Interview: Keith Knight

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[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.

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