NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008

Keith Knight

[CARTOONIST]

“THE COMICS PAGE SHOULDN’T BE LIKE A JURY. THERE CAN BE MORE THAN ONE BLACK PERSON ON THE COMICS PAGE.”
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Keith Knight is a cartoonist who has been doing running commentary on his own life for over a decade. His weekly strip, The K Chronicles, has been a fixture in alternative weeklies, and online at Salon magazine, since the mid-’90s. Drawn in a loose, noodling style, the strip riffs on a variety of topics: family relationships, life on the road with his “semiconscious” hip-hop band, the Marginal Prophets, observational humor, and politics. (He draws Bush as a boyish little homunculus.)

Taken together, the strips form something of a memoir-on-the-fly, though a deliberately suspect one. While there are real incidents and real characters (Keith’s wife, Kerstin, and his dad make regular appearances), there are also fictional characters (a lunkheaded ex-roommate named Gunther, for one), and events that deliriously skitter far outside the zone of plausibility. He’s less interested in the unvarnished “truth” of life than in the humor of it—he raids his own experience with the giddy zeal of a stand-up comic or an inveterate fibber.

In addition to The K Chronicles, Knight pens a weekly single-panel editorial strip, (th)ink, the SportsKnight strip for ESPN The Magazine, and two strips for MAD magazine, Bully Baby and Father O’Flannity’s Hot Tub Confessions. Most recently, he launched a syndicated daily newspaper strip, The Knight Life, which maintains the The K Chronicles’ balance of autobiography and fabrication while somewhat dialing back the scatology. Part of the kick of The Knight Life is seeing how close to inappropriate Knight is allowed to get, wedged between the Garfields and the Blondies of the world.

This interview was conducted in a café in the Mission District of San Francisco, a city Knight lived in for several years. (He relocated to Los Angeles in 2007.) He was in the city for a slideshow of his work, just ahead of the opening of an exhibit of his cartoons at the Cartoon Art Museum. Since the conversation took place, a number of topics that were in a state of immanence have actually come to pass—most momentously, the birth of his first child, and slightly less momentously, the publication of The Complete K Chronicles, a collection of ten years of his K Chronicles strips. In fact, both book and baby made their appearance on the same day.

Knight quickly commemorated the double event in The K Chronicles, demonstrating his desire to avoid the pitfalls of “cuteness” while keeping true to the autobiography of his new fatherhood. His son’s first appearance in the strip compels his parents to note how deliciously edible he looks, and a bout of parental cannibalism follows. When I mentioned that his son was born into both a family and a comic strip, Keith remarked: “That’s true. His life is going to be recorded for posterity. I’ll just say: ‘Look at this. Look at the way you embarrassed me as a kid. So go do the laundry.’”

—Chris Lanier

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THE BELIEVER: You’ve alluded to the fact that daily strips were what got you interested in cartooning. What were some of the strips that you were looking at as a kid that really hooked you?

KEITH KNIGHT: Well, I was reading Mutt and Jeff. That was at the top of the page in the Boston Globe. I was fascinated by Andy Capp—not only the chronic alcoholism and the spousal abuse, but also the dialect. My dad would tell me, “That’s how they make it sound like there’s an accent.” Now when I do dialogue, I really try to make it sound like the way I would talk. I remember my uncle showing me The Lockhorns, and how their heads float above their bodies—they’re not connected. So you’ll see in my drawings that I don’t connect a lot of things. Which is a nightmare for anyone coloring it, but too bad. My favorite strips, coming up, were Peanuts and Doonesbury.

Doonesbury was the first strip that had black people in it, acting like black people, taking on black issues. It was a big influence. I remember going to the library, and the two cartoon books that they had were Peanuts and Doonesbury, so I would read a lot of Doonesbury. I liked the idea of real stuff, real issues, mixing with these fake characters, and with real characters. I think that was the first idea I had of meshing fiction and nonfiction.

I also liked leaving the comics page and looking for other comics in the paper, in the classifieds or in the editorial page. Feiffer was in Parade, and he was the first one I saw that didn’t have panels a lot of times. That was really cool. And then Parliament/Funkadelic albums, just buying those and sitting there and looking at them, and MAD magazine, with the Sergio Aragones cartoons along the edges. It was a combination of all that.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Chris Lanier is a cartoonist, an artist, and an assistant professor of digital art at Sierra Nevada College.

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