Too Small To Fail

Too Small To Fail

Keith Knight is the quintessential alt-weekly cartoonist, which makes him part of a dying breed. His (mostly) single-panel strip, (th)ink, is a mix of direct political commentary, humorous (and sometimes disturbing) news items, and cultural commentary. Collecting political cartoons is an endeavor that can yield diminishing returns, given the potentially stale nature of some of the material. That's certainly true of some of the strips in the book, especially those covering the 2008 U.S. election, but it's also obvious that Knight carefully selected those strips that either covered something especially significant or that had a punchline that still resonates today. Knight employs a loose, elastic line that seems influenced by MAD and bigfoot cartooning, with flailing limbs, bulbous noses, and simplified anatomy. Knight is also a great letterer, using a thick & exaggerated line for his captions and a thinner and more delicate script for most of his dialogue. He flips between single cartoons and multi-panel strips, and uses images both sophisticated and bawdy. It's hard to pigeonhole Knight's work, even as a political cartoonist, because his influences are so diverse.

He frequently uses a single image to get across most of his meaning like a traditional political cartoonist, but most of his strips are far more text-heavy than is usual for such art. He's got the MAD smart-ass thing fueling the humor of his strips, yet he's far more restrained in his venom than alt-weekly stalwarts like Ted Rall or Mikhaela Reid, whose instincts are to go for the throat every time. For Knight, who also does a humorous autobio strip called The K Chronicles, it's every bit as important to be funny as it is to be righteously angry. Indeed, while there's some rage to be found in Knight's work, I detect more than a little exasperated resignation there as well. In other words, he's no longer surprised by all of the nonsense he observes in the world, and he comments on it with a bit of weariness. I actually find K Chronicles to be a better format in showcasing Knight's point of view and sense of humor, even if those strips offer a less direct method of expressing a single idea.

Knight isn't shy about the single factor that sets him apart from other political cartoonists: the fact that he's the rare African-American cartoonist who directly acknowledges the influence of hip-hop culture on his work. Only Masheka Wood is in the same ballpark, but he's a good ten years younger. Many of the comics in this book speak directly to issues related to race, and it seems like Knight saves most of this commentary for (th)ink rather than K Chronicles, in part because he has so much to say about it. In addition, much of this particular commentary falls outside his own personal sphere, making it more appropriate for an overtly political strip. I love his Black History Month strips in particular, which are less political than informational, yet are still funny because of their captions. For example, a strip about Bayard Rustin, an activist who had a huge role in Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, revealed that he was openly gay and Knight included a quote from him about how treatment of the gay community may be the new barometer of human rights. The caption: "Chocolate 'Milk'." In terms of culture, Knight excoriates Clint Eastwood for including no black extras in a film about Iwo Jima, despite the extensive role black soldiers played in this battle; this was captioned "The Flags of (Y)our Fathers." A more subtle statement on race is that most of his incidental characters are almost always black—because why not?

The best way to describe Knight's stance on the world is "affably pissed off." His rubbery style of art tends to tamp down that rage, but Knight never lets the government, the culture at large (including Hollywood and the world of sports), or even the reader off the hook. Knight's at his best when he manages to make a specific event speak to a more general point (as in his cultural commentary that springs from a single news item) rather than comment on current events without a wider context. As a result, this collection picks up steam after it abandons the day-to-day specifics of an election. Knight isn't a visionary or a true original. His work will feel familiar to anyone who reads diary strips or alt-weekly political strips. However, I don't think filling such a role is Knight's aim. He's part of a continuum of political cartoonists that stretches back for several centuries, and what he aims to do is to make each strip funny, & expressive of a point of view and set of personal experiences rarely seen in this arena.