TCJ 300 Conversations: Jim Borgman & Keith Knight

Posted by on December 24th, 2009 at 4:36 AM

 


Nov.7, 1983 panel collected in The Great Communicator, ©1985 Jim Borgman.


Jim Borgman and Keith Knight each own a piece of the vanishing real estate that is the daily-newspaper page. Not only have they managed to hold onto their respective slots, while so many others have fallen prey to newspaper cutbacks all over the country, but they found niches that have allowed them to both entertain and comment.

In his career of more than 30 years, the 55-year-old Borgman has been showered with awards in both categories, including a Pulitzer in 1991 for his editorial-cartoon work at the Cincinnati Enquirer and a Reuben in 1993 for his Zits strip with Jerry Scott. The National Cartoonists Society has repeatedly bestowed honors on his editorial cartoons and his strip. Last year, he accepted a buyout of his contract at the Enquirer, and he now concentrates on Zits, a strip about parent-teen relations that has only grown in popularity since its inception in 1997. The strip’s key asset is the gangly, rubbery limbed look that Borgman has given the characters, who seem ready to slouch right out of the panel. Zits continues to appear in more than 1,500 newspapers and has been translated into at least seven languages.

It takes a lot of energy and determination to be a black cartoonist working in the shrinking pages of today’s newspapers, and the 43-year-old Knight has enough for two or three black cartoonists, with a rap career on the side. Among his going concerns are (Th)ink, an editorial cartoon; The K Chronicles, a weekly semi-autobiographical strip that ran in the San Francisco Examiner and continues to appear on Salon.com; Life’s Little Victories, a sub-feature of K Chronicles representing reader-submitted quotidian triumphs; and The Knight Life, a broad-concept syndicated daily strip that just launched last year and allows him to poke fun at whatever he chooses. In his spare time, Knight also performs with the hip-hop band, The Marginal Prophets.

At the Journal‘s invitation, the two met up in Los Angeles to talk about the cutthroat life in the Funny Papers. Their conversation was transcribed by Jessica Lona.

 


Borgman photo courtesy of King Features Syndicate.


Jim Borgman:
We’re sitting in the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel lobby on… I don’t know what day it is. Friday something.

Keith Knight:
Very surreal. It’s in the [laughs] cheesiest part of L.A. And what’s funny is last night there was a Screen Actors Guild meeting, so it was a combination of a lot of B-level actors —

Borgman:
Is that what they were? They looked like actors.

Knight:
— And A-level cartoonists.

Borgman:
So Keith and I just met last night. Except online we’ve been talking a little bit. And this is our first time having a real conversation. So I was reading the notes here — I guess it’s 33 years old, the magazine. And they wanted to talk about the things that have changed in those years. And you’re representing a young guy, and I’m playing the old guy here, even though you and I both know that neither of those is true.

Knight:
Yeah, it’s somewhere in the middle. But we’ll play the roles.

Borgman:
[Laughs.] So what I noticed is that 1976 is when they started, which coincidentally is when I started my career as an editorial cartoonist at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Where were you in 1976?

Knight:
’76 I was in… probably fourth grade? Or fifth grade. And that was actually probably the first year I came up with my little imitation, my copy of Mad Magazine, called the Kooky Magazine.

Borgman:
[Laughs.] That’s great.

Knight:
I didn’t have access to a copy machine, mimeograph machine, so I actually drew copies, the same exact magazine, over and over again. I only did at the most maybe five copies, and sold them for 15¢.

Borgman:
That doesn’t sound so different from where I started. I mean, Mad Magazine was probably my first major influence too, slightly earlier Mad Magazines, probably. And I remember drawing my version of Mort Drucker’s movie satires for my girlfriend. That was basically the only way I knew how to approach girls.

Knight:
That was the way to go. You probably did far better than I did. [Borgman laughs.] But I remember, in junior high, there was a girl in front of me, Stephanie Bellow, who I had a huge crush on. And I would draw a Darth Vader mask, tap her on the shoulder, and she’d turn around — you know, have a different face every time she turned around.

Borgman:
[Borgman laughs.] That’s very stylish.

Knight:
What can I say? And then the line in college was like, “Wanna check out my portfolio?”

Borgman:
Whose work did you like back in those days?


Keith Knight photo courtesy of Knight.


Knight:
The influences that come to my head right away are Peanuts, Schulz. Garry Trudeau. Parliament/Funkadelic albums, actually. Pedro Bell was the artist. And in the ’70s, their albums would consist of all these crazy drawings, just all these trippy things, so that was really huge. R. Crumb, going to head shops not knowing what was going on in there, [laughs] and seeing these posters. I thought that was a big influence.

Borgman:
I saw a lot of R. Crumb before I even knew that it was a guy. They seem like they just sort of were bubbling out of the culture.

Knight:
Exactly. Like “Keep on Truckin'” and that poster where the person’s stoned and melting between his hands, and stuff like that. That was pretty wild. And then I remember doing a strip called Fritzy the Cat.

Borgman:
Oh, you did Fritzy the Cat. That was really original. Yeah, good job.

Knight:
There was no sex in my strip, though. No sex and drugs. It was actually a copy of Peanuts. But what else? Warner Bros. cartoons. Huge influence. Not only Chuck Jones, but I think Bob Clampett. The way he did Daffy Duck was like, crazy. It was borderline crazy. It was really interesting to start to distinguish between different directors. And I felt like I was getting that early on. I really enjoyed that, because I would draw with my cousin, and with my friend. And you’d each all draw the same characters, but you’d have different takes of it. I used to love how different people had different takes on a character. How ’bout you?

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