The SDCC Files: Catching Up With Keith Knight

By Arturo R. García

Cartoonist Keith Knight had a busy time at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con: he was part of The Black Panel, hosted his own panel, Nappy Hour, and promoted his own work, Too Small To Fail, the latest collection of work from (th)ink, his one-shot cartoon published in alternative newspapers around the country.

Too Small breezes through a host of topics, sometimes with sensibility, as in the case of a series of informational posts about Black History Month, and other times slinging barbs at targets both political:

and social:

As a result, the compilation can go from funny to affecting to edifying within just a few pages, making it a good introduction to Knight’s work for those who can’t read it in their own local papers. Meanwhile, at Comic-Con, Knight has been using a similar rapid-fire strategy for “Nappy Hour,” which he brought back this year with a panel that included “Black Panel” host Michael Davis, Bad Azz Mofo head honcho David Walker, and writer/performer Pam Noles.

I caught up to Knight at the convention to talk about the panel, his memories of McDuffie, and his impressions on fandom and race. The clip and a full transcript are under the cut.

Keith Knight: Hey, Racialicious, I am Keith Knight. I am creator of The Knight Life, and the K Chronicles, and Think, which I have a new book collection of. Check it out at Kchronicles.com.

Arturo: So how’s your con going so far?
KK: So far, so good. Today’s been gangbusters, actually, Saturday. Which actually in the past couple of years has been the slow day, ’cause everybody usually goes up to check out the movie panels. But, maybe that’s to do with the drop in movie studios coming here this year, ’cause it’s been less than last year. But it’s much busier today.
AG: For the second year [in a row] now, you’ve done Nappy Hour. You said you created that panel as a way to bring some of the conversations you’ve had with other black creators … take some of those conversations and put them into a con setting.
KK: Yeah, yeah. Nappy Hour originally was this thing where we met up in a dive bar just off the beaten path in the Gaslamp District. But, as everything has gotten busier and they did the baseball stadium, that little dive bar is no longer the empty place anymore, so I said, “this is good timing to try and make this happen inside the con.” So I got a great line-up last year with Dwayne McDuffie, Ned Cato and C. Spike Trotman, and an egg timer, which is the key to making a good, quick fast-paced panel. And it was a real big hit, so this year we did it again.
AG: And this year you had Michael Davis from The Black Panel on. There seemed to be a bit of synergy between Nappy Hour and the Black Panel in that both of them were tributes to Dwayne McDuffie … could you give us a quick memory of Dwayne for our readers?
KK: Yeah, Dwayne … he was … it’s funny, ’cause everyone has the same story about Dwayne, about how this guy, who was so busy, who did so much, who accomplished so much in the industry, would take so much time to talk with you. And he was a real big supporter of me – especially me being a newspaper cartoonist, among all the superhero stuff, he was always there, and picked up every piece of work I did. And, it was just really nice, that he supported me so much, and it was a conversation with him that really got me to bring Nappy Hour inside. It was nice of him to be on the panel. Just, after he passed, was hearing everybody’s similar stories, just how smart he was and how she shared so much with other people. Great guy, great person, and one to emulate.

Twenty years ago, it used to be 40-year-old white guys in the audience. That audience has changed, but it’s still 40-year-old white guys in the comics.

AG: Talk about your experience hosting a panel. ‘Cause it’s different from just having a conversation with your buddies at the bar. The timer’s a great aide, but what else have you had to adapt to pull this off?
KK: I was a little loose yesterday. I let Michael talk a little bit, because I was a half-hour late to his panel, so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. But, you want people to make their points, have their points made, but one thing … I let it go a little but I wanted to make sure our panel’s constructed without a lot of complaining, and I think there was a little bit too much complaining, but you gotta reel that in, because there’s so much positive stuff that we can talk about, and so many things that we can accomplish in a positive way … A con isn’t a con without a little bit of complaining, right? Isn’t con the short version of convention? Pros and con, negative connotation?
AG: How do you see conversations about diversity – not just at this convention, but in fandom in general – how do you see those evolving over the past couple of years?
KK: Evolving? Well, I really liked David Walker’s point [during the panel]: the convention crowd has become so diverse – I mean, just look around. I’m looking around right now at people who walk by, there’ve been like Six brown people, two white people just walked by. There’s a white guy. Black girl. White guy. Kids. Two brown kids. You know, it’s very diverse. Age-wise, sex-wise, it’s great to see, and Dave Walker was saying, let’s see that reflected in the comic-books now. Twenty years ago, it used to be 40-year-old white guys in the audience. That audience has changed, but it’s still 40-year-old white guys in the comics.
AG: One of the points made in the panel was, we’re responsible for our own stories. Having the internet now is a great equalizer now, I’ve found, ’cause we have more outlets. I’ll ask you what I asked the panel yesterday: why is there still so much of a blind spot around fandom when it comes to race in particular, even among those who would normally define themselves as kind of progressive?
KK: Well, it’s one of those things where people need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, and a lot of folks may not admit to their own biases or what they’re used to all these years. Making that transition may be hard. They may be forced to do that transition. I’ll tell you this: I’ve had more than a few people, after the panel, come down and say, “I just want to tell you, I wasn’t there for your panel, I was there for the panel after – I was squatting – but your panel was, like, the best panel I’ve seen at the con. You guys touched on a lot of issues that we just don’t hear in some of the other panels.” So those folks were tricked into hearing it, you know … sometimes people need to be tricked into learning about that stuff. I tell you, I always talk about the Ken Burns documentaries on PBS, because many of his documentaries have a lot to do with race in America – the Civil War, baseball, jazz, even the national parks, how they talked about the Buffalo Soldiers, who were the first park rangers, and a lot of people were being told for the first time, “You can’t do that in this park,” by black people. Those aren’t Black History specials, they’re Ken Burns documentaries, but people learn about black history through those documentaries.
AG: They get snuck in there.
KK: They’ll see something during black history month, like a Black History Month special, and a lot of white people won’t watch that, you know?
AG: But everybody likes baseball.
KK: Either you like or hate it. Still, even if you don’t like the game, that documentary was great. The biggest thing, though, was … what’s his name? … the guy who was the Negro League player who became a big -
AG: Buck O’Neill?
KK: Yeah, Buck O’Neill! He didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame when he was alive. These writers wouldn’t get him in the Hall of Fame in his last year, and then when he passed, they put him into the Hall of Fame. That’s something that bugged the hell out of me. But just for his performance in that documentary, being the star of that documentary was worth him getting into the Hall of Fame.