Interview: Keith Knight

Categories:  Features, Interviews

[Full strip here.]

For those with even a passing knowledge of sequential art’s long and colorful past, the concept of using comics to tackle complicated issues is hardly a recent occurrence.

From the early political cartoons of the 19th century, to contemporary graphic novels like Maus, Fun Home, and Persepolis, comics have long proven an incredibly effective platform for channeling and confronting the fears and pain that we’ve oft struggled so hard which with to come to grips.

The events of recent years, however, we have also borne witness to the seemingly infinite amounts of vitriol they’re capable of producing, from the lampooning of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper to a New Yorker cover boiling down nearly every kooky fear of Barack Obama. For both better and worse, there’s something inherent in the relative simplicity of the medium that’s capable of encapsulating our deepest emotions with a few quick pen strokes.

Like images, words too are capable of taking on far more weight than their simple letters seem capable of holding. The idea that a single word can encapsulate hundreds of years of pain and oppression in two syllables is, on it’s surface, a seemingly absurd notion, but words, when saddled with enough baggage, can evoke a more visceral reaction than any simple combination of letters seemingly has any right.

Given the fact that Keith Knight managed to incorporate one of the most loaded words in the English language into a recent political strip not once, but twice, it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it manage to elicit a major outcry amongst students at Montclair State University, whose paper syndicates the artist’s weekly strip, The K Chronicles.

The strip in question, titled “Stories From the Campaign Trail,” is based on the real experience of one Obama canvasser. It’s funny and sad and even slightly—but just slightly—hopeful, all at once. It’s an important acknowledgement of something so deeply engrained in our collective American psyche, something that, try as we might to ignore or forget, will never go away if we continually refuse to address it.

Knight’s strip correctly points out the strange ways in which Obama historical campaign has brought these issues to the surface.

Surely most of us who read the strip don’t imagine Knight to be a defender of the word (Knight actually, cleverly never spells it out in his entirety, nor did he describe it as anything but “the ‘n’ word,” when speaking with me). The intense reaction on the part of some readers, at least to some degree, seems to be the product of a desire to keep these issues buried, where some believe they belong.

Or, perhaps some don’t feel that cartoons are the proper medium in which to address them. When Knight told me, “so many people expect their comic strip to be Garfield,” he meant it less as a shot at the oft-maligned strip than as an assertion that, even in a post-Maus age, where an artist like Kyle Baker can have a hit with a comic based on the life of Nat Turner, the concept of taking comics seriously is still an alien  to many people.

In the wake of the aforementioned strip, and the subsequent fallout, we sat down with Knight for a quick chat about race and the power of words and pictures.

Have you been getting a lot of interview requests today?

Oh yeah. It’s been pretty crazy, the way that this has blown up. I suppose it’s not surprising, but it’s interesting, because it’s one paper. Though I did hear from an editor from another paper that he’s gotten some phone calls, as well. It’s really interesting, because I’m getting e-mails from individual students who say that they’re shocked and offended by it, but when they thought about it and discussed it, they understood what I was trying to say with it. I think that that’s a normal reaction, because it is shocking, but what’s also interesting is the fact that I don’t print the whole word. It’s cut off. And yet it was really provocative.

I don’t know whether I’m just jaded at this point, but I read the story about the response on Heidi’s site, and then when I clicked through to the actual strip, my reaction was along the lines of: “that’s what’s upsetting all of these people?”

Well, yeah. I think that if you read the story and the stuff where people are really devastated and you haven’t seen the strip, once you see the strip, it’s kind of like, “huh?” But if you see the strip first and get that initial shock, and then read the stuff after, you may be surprised that people are that upset about it, but I think you get it more. I think it’s hard to get people’s disturbed reactions if you read about what they’re saying before you read the strip. It’s like that with a lot of things, when people say something like, “oh my god, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened.”

What’s nice though is that I’m seeing a lot of nice and insightful commentary on people’s blogs. I’ve started posting what I think are the best ones, positive or negative. I think maybe I’ll put some of the more outrageous ones on there, too.

I think that’s what people really want to read.

Yeah, yeah. But there were some really nice ones, too. There was a kid who wrote to me who was the sports editor of the paper, and he said that he wanted to quit when he first saw the strip. He was shocked. But there was a professor who brought up what he thought I was trying to say about it. There was this very uniquely American situation, where there are these folks who are so casual with their racism, but they’re still supporting this guy. The juxtaposition of that is weird and strange and only in America.

In terms of juxapositon, it’s weird to read the strip because it’s funny. It’s funny and yet you’re almost afraid to laugh at it, because it’s so sad at the same time.

Yeah, and that’s the thing. So many people expect their comic strip to be Garfield, and that seems to be an underlying theme in people’s problem with this, besides just the “n” word being used. Comics are supposed to be funny, and my point with the statement I put on my Website is that comics aren’t all supposed to be “ha-ha” funny. Sometimes they can be strange, and weird, and odd. And this is funny, but in a very peculiar way.

An editor put it to me in a different way: it’s a tiny bit hopeful, in a sliver of a way. The idea that you shouldn’t talk about it—that’s what drives me crazy more than anything else. And the thing it triggers in me is, when I was a college student, back in 1989, we had a copy of Do the Right Thing, and we were going to show it on campus, and I had to fight so much to get it to play on campus. One of my fellow students said, “if we just ignore it, it will go away.” That’s what she said about racism.

We’re in such a peculiar position in 2008. Most of us are ready to have a black president, but we still can’t talk about race.

Yeah, I know, it’s totally weird. And then you have people who think that once we have a black president, racism won’t exist anymore.

Clearly if one word or one comic can elicit this sort of reaction in people, there’s still something there.

Totally. It’s a real interesting thing, and I always think of this comment my wife made. She always has these interesting observations about Americans. She always says, “Americans are always so into their World War II films with the ugly Nazis, and yet America is so afraid of looking at their own racism in a frank way.”

We can’t make ourselves the villains of our own films.

Yeah, of course. And Spike Lee, when his documentary Four Little Girls was nominated, someone asked him, “do you think you’re gonna win,” and he said, “no, it’s up against a Holocaust documentary.”

When an event like this happens and there’s such a visceral reaction, does it make you more or less inclined to do another strip along these lines?

Honestly, it changes nothing. Unless I made an egregious mistake—if I felt I’d done something really wrong—it wouldn’t change anything.

–Brian Heater

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