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by Andrew Avery
PARTNERS IN ART
Their styles are different. One uses black and white and fills each panel with technical detail. The other uses watercolors to bring an impressionistic appearance to the familiar images of Dr. Doom and the Hulk. One bounces from project to project while working on his own creations. The other is under contract with Marvel. One chooses to wear socks with his flip-flops while the other goes barefoot in his.
But other than that everything seems to be going well for comic book artists and roommates R. Kikuo Johnson and Paolo Rivera. Their relationship is probably better that most New York City roommates. They have the same passion for comics, help with each other’s work and understand each other’s need for space. Rivera even makes cookies. Johnson using chopsticks to eat his pizza (and supposedly everything else) is as bohemian as an evening gets.
Whoever said the best art comes from collaborative friction hasn’t been to Johnson and Rivera’s Brooklyn apartment and seen their work or tried the cookies.
The two met while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. But let’s imagine it was in the stars when Johnson was writing his first comic book in about 1988 based on a hero of his own creation dubbed Wind Man. Around the same time, Rivera was busy working on his superhero Thrasher and sidekick Tornado. Wind Man and Tornado look a lot of like. Rivera says this is largely due to both being based on the same He-Man character. But still …
But the real meeting did take place in Rhode Island, for which both leaving warmer climates (Rivera coming from Daytona Beach, Fla., and Johnson from Hawaii). As for first impressions, Rivera tells it best.
“I lived in the floor above him. I remember he brought his really hot girlfriend from Hawaii freshman year. I’d seen him before but it was just, ‘Oh sweet, that’s the kid from Hawaii with the really hot girlfriend.’ In my mind I was like, I’ve got to get to know that kid so I can spend two and a half months at his house.”
Eventually Rivera did spend a summer at Johnson’s in Hawaii. But others at the school saw that they would be a good artistic match. Paulo actually had two different teachers tell him he and Kikou should be hanging out.
“I think they recognized we were both very serious,” Rivera said.
The two got to know each other better while studying in Rome. There they had more freedom with their work and continued to influence each other.
“We finally got out of the illustration department,” Rivera said, “where everyone is telling us, ‘Oh, you can’t do comics, you can’t do comics,’ and all of a sudden we’re in Rome and we can do anything we want, and he starts on ‘Night Fisher’” (Fantagraphics).
“Night Fisher” is Johnson’s comic book novella about drugs, crime, and the awkwardness of high school. It’s as if John Hughes set a “Sin City” movie in Hawaii. It’s Johnson’s first book, and it took three years to complete.
“While I was working on ‘Night Fisher,’” Johnson said, “Rivera was the only person with me, actually with me for those three years.
“I’m a warm body,” Rivera joked.
“Yeah, that whole book, Rivera helped me tell that story.”
Rivera was influenced by Johnson’s love for comic book art and comic history.
“He made me start reading comics,” Rivera said. “He read a lot more (of the superhero comics) than I ever did. I was really only interested in the drawing. I didn’t care at all that much about the story.”
Now that they are both out of college, Rivera is the one working for Marvel while Johnson has yet to do anything with superheroes. Marvel has Paulo working on the Mythos series with writer Paul Jenkins. The series presents the origins of some of Marvel’s most famous characters. It allows Rivera to draw a different classic superhero each issue and to keep drawing.
“Superhero comics and just comics in general are the best avenue for out-and-out drawing,” Rivera said.
While Rivera enjoys the chance to work with Marvel, he said he wouldn’t mind being able to do a little bit more of freelancing like Johnson. The two have also considered collaborating. They’ve even discussed their dream project, a series on Fantastic Four character Alicia Masters.
“It was going to be an amalgam of our styles,” Johnson said.
Both feel there is a lot to add to this classic Marvel character and both like the idea of adding their own styles to a creation of Jack Kirby, an artist they both admire.
“I pretty much stopped butying mainstream comicsm for four or five years,” Johnson said. “Until this year, I started buying Jack Kirby repirints.”
And for now, the Alicia Masters collaboration is a fantasy project. Until it becomes reality, the best work the two have done together is probably their apartment. Their Williamsburg loft was transformed from an open space into an impressive dorm-style arrangement after a year of work and help from Rivera’s dad.
The resulting drywall igloo makes for four rooms. Rivera and Johnson share one side of the hallway and their roommates Stephen Oh and Ryan Dunn, both RISD grads and graphic designers, share the other side. The setup gives the apartment the feel of an office as well as a living space. Essentially the apartment is both as they work from home.
Both Rivera and Johnson’s rooms are in similar states of organized confusion – stacks of graphic novels and art books, walls covered with their drawings, and some inspirational work from other artists. (Johnson keeps a framed Dick Tracy strip over his drawing board for inspiration.)
Living together provides more than just cheap housing: They get a nice space to work, an on-hand model, and someone to talk comics with constantly.
“I don’t think we ever don’t talk about comics,” Johnson said.
“Yeah, we’ll even try to start out with something else,” said Rivera, “but that usually doesn’t work very well.”
Oh, and they also get cookies.