From the stack: NIGHT FISHER

December 11, 2005

R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher (Fantagraphics) is kind of like a piece of jewelry where the setting has been crafted with artistry and imagination, but the stone it surrounds is lackluster. Kikuo Johnson demonstrates considerable skill as an illustrator, but he does so in service of a rather mundane coming-of-age story.

Loren, the protagonist, is nearing the end of his studies at a prestigious private high school. His connection to best friend Shane is in one of its waning phases. They used to spend nights fishing together, but Shane has moved on to other nocturnal activities that include petty theft and amphetamines derived from rat poison.

Shane reappears to invite Loren along for his nightly rounds. Maybe he misses his longtime friend. Maybe he just needs a lift. Whichever it is, Loren agrees. Agreeability seems to be one of Loren’s defining characteristics. He’s an honors student to please his father. He lies about his sexual experience to fit in with schoolmates. He smokes batu (the rat-poison crank) and plays look out to spend time with Shane.

Essentially, Loren is along for the ride. While it’s an entirely believable stance for an adolescent to take, it’s not a particularly engrossing one. His emotional reticence is understandable, given his age and situation, but I never felt like I got too deeply into Loren’s character. Even his narration seems disconnected and dryly observant.

The banality of the material gets a lift from its setting, Hawaii. Loren is an import, having moved from the mainland as a child. Bits of culture, environment, and history are woven into the narrative. But Kikuo Johnson takes a restrained approach, never letting details overwhelm his story. It’s a backdrop, and an effective one, but Night Fisher isn’t a travelogue.

And if Loren is bland, some supporting characters make distinct impressions. With some well-chosen details and careful dialogue, Kikuo Johnson portrays Shane as a charismatic, elusive figure. Eustace, another classmate, blends stoner comedy with hints of thug menace. Loren’s father is both decent and interesting. He tries to connect with his son, but he’s reluctant to push. He’s sacrificed for Loren, and at times the resulting weariness is palpable, even heartbreaking.

But the real attraction here is the illustration. There’s real creativity and fluidity in the ways Kikuo Johnson renders his story. Straightforward narrative sequences are interspersed with unexpected moments of flashback. Money shots of shadowy landscapes have real impact. There’s playful use of maps, diagrams of knots, and other unexpected imagery.

I’m particularly taken by the lettering. At times, Kikuo Johnson plays with the visual shape of words to highlight the emotion behind them. He also peppers his images with sound effects, from Loren nervously clicking the door lock on his car to the hiss of a cigarette. It’s lovely, grounding work, the kind of distinct details that help build the world of the story and define its visual language.

I just wish the story, the stone of this piece of jewelry, showed the same depth of imagination and craft as the way it’s told. Ultimately, the impression for me is that Night Fisher is an exercise in style. While it’s an impressive exercise, I can’t help but wonder what kind of breathtaking heights Kikuo Johnson could reach in service of meatier material.