The Artist Behind “Generation Gap”
Gwen Battad Ishikawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
While the name, Jon J. Murakami, might not ring a bell, comic strips such as “Generation Gap,” “Calabash,” “What’s Up Wasa*Bee?” and the illustrations on “Local Kine” greeting cards might.
For the past 17 years, Hawai‘i Herald readers have come to know Jon J. Murakami as the artist behind “Generation Gap,” a comic strip chronicling the adventures, misadventures and disconnect between three generations of the fictitious Muramoto family. But Murakami’s fandom spans as far back as his college days at the University of Hawai‘i, and as recently as children’s books he’s illustrated and comic books he’s produced.
“Local Kine” cards, which Murakami describes as local “Shoebox Greetings,” are “local cards for local people,” produced by Maile Way Products, where Murakami is head artist and writer.
The 50-year-old Pearl City native is the youngest of three children. Interest in cartooning and humor started early on, when his older sister, Laura, entertained them by drawing. His other sister Lynn influenced his offbeat sense of humor. Adding to the mix is the fact that Murakami grew up in the cartoon generation, exposed to “Sesame Street,” Saturday-morning cartoons and comic books.
“I grew up reading a lot of “Richie Rich” and “Archie.” Comics back then were very affordable. I’ve always loved cartooning, and in general just making people laugh,” he said.
His biggest influences, however, were newspaper comic strips such as “Peanuts” by Charles Shultz, “Garfield” by Jim Davis, “The Far Side” by Gary Larson and “For Better or For Worse” by Lynn Johnston.
Murakami, who is part Filipino and Korean, is a sansei on his grandfather’s side and yonsei on his grandmother’s side, tracing his roots to Kumamoto. He attended Pearl City High School and the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking. His claim to fame was “University of Diverse City,” a strip he did for Ka Leo, the university student newspaper – a long-running comic for which he is still known.
Primarily a freelance artist, Murakami does commissioned pieces, T-shirt designs, posters, murals, caricatures, menu covers, song books and icons for web pages.
Cartooning is a quiet art in the islands. Unless you’re familiar with the comic community, you would not know the artists exist.
In Hawai‘i, cartooning became popular in the 1980s with Peppo’s (Douglas Simonson’s) “Pidgin to the Max,” an illustrated dictionary of local and Pidgin English phrases. Murakami called it a “groundbreaking project.”
“Nothing like it was ever on the market, and there’s been nothing like it ever since,” he said.
In the islands, local comic books have been a growing industry for almost four decades. In 1984, Sam Campos, dubbed “The Godfather of Hawaii Comics,” created “Pineapple Man,” a comic which is still going strong today. He also founded the Hawaiian Comic Book Alliance. As stated on its website, HCBA was founded “as a way to bring together the local artists and creators of comic books and superheroes.” There are nearly 40 members listed on the site, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Murakami. “There are a TON of artists here in Hawai‘i and of all ages.” HCBA also includes artists from the neighbor islands and a couple on the mainland who have ties to Hawai‘i.
Another group of artists, many of whom are members of HCBA, call themselves Comic Jam Hawaii. While activities are currently on hold due to the pandemic, you can find Comic Jam Hawaii at Pearlridge Center, when they meet on the first and third Sunday of each month.
“They (Pearlridge Center) are gracious enough to provide tables and chairs to accommodate us. It’s good for young kids [who] come up to learn about (comics and cartooning), but it’s also for the older people who do it for a hobby and need to communicate with others who share their interests. The range of people is from novice to professional. The creative energy you experience being among other artists is a great positive energy to feed off and get inspired, and that’s what we encourage as well,” says Murakami.
“It’s amazing. Hawai‘i is such a fertile land of artists. There’s so many talented people here,” he added. “When visiting artists come down, they’re just blown away at all the talent we have here.”
But even with all the creativity flowing in the islands, many artists don’t have a desire to explore markets elsewhere.
“There’s a certain mentality here in Hawai‘i. A lot of people try to keep it in Hawai‘i; they don’t think about going beyond the barriers. It’s such a wide world, but some people limit themselves to the islands.”
In general, the comics industry is declining. There are only two major distributors for comic books, making it difficult for comic shops to obtain DC, Marvel or other titles. Twenty years ago, Marvel Comics was on the brink of bankruptcy, but thanks to an acquisition by Disney and new movie releases under the “Avengers” franchise, the newly formed Marvel Studios, is a multi-billion-dollar company.
Murakami says that interest in comic books surges around the time a new movie is released, or a TV (or streaming) series is launched. “People want to know the history behind a character or storyline, so they turn to comics.” The pandemic, however, has halted the release of new movies and television-show production. And while loyal collectors will still buy comics, that’s not enough to keep comics shops busy and open in the COVID-19 economy. Gecko’s Books and Comics in Kaimukï, for example, after 34 years in the business, just closed its doors on Oct. 16.
Part of the problem can also be attributed to the video-game market. “There’s other diversions, too, like video games and the Internet. There’s other things to spend your money on, instead of a 24-page comic,” Murakami said.
To make matters worse, traditional comic-book stores sell mostly toys. In countries like Germany, a comic-book shop is 90 percent comics and 10 percent toys, where in America, it’s the reverse.
Although the industry seems to be on a rise again with the upcoming release of “Wonder Woman 1984” in December and CW Arrowverse (DC comics and media) network shows like “Stargirl,” as well as the increasing interest in Japanese animation, the chance of the industry climbing back up to its original stature is slim.
Nevertheless, Murakami continues to fuel his passion of cartooning.
“Cartooning is a great medium,” Murakami said. “It conveys a message; it can be serious; you can be funny. It’s like a bridge between books and television. It’s a visual as well as something you can read.”
Twenty years ago, two of Murakami’s goals were to 1) Do local children’s books; and 2) Do a local comic strip on a national, syndicated level.
Murakami has fulfilled both of those goals, and then some. In 2005, Murakami collaborated with former Hawai‘i Herald writer Genevieve Suzuki, illustrating her children’s book, “The Original Poi Cats on O‘ahu.” He illustrates the “Gecko” series written by Jane Gillespie, and many other children’s books.
He does a comic strip titled “Calabash” for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, illustrating quirky things in Hawai‘i, and “What’s Up Wasa*Bee?” for Wasabi magazine. The full-page color comic features a bee character named Wasa*Bee who points out differences between Japan and Hawai‘i.
Under his own banner, Murakami produces comic books “Gordon Rider,” now in its 15th season, and “Senbei Sentai The Ara-Rangers.”
Currently in production is “Adventures with Zori: Let the Fur Fly,” a book which chronicles the daily ups and downs dealing with Zori, a cat that adopted Murakami and his girlfriend.
Murakami gets really jazzed when he talks about his craft, and encourages youngsters who are interested in the field, to pursue it and to get advice from a professional if needed.
“I love drawing cartoons, I love drawing funny pictures, I love drawing silly things. When I get inspired, which is called an ‘art high,’ that’s the best feeling in the world . . . I just lose track of time.”
Gwen Battad Ishikawa, formerly the Herald’s managing editor, is currently the administrative specialist for an engineering consulting firm.