A Place for Everything, and Everything Displaced
I'm not sure if there's a single scene in R. Kikuo Johnson's graphic novella Night Fisher that isn't related to idea of people or things being out of place. It's incredible how many different ways, subtle and overt, RKJ finds to explore that theme in such a small space. The story focuses on high school senior Loren Foster, who moved with his father from Massachusetts to Hawaii six years ago, but still doesn't quite fit in anywhere. Even his last name is indicative of that feeling, and try as he might, Loren never really feels comfortable or confident where he is. He only has one person he considers a friend, Shane, but to the outside observer it is obvious that whatever their connection is, it is not a true friendship. They like each other, sure, but they're on such unequal footing. Loren looks up to Shane and desperately wants his approval; Shane couldn't care less what Loren thinks or does, he just likes having someone around who's less put together than he is.
This imbalance leads Loren to join Shane and others as they do crystal meth, beat each other up, steal things, and generally spend their time with petty lawbreaking and time wasting. Loren doesn't really want to do any of it at first, but he doesn't not want to, either, necessarily. It doesn't seem like Loren knows what he wants. He doesn't know, yet, who he even is, so he lets Shane make that decision for him. That's what I mean when I talk about him being out of place. In a state that has never felt like home, going to a private school he hates, and totally disconnected from his father, the closest Loren comes to belonging is when he and Shane are high and getting into trouble. But even in that, Loren is the outsider, the ignorant and innocent new kid who Shane's other friends never respect or give a shit about. And ultimately, they all get arrested in Loren's dad's car with a stolen power generator, after which Shane outright abandons his "friend," saying they shouldn't talk anymore. This is how Night Fisher ends, with Shane bailing on Loren who, shocked and wounded, is left lying in the grass as alone as he feels.
Loren's poor choice in best buddy and the underlying reasons for it are just one aspect of the broader unifying concept of things being where they don't belong. By setting the story in Hawaii, RKJ is able to explore this idea in larger, less personal ways, too. Hawaii has a long history of colonial forces introducing new animal and plant species, sometimes with devastating effects on the ecosystem. RKJ gives a brief overview of this in the voice of one of Loren's teachers, and then reminds the reader of it again when Loren visits an outdoor market and sees for himself how many non-native options are available. There is a brief scene where Loren and Shane discuss Las Vegas, which Loren refers to as "the ninth Hawaiian island" because tens of thousands Hawaiians have moved there in recent years. However, Loren and Shane's drug dealer, Jon, is an example of movement in the opposite direction. He was raised in Vegas and then came to Hawaii when he learned his family owned land there.
There are other examples. Loren is incredibly ill-at-ease with Lacey, the girl he likes because she gave him his one and only sexual experience more than a year before. And Lacey, for her part, is sick of Hawaii, eager to go to college just about anywhere else. Loren's dad can't handle their yard, it is too large and the plant life too lush for him to keep under control. He bought their house when they first moved to the island, but his dental practice isn't doing well enough for him to maintain the property. Nobody in this book is where they want to be or who they want to be. It is a cast full of lost, lonely people living together on an island that's saturated with outside influences.
There's no denying that drugs play a central role in Night Fisher. Without Shane introducing Loren to crystal meth, there wouldn't really be a story here, or...the story that would exist would be unrecognizable, far tamer and with considerably lower stakes. And RKJ certainly doesn't paint drug use in the most positive light. It leads to legal troubles and the loss of a friend for Loren, as well as furthering the emotional divide between him and his dad. Jon the drug dealer is thirty-something with an illegitimate child he does nothing to support, has no apparent prospects or ambitions, and hangs out with high schoolers. Shane's drug use appears to comes from a self-destructive place, and he's reckless and selfish and generally just an unlikable, abrasive teen. These traits are amplified when he's high, and often it seems that his next high is the only thing he's interested in, a budding addict or perhaps even a full-fledged one. The dangers and damage of drug use are on full display here, but RKJ still manages to avoid demonizing it, because he also makes the appeal clear.
When Loren first tries meth, RKJ draws it as bees tickling his ears and then his brain, demonstrating the flurry of mental activity and the loss of awareness and the unexpected joy and so many other things that getting high can offer. Also, the biggest smile to grace Loren's face in the entire book comes in this moment. And though by the end of the story there have been some serious consequences, in the days following this initial experience, Loren finds himself more confident and productive than ever before. It is the closest he comes to feeling genuine comfort, it is the most fun we ever see him have, and it marks a high point in his friendship with Shane. On meth, they can enjoy each other's company, relate to one another in a way that never quite happens while they're sober. Plus they have fun.
Because drugs are fun. They're interesting, they make the world look and feel different, they turn people into new, sometimes preferable versions of themselves. Communities crop up around drugs, bonds are formed, lessons learned, revelations had. There is a reason drugs are so popular, a reason meth reached epidemic levels in Hawaii (and elsewhere). Escapism, peer pressure, the joys of a chemically-expanded mind—all these and more are at play in this narrative, just as big a part of things as the downsides and aftereffects. RKJ strikes a delicate balance, letting the drugs be what they are, good and bad, rather than using them to deliver a particular moral, message, or warning.
The Perfect Venue
R. Kikuo Johnson uses his medium of choice to great effect. He understands what kinds of things comicbooks can do that other methods of storytelling can't, and takes advantage of them wherever possible. He plays with the size and shape of his letters to help express tone. Or Loren's head physically blocks lettering when he is distracted in class. In those moments when Loren feels most out of his element, his glasses tend to overshadow his face, so he becomes a strange dark figure with huge white eyes, almost alien in appearance. Which obviously fits with the narrative goals of those scenes. This ability to subtly misshape and reshape the protagonist's face from scene to scene or panel to panel is something you can only get in comics, and Loren's glasses stand out as a particularly memorable part of his character to me because of how RKJ utilizes them. They are the wall between Loren and the rest of the world, literally hiding his eyes from the reader, keeping him distant even from the audience, despite his frequent narration.
When Loren's dad is tying a complicated knot, when Jon changes a tire, and in several other smaller instances of characters using their hands, RKJ demonstrates what they're doing through well-placed arrows, diagrams, and the like. They are visual treats, used sparingly enough not to feel invasive, yet often enough that it creates a consistent reality. Similarly, there are several panels of the drawings in Loren's textbooks. Maps and animals and plants, mostly, all done in similarly clinical styles—heavy detail, lots of white space, labels like "fig. 1," etc. These small touches help Night Fisher feel immediately full, like its world is lived in, like it has logic and history. And the story references that history many times, or rather it references many histories: Hawaii's, Loren and Shane's, Jon's, the school's, the town's, etc.
As much thought as RKJ put into his script, finding so many types of displacement to explore, he was equally devoted to fleshing out the artwork. The result is that Night Fisher is singularly suited to be a comicbook, as reliant on its visual flourishes as its narrative layers.