Graduation Day

The cover of the May 30th New Yorker, “Commencement”:


A standard exercise on this blog: what do you have to know to understand what’s going on in this drawing? To see why it might be funny? (It could, of course,  just be an affectionate  portrait of an event of the season, not meant to be funny.)

What’s going on? What’s funny? You need to recognize the setting as a college or university, on Graduation Day (note the black gowns, the diploma in the hand of the man in the middle distance, and the Class of 2015 t-shirt being examined by the woman next to him.

Then in front there’s a maintenance crew on the job, identifiable by their dress and the truck. One of them is using a leaf rake to pull down graduation caps from a tree. Here you need to know about the custom of tossing the caps into the air at the end of the commencement ceremony.

Then you notice the t-shirt on the guy with the leaf rake. You can only see half of the legend, but it’s so similar to the t-shirt the woman is looking at that you can confidently identify it as a Class of 2015 shirt. Apparently the maintenance man with the rake is a graduate of this very institution from a year ago — and this is the (working-class) job he could get. That’s worth a wry smile, though not a guffaw.

In any case, the cover is located firmly in a rich, socioculturally very specific, context.

(It;s also sharply drawn and very nicely composed, with the diagonals of the figures in front superimposed on the stiff perpendicularity of the vertical columns and horizontal crowd in the background.)

The artist. From Mouly and Kaneko’s cover story:

“My first job after graduation was as a waiter in a Times Square steak house. It lasted eight years,” R. Kikuo Johnson said, of his cover for this week’s issue, “Commencement.” “Around this time of year, I’d see lots of caps and gowns coming into the restaurant with their proud parents. Those were definitely moments of reflection.” Johnson graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, in 2003. He now supports himself as an artist and lives in Brooklyn. After an initial move to Williamsburg, he’s on his second combination studio/living space in Bed-Stuy: “My rent is good right now and I’m not worried — the landlord likes me,” he said with a smile. He also commutes to Providence, Rhode Island, to teach at his alma mater: “It’s not just me — I’d say most of the other teachers at RISD are also alumni. That’s what made me think of this image.”

This is his second New Yorker cover; the first was on April 18th.

A photo of him by Tatiana Wells:


So: young, with a wry attitude, and (to my eyes) Austronesian: — a linguistic and ethnic label covering the territory from Madagascar to Taiwan, Hawaii, Easter Islad, and New Zealand, including the native peoples of Madagascar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and New Zealand. My guess was Filipino, but I was fairly far off geographically. From his webpage:

Kikuo [born in 1981] grew up on the island of Maui.  He began a career in cartooning and illustration with the release of his debut graphic novel, Night Fisher in 2005. Today, he divides his time drawing and playing the ukulele in Brooklyn, New York and teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design.

He might affect a slacker stance, but he’s been ferociously industrious, producing illustrations for a huge number of publications, of a bewildering range of types (see his website). Here’s a cover for MIT’s Technology Review:


Plus two graphic novels, the first (2005 — note, two years after graduation, in his waiter period) a gritty young adult novel:


From the Publishers Weekly review:

Johnson’s first graphic novel has a force and elliptical grace that suggests he’s been drawing comics and writing fiction for much longer than he really has. It’s set on Maui, whose history and economics inform the story’s progress, and Johnson draws its landscapes and buildings—as well as the flora that symbolize the island’s past—with a sure grasp of what it feels like to be there. The story has more to do with psychological intricacies than with plot: Loren Foster, a private school student and son of a dentist, is in his final year of high school, and his best friend Shane Hokama is drifting away from him and into a seamy crowd. Trying to become a man and ditch his too-innocent image without being destroyed by the transformation, Loren follows Shane into Maui’s smalltime underworld, smoking crystal meth and getting dangerously mixed up in petty crime. The bold, high-contrast artwork includes some smart experimental touches: we see most of the story from Loren’s point of view: whatever’s in the panel (including him) is what he’s thinking about. Johnson’s storytelling is clear and masterful, and his characters’ body language says as much about them as their words. An exciting debut from a talent to watch.

Then in 2012, The Shark King, for young children (4-8 years):


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