Thursday, March 3, 2005


The debut issue of Lil' Keiki by Len Yokoyama and Dennis Fujitake (Kiddieland Books, $3.99) is available at Borders Books and Music in Waikele and Ward Centre, Collector Maniacs in Kaimuki, Gecko Books & Comics in Kailua and Kaimuki, and Jelly's in Aiea.

Local comic creators
looking for success
with ‘Lil’ Keiki’

"LEN & DEN" are hoping their new local comic book will be the start of something big.

Writer Len Yokoyama has teamed with noted illustrator Dennis Fujitake to create a whimsical tale of kids and grown-ups living in the fictional community of Forest Town in "Lil' Keiki."

There's the mischievous (and always costumed) Keiki, his friends Kehau and Jeremy, and his arch-nemesis Philbin. The grown-ups include Keiki's mom, Tess; her sister, Carla; their dad, Keiki's grandfather Walter Woods; and their friends Nikki Ann, Dylan, Frank and town deputy Otis.

We meet everyone at a Halloween party, from which the characters head off to Saddle Road, with its "weird glowing lights." There are jack-o'-lanterns in the trees and two scary-looking witches who tempt Kehau with a box of candy. But is it really an innocent box of sweets?

With its all-ages appeal and Fujitake's clean command of local color, Hawaii readers should take to Yokoyama's stories and cast of characters.

Yokoyama is banking that "Lil' Keiki" will be a national success story as well, one that began with a series of gag strips he created for the Hopaco newsletter when he worked for the company in 1999.

Fujitake's already received national attention for earlier work featured in independent fantasy titles such as "Dalgoda," "Retief," "Elfquest" and the anthology "The Forbidden Book: Journeys Into the Mystic."

Len Yokoyama, right, created "Lil' Keiki," illustrated by cartoonist Dennis Fujitake.

The comic book is published under the Kiddieland Books imprimatur, a homage to the Keiki Land amusement area at Ala Moana Center, "where Farrell's ice cream parlor used to be." It closed around the mid-'70s.

The character of Keiki is also Fujitake's tip of the hat to Bill Watterson's lively title character in the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."

But he acknowledges that the project is Yokoyama's concept, and he's glad to help bring the denizens of Forest Town to life.

The town "is loosely based" on Waimea on the Big Island," Yokoyama said. "But it's strictly a fictional town, building it with certain people," including one based on a friend, Nikki Borengasser, who modeled for the Hopaco ads.

"Dylan is kind of like Keanu Reeves, and Otis is based on one of my favorite TV characters, Barney Fife of 'The Andy Griffith Show,'" he said.

As you can guess, both men are longtime comic book aficionados. Yokoyama was a seventh-grader from Saint Louis School when he started attending Hawaii State Comic Collectors Club meetings at the Moiliili public library in the early '70s. There, he shared the same room with club founders including Fujitake, Gary Kato and Stan Sakai, who's won national fame with his popular "Usagi Yojimbo" comic book.

"We tried to have regular meeting sessions," Fujitake remembered, "but they usually ended up with everyone just wanting to trade, buy and sell comic books with each other."

Yokoyama said he just wanted to be in the same space as the comic book artists he admired, without bothering to approach them, and later helped to keep the club going after the three artists left the group.


EVEN THOUGH "Lil' Keiki" looks like a children's comic book, the creators intended to appeal to both kids and adults. "It's like a Harry Potter thing," Fujitake said.

"Not just kids, but all ages," Yokoyama added, "although we haven't introduced any teenage characters yet."

Yokoyama starts with his own pencil drawings and storyboards to get the creative process started but says, "I let the professional do the real work," acknowledging additional layout and logo design work by Janel Cabebe.

If you pick up issue No. 1 this week, you'll notice it's dated Summer 2005. That's because the comic book is getting an early release here, but if the title gets picked up by the national Diamond Comic Distributors, it'll take two to three months to hit comic book stores on the mainland.

"I think it's a decent enough product," Yokoyama said, "but I know it's tough for new independent titles to get picked up by Diamond nowadays. It's not cheap, either. ... The first issue has an initial 3,000-copy print run, a thousand more than most other independent titles usually run."

In the meantime, Fujitake continues his freelance work here, including developing titles for Mutual Publishing's newest children's book subsidiary, BeachHouse Publishing.

"But I want to continue to illustrate for Len," he said. "I'm happy with what I'm doing -- it's entertaining -- and Len's happy with it."

Drawing on small-kid time memories of reading a classic title such as Walt Disney's "Uncle Scrooge" by the late, great Carl Barks, Yokoyama said: "I've always wanted to do something along those lines. Our book is the kind that anyone can read, and you don't need to have gathered 10 years of comic book history to enjoy it."

Copies of "Lil' Keiki" can also be ordered from Kiddieland Books at P.O. Box 240609, Honolulu, HI 96824-0609. For information, e-mail Kiddieland@hawaii.rr.com

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