For more than two decades, the comics cognoscenti have been predicting a wave of personal, artful graphic novels from artists inspired by the likes of Los Bros Hernandez and Art Spiegelman. But there have been some hitches. The true modern geniuses of the medium, like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, produce work that's singularly their own, with a bent toward the allusive and obscure, while most of the rest of the non-mainstream pack either dress up routine power fantasies in thrift-store clothes, or pass off sitcom-level tripe as "mature" relationship stories. If the comics store were a multiplex, it'd be dominated by Tony Scotts, Kevin Smiths, and Wong Kar-Wais, with few Alexander Paynes.
That may be changing, though, in the wake of Craig Thompson's wildly successful and undeniably impressive Blankets, as well as Marjane Satrapi's equally popular and accomplished memoir Persepolis. R. Kikuo Johnson's debut graphic novella Night Fisher is shorter and less expansive than Blankets, and it's less overtly personal than either Blankets or Persepolis, but it follows the same basic stylistic path, heading toward where many have hoped graphic novels would go. Set in Johnson's former home state of Hawaii, Night Fisher follows Loren, a half-Asian private-school senior with a morose dentist father and a best friend who reluctantly initiates him into the culture of methamphetamines. Johnson renders Loren's story in an energetic style that's both expressionistic and immediate. He skips around the broadly exploitative elements of teenage drug use, and instead dwells on specifics, like the ways that Loren and his friends keep up with their schoolwork, and how they take advantage of Hawaii's tourist-based economy to score free drinks by hotel pools.
Johnson is a student of David Mazzucchelli, and he shares some similarities with his teacher, both in his heavy use of inky shadows and in his not-always-successful journeys into illustrative abstraction. Night Fisher can be rough and even confusing, and it would be a mistake to expect overpowering profundity from it. But a lot of the chances Johnson takes with the art pay off in spare, poetic moments, like Loren's long walk to school, which leads him past junky mainlander-friendly stops to a bustling farmer's market. The detailed evocation of Hawaii as an unstable paradise is as compelling as anything a prose novel or independent film could produce. It's a credit to the art form.