No One Else was one of my top books of 2021. It’s short–under a hundred uncluttered pages–yet through his mastery of the medium R. Kikuo Johnson fills it with a powerful density of human experience.
It’s the story of a family in the aftermath of an elderly father’s death. His adult daughter, Charlene, is suddenly released from the burden of elder care she’d shouldered alone for so long. Her happy-go-lucky brother, Robbie, returns to town soon after and struggles with how to process the death of a father who’d only ever given him disapproval. Charlene has no time for Robbie’s introspection, resentful that she was the one holding things together for so long and determined to get on with her life. And Charlene’s young son, Brandon, is in the middle of it all, navigating the concerns of childhood amid the instability of the adults around him.
Johnson renders this family dynamic in immaculate detail, leveraging the full power of comics. It’s all shown, not told. Every gesture is unmistakable. The story flows effortlessly between significant vignettes. Short panel sequences give intimate views into each character’s anguish.
Cartoonists who eschew background detail should have a look at this one. The backgrounds aren’t overloaded, but Johnson uses them to maximum effect. The meals that characters prepare throughout the story are never a focus but they say so much about the state of affairs in this house. The story takes place on Maui, where Johnson grew up, and the landscapes, structures, and people are unmistakably Hawaiian. The authenticity of setting bolsters the story’s impact.
All of this cartooning virtuosity makes for a gripping read. I became invested in the characters quickly and then concerned for their welfare. They’re all sympathetic and flawed and muddling through a tough situation however they can. With No One Else R. Kikuo Johnson delivers a vivid portrayal of a family, like so many of our families, striving to reach the other side of trauma.