“I live in a bubble of positivity online. There are only good people on my timeline who like the things I like, for better and for worse.”
-Vincent Kukua, social media post from September 3, 2022
Vincent Makato Palani Kukua, artist, community activist, and comic book production artist, passed away in his sleep the night of October 4, 2022, at the age of 45. The talented cartoonist was a beloved and integral part of the San Francisco Bay Area artistic community, an honored guest of the Hawaiian comic book community, and, in recent years, a vital member of the Portland comics scene.
Vincent was born in Honolulu to Doris Kukua, a single mother who was still in her teens when her son arrived. Mother and son resided in Honolulu together for five years, but the rising cost of living in Hawaii’s thriving tourism capital led Doris to leave her hometown and take up residence with her brother, Larry, and his wife, Arleen, in San Francisco in the early 1980s.
Doris was a hardworking, devoted mother, who frequently held down multiple jobs to provide for herself and her young son. Once she had saved up enough money, she and Vincent moved into a small studio apartment near San Francisco’s Japantown, within a few blocks of Larry and Arleen Kukua. “Doris was very talented, and was a very dedicated mother to Vincent,” recalls Arleen. “She was proud of her Hawaiian-Japanese heritage, and many of her jobs reflected that, including her job at a pearl shop in Japantown, and waitressing at Hawaiian restaurants in San Francisco. She had a good government job with the IRS for many years, but that ended when they moved their office to Fresno, and she didn’t want to relocate. She went to bartending school after that, and always had steady work, but nothing that really became a career.”
Whatever stability Doris Kukua may have lacked in her workplace environment, she made up for through her involvement with the Bay Area’s Hawaiian community. Doris loved music, and counted traditional hula dancing among her many interests. Although she hoped that her young son would share her interest in traditional Hawaiian culture, Vincent, shy and reserved, preferred reading comics, and, with his uncle’s encouragement, drawing comics. “Vincent had an ear infection at a very young age,” notes Arleen, “and that affected his balance. He couldn’t learn how to ride a bicycle, and didn’t play many sports, and I think that’s a big part of why drawing was so appealing to him.”
Like many comic book readers of his generation, Vincent was energized by Marvel Comics and their roster of superstar artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and eagerly followed his artistic heroes when they left the company to form their own publishing house, Image Comics, in early 1992. “[I] latched onto comic books very early on and learned a lot of [my] early knowledge of comic-making by Spider-Man artist, Spawn creator, and Image Comics co-founder, Todd McFarlane,” said Vincent in the artist statement posted on his website. “[I’ve] also been tremendously influenced by artists as varied as Jim Lee, Joe Madureira, Larry Stroman, Bill Sienkiewicz, Sam Kieth, Arthur Adams, Geof Darrow, Whilce Portacio, Humberto Ramos, Skottie Young, Dustin Nguyen, Jae Lee, and the list goes on and on.”
Mother and son lived happily in San Francisco until he entered high school, when concerns over Vincent’s safety after he was mugged on the 38 Geary bus prompted Doris to move to the East Bay, where Vincent would enroll in Berkeley High School. “That stayed with him for a long time,” observes Arleen. “He never wanted to take the bus or public transit after that, and would always walk everywhere. He didn’t learn to drive or ride a bicycle, and it limited some of his opportunities.”
Despite these hardships and limitations, Vincent’s kind heart and good nature shined through, no matter what obstacles he and his mother faced. High school classmates remember him as shy and hardworking, and always willing to donate his time and artistic energies toward a worthy cause. “One thing I remember about Vince in high school is that he was pretty politically active,” says fellow Berkeley High alumnus Garth Wallace. “He did a lot of art for flyers announcing protests and rallies, things like that. A lot of work for progressive causes, especially feminist causes.”
Arleen Kukua credits Vincent’s political activism and strong belief in social justice to his mother’s influence. “Doris instilled that in him from a very young age,” she observes. “Even though they lived in a tiny studio apartment, Doris felt very fortunate, and wanted to do whatever she could to help those around her. She would invite homeless people, complete strangers into her home to give them a hot meal and place to sleep on cold nights, because she couldn’t bear to see people suffering, or sleeping in the street.”
“Vincent was always donating his time, giving away his money to other people. 'You’re broke, but you’re drawing a poster for someone or donating money to someone, and you don’t need to do that,' I’d tell him, but that’s just the way he was,” says Arleen. “He was driven to help people, no matter his own poverty.”
Vincent graduated from Berkeley High School in 1995, and would spend the next several years volunteering his time and artistic talents to local non-profit organizations, especially Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, honing his drawing skills while working day jobs and saving money for art school. After a year at the Art Institute of California, he enrolled at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University School of Animation and Visual Effects. Although he intended to major in animation, he couldn’t resist the pull of sequential art, and he joined the school’s comic book club and distinguished himself among his peers through his talent and work ethic. “What I remember was an engaged and passionate artist with a focus on comics, and possessed of an island perspective on storytelling,” recalls Chuck Pyle, who served as director of the School of Illustration during Vincent’s time at the university. “Great fun seeing what he did with it in class, and a great loss as he had so much to offer moving forward. What really impressed me is just how busy, in so many ways, he got in the biz. A real pro and wearer of multiple hats.”
Vincent’s classmates took notice of his work, too, and his easygoing nature and personality made him very well-liked among his fellow students, who were able to break through his introverted shell and befriend the very shy, very dedicated cartoonist. “I met Vincent in art school at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco around 2004,” recalls longtime friend and colleague Jonathan Chan. “We met at the school's comic book club and became fast friends. I remember seeing his artwork for the first time and being wowed by his talent. His artwork was so fun and energetic!”
“After I graduated, we kept in touch while I went to work for Image Comics [as their production manager] and he transferred schools to finish his degree elsewhere,” says Chan. “After being at Image for a while and seeing the need for more help, Image allowed bringing in interns from local schools. Vincent was the first person I thought of. He came in and endeared himself to the office with his calm demeanor, friendly attitude, and passion for comics.”
The conclusion of Vincent’s internship did not mark the end of his time with Image Comics, as he had endeared himself to the staff and had become a welcome presence at the office during his initial tenure there. “A story that a few of my former coworkers at Image Comics love telling about Vince says a lot about him,” recalls former Image brand manager David Brothers. “Larry David invented ‘pulling a Costanza’ when he got fired from Saturday Night Live and showed up to work the next week anyway, as if nothing had happened. Vincent Kukua, on the other hand, completed his internship with Image, also kept showing up to work, everyone realized that a life with Vincent was better than one without it, and so: he was soon hired full-time. It's kind of the perfect origin story for a guy who worked behind the scenes on a ton of your favorite comics. He liked being there, and people liked having him.”
As an Image Comics fan from day one, Vincent was thrilled to launch his professional career working for and alongside his artistic heroes. His duties as production artist included graphic design, layout, and prepress for monthly titles as well as collected trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and original graphic novels. He would also design ads for both print and the web, banners for conventions, and other miscellaneous office tasks. Among the critically acclaimed titles under Vincent’s purview were Black Science, Deadly Class, The Fix, I Hate Fairyland, Morning Glories, Prince of Cats, Rumble, Snowfall, and Tokyo Ghost, among more than two dozen others.
“During my time at Image Comics, the Production Department would start every week with a sync meeting so we knew everyone's expected workload and see if anyone would need help,” observes Jonathan Chan. “Sometime around 2015, I noticed Vincent's workload every week was always very full. I decided to do an audit of everyone's workloads and it turned out Vincent's was almost double some of the other production artists! And it was by his choice!
“In the Production Department, whenever new titles would arise, production artists could volunteer for books before they were assigned out. Vincent would always volunteer for books. In an effort to balance workloads so books could get to the printer in a timely manner, we went through his list together to see which titles could move to someone else, but he refused to give up anything! I had to forcibly reallocate books, seriously. The following month, when the next Previews [comic retailers’ catalog] came out, he showed up at my office asking if he could volunteer for a new title. I told him if he was to take that on, he'd have to give up another book. He exclaimed ‘Gah!’ and then walked off in a mock huff. He genuinely cared about everything he worked on and was always enthused for whatever was coming out next.”
The soft-spoken production artist was a quiet, comforting presence in the Image office, and his love of art and music endeared him to everyone around him. “We’d go out to lunch in a group in downtown Berkeley often and shoot the breeze,” notes Image co-founder Erik Larsen. “There was a thing in our office where you could listen in on other people’s playlists. Vincent always had some tunes from bands I’d never heard of that were great. I got turned on to a lot of music by him. He was always searching the internet for cool indie pop that he could share with us. Such a sweet guy.”
Vincent’s love for comics, especially his friends’ comics, was heartfelt and sincere, and he was endlessly supportive of their creative efforts. “I started drawing the comic Burn the Orphanage while crashing in the East Bay and using a spare desk at Image Comics production office to get work done,” recalls Sina Grace. “Vince was in the same room as me, and he was the book’s first fan. He was seeing pages before my co-creator Daniel [Freedman] saw them, and his enthusiasm kept me motivated to produce pages for a book that was at that point an inside joke between two friends.”
His kind nature came through to everyone who knew him, notes Jennifer de Guzman, who worked alongside Vince during her tenure as Image’s public relations and marketing director. “I was getting a coffee at our local Peet’s when I noticed a photo of Vince on their wall, labeled ‘Customer of the Week,’ noting that he was always very patient and kind hearted. They kept that photo on the wall and had him as their Customer of the Week for several months after that.”
Despite his long hours and demanding schedule at Image, Vincent always found time to create his own artwork, taking part in online drawing challenges, creating posters and promotional artwork for local nonprofit organizations, creating art for friends, filling sketchbooks at the corner coffee shop, or making mini-comics to sell and trade at conventions. “He was one of those people who loved to draw,” notes David Brothers. “He was fluent when it came to visuals, probably thanks in no small part to the fact that he was always drawing. Everyone I know who has a story about him drawing something for them tells it similarly, that he mulled it over and you could see his wheels turning, and then a little while later, he'd bless you with a finished piece that managed to be both unexpected and still exactly on point.”
Although he was quiet and could be almost painfully shy, Vincent made a point of attending every public artist gathering that he could, whether it was an cartoonist hangout at someone’s house, a Sketchcrawl tour of the city, a Cartoon Art Museum sketch-a-thon, or a kid’s birthday party where he’d been recruited to draw Pokémon or other popular characters. “Vince was the most outgoing introvert I’d ever met,” says longtime friend Wahab Algarmi. “He hit every drawing event he could.”
Matt Harding, who was a student at Academy of Art University when he met Vincent through a mutual friend, agrees. “The thing about Vince is that he was thoroughly integrated into the Bay Area art scene... maybe even more than Image Comics itself. He was a staple at almost every signing, drawing event, pre-release movie screenings, everything. It was hard to imagine the art scene without him.”
Jenna Galvan-Speers and her husband, Ruben Speers, met Vincent at the wedding of mutual friend Tyler Shainline, of Image Comics, and became fast friends. “A few years later our daughter asked if he could come to draw for her friends at her birthday party. I asked Vincent and he immediately said yes,” says Galvan-Speers. “Our daughter’s party was 15 kids, ranging from age 8-12, on sugar highs, asking a million questions, each waiting for their own piece of art. Vincent took it all in stride, would draw whatever the kids asked of him, unaffected by the children shaking the table, and questioning everything he was doing. All of the kids loved their drawings, and so did the parents, in fact some of the parents asked for their own drawings.”
Acts like that were common for Vincent, known throughout the San Francisco Bay Area for his kindness and generosity, and always willing to spend time with up and coming artists when they came to him in search of drawing tips, publishing advice, or words of encouragement. “Vincent was a great help to me when I first tried to climb into the local art scene in the Bay Area,” says cartoonist Casey Desilets. “I was fresh out of art school, broke, and trying to figure out what I'd even do next. He helped by pretty much giving me a whole extra table to myself, right next to him, and guiding me through everything. He was just such a big supporter of comics, he was the type of artist that would be pumped to do fan art of our personal projects, and would be out there showing up to everyone’s signings.”
Vincent was a fixture at comic conventions, often alongside [P5] Creative, the art collective he formed with co-worker Jonathan Chan, Jana Cook, Edward Edgerson Jr., and Matt Harding. “It was us trying our hand at Artist Alley and sharing our own personal art with the world,” says Chan. “We did shows including Emerald City Comic Con, WonderCon, Alternative Press Expo, and more.”
Vincent worked for Image as an intern then as a staff production artist from 2009 to 2013, when he stepped down to focus on his freelance work, including two years as a Black Mask Studios production artist. In 2015, he returned to Image, and was on staff when the publisher made the decision to move its headquarters from Berkeley to Portland, Oregon, to take advantage of more affordable office space and the city’s thriving comics community, including several of the publisher’s most popular creative talents. Although he was reluctant to leave his friends and family in the Bay Area, Vincent made the decision to move to Portland at the end of 2016.
Although the move was difficult for him, Vincent already had a number of friends in Portland, and had the benefit of making the move with many of his colleagues from Image. Longtime Bay Area friend Thien Pham paid a visit to Portland shortly after Vincent’s move, and wasn’t surprised to see how quickly he’d carved out his niche there. “I think he’d been there about a month, maybe just a few weeks. We went out to lunch at a bibimbap restaurant near his place, and when we walked in, everybody in the restaurant smiled and said, ‘Hi, Vince! Great to see you!’ It was like he’d been going there every day for years,” laughs Pham.
The entire Bay Area comics community was sad to see him go, but perhaps no one missed him more than Trinidad Escobar, a cartoonist, poet, and naturalist who befriended Vincent during his final years in the East Bay. “Vincent and I have a romantic friendship that spans over seven years. When I say romantic and intimate, I mean holding hands in the rain and scribbling our names on things at school, writing each other snail mail, falling behind at work, reading poetry together in the cold air, and casually sleeping on the phone together when we felt like it,” recalls Escobar. “What a huge distance between Portland and Oakland, I once thought. Strange how an even greater distance now will bring us closer. I will carry him with me and draw things he would like to see from wherever he is now.”
Less than six months after he moved to Portland, Vincent’s mother passed away in the spring of 2017, at the age of 60. “She had her first heart attack when she was 45 years old, the same age that Vincent was,” notes Arleen Kukua. “But fortunately she received excellent medical care right away, and lived another 15 years.” Vincent’s extended family made regular trips to Portland to visit him after his mother’s death, which took a great emotional toll on him. He expressed his grief through his artwork, and put his feelings into an ongoing comic about a mother and son relationship called Okaasan, which he serialized through his Tumblr account. “Okaasan is a polite term meaning ‘mother’ in Japanese,” explains Vince’s cousin, Charlize Toratani. “Vincent was Hawaiian, but also Japanese.”
He found comfort in his friends, though, both old and new, and became more active than ever in local community groups, including the equitable employment non-profit Prosper Portland; APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon; and the local comics and film scenes. “Vince was a member at the Hollywood Theatre, a nonprofit historical theater in Portland,” recalls artist Leila del Duca. “I currently work there a couple of days a week, and once in a while I would see his friendly face but not get a chance to catch up. Even if he couldn’t make it into shows I would see his ‘reserved for Vince Kukua’ sign on theatre chairs.”
Always trying to learn new things, Vincent accepted an invitation from comic book artist Eryk Donovan to play Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, a one-off event that somehow turned into a three-year campaign. “This game world had a stipulation that all characters be named after food, and he quickly became Hau’pia the Mechazord, Dragonkin Battlemaster, fighter named after a favorite Hawaiian Dessert,” recalls Donovan. “Our small gang played once or twice a month until late 2021. Initially unfamiliar with the game, Vincent was a bit cautious at first, but quickly warmed up to the game and became a foundational core of our party. More than that, he was our Champion. He was always thoughtful and strategic in his judgment, weighing options and possibilities, but when he acted he was decisive and turned the tides of many game scenarios alone with his unfailing strength and kindness.”
Cartoonist Sam Kusek recalls seeing that kindness play out throughout his friendship with Vincent, in ways big and small. "Vincent and I chatted regularly, about movies, books and life. In the before-times, we would go to VHS tape events together. He found a tape for me, The Wiz Kid, that I had been thinking about for years, after I mentioned it. He was thoughtful and kind. I hired him to start laying out games for print for me. He made the artwork and text sing in a way I couldn't imagine.”
One year after Image Comics had moved to Portland, the publisher declined to renew its contract with Vincent, who took the opportunity to increase his freelance workload, and to increase his volunteer efforts with APANO and other community organizations. In early 2018, he became a regular presence at the Helioscope artists studio in downtown Portland, where he won everyone over and was granted full membership just a few months later. “What I saw was him doing design and production on other people's comics, then finding time whenever possible to work on his own projects: comics, illustrations, fan art, all with the lively, stylized approach to line and shape that characterized his drawings,” notes Helioscope co-founder Steve Lieber. “Vince worked and kept working. I wish we'd had the chance to talk more.”
That fun, stylized artwork earned Vincent countless admirers among his fellow artists, and the list of creators who wanted to collaborate with him reads like a who’s who of American comics. “I first saw Vincent's work totally by chance several years ago, and knew that I wanted to work with him,” says David F. Walker, Eisner Award-winning writer of Bitter Root, published by Image Comics. “The more of his work that I saw, the more I knew that we had to collaborate, which we finally did, and it was incredible. The most heartbreaking thing isn't that our creative collaborations have been cut short, but that our friendship didn't have a chance to grow.”
Another Eisner-winning writer and longtime friend, Casey Gilly, had also moved from the East Bay to Portland in recent years, and collaborated with Vincent on multiple creative projects over the years. “Vince was an uncommonly good person. I have never known someone who was more gentle, compassionate, or so effortlessly kind. He was an incredible part of the comics community, both as an artist, a fan, and a production designer,” said Gilly in a social media post announcing Vincent’s sudden passing. “Everything about him was temperate, humane, and sweet--he laughed easily, shared excitement readily, listened with his whole heart, and was absolutely hilarious. We were all better for knowing him, for being part of his grace, his quiet friendship,”
After two years of working as a freelance artist and designer, Vincent joined Portland-based Oni Press as a prepress technician in fall 2019, immediately becoming a beloved and vital member of their production team. Less than six months later, COVID hit the United States and Vincent and his colleagues at Oni made rapid adjustments to their production department as shelter-in-place orders were implemented and everyone on staff began to work from their home offices and studios indefinitely. Shortly thereafter, Vincent’s friend Matt Harding and his wife Sara moved to Portland, “at the worst possible time in history,” notes Matt, but Vincent did all he could to facilitate the move, including recommending Sara for a staff position at Oni Press.
"Vincent wasn't just a cherished member of our team, but of the comics and art world in general. His love for the medium and this community brought people together over so many years, which is why his passing is such a deep, tragic loss,” notes Sara Harding, executive entertainment assistant of Oni Press. “The ways in which he supported his friends and family with immense compassion goes beyond words. He will be immortalized in the outstanding art he created and the hundreds of friends who will sincerely remember him as a genuinely kind and endearing person.”
Because of his mother’s history of heart disease and his own underlying health issues, Vincent was very concerned about the risks posed by COVID, and continued to maintain his work-from-home status once the Oni offices reopened. Although Matt and Sara Harding relocated to Portland in the spring of 2020, Matt notes that he didn’t see Vincent in person after the move, and Vincent would regretfully turn down invitations to go to the movies, grab dinner, or get a cup of coffee. Despite those physical barriers, Vincent maintained a regular presence in his friends' lives, through his frequent social media posts discussing favorite comics and movies, daily sketchbook updates posted online, regular chats and direct messages, and, as noted by Trinidad Escobar, long telephone conversations whenever someone needed a kind word and a reassuring voice. This period of isolation was difficult for the “outgoing introvert,” who would sometimes mention the loneliness inherent in the era of social distancing, but Vincent being Vincent, he did his best to put a positive spin on things, always finding joy in his own artwork and, especially, in every measure of success and happiness in the lives of his friends.
“He was unflinchingly, unfailingly kind. He struck me as intentionally kind, like he'd made a decision and stuck with it. I don't think I ever saw him break,” says David Brothers of his departed friend. “Vince decided what kind of guy he wanted to be, and then he did it. Everyone I know has the same stories and caught the same vibe from him. I think that's really admirable, not just for its difficulty in a world and industry like ours, but for the effect on the people that were blessed to know him. He never stopped being a solid dude.”
Vincent is survived by his grandmother, Midori Akita, his uncle Larry Kukua and his wife Arleen, his Uncle Jimmie Kukua, and his cousins Charlize, Michelle, and Eddie Toratani, all of whom wish to extend a mahalo nui loa and their appreciation and gratitude for the outpouring of friendship and kindness for Vincent.