By Wendy Browne
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
When Hugo was first published by Fantagraphics in 1982, Milton Knight was barely into adulthood, yet the comic unabashedly exhibits a maturity in style and sharp humour beyond Knight’s young age at the time. Through his experience with Hugo and his artistic passions, Knight’s work has gone on to encompass advertising, gallery paintings, writing, education, animation, and so much more, all while holding on to a love for classic, “old school” styles and sentiments that give Knight a unique perspective on today’s media.
Hugo stars an eponymous furry court jester who is hopelessly in love with a beautiful princess who enjoys the attention her beauty and sexuality bring. The pair live in the medieval world of Rottingham and are the culmination of Knight’s interest in medieval times. In Knight’s evolution for this story, Hugo took on many forms initially, including a short king who got no respect because of his height. Finally, Knight settled on a browbeaten cat and Hugo’s adventures began.
Princess Trish in her castle is well aware that Hugo is smitten with her, but, as the cover depicts, she is quite happy to pull those strings and make this cat dance. Categorized as “fairy tales for adults,” Hugo utilizes a familiar style of imagery reminiscent of classic comics and animation, but there’s no confusing Trish’s voluptuous form and Hugo’s desires with anything intended for children. Coyly stopping just short of showing acts of sex, Knight is clearly quite comfortable with erotica and the tantalizing joy of teasing readers as much as Trish in her barely there outfits tantalizes Hugo.
The combination of childlike imagery and adult themes of sexuality stems from Knight’s childhood. Born in Mineola, New York, in 1962 and drawing comics and animating as early as two years old, Knight was not much older than that when he determined that he wanted to draw adult cartoons. On his website, Knight cites Jimmy Hatlo comics, cocktail napkins, Jack Hamm’s cartooning manuals, and the magical moment of discovering underground comix on a Manhattan newsstand at age seven as keys to his artistic journey. Knight expands on this early fascination and inspiration in an interview with Shelfdust:
For many cartoonists, the art is a way of retreating into their childhoods. When I was a kid, I saw it as a breaking out of it. I was seduced by the ‘adult’ cocktail napkin and Humorama gag cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s. Learned a lot from cartooning manuals of the time. It came so naturally that when I was encouraged to [get involved with SCREW Magazine in 1980 or so, I went right for it and got a three page gig in the first interview.
Knight is familiar with the old adage, “noids don’t have sex with doodles,” having gone on to work on character design, layout, and animation for the film Cool World, ten years after Hugo’s debut. For Knight, erotica is so much more than sex and titillation, something the mainstream comics industry tends not to comprehend. “I simply see sexuality as something so human, so grotesque and ripe for satirization, that I cannot help but be attracted to it as a subject for my art,” Knight explained. Surrounded by people who value the artistic elements of adult cartooning as much as Knight does, he has been able to foster this fascination with and appreciation for this aesthetic throughout his career.
However, Knight’s creativity and views didn’t often lend themselves well to the more conservative mainstream industry perspective, though he has done work on comics such as Mighty Mouse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His experience with Hugo was, unfortunately, not a positive one that he looks back on fondly for various reasons. A friend had taken him to Fantagraphics with his pitch, believing the publisher was a good fit for his work. Fantagraphics agreed, but the experience thereafter “helped me realize I am incapable of keeping a bi-monthly or quarterly 32-page schedule unless I’m well paid and appreciated.” The industry and mainstream media has made him cynical about the values that permeate them.
Still, Knight did not immediately give up on comics. He has worked on many comic projects, including further adventures for Hugo, published again by Fantagraphics in 1984 through to 1985. African-American Classics features his Zora Neale Hurston adaptation called “Filling Station.” His portfolio grows significantly when it comes to adult/erotica titles, which includes Heavy Metal, SCREW Magazine, and his own Midnite the Rebel Skunk, as well as Slug ‘n’ Ginger, which he produced under the pseudonym Lou Hepton. He is a strong proponent of not forming barriers between comics and fine art. But ultimately, mainstream comics did not offer Knight a particularly welcoming environment for his creative passions.
“I don’t feel I was or am supported by the comics industry. I’ve done comics ever since and some people think very well, but I am not part of the industry and don’t pay attention to it.”
Despite the negatives, Knight has been able to embrace many positive influences from his experience in the industry. “A Marvel editor, Larry Hama, browbeat me about technique, which was painful but helped a lot,” he tells Shelfdust. “Illustrator Elwood Smith gave me references and art supplies. Comics artist Howard Post was a longtime close friend and was always there to look and give criticisms and encouragement.” There are other industry people who helped him hone his technique, but he also highlights his high school teacher, Mr. Castelano, who encouraged and supported him and whom, Knight says, “was instrumental in encouraging me to develop an original sense of humor” — a style that Knight describes on his Facebook page as “sour prune.” That very same sense of irreverent humour that Mr. Castelano helped to nurture is part of what makes Hugo so sharp.
The first Hugo one-shot features several vignettes, including one story where Trish puts Hugo off on a date night, leaving the poor, besotted jester to wander home alone. There, a mysterious, but no less sexy feline climbs through his window and grants him his desires. When Trish finds out, she becomes suspicious and discovers that the seductress is actually a zombie looking to lure Hugo to hell to work for her master, the Devil. Trish determines that a song is the solution to this devilish problem, composing and belting out a ditty that drives the zombie mad.
Another quick hit in the issue reveals that Trish struggles with her affection for Hugo and the opinions of her entourage. They think his voluptuously accurate portrait of her is sexist trash. They viciously encourage Trish to reprimand him appropriately, which she does, only to sneak back when they are out of sight to reward Hugo with an adoring kiss, leaving the poor guy utterly confused.
Knight’s storytelling skill comes across in well-timed comedic beats, biting satire, and expressive characters, which is very impressive given how young he was at the time. The black and white line work loses no details with imagery that pops out of each panel in ways far more subtle than how Trish or the zombie woman’s breasts threaten to pop out of their tight-fitting attire. Knight takes care with every curve, even on the desiccated zombie demon that is no less menacing for its cartoonish appearance, dangling half-torn breast and all.
Leaving Hugo behind, Knight’s freelance career after graduating from BOCES Cultural Arts Center in Syosset, New York includes a plethora of magazine and newspaper illustrations, theatre posters, music CD covers, greeting cards, and more, but painting is where his passion truly lies now. “The painting I’m excited about. I’m breaking from the confines of what we think of as ‘comics and cartoons.'” He has also taught about art and illustration and has written about animation history for Cartoon Research. Commissions for paintings, comics, and advertising work keep him too busy to take on new avenues for his creativity, but he’s already tried just about everything, he says. “I wrote my first novel in 2017, and it’s actually one of the works I’m fondest of. Perhaps next time, I’ll try to write one that’s publishable!”
Knight is also slowly working on an animation project, as his connections between animation and comics remain strong. “I’m just into graphics moving,” he writes on his Patreon. “Brush lines, ink lines, paint techniques. Graphic art. That’s my interest. Not to see is ‘something moving,’ but to see drawn or painted art moving. That is my interest in animation.”
You can keep up with Knight and his irreverent and untamed thoughts on mainstream media and his many artistic endeavours through his Patreon and his various media outlets. Our thanks to him for his time and participation in this piece.
By Milton Knight
Published in 1982