filled with subtle yet exquisitely crafted details that distinguish Maui as a singular setting.

Originally set in Cape Cod, the sugarcane fields sparked Johnson to create a story closer to home. In 2015, a year before the last sugarcane harvest on Maui, Johnson was engrossed by a cane field engulfed in flames. “For the first time in my life, I thought, ‘Woah this is insane—we just burn these fields.’ I started doing drawings of the sugarcane and the cane fire,” he said. “Then suddenly, I thought about my story, changed the characters to be more like people I knew in Hawaiʻi and in a home I knew in Hawaiʻi. With the cane field surrounding, it was real people with real problems.” 

Using the cane fields as the backdrop, Johnson intertwines complex family dynamics with a boy’s quest to find his cat named Batman. He infuses the family drama with humor and pokes fun at the idiosyncrasies known to those raised on Maui. Imagine explaining to an auntie that an artistic pursuit can be a real job—likely she’d respond that your uncle has a good open position on his construction crew. It is comical and representative of many experiences on Maui.

Readers can orient themselves on the island based on the West Maui Mountains, surf at Hoʻokipa, and old smokestacks. There are also minute features such as a rice cooker on the kitchen counter, a “Live Aloha” bumper sticker, and the family ties that make it a local story.

Drawn and written with impressive simplicity and consideration, every mark and word has a purpose. With just one line, Johnson reveals a character’s awe, exuberance, or even the slightest bit of annoyance. “The characters don’t say what they feel most of the time. The actual conflict is just underneath the surface—not on the page but the subtext. I found the best way to communicate that is with an extremely simple style,” he said. “‘No One Else’ is also that way with the words. It’s my personal style with the book, where every word counts.” 

There are more panels without dialogue than with, making it a visually narrated story for readers to unravel. “The magic in any comic: the words say one thing, the pictures say a different thing, and when they come together, there’s this third thing that’s more powerful than either of the words or pictures alone,” explained Johnson.

It was a last-minute addition to the novel but one of Johnson’s favorite scenes is when Uncle Robbie purchases a bottle of mildew remover and his car is vandalized. There are no words on the page. “I just think it’s a deadpan comedy scene and it works particularly well in comics. There’s silence and stillness.”

After graduating high school, Johnson attended Rhode Island School of Design. “Just the general ethos of art school I took away—the heart of any piece of work is the idea and all the aesthetic decisions come out of that concept, not the reverse.” 

While he was still in art school, Johnson began creating a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, “Night Fisher” that was published in 2005. He addresses what it’s like to define one’s own masculinity during the methamphetamine epidemic on Maui. Johnson’s second graphic novel “Shark King” followed in 2012. Inspired by Hawaiian legends, it is an exciting and nuanced tale. 

For the past 12 years, Johnson has been a professor at his Rhode Island alma mater. When he was first asked to teach a winter session on comics, Johnson admitted he felt unseasoned with his own career. “I was 27 and I didn’t think I was ready, I had total imposter syndrome but I said yes and I’ve been doing that ever since.” 

With a distinguished body of work as a graphic novelist and illustrator, Johnson is certainly not an impersonating artist. Pairing his impressive experience and enthusiasm for the art of comics, he leads artistic exploration and discussions. “Many of them are just super brilliant. My favorite conversation is why this creative choice? To have that with 17 kids for a month is a dream,” said Johnson.

And being among nineteen and twenty-year-olds is a door to not only pop culture but also what issues are pertinent to specific generations. “To stay in touch with people from a different culture—I’m so grateful. I love seeing the world through their eyes,” he explained. “I see the way they speak to each other and the words they use. Their cultural values are so different from the ones I had when I was their age. It just gives me so much empathy—especially during this time.”

Johnson marries the principle he learned in art school with the values he learns from his students, constructing narratives around a central concept that matters to multiple generations. He then creates relatable characters and circumstances. Anyone from Maui can envision themselves in a family with characters from “No One Else.” 

Like his novels, Johnson draws engaging and thought-provoking cartoons for publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic. He has also illustrated eight covers for The New Yorker. In 2018, he earned a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators for The New Yorker cover “Safe Travels.” His illustrations capture the cultural mood and sometimes provoke a level of discomfort. In all of his work, he is able to compress a complicated story into a single image, with little to no words. 

“Everyone has a different approach to the cover but my beat as a New Yorker cover artist is telling a figurative, semi-intricate narrative. Usually, people look at each other and the viewer has to piece together what they’re seeing,” Johnson explained. “I guess I’m trying to focus on something that speaks to the current moment—speaks to the zeitgeist.” 

This July, he illustrated a four-page comic published in The New Yorker, titled “Uncharted.” It can also be read online by searching “Uncharted Maui Kikuo.” Created after the lift on travel restrictions on Maui, Johnson shares his experience witnessing the influx of crowds on the island he calls home. In his signature aesthetic, Johnson approaches a serious subject matter with relatable humor.

Uncharted Maui by R. Kikuo Johnson

After the lift on travel restrictions on Maui, Johnson shares his experience witnessing the influx of crowds in “Uncharted.” The four page comic was published for the New Yorker in July. With his signature aesthetic, Johnson approaches a serious subject matter with relatable humor.

Unsurprisingly, the scenery is undoubtedly Maui. The Kahakuloa Head stands tall in the title panel. “A lot of artists have one theme and return to it over and over again,” Johnson said. “I have a Google map of Maui embedded in my head. I could draw Maui for the rest of my life and I’d be happy.”

Spending his summer breaks from art school on Maui, Johnson worked at Ben Franklin and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. “When I wasn’t at those jobs, which were really valuable, I was drawing,” Johnson said. “I just love drawing—it’s play to me. I spent a whole summer with a box easel painting the old pineapple fields and abandoned pineapple trucks in Haliʻimaile.” 

While the illustrator grew up on an island that inspires countless artists, he opened a unique door into the fantastical comic realm. “I grew up going to the comic book store that used to be in Wailuku. I look back and realized that it was not a foregone conclusion that there would be a comic book store on Maui,” Johnson said. “His name was Perry Margolin who used to run that shop. It was my museum, my cultural center. He provided me with this window into a creative world that I’ve been chasing since then.” 

Johnson’s illustrations blend the decades spent with his head in comic books and the influence of eminent artists on the island. While he depicts Maui with warmth and sincerity in “No One Else” and “Night Fisher,” he also touches on less picturesque subjects. He encapsulates the beautiful and complicated culture on the island. But with Johnson’s humor and humanistic style, reading his stories, you can’t help but smile. 

The illustrator admitted that Flotte changed his life. Seeing a successful artist made him believe it was achievable. 

“I was always on Baldwin Avenue painting something up there. When school would let out, pockets of kids would come up and stop,” Flotte recollected. “I remember a specific kid that would always ask a million questions.” 

Years later, Flotte recalls a teenager approaching him at a high school art show. The student told Fotte that it was inspiring to see a professional painter on the streets. Flotte realized Johnson was the curious kid from Makawao Elementary. “Somebody telling me that I made a difference in their life—greatest reward of all. I ran home and told my wife.”

“Now I get to see his work on The New Yorker covers and his graphic novels and I love it,” Flotte said. “He manages to get those covers and I get such a kick out of seeing him.”

Johnson’s books will be available at Maui Comics and Collectibles located in Request Music in Wailuku. 

Grace Maeda