He Went From Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator to One of America's Top Cartoonists

Cartoonist Keith Knight has his own subscription service.
Cartoonist Keith Knight has his own subscription service.
Photo by Ryan Orange

Although Keith Knight was complimented on his dinosaur drawings in kindergarten and worked up a version of Mad magazine in fifth grade, it wasn't until he produced an autobiographical comic strip in middle school about a food fight, lampooning everyone from the cool kids to the teachers, that he realized he was onto something. "When I first started [in 1993], the only time I'd get hired was in February," the married father of two says, referring to Black History Month. But he kept at it. "I always compare it to rappers hustling CDs out of the back of their car," he says. "To make it as an artist, you have to know the system and work it."

Knight does a lot of hustling. He produces a weekly single-frame cartoon called (th)ink; a weekly autobiographical multipanel called The K Chronicles; and a syndicated daily strip, The Knight Life. His often biting work has appeared in the Washington Post, Daily Kos, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, L.A. Weekly and Ebony, among others. He's on Patreon.com, a funding site for creators, and has his own subscription service. (For $2,500 Knight will show up at your home, unannounced, with a box of doughnuts.)

Much of his work calls out the unequal treatment of blacks by police. One strip, subtitled "Police officer application: Question #6," shows four black men standing against a wall. Underneath it reads, "What do you see in this picture?" Next to "Sons, brothers, fathers, human beings" is an unchecked box; the box by "Target practice" is checked.

Like his work, Knight is serious but also funny and self-deprecating. In San Francisco, where he moved in 1990 after graduating from Salem State College in Massachusetts, he was a vocalist in the proto-nerdcore hip-hop band Marginal Prophets. At the Fillmore, for what was supposed to be a naked performance benefiting a children's charity, a pack of women began yanking on the towel he'd wrapped around himself. "Right then, my life peaked," he jokes.

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Another early apex — and the topic of his forthcoming book, I Was a Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator! — was 17-year-old Knight's job playing the King of Pop for a department store near his hometown of Malden, Mass. "The first girlfriend I brought home was a Madonna impersonator," he says.

Knight is on the board of 826LA, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing the writing skills of underserved kids, and he's working on a book with author Adam Mansbach (Go the F**k to Sleep) and actor Craig Robinson (The Office), about Robinson's experiences going to music and art school. As if that weren't enough, Knight is touring with a slide show of his police-brutality strips titled They Shoot Black People Don't They?, which "is getting people to ask questions they weren't asking a year or two ago."

Check out our entire People Issue 2015.

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