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CR Sunday Interview: Keith Knight
posted August 14, 2011

imageKeith Knight is a paragon of comics' do-it-yourself virtues, pursuing a variety of cartoon works across any number of platforms, many of which are completely under his own direction and control, all of which reflect his personality and viewpoints. His latest self-published effort is a collection of his (Th)ink single-panel cartoons called Too Small To Fail.

I like how restless Knight's cartoon work is, how he flits from subject matter to subject matter; it's like being around a curious, smart and engaged friend passing you notes in the back of class as opposed to the experience that some sort of product is being marketed to you. Knight's other features K Chronicles and the syndicated strip The Knight Life, the latter of which launched in the worst year in the history of American newspaper publishing, 2008, exhibit that same kind of personal touch. I've always found Knight the same way in conversation. Knight is a con warrior from way back, and just in the course of randomly photographing people at shows over the years I think Knight appears in enough pictures to run a different one with every question below. I'm always happy to see him and catch up, just as I'm always pleased to encounter his work. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Keith, I think I know the answer to this question, but I'm not sure how many of the readers will. Can you describe where your single-panel cartoon (Th)ink resides in terms of your overall cartooning output? How long have you been doing it, and how important is the feature to you in the overall context of the comics you make? What do you get out of (Th)ink that you don't get out of your other comics features?

KEITH KNIGHT: (Th)ink came about when I was approached by a website called in the salad days of the internet boom (around 1998-99?). They were interested in me producing a K Chronicles-like comic exclusively for them, but I didn't want to do the same old thing -- I wanted to do the opposite of the K Chronicles: Something that wasn't auto-bio. A single panel. Something that allowed me to take some of the shorter ideas I had and take quick comic shots.

The feature has long outlived the original venue where it first appeared, and I'll continue to do it as long as places want to run it. Doing (Th)ink is waaaay simpler and quicker than my other features.

SPURGEON: I and a lot of other folks met you and became initially familiar with your work through your constant, consistent presence at various shows over the years. Can you talk a little bit about what exhibiting at shows has done for you career-wise -- if it has done something for you career-wise -- in terms of getting your name out there and meeting people?

KNIGHT: I really like getting out on the road. I was in a band for years, and I still like doing the shows around the country. I'm a people person. I like getting out there and meeting folks who read the strip, hocking books and art, and just taking a break from the nonstop deadlines.

The shows are not only for book sales. I scored an early Nickelodeon deal from being at APE. Got my literary agent from San Diego. Picked up some great freelance work with Disney... and much, much more.

SPURGEON: It seems like your basic overall visual style settled in very early on and granting a few minor difference between feature your comics have looked pretty consistently the same for a while now: our current work is recognizable placed next to older work. You use a very loose style, which I think is a break from a lot of similar work by other cartoonists -- I can't recall another single-panel cartoon with this kind of artwork and lettering. How do you feel your art and lettering specifically serves what it is you're trying to communicate?

KNIGHT: It's important to me that people immediately recognize my work, so I try to include stuff ties all the strips together in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The "By Keith Knight" logo is the most obvious. But my lettering seems to have become its own character. The capital letters are generally the narrative, while the lowercase drives the dialogue.

I want folks to know when they come across my work that they're seeing something from someone who is familiar with the traditions of newspaper cartooning, but is also skewering it a little bit.


SPURGEON: You use an interesting formal flourish with some of the cartoons in Too Small To Fail where you'll sometimes put a couple of words or a phrase underneath the cartoon, a kind of kicker that's sometimes a pun but sometimes a bit more -- not dissimilar from the commentary you'll get in the corner of work by editorial cartoonists like Pat Oliphant and Tom Toles. I wonder how that developed, and is there a specific kind of cartoon that you feel is best served by that kind of last twist on things?

KNIGHT: Aw, I don't know. I just feel like if I come up with an extra catchy phrase that I think will put the cherry on top, I'll go for it. But I also know that I'm way too wordy sometimes. Doing the daily has taught me a lot about the concept of less is more.

imageSPURGEON: There's a kind of matter-of-fact enthusiasm about your 2008 election result cartoons that makes it hard not to see some of the cartoons critical of President Obama in terms of disappointment. Is that a fair reading? Your cover cartoon in particular seems to be really poignant in terms of contrasting campaign rhetoric and the current economic reality.

KNIGHT: Thanks for the compliment regarding the "Yes, we can!" cartoon. I put it on the cover last-minute and it wasn't til the books came back from the printer that I realized how well it went with the title. Sorta like "Yes, We Can Fail." [Spurgeon laughs]

As far as Obama goes, I knew going in he could never approach the expectations people had of him. And with the mess left over from eight years of the last administration, it'll take at least 12 to 16 years to undo it. Whoever's president in 2020 is gonna get the credit for what the cleanup Obama and whoever is next did.

Man... I just wish the president would say "eff it, I tried to work with you, but now I'm gonna go all Dick Cheney on your asses," and just implement every policy he ever wanted to do.

So yeah, I'm disappointed... but I'm voting for him again. See you at the polls!

SPURGEON: Can you nail down a bit more the overall emphasis you've decided to take in terms of criticizing this administration? When you say the president has lost his spine, in what exact context did you mean that, or do you even intend that as a broader criticism?

KNIGHT: The spineless criticism is meant not only for Obama, but the whole Democratic party. They bring shaving cream pies to a knife fight. They need to discover their inner a-hole.


SPURGEON: [laughs] You've been making these kinds of cartoons for a while now. Has political discourse generally coarsened since you've been involved in that way? Do people react in more directly confrontational, ideological ways? Is political discussion even possible with the way that people have settled into warring camps? How do you see your role considering the explosion of an entire commentary class?

KNIGHT: Discourse has coarsened, but I find plenty of people who are willing to have reasonable conversations regarding the state of politics in this country and overseas. Morons just talk louder than everyone else. That's why they're the ones on TV and radio.

It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while I'll hear from someone who read a strip I did that made them change their view on a topic. Most recently was a Knight Life strip about "Don't Ask/Don't Tell." A lot of folks in San Diego, a big military town, wrote to say it flipped their view. When that happens, it's pretty neat.


SPURGEON: I really enjoyed the cultural/historical cartoons that you've included in this book. Why did you start doing them? How do readers react to something that's making more of a point about history and context than some overtly political stance, or even, in some cases, a humorous one?

KNIGHT: Before I started doing (Th)ink, I had mulled over the idea of doing a strip about black history called Betcha Didn't Know... Something I thought would get me into black newspapers.

I never did more than a few samples... when the opportunity came up to do (Th)ink, I figured I could incorporate the historical stuff into the strip.

My historical and death strips get great reactions. Bayard Rustin's partner bought the original (Th)ink strip I did about civil rights icon and is now part of his historical archive. My recent strip about the death of Gil Scott-Heron is one of my best-selling prints.


SPURGEON: How's The Knight Life doing, Keith? I know that you launched at a really tough time for new strips, and on a certain level I can't imagine it's become any easier to hang onto newspapers as they scramble for ways to save money or shut down entirely. Has that been a worthwhile experience, overall, creatively? Are you happy with the way that feature has progressed in terms of your work on it?

KNIGHT: It's been a nightmare. Couldn't have launched at a worse time. My syndicate has folded. I've pulled more all-nighters for this than I did in college. I wouldn't advise anyone to get into the daily syndicated comic business nowadays.

On the other hand, Universal has picked up the strip and the folks I know there are great. Being in daily papers has exposed my work to a whole new audience. It's something I always wanted to do as a kid, and here I am.

Despite the extremely poor pay, the daily thing still has a bit of cachet here in Hollywood. I'm working to see how much cachet it really has.

SPURGEON: Wait, how did you as a creator find out about United packing up shop? Was there a chance that Universal might have passed on picking you up?

KNIGHT: There were rumors floating around about a coupla syndicates merging... So I had a feeling it was gonna happen.

I don't know what the details were regarding Universal picking up United's strips. We got word that they were picking up everyone. I was just glad they retained a few of the folks from United.

SPURGEON: Gotcha. Hey, I noticed Too Small To Fail is a self-published effort, and I know you frequently preach the DIY gospel. You've worked with publishing partners in the past, and if I'm right you continue to do so on things like collections of The Knight Life. What do you get out of putting something out there yourself, like this volume?

KNIGHT: I always sold more books on my own than my publishers -- so it made sense to print 'em myself. I retain all the rights. I make more money per book. And my readers like getting it straight from the source. It's like fresh, local organic veggies.


SPURGEON: It's been a couple of years since the beginning of the Slippery Rock controversy, where students at that school objected to what I think is maybe your best cartoon ever. This eventually culminated in your taking a trip to the school and talking to some of the students that objected. We've talked about this person-to-person, but I was wondering how you look back on that experience now that some time has passed, and what, if anything, you might have discovered about making cartoons and social commentary because of going through that.

KNIGHT: Stuff like that has happened a few times now and what I've found is it usually isn't the strip that causes the uproar. More of a series of incidents that happen, and then my strip is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

I think there are a lot of folks that have a limited view on what a comic strip is supposed to be. That comic strips are just supposed to be funny ha-ha, with talking animals and stuff. I try to make the point that comics can be something other than a few seconds of harmless diversion.

imageSPURGEON: Has there been any kind of bump for your work because of its reliable presence on the Internet? As someone so deeply invested in finding the best place and the best outlets for your work, how much opportunity is out there for you to get your efforts over in digital media?

KNIGHT: The internet's been great for my work in terms of exposure, deadlines, connecting with readers, reprint sales and selling books. It's done a number on my print clients. But its benefits have far outweighed its negatives.

I'm just trying to learn everything I can from all the folks who are knockin' out the ballpark online. Stevens, Gran, Munroe, Beaton, Kellett, Milholland, Corsetto, etc... They're all rock stars.

SPURGEON: Given how many of the cartoons in this volume refer to the election of 2008, is there anything you're looking forward to seeing in 2012's election? Do you have any sense of where it will go?

KNIGHT: I'm certainly not looking forward to robo-calls. [Spurgeon laughs] Obama will get in again... if the First Lady lets him.

SPURGEON: Finally, there's one thing I always wanted to ask you. You're getting these questions right before Comic-Con: What is Bob The Angry Flower really like?

KNIGHT: Stephen Notley is the smartest and funniest cartoonist I know. Despite this, he drinks milk with his sushi.


* Too Small To Fail: A (Th)ink Anthology, Keith Knight, Keith Knight Press, Softcover, 128 page, 2011, $15.95.


* photo of the cartoonist, Spring 2010
* cartoon from the new book
* cover to the new book
* a Knight Life Sunday, I believe the one in question
* the Bayard Rustin cartoon mentioned
* a Knight Life daily
* the K Chronicles cartoon discussed
* another panel from the latest book
* the Gil Scott-Heron panel so successful as a print (below)