In an era where newspaper syndication is no longer considered the Holy Grail for cartoonists, Keith Knight (aka The Gentleman Cartoonist) is having a very good year.
Not only is Knight's long-running comic strip The Knight Life syndicated across the country in papers like The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, but the award-winning creator's weekly strips (th)ink and his hilarious K Chronicles also make Knight one of the most respected political cartoonists in the genre. He also has an ongoing graphic novel, Jake the Fake, with comedian Craig Robinson (The Office) and Adam Mansbach, about a boy who fakes his way into a performing arts high school and, without any talent whatsoever, has to find a way to stay enrolled.
Recently, news broke that Hulu is developing a series about his life as a cartoonist called Woke, starring actor Lamorne Morris (New Girl), which Knight is co-writing with Marshall Todd.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Knight about his more than 20-year career and what it's like to know the guy who is going to play you on TV.
When did you first start drawing and how did you first get into cartooning?
Keith: I've always drawn forever. I remember selling my first design when I was in fourth grade. I had my own version of MAD Magazine, but I called it "Kookie Magazine," and actually it was probably called that because of the KK initials. I'm just realizing that now actually. I'd always wanted to do cartooning. I didn't know how I was going to do it, I just knew I would do it. I remember drawing superhero comics when I was in junior high with my cousin and then I started to incorporate comics into my schoolwork. I would get better grades when I incorporated comics into my schoolwork... unless it was math, that really didn't work out.
How did you learn about syndication? They don't really teach that in elementary school.
It wasn't until I was a junior in high school and I had a teacher who had assigned Animal Farm for us to read. It was really the first novel that I read front to back that I was into. When I was done we had to do a book report and I asked my teacher if I could do a comic book report about Animal Farm. So I did a parody and instead of farm animals taking over our farm, I drew myself and my friends in high school. We took over the high school and kicked out all the teachers and having rules like "under 18 good and over 18 bad."
I did all these caricatures of the teachers and was totally ripping on everybody. It was really fun and my teacher was so into it that he held onto it for a while and kept it in the teacher's lounge to show the other teachers. He gave it back to me with an A-plus-plus and he says, "You captured the essence of Animal Farm perfectly, so more importantly you should be doing a syndicated comic strip."
That was really the first time I heard "syndicated comic strip," so I found out what that was and I researched the local newspaper and found out that they get their comics from a syndicate and studied the format of it and all this different stuff. I just started doing strips for my local high school, my high school newspaper, my college newspaper, and then when I moved to San Francisco, I started getting it into the local weeklies there. That pretty much jump-started my career.
Did you start with political cartoons or day-in-the-life comics?
It was a mixture of both. When I was a junior in college, I was doing autobiographical cartoons about going to keg parties and stuff like that, when I had my first black teacher. He was an American Literature teacher and he assigned us authors like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, That blew my mind. From then on, my work changed to "what's it like to be a black guy at keg parties." My work definitely changed to represent my reality and my friends' reality. We were all hip-hop fans and we were smart and into all kinds of music and politically savvy. So it was very important for me to write about that stuff.
What's the difference between K Chronicles, (th)ink and The Knight Life?
K Chronicles is the original one I've been doing for years and that's like an autobiographical diary strip. So I just write whatever's on my mind and it really is more like me. (th)ink, the second oldest strip, is really the opposite of the K Chronicles, and instead of a multi-panel, it's a single panel strip of stuff taken from my life. It's taken from the news. It's like this socio-political commentary in a single panel. I just did one on "voter suppression bingo."
So the third one, The Knight Life, I was essentially asked by the syndicate to do that. It's a daily strip which is so much different than a weekly autobiographical. Daily is really about visiting characters. So instead of just having me there, I developed my wife's character and I developed a former roommate's character and stuff like that. To come up with all these characters, situations and tropes that I could return to because that's what people like when they read a daily strip. It's a totally different way to work. I love that when I get an idea, it might fit in as a daily or it might work as the weekly or in the single. I don't like having nine deadlines a week, but at this point, I gotta pay my bills somehow.
Is it difficult for you when satire becomes reality?
I guess the hardest thing about what's going on with all this crazy stuff [in the news] is it's become so easy. This stuff just writes itself. So it's hard not to do the same thing that everyone else is doing. I'm trying to make sure I bring something to the table that is a little bit different and keeping a focus on concerns of communities of color, that's a priority for me.
You also draw another series, Jake the Fake, co-written by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach. How did that book come about?
Adam and I have known each other since I was living in the Bay Area and we've always wanted to work together on something. He was pitching this thing with Craig and the irony of it is I lived in Craig's neighborhood and I would see Craig at like the post office, but it wasn't until I left and moved to North Carolina that we worked together. So Adam called me and he said, "Hey, I got this idea about this kid Jake the Fake," and he asked me to illustrate a chapter. When we sent it off, we were not expecting this massive bidding war between different publishers. So it's been really great. Book One just came out in paperback with Scholastic, Book Two should be dropping soon and I'm currently doing the illustrations for Book Three now.
If somebody is out there and they want to become a syndicated cartoonist, how do they go about doing that?
I would just say that syndication is not the be-all end-all anymore. 25 years ago becoming a syndicated cartoonist was like being a tenured professor: you couldn't lose your gig, it was cushy, you were set for life. But now when you used to be in 300 papers and now it's 30 papers, it's not lucrative.
So, the advice I'd give somebody is to just launch online, find a subject that you're super passionate about and become the cartoonist that does that one thing. With so many people in the world, there's enough people out there that like you can find a thousand hardcore fans that will support anything that you do. That's when syndicates will come to you.
Who or what inspires you?
So many different things inspire me. There are artists that I admire and people like Bill Waterson, Sergio Aragonés, from MAD Magazine, and a Parliament Funkadelic albums inspire me. Chuck Jones, cartoons. British comedy also inspired me. Morrie Turner inspired me. I used to love his little black history cartoons. Those really inspired the portraits that I do for (th)ink, and activists like Bree Newsome are super inspiring to me. Plus, of course, my kids and my wife inspire me.
Does your wife mind being in your comics?
No, she's really good with that stuff. I guess I shouldn't say this but I always draw her in the bathtub and, frankly, I do it because it's super easy to draw.
What does it feel like knowing there's a person out there who's going to play you on TV?
I always felt like the comic strip character version of me was someone playing me too, so it doesn't seem that different to me. I think people have this version of me that they see in the newspapers now. They're gonna have a version of me that they see on TV; hopefully, if it goes to series. But I think it's going to feel really weird. What was super weird was first seeing people reading the lines that I wrote [in rehearsals], you know? That was really wild.
What was it like having to write a script versus a one-panel strip?
Well, what I love about this is it's like being in a band. I used to be in a band in San Francisco. Being a cartoonist is such a solitary endeavor. Just everything you do, the dialogue, layout and you control everything. So collaborating like this is you bringing certain ideas to everybody else and they run with it and work with it and producers have feedback. It's just been a really nice experience.