Vincent Makoto Palani Kukua, November 5, 1976 – October 4, 2022

Vincent Kukua, photographed by his aunt, Arleen Kukua, in Portland, 2022.

“I live in a bubble of positivity online. There are only good people on my timeline who like the things I like, for better and for worse.”

-Vincent Kukua, social media post from September 3, 2022

Vincent Makato Palani Kukua, artist, community activist, and comic book production artist, passed away in his sleep the night of October 4, 2022, at the age of 45. The talented cartoonist was a beloved and integral part of the San Francisco Bay Area artistic community, an honored guest of the Hawaiian comic book community, and, in recent years, a vital member of the Portland comics scene. 

Vincent was born in Honolulu to Doris Kukua, a single mother who was still in her teens when her son arrived. Mother and son resided in Honolulu together for five years, but the rising cost of living in Hawaii’s thriving tourism capital led Doris to leave her hometown and take up residence with her brother, Larry, and his wife, Arleen, in San Francisco in the early 1980s. 

Vincent and his mother, Doris, on vacation in Hawaii, mid-1980s. Photograph courtesy Arleen Kukua.

Doris was a hardworking, devoted mother, who frequently held down multiple jobs to provide for herself and her young son. Once she had saved up enough money, she and Vincent moved into a small studio apartment near San Francisco’s Japantown, within a few blocks of Larry and Arleen Kukua. “Doris was very talented, and was a very dedicated mother to Vincent,” recalls Arleen. “She was proud of her Hawaiian-Japanese heritage, and many of her jobs reflected that, including her job at a pearl shop in Japantown, and waitressing at Hawaiian restaurants in San Francisco. She had a good government job with the IRS for many years, but that ended when they moved their office to Fresno, and she didn’t want to relocate. She went to bartending school after that, and always had steady work, but nothing that really became a career.”

Whatever stability Doris Kukua may have lacked in her workplace environment, she made up for through her involvement with the Bay Area’s Hawaiian community. Doris loved music, and counted traditional hula dancing among her many interests. Although she hoped that her young son would share her interest in traditional Hawaiian culture, Vincent, shy and reserved, preferred reading comics, and, with his uncle’s encouragement, drawing comics. “Vincent had an ear infection at a very young age,” notes Arleen, “and that affected his balance. He couldn’t learn how to ride a bicycle, and didn’t play many sports, and I think that’s a big part of why drawing was so appealing to him.” 

Like many comic book readers of his generation, Vincent was energized by Marvel Comics and their roster of superstar artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and eagerly followed his artistic heroes when they left the company to form their own publishing house, Image Comics, in early 1992. “[I] latched onto comic books very early on and learned a lot of [my] early knowledge of comic-making by Spider-Man artist, Spawn creator, and Image Comics co-founder, Todd McFarlane,” said Vincent in the artist statement posted on his website. “[I’ve] also been tremendously influenced by artists as varied as Jim Lee, Joe Madureira, Larry Stroman, Bill Sienkiewicz, Sam Kieth, Arthur Adams, Geof Darrow, Whilce Portacio, Humberto Ramos, Skottie Young, Dustin Nguyen, Jae Lee, and the list goes on and on.”

Mother and son lived happily in San Francisco until he entered high school, when concerns over Vincent’s safety after he was mugged on the 38 Geary bus prompted Doris to move to the East Bay, where Vincent would enroll in Berkeley High School. “That stayed with him for a long time,” observes Arleen. “He never wanted to take the bus or public transit after that, and would always walk everywhere. He didn’t learn to drive or ride a bicycle, and it limited some of his opportunities.”

Vincent, his trademark headphones close at hand, enjoys breakfast at the hotel before starting the day at San Diego Comic-Con 2007. Photograph courtesy Jonathan Chan.

Despite these hardships and limitations, Vincent’s kind heart and good nature shined through, no matter what obstacles he and his mother faced. High school classmates remember him as shy and hardworking, and always willing to donate his time and artistic energies toward a worthy cause. “One thing I remember about Vince in high school is that he was pretty politically active,” says fellow Berkeley High alumnus Garth Wallace. “He did a lot of art for flyers announcing protests and rallies, things like that. A lot of work for progressive causes, especially feminist causes.”

Arleen Kukua credits Vincent’s political activism and strong belief in social justice to his mother’s influence. “Doris instilled that in him from a very young age,” she observes. “Even though they lived in a tiny studio apartment, Doris felt very fortunate, and wanted to do whatever she could to help those around her. She would invite homeless people, complete strangers into her home to give them a hot meal and place to sleep on cold nights, because she couldn’t bear to see people suffering, or sleeping in the street.”

“Vincent was always donating his time, giving away his money to other people. 'You’re broke, but you’re drawing a poster for someone or donating money to someone, and you don’t need to do that,' I’d tell him, but that’s just the way he was,” says Arleen. “He was driven to help people, no matter his own poverty.” 

Vincent starts work on another sketch in his hotel room after the final day of the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con. Photograph courtesy Jonathan Chan.

Vincent graduated from Berkeley High School in 1995, and would spend the next several years volunteering his time and artistic talents to local non-profit organizations, especially Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, honing his drawing skills while working day jobs and saving money for art school. After a year at the Art Institute of California, he enrolled at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University School of Animation and Visual Effects. Although he intended to major in animation, he couldn’t resist the pull of sequential art, and he joined the school’s comic book club and distinguished himself among his peers through his talent and work ethic. “What I remember was an engaged and passionate artist with a focus on comics, and possessed of an island perspective on storytelling,” recalls Chuck Pyle, who served as director of the School of Illustration during Vincent’s time at the university. “Great fun seeing what he did with it in class, and a great loss as he had so much to offer moving forward. What really impressed me is just how busy, in so many ways, he got in the biz. A real pro and wearer of multiple hats.” 

Vincent’s classmates took notice of his work, too, and his easygoing nature and personality made him very well-liked among his fellow students, who were able to break through his introverted shell and befriend the very shy, very dedicated cartoonist. “I met Vincent in art school at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco around 2004,” recalls longtime friend and colleague Jonathan Chan. “We met at the school's comic book club and became fast friends. I remember seeing his artwork for the first time and being wowed by his talent. His artwork was so fun and energetic!”

Vincent draws at Mel’s Diner in downtown San Francisco after a post-WonderCon dinner with friends in 2008. Photograph courtesy Jonathan Chan.

“After I graduated, we kept in touch while I went to work for Image Comics [as their production manager] and he transferred schools to finish his degree elsewhere,” says Chan. “After being at Image for a while and seeing the need for more help, Image allowed bringing in interns from local schools. Vincent was the first person I thought of. He came in and endeared himself to the office with his calm demeanor, friendly attitude, and passion for comics.”

The conclusion of Vincent’s internship did not mark the end of his time with Image Comics, as he had endeared himself to the staff and had become a welcome presence at the office during his initial tenure there. “A story that a few of my former coworkers at Image Comics love telling about Vince says a lot about him,” recalls former Image brand manager David Brothers. “Larry David invented ‘pulling a Costanza’ when he got fired from Saturday Night Live and showed up to work the next week anyway, as if nothing had happened. Vincent Kukua, on the other hand, completed his internship with Image, also kept showing up to work, everyone realized that a life with Vincent was better than one without it, and so: he was soon hired full-time. It's kind of the perfect origin story for a guy who worked behind the scenes on a ton of your favorite comics. He liked being there, and people liked having him.”

“At the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, Image United was announced and the Image booth had signings all weekend. Vincent helped work that side of the booth. Because of his appearance and the creators at the table, many fans asked for his autograph thinking he was [Image co-founder] Whilce Portacio!” -Jonathan Chan, former production manager at Image Comics.As an Image Comics fan from day one, Vincent was thrilled to launch his professional career working for and alongside his artistic heroes. His duties as production artist included graphic design, layout, and prepress for monthly titles as well as collected trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and original graphic novels. He would also design ads for both print and the web, banners for conventions, and other miscellaneous office tasks. Among the critically acclaimed titles under Vincent’s purview were Black Science, Deadly Class, The Fix, I Hate Fairyland, Morning Glories, Prince of Cats, Rumble, Snowfall, and Tokyo Ghost, among more than two dozen others.

Rumble, by John Arcudi, James Harren, and Dave Stewart, was one of Vince’s favorite titles that he worked on during his time at Image Comics.

“During my time at Image Comics, the Production Department would start every week with a sync meeting so we knew everyone's expected workload and see if anyone would need help,” observes Jonathan Chan. “Sometime around 2015, I noticed Vincent's workload every week was always very full. I decided to do an audit of everyone's workloads and it turned out Vincent's was almost double some of the other production artists! And it was by his choice! 

“In the Production Department, whenever new titles would arise, production artists could volunteer for books before they were assigned out. Vincent would always volunteer for books. In an effort to balance workloads so books could get to the printer in a timely manner, we went through his list together to see which titles could move to someone else, but he refused to give up anything! I had to forcibly reallocate books, seriously. The following month, when the next Previews [comic retailers’ catalog] came out, he showed up at my office asking if he could volunteer for a new title. I told him if he was to take that on, he'd have to give up another book. He exclaimed ‘Gah!’ and then walked off in a mock huff. He genuinely cared about everything he worked on and was always enthused for whatever was coming out next.”

The soft-spoken production artist was a quiet, comforting presence in the Image office, and his love of art and music endeared him to everyone around him. “We’d go out to lunch in a group in downtown Berkeley often and shoot the breeze,” notes Image co-founder Erik Larsen. “There was a thing in our office where you could listen in on other people’s playlists. Vincent always had some tunes from bands I’d never heard of that were great. I got turned on to a lot of music by him. He was always searching the internet for cool indie pop that he could share with us. Such a sweet guy.”

Vincent’s love for comics, especially his friends’ comics, was heartfelt and sincere, and he was endlessly supportive of their creative efforts. “I started drawing the comic Burn the Orphanage while crashing in the East Bay and using a spare desk at Image Comics production office to get work done,” recalls Sina Grace. “Vince was in the same room as me, and he was the book’s first fan. He was seeing pages before my co-creator Daniel [Freedman] saw them, and his enthusiasm kept me motivated to produce pages for a book that was at that point an inside joke between two friends.”

Sina Grace notes that Vincent was the very first fan of Burn the Orphanage, having seen Grace’s artwork for the series even before the title’s co-creator, Daniel Freedman. “I’m incredibly grateful that he produced an amazing pinup for the comic. More than that, I’m so glad that years later, when he tried to make a self-deprecating joke about how I probably threw the original away, I sent him a photo of it framed on my wall.”The printed pin-up for Burn the Orphanage, described in the preceding caption by Sina Grace.

His kind nature came through to everyone who knew him, notes Jennifer de Guzman, who worked alongside Vince during her tenure as Image’s public relations and marketing director. “I was getting a coffee at our local Peet’s when I noticed a photo of Vince on their wall, labeled ‘Customer of the Week,’ noting that he was always very patient and kind hearted. They kept that photo on the wall and had him as their Customer of the Week for several months after that.”

His “patient & kind-hearted” demeanor endeared Vincent to the staff at the Peet's Coffee location near Image Comics’ downtown Berkeley office, earning him “Customer of the Week” status for several months in a row.

Despite his long hours and demanding schedule at Image, Vincent always found time to create his own artwork, taking part in online drawing challenges, creating posters and promotional artwork for local nonprofit organizations, creating art for friends, filling sketchbooks at the corner coffee shop, or making mini-comics to sell and trade at conventions. “He was one of those people who loved to draw,” notes David Brothers. “He was fluent when it came to visuals, probably thanks in no small part to the fact that he was always drawing. Everyone I know who has a story about him drawing something for them tells it similarly, that he mulled it over and you could see his wheels turning, and then a little while later, he'd bless you with a finished piece that managed to be both unexpected and still exactly on point.”

Although he was quiet and could be almost painfully shy, Vincent made a point of attending every public artist gathering that he could, whether it was an cartoonist hangout at someone’s house, a Sketchcrawl tour of the city, a Cartoon Art Museum sketch-a-thon, or a kid’s birthday party where he’d been recruited to draw Pokémon or other popular characters. “Vince was the most outgoing introvert I’d ever met,” says longtime friend Wahab..

* This article was originally published here


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