When former SF Weekly cartoonist Keith Knight was dubbed a “rising star” of underground comics, he was not shy about his aspirations.
“I would love to — really — take over the world,” he said in a KQED video profile in 2003. But even then, Knight, who later became one of few nationally syndicated Black cartoonists in the country, was already well past the honorific of a “rising star.” A decade prior, in 1993, just three years after moving to San Francisco, Knight mailed Andrew O’Hehir, then-editor of SF Weekly, a 10-dollar bill clipped to his portfolio.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Knight wrote.
From there, his fame only grew. His iconic, Harvey Award-winning semi-autobiographical comic strip, The K Chronicles, ran in the SF Examiner, Salon, and the SF Chronicle for years, earning him praise for his sharp — and humorous — political commentary. All the while, he was a rapper for the California Music Award-winning band The Marginal Prophets, published collections with Dark Horse Comics and Manic D Press, and worked at a youth hostel downtown.
Fast forward to 2020, and Knight is taking his talents to the little screen with a Hulu original TV series called Woke, co-created with Barbershop writer Marshall Todd.
Woke is set in San Francisco, and stars Lamorne Morris (Winston on New Girl) as “Keef,” borrowing the name from Knight’s comic artist persona. When we meet Keef in the first episode, he’s on the cusp of a massive licensing deal for his comic, Toast and Butter — an innocuous, non-controversial strip with mainstream appeal.
Toast and Butter matches a lot of Keef’s initial outlook on life — to “keep it light.” But one day, as he’s posting flyers around town, cops show up, pull out their guns, and slam him to the ground.
This moment is based on a real life moment in Knight’s life. “They said I ‘fit the description,’” the cartoonist says of the day he was stopped by police in the Inner Richmond. Knight recalls watching his white roommate aggressively confront the SFPD — yelling and getting in their faces — without any retaliation. The scene plays out in Woke with Keef’s archetypal stoner-bro roommate, Gunther (Blake Anderson of Workaholics) pushing and jabbing his finger at the officers with no hesitation.
For Knight, watching his white roommate walk away unscathed from the police was a clear example of white privilege, and it encouraged him to “triple down” on the work he was doing with his comics.
In Woke, after the traumatizing incident, Keef can suddenly see. As he stumbles away from the scene, two eyes, drawn above a mural, blink open, signaling a new line of vision. Trash cans, glass bottles, sharpies, and other inanimate objects start talking to Keef with cartoon mouths, telling him all about the “man-bun, co-opting, gentrifying devils” in San Francisco. “Your third eye is definitely open for business,” a bottle of malt liquor tells him. In other words, he’s “woke.”
The harrowing, dizzying evolution forces Keef into an impasse: His trusty pen (voiced by comedian and Curb Your Enthusiasm star J.B. Smoove) tells him that it’s time to take a public stance against racism in his industry and in the city, where San Franciscans love to talk about “not seeing color.” But Keef knows that calling out his publishers for lightening his headshot or a charred toast mascot for wearing blackface will do little to grow his budding career — not to mention the syndication advances he needs to pay for rent and food. Toast and Butter is quite literally his bread and butter.
Keef has two choices: Continue to draw happy faces for his cute, inoffensive cartoon, or put his career on the line for a potentially groundbreaking transformation. While Keef struggles with this decision, the animated characters around him have no qualms about what they want Keef to stand for.
“What’s great about having these animated characters is that they’re able to say things that the human actors can’t say,” Knight says. “They can have their own perspectives, and their own takes.”
Keef’s new “superpower” manifests in a live-action and animation hybrid, a style that isn’t atypical for comic-to-screen adaptations. But in this particular context, it also acted as a homage to the spirit of the San Francisco that Knight came to know and love while living here for 16 years.
“It was a magical place. I think everybody who has fallen in love with San Francisco would say that. I’m not saying that things came to life,” Knight says, laughing. “It depends on what [hallucinogens] I took back then.”
Knight illustrated his experiences in The K Chronicles, “back when you could be broke and live in San Francisco.” “People were like, ‘This is kind of wild,’” Knight says. “I just made strips about anything and everything in San Francisco.” He drew and wrote about getting stoned in Lower Haight, eating giant burritos in the Mission, and playing naked with The Marginal Prophets at the Fillmore.
Despite it all, Knight doesn’t view his experiences as any more “exciting” than another person’s. He just considers himself “lucky enough” to be able to draw them all.
“I’ve led a rather boring life,” Knight says. But those reading might disagree.
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.