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Cartoonist Keith Knight brings comics to life

Keith Knight is the creator of several comics and the TV series Woke.
Cornell Watson
Keith Knight is the creator of several comics and the TV series Woke.

Michigan State University is home to the largest public collection of comic books in the world. The 15th MSU Comics Forum will be on campus this weekend, Feb. 2-3. Comic writer and artist Keith Knight is one of the event's keynote speakers.

Knight’s work is largely autobiographical, finding humor in the important social issues of the day. He’s probably best known for creating the now-defunct daily comic strip The Knight Life.

Knight described putting out a daily newspaper comic as being “full time work for part time money." He said he advises young cartoonists to focus on book series.

"If you can somehow sell a new version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate or Dog Man, that is the new daily comic strip," Knight said.

Knight stopped drawing The Knight Life when he got the chance to create, write, and executive produce a TV show on Hulu. Drawing from his experience as a Black cartoonist, Woke explores racism and activism. Lamorne Morris, famous for his role in the sitcom New Girl, plays the main character, Keef Knight.

Woke was canceled after two seasons, but Knight carries on with the weekly comics The K Chronicles and (th)ink.

Knight describes his artwork as “quick draw” and “cartoony”, somewhere between mainstream daily comic strips and underground comics.

“People always ask me what my influences are,” Knight continued. “It’s a combination of MAD magazine, Calvin and Hobbes, Parliament-Funkadelic cartoons, and Chuck Jones Warner Bros. cartoons.”

Knight said he grew up reading his hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe. At an early age, he noticed that along with the comics pages, the editorial pages and sports sections also had cartoons. To this day, he says he still loves reading newspapers, adding that the comics often lead him to stories he otherwise would never see.

Those stories often inspire his writing, which typically comes before he hits the drawing board.

“You can be the greatest artist in the world,” Knight explained. “But if you can’t write, people will check out your cartoon one or two times, but that will be it. But if you’re a good writer, you could have stick figures and it could be a great cartoon.”

Knight’s presentation in East Lansing will be in the form of a slideshow he calls "Comics Can Save The World." He says comics, in one form or another, have been around for centuries.

“I basically make the case that comics are really an ancient form of mass media, and one of the most accessible types of media.”

Knight hopes his work succeeds in both comedic and serious ways.

“My whole method is to make people laugh, make people laugh, and then punch them in the face with a serious statement or issue or comment,” Knight said. “So, it’s laugh laugh punch, tickle tickle punch."

Keith Knight speaks at the MSU Comics Forum Friday, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. in the MSU Library.

Rebecca Wanzo, author of The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging, is also scheduled as a keynote speaker for the event.

A livestream of the event is planned.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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