Rawness And Refinement : R. Kikuo Johnson’s “No One Else”

On paper, at any rate, R. Kikuo Johnson’s cartooning sounds like the kind of thing that an admittedly uncultured slob like yours truly wouldn’t — maybe even shouldn’t — find appealing : sleek, visually literate, evocative to the point of being achingly so at times, this is the kind of classy stuff one would expect to find in the pages of The New Yorker. And so it is that Johnson has spent much a good chunk of the past several years plying his trade for that venerable bastion of the Eastern self-appointed intelligentsia, which is no sin by any means : it’s just not, roughly speaking, “my thing.”

Still, every now and again it pays to stretch oneself beyond the limits of one’s own largely illusory “comfort zone” and to see just what it is that everybody else is reading — and there’s no doubt that Johnson’s long-awaited new graphic novel, No One Else (Fantagraphics, 2021) will be among the year’s most talked-about releases, especially when it comes to the so-called “bookstore crowd.” If one wanted to take a cynical view of things, in fact, it wouldn’t necessarily be at all out of line to say this comic essentially plays directly to that demographic’s sensibilities, being — as the title of this review would suggest — an inherently refined work by its very nature. But it’s that other world in the title, “rawness,” that kept me turning the pages with this one —

Maui resident Charlene, our nominal protagonist, has it rough from the outset : struggling to juggle work as a nurse with being a single mother to her son, Brandon, and caring for her aging, dementia-afflicted father is enough to drive anyone around the bend, but she’s found a way to center herself within the maelstrom of career and familial insanity by carving out a kind of necessary emotional distance bordering on aloofness that may not be healthy for those around her at all times, but preserves a sense of self for her within a life that affords almost no such mental health luxuries. When the old man dies she soldiers on as best she can, maintaining a disconcertingly businesslike demeanor at all times even as events at home clearly begin to overwhelm her, but when her estranged brother (who, for the record, she never even mentioned their father’s passing to) returns to the island, right after she decides to chuck her job in order to study for the med school entrance exam, and then her kid’s beloved cat disappears, the thin thread tethering her to the rest of humanity begins to fray — not that she’s even capable of verbalizing such things.

If there’s one shill Johnson excels at above all else, it’s representing Woody Allen-esque emotional austerity in a manner every bit as understated as such a mindset/personality type demands in order to come across as authentic. Where his visual metaphors (in this case a recurring motif of burning sugar cane fields) can come off as heavy-handed at best, too obvious by half at worst, his depictions of everyday life and its quiet alienations are never less than absolutely masterful. In a manner not entirely unlike Adrian Tomine back when he was still trying, Johnson’s characters say volumes by saying very little and letting his art do the talking. Brandon’s father is never mentioned, but we know the kid misses him all the same; Charlene’s vocabulary doesn’t even include the word “loneliness,” but we know it’s eating her alive; her father’s physical and mental abuse is never explicitly referenced until the late going, but it hangs over every page regardless. This is powerful, emotionally raw stuff, covered in the “nothing to see here, folks” trappings of multiple layers of mostly-silent denial.

To that end, while this is a brisk enough read, it’s nevertheless a draining and difficult one. Family dysfunction is never pretty, of course, family dysfunction that’s forever swept under the rug even less so, but damn if this isn’t the way reality plays out for any number of people attempting to get by in a late-stage capitalist economy that largely survives on the denial of intimacy at all levels in order to keep chugging along while it destroys the very natural world upon which its (and our) survival is dependent. In much the same way as his characters, Johnson addresses this without directly addressing it, hence those rather clumsy metaphors just referenced, but when he allows his characters to address it for him by dint of their actions and reactions, or lack thereof, the results are equal parts sublime and harrowing.

Yes, this is a self-consciously “sophisticated” comic. And while its central characters have their struggles, it’s fair to say they don’t seem terribly challenged in terms of making ends meet economically — apart from a very brief scene where Charlene’s credit card is turned down to pay for her med school exam, which seems to be resolved “off-page” in fairly short order. That in no way invalidates their traumas or mental and emotional hardships, though, and to dismiss them outright as the trials and tribulations of the “privileged” is to engage in a sort of reverse-snobbery that I don’t care to be a part of. Johnson is a master of his craft, and I can always appreciate exceptional cartooning, regardless of whether or not said style of cartooning is my usual cup of tea. There are other ways of making really good comics than the various and sundry methodologies and aesthetic approaches that I prefer — Johnson’s book serves as a very welcome reminder that understatement can sometimes be the most powerful statement of all.

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No One Else is available for $16.99 from the Fantagraphics website at https://www.fantagraphics.com/products/no-one-else?_pos=1&_psq=no%20one&_ss=e&_v=1.0&variant=40119470915745

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