Every week Keith Knight makes three comic strips. There’s the weekly multi-panel strip The K Chronicles, which has run since 1993. There’s the weekly single panel political strip (th)ink. Then seven days a week he’s making The Knight Life, a daily comic strip.
Knight is also the illustrator of Jake the Fake Keeps It Real, written by Craig Robinson (star of The Office and Fox's upcoming sitcom Ghosted) and Adam Mansbach, a middle grade book that came out at the beginning of the year. Knight is also writing and drawing a graphic novel of his own, I Was a Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator.
Knight’s work is always political, but they’re also very personal. The cast of both The K Chronicles and The Knight Life are he and his family. He talked to CBR about the differences between the strips, shares his thoughts about Donald Trump and some thoughts on history, home ownership and North Carolina.
CBR: Keith, you’re always busy but I’m sure with Jake the Fake Keeps It Real out, things are even busier.
Keith Knight: That was a neat thing that dropped into my lap. My buddy Adam Mansbach -- who is known for his adult children’s book Go the Fuck the Sleep -- contacted me a couple year ago and said, hey, I’ve got this idea that I’m working on that’s loosely based on Craig Robinson as a kid and a grade school teacher and as a musician. He asked if I would do a sample chapter and I said sure.
The funny thing is, Craig and I lived in the same neighborhood and we would see each other at the post office and we had mutual friends but we never really knew each other. There are certain things that I’ve written and I thought it would be perfect if Craig Robinson could play that role, and so it was nice that we connected this way. I did the sample chapter and there was a bidding war, and we got this book deal with Random House and it just went from there. It was nice to be in this position of just illustrating because it was a new way to work for me. Just riffing off of what was written and adding more to it or going a different way with it. It was fun.
Have you done much illustration work?
I worked on this graphic novel, Beginner’s Guide to Community-Based Arts, about 15 years ago. A lot of the research was done by my co-author Matt Schwarzman so in some ways it was drawing stuff that he provided, but I still added material and it was more of a comic book as opposed to heavily illustrated text.
Do you want to describe your three comic strips for people who might not know all three? They share a sensibility, but they are very different.
They’re all very different, but like you said, they capture my sensibility in their own way. The K Chronicles is the foundation. That was the first strip and it’s been in at least one newspaper since 1993. That’s my autobiographical multi-panel comic strip that basically takes stories from my life. The last one I did was about purchasing my own home, but it starts out by talking about the wealth disparity between Black families and white families and how a lot of that has to do with the inability to purchase property and all the different hoops you jump through. I have a friend who was sending me covenant laws -- these quiet laws passed down from generation to generation that said don’t sell your property to black people or Jewish people. It was illegal to do it, but people did it anyway into the eighties. It was really meaningful to me to make this purchase and to be able to know that I can pass this down to my kids. It’s building wealth and it means a lot. That’s The K Chronicles.
Then there’s (th)ink, which in a way is sort of the opposite of The K Chronicles. Instead of being taken from my life, it’s taken from the news. It’s a single panel. What’s great about think is that I can take the ideas that I can’t really flesh out into longer stories and just do these one-two punches. It also allows me to do portraits of figures that have passed. I’ve started doing them of people that are alive too because I didn’t want to just do a bunch of portraits of dead people, I want to celebrate people while they’re alive, too. I’ve done portraits of people like James Baldwin and Spike Lee and Gil Scott-Heron and Henry Rollins and Maya Angelou. Folks like that.
The Knight Life is sort of a daily version of The K Chronicles. I shouldn’t say that because a daily comic strip is so different than a weekly alternative newspaper comic strip. A lot of the comic strip is about the characters and returning to those characters and getting to know them. The K Chronicles is all about me and I have other characters in the strip, but I never fully realized them. I had to develop the characters for The Knight Life. So there’s myself, my wife, my kids, my dad, Gunther, all these different characters.
Does The Knight Life have a different audience than the weekly strips?
It’s really opened me up to a whole new audience. That’s what Jake is doing, too. That eight to 10-year-old market is a whole new audience I’m in front of. I just did my first school visit the other day for Jake the Fake. After I did my presentation there was a Q&A and it was a lot of silly stuff like are you married, how old are you. But there was one little girl who said, "I heard you’re an activist, can you talk about the activism you do?" That got me talking me talking, and what was great was she was Muslim and she wrote to me later and talked about the prison-industrial complex and racism and stereotypes. This was a fifth grader and I’m so psyched to see that there are kids out there who are socially active and conscious.
I’m sure the daily deadline for The Knight Life is a whole other beast from the weekly deadline.
Oh yeah. It’s a nightmare, but I like the challenge. I don’t think the challenge is the deadline, the challenge is the format. That’s what I like about it. It’s a whole different rhythm. I like the idea that I do three different comics formats. I don’t know if I’ve excelled at all three, but I’ve been to do good enough at these three formats that I’ve been able to garner a salary by doing them. I don’t think many people have been able to do that.
The Knight Life isn’t as political but it’s still political.
It’s political in sort of a different way than I can be in The K Chronicles or (th)ink. One of the recent ones I did was the executive order by Trump to end all day breakfast at McDonald’s and how that’s the one thing that pushes his followers to go, this can’t stand! Just doing stuff like that is what that format is for. To do silly stuff like that which is hopefully funny, but hopefully people will also get and appreciate. As long as I can come up with stuff like that I’ll keep on doing it.
The Knight Life is more the sitcom version.
The way I describe it is, The Knight Life is the network television version and The K Chronicles is the cable TV version.
Had you been chasing doing a daily comic?
No. Not at all. I was asked to do it a long time ago and that’s when I should have done it because that’s when newspapers were strong. I would have been in a better position when everything fell apart in 2008. Instead I waited until 2008 when everything is falling apart and launching my daily strip. For a long time I’d been approached by different syndicates saying, we love The K Chronicles, have you ever thought of developing it into a daily. The late Jay Kennedy approached me about it and Lee Salem talked to me about it. A lot of guys who either retired or aren’t with us anymore approached me about it. I’m kicking myself now, but I was touring with my band and living a very enjoyable existence with a weekly deadline as opposed to daily deadlines. I’d probably be loaded now if I had done it then but, well, what can you do? [Laughs]
Besides the three comics you’ve also been working on a graphic novel, I Was a Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator.
I realize now it was foolish to say I’ll get this done in two years with my nine deadlines a week. That was naïve at best and terribly foolish and so it’s been five years. Thankfully, most of my supporters follow what I’m doing so they see what’s going on and they’ve been really nice about it. I’ve always felt like I’m not a long-form person. I like the idea of just cranking something out and just going onto the next thing and so this long format is just totally killing me.
I’ve got about eight chapters done. I need that editor to yell at me and say, this needs to be done by now or all this machinery is going to fall down. All this work that I crank out the only reason I crank it out is that I have all these deadlines. It sort of harkens back to that one professor who used to yell at me and give me crap. [Laughs] The only reason why I got things done was he was a hard ass and so I think that’s what I need I need – a hard ass editor. [Laughs] It’s getting there.
You’ve always been political, but especially now do you see your work changing in either tone or approach?
I think The Knight Life has gotten more political. What happened with Trump -- look, anybody who’s even remotely familiar with the history of black people in this country would know that he was coming. Historically whenever it is perceived that the Black community gets something, there’s always a reaction by the white majority saying, you may have got something, but this is still a white country. It happened after Reconstruction with oppressive laws like Jim Crow and a lot of riots and murders. It happened after the Civil Rights legislation with the prison industrial complex and the drug war. This perceived gain of the first Black President led to this reaction of the white majority. Black folks have been going through this forever and I don’t think it’s that big a difference.
The only difference that I see in the industry is there’s a lot of people who haven’t done editorial cartoons in the past and are starting to do them now. I saw this happen with George W. Bush, too. A lot of people who weren’t necessarily doing political stuff before are now doing it. What you’ll find with me is trying to find not the obvious angle. One of the strips I did was now that Trump’s in, what is the NRA going to do? They got people to buy so many guns because they kept on saying, “Obama is going to take away your guns!” What are they going to do now that Trump’s in? I have [NRA Executive Vice President and CEO] Wayne LaPierre dressed in a Mickey Mouse gun outfit trying to sell guns to Muslims and gays and Blacks and he’s basically trying to get every population to arm themselves and then in the last panel he’s like, “White people did you hear all these other people are getting guns, you’ve got to arm yourselves!” I’m just trying to get those different angles.
You moved to North Carolina last year and I know plenty of people still think of it as this religious right, Deep South state, but it’s a place that’s really in flux, politically speaking.
It’s interesting. I’m working on a strip about that. North Carolina is the trendsetter of just horrendous governing. The state government is totally gerrymandered. It’s amazing how crooked they are, but people are starting to see. North Carolina is way cooler than what the state lawmakers reflect. The only reason they are in there is because of all the illegal stuff they do to stay in there. You can tell that the state’s people are better human beings than the people in the statehouse just from the fact that this state -- which went Trump -- kicked out the Republican governor and put in a Democratic governor. I think the scumbag lawmakers are next. But even when the Democratic governor got in, the lawmakers started stripping him of his powers with the outgoing governor.
North Carolina is way cooler than its government -- the same way our nation is way cooler than the federal government. People from all over the world are rightly saying, what is up? The US is not as foolish as what it appears to be. When everyone was protesting the executive order about the Muslim ban, I saw a post from someone who does reporting in those countries. They got the impression that Americans didn’t like Muslims, but after seeing so many protests and all the stuff that people are doing against the administration they’re starting to see that America isn’t bad. They’re starting to see that Americans do appreciate diversity and do respect them. I think that’s heartening. I think for us to move forward progressively as a country it’s going to have to get a lot worse than this for us. To acknowledge our extremely racist past because we don’t teach anything about how this country really came together. Once we do that, we’ll be able to move forward.
My wife is German and they learn about what they did in World War II. Every single day, they talk about what they did. So much so that Germany is almost afraid to wave their flag because they just don’t want to show nationalism because of their Nazi past. They’re now the leader of the free world and showing us by taking in more refugees than anybody else. They have their own Trump that is running, but there’s no way that person is going to win.
I don’t know if you know this but Trump’s win has really taken the wind out of the sails of most of the far right people running. In Austria the far right guy made it into a runoff and everybody was freaking out because he was polling well but once Trump gone in, the far right guy got trounced. The same thing happened in the Netherlands, he got trounced. If anything happened with Russia regarding anyone else except their own party, all these right-wingers would be going insane.
The Knight Life almost has to be more political in a sense just because our daily lives are more political now.
The Knight Life runs about two years behind where my life really is so my oldest kid is eight and he’s six in the strip. I’m still trying to figure out how we get to North Carolina. I think there’s going to be an executive order to get rid of a bunch of lefties from California -- because it was Hillary’s best state -- so we’re forced to move to North Carolina. [Laughs]