R. Kikuo Johnson’s debut graphic novel Night Fisher has justifiably been praised for its fresh take on a classic story type.
Loren’s friend Shane has drifted away from him during their senior year of high school. Shane’s been doing meth, and Loren tries the drug in a failed attempt to continue their friendship. He finds himself following a downward spiral, getting high and indulging in petty theft to get more money for drugs. He’s facing a big life decision, deciding where to go to college, and he’d rather avoid the choice than risk making one.
Like every other teen, he feels like there’s nowhere he fits in. He’s been in Hawaii for six years, after moving from the East Coast, and he has few friends. Clearly, he and Shane are following different paths (in more ways than one, as Loren finds to his unpleasant surprise). He’s also never had a girlfriend, in part because he allowed rumors to spread about the one girl he was interested in.
Johnson has a beautiful line and favors black-heavy pages, especially during the many night scenes, where characters become silhouettes. His work reminds me of Paul Pope’s fluid ink line, only with more detail and clarity. Shadow-laden pages suggest both the darkness threatening the kids and the world beyond the glimpses we get in the panels shown. For an art-focused book, it’s a particularly easy and engrossing read.
The illustrations of native flora and schematics of the development of the island of Maui seem, at first, like mere design touches, but they contribute more to the story than that. The Hawaiian setting is traditionally portrayed as exotic and beautiful; by emphasizing elements that evoke those memories, Johnson undercuts that stereotype with his story. The universality of the events he’s showing contrast with the unique expectations of paradise. Bored teens can drift into the wrong choices anywhere; Hawaii only makes the tragedy more poignant.
Loren’s experience also ignores the beauty of his setting. If he’d pay more attention to what happens outside of himself, he might have found it easier to make different choices. However, it’s a constant battle against nature to avoid the lazy way, just as Loren’s father is constantly fighting the yard that threatens to overtake their house. The flora seeks to overwhelm civilization. Still, the island is a unique place, with its own evolution, and not prepared to handle the rapid change forced upon it, just like Loren.
Some have criticized the book’s lack of a definite ending, but the conclusion is in keeping with Loren’s apathy throughout the story. I saw him feeling greater acceptance with his life as he comes to appreciate the unique location in which he’s found himself.
R. Kikuo Johnson has been interviewed by Honolulu Weekly.