Cartoonist and ‘Woke’ Co-Creator Keith Knight Explores Themes of Race and Identity

The comic artist reflects on turning his life into a Hulu TV show.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Keith Knight will visit Cartoon Crossroads Columbus as the keynote speaker on Friday, Oct. 7, at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

For close to three decades, cartoonist Keith Knight has infused his comics with incidents from his own life in strips like The Knight Life and K Chronicles. Then two years ago, the artist brought his story to a new medium with Woke, a live-action Hulu TV series he co-created.

The streaming show’s first season wrapped filming in early 2020, just before the pandemic and the racial justice protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In the pilot episode, the main character of Woke, Keef Knight, has a painful interaction with police that alters the way he sees the world, awakening him to the prejudices and microaggressions that were all around but that he’d tried hard to ignore.

After Woke debuted in September 2020, as the country continued to wrestle with its own history of racism, some white journalists began asking Knight about the confluence of recent headlines and the show’s events. “White people kept on saying, ‘How did you time this? How did you know? It’s amazing. This is coming out, and George Floyd just happened.’ And I would say, ‘The thing that happens to me in the show happened to me 20 years ago, and it happened to my dad, and it happened to my granddad,’” Knight says. “It’s evergreen. It’s always happening.”

Knight has long traveled the country, including Columbus, giving slideshow presentations that addressed the topics he covered in his cartoons, such as race, identity and police misconduct. This fall, Knight will visit Cartoon Crossroads Columbus as the keynote speaker on Friday, Oct. 7, at the Wexner Center for the Arts; on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 8 and 9, the cartoonist will also take part in CXC’s Expo, held at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main branch.

While the subject matter in Knight’s cartoons, TV show and new book “Good on Both Sides” can be heavy, he uses humor to help the medicine go down—an approach he describes as “tickle, tickle, punch.” Along the way, Knight pokes fun at anybody and everybody: the woefully ignorant, activists, corporations attempting to co-opt woke culture, even actor and rapper Common.

“I’m going to rip on people I love. I make fun of friends and allies and myself,” he says. “No matter how crazy a character may seem, they have to drop some sort of thing that makes you go, ‘Oh, that’s a good point.’ The world’s not black and white. If there was another title for [Woke], it could be The Gray Area.”

Hulu didn’t renew Woke for a third season, but Knight says he’s not done with TV. “I’ve got a couple of other fun ideas that I think will go over really well,” he says. “And now, the good thing is, I have a foot in the door.”

This story is from Fall Arts Guide in the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.