Ted Karanikolas Speaks With William Kuko on "wanderings: a tale of Tomomori"

Welcome back to another post on Fruit Of The Spirit. Recently Two Moth Press founder Ted Karanikolas sat down with poet/storyteller/playwright William Kuko to discuss William's epic comic series with art by the tattoo artist Tim Lehi. I'll get out of the way and let them do the talking. 


Edit: A couple of William's spoken word performance YouTube videos have been added to the bottom of this post. Apologies to William for neglecting to add these last week when this interview first went up. Enjoy everyone and peace! 

Ted Karanikolas- How are you doing, William? Can I call you that? What have you been up to today? I know that’s rapid-fire, but hey, we gotta start somewhere. 

William Kuko- I’m great. Fantastic. You can call me William, no problem. I went to temple service today to visit my friendly neighborhood monk.

T- Cool. Is he well?

W- He's well. He's always good.

T- What did he have to say?

W-Not much. It was a Benzaiten slash Fudo Myo-o fire ritual ceremony. It was cool. Lasted about an hour. A little fire ritual.

T- How long have you been going to the monk?

W- Years now. Ten years or longer. I used to go every week for meditation stuff. But since COVID, it's maybe once a month now.

T- How close is he?

W- Not at all physically. It's distance. He's in the woods. I’m in the city. Getting out to the woods helps me be me.

T-Well, you’re a creature of the metropolis. And, I know Buddhism forms a large part of your world view and it’s reflected thematically in your writing. Anything new coming out this or next year?

W- We have a comic that you may have heard about. Actually, the comic is still in process. But we have a teaser for the comic that has been printed. I’m very excited. When Tim [Lehi] finishes the rest of it, we'll have to figure out who it’ll be available through and where you can get it. All those details have to be worked out.

T- When you say a teaser? Are you talking 10 pages or a three-panel newspaper comic?

W- Not like a newspaper comic. All comic books came out of newspapers, to begin with, if you didn’t know, but mine is not a traditional comic book, per se, either. Mine doesn't follow the panel layout as Spider-Man would. But it is a comic in the sense that it's illustrated. It's roughly 30 pages, like the Fantastic Four, say. That's not how the end product will finish up. But that's how we've chosen currently to show it. What we have coming is a standalone teaser for what’s to follow.

T- So your teaser segues into a larger story arc? How long have you been working on this story? I know you've written other things. Your catalog dates to 2007.

W-I have six books in this story’s arc. And one extra that’s been in the limbo of my mind for just as long.

T- Gotcha. So your first published story, the first story in Preludes, was
The American Sphinx, from 2007?

W- That is correct. The American Sphinx was a bakeneko story. Bakenekos are these supernatural cats that started showing up in Japanese newspapers in the 18th century.

Oddly enough, in the 14th century, in The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, or Essays in Idleness, there was probably the earliest written mention of a nekomata, or a demon cat. I think it’s essay 89 if memory serves me correctly. This account of the nekomata leads to the bakaneko of the Tokugawa era almost four centuries later. 

I shaped my bakaneko story around Tomomori, a samurai warrior, from the Heike Monogatari, a 14th-century Japanese literary work about a 12-century Japanese battle that shaped the country’s history.

Interestingly, this story was traditionally sung by blind traveling minstrels. There's even a story about how one of the minstrels played for the army of the dead and had his ears cut off because they forgot to put protective spells on them. But that's beside the point.

T- Hold on. Let me interrupt for a second. So, I know Heike Monogatari as The Tale of the Heike. I also know how important it is to Japanese culture and history. But, how much exposure to this story do people have outside of Japan?

W- Good question. People around the world are familiar with it — knowingly or not —- because of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Star Wars. George Lucas got his Jedi from the guy who beats Tomomori in the Battle of Dan-no-ura in Heike Monogatari. The guy who won, Yoshitsune, was called, ”ushiwakamaru,” which means “young cowboy.”

You see, Yoshitsune’s father was killed by Kiyomori, who was Tomomori’s father. Kiyomori basically controlled Japan — there were only two samurai families: the Heike and the Genji, or the Minamoto and the Taira, respectively. They all have two names.
What happens after Yoshitsune’s father’s death is that Yoshitsune’s mother prostitutes herself to Kiyomori as a concubine to save her two boys, three, actually, but only two of them were historically important. The one, Yoritomo, gets sent to the barbarians in northern Japan — he ends up becoming the very first Shogun.

The second son, the more important one — Luke Skywalker-like — is Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune gets sent to a mountain temple to become a monk. He gets trained by these mystical creatures called tengu and learns how to fight. He becomes magical. Think Jedi, and you have Yoshitsune. The monk Yoshitsune practices Buddhism under says his fate has two paths: on one he can live to old age as an enlightened monk; the other is to become the greatest fighter Japan has ever seen and die at an early age.

T- Like Achilles.

W- Yes, exactly like Achilles. And when Yoshitsune goes to ponder this on the top of the mountain, his brother, Yoritomo, rises up against Kiyomori. Yoritomo gets defeated, but he doesn't die. He manages to survive. While he’s on the run, Yoshitsune realizes his brother needs his help. Yoshitsune leaves the monkhood and becomes the greatest word Japan’s ever seen. On the flip side of that, is Tomomori, Kyomori’s son, who’s the other side of Yoshitsune’s coin.

T- Ok. Hold on a sec. This is the other side of the historical story arc behind Preludes, Wanderings, and the bakaneko comic?

W- Yes. But hold on.

More on Tomomori. Tomomori also never loses a fight. He’s also the middle kid. So this middle kid thing is a problem in Japan because only the eldest gets anything when the father passes. So Yoshitsune and Yoritomo would not have taken Japan had Kiyomori stayed alive.

But Kiyomori dies a horrible death from a raging fever that cooks him alive. So awful was his death that when one of his nurses tried to cool him down at night, the nurse said that Lord Emma, Emma-ō, the Lord of Hell had come personally to collect his soul. He was right there to collect Kiyomori. Now, the reason they say this is because in order for Kiyomori to unify Japan…

T- Why was he supposed to unify Japan?

W- Ambition. Kiyomori realized that there was nothing stopping the samurai from running the country. The samurai were the warriors, the fighters. You see, the aristocracy, the emperor, everyone at this time lived off of the work of the samurai. Kiyomori thought, well, “Why do I have to placate these guys? I can just take all the titles, remove the Emperor and become the most powerful man in the world,” which is what he did.

Kiyomori even made his daughter marry the Emperor. She also had a son so that he could make his son the Emperor of Japan. For all this to happen, though, Kiyomori needed to eliminate an outside faction, that also happened to be an excellent group of fighters. That’s right, Yoshitsune’s group with the tengu.

When Yoshitsune was learning from the tengu in the forest, he was learning from the best. Those Buddhist monks were extremely good fighters. They fought like nobody else, and they were united.

Kiyomori just could not beat them. He couldn’t. The only way he was able to get rid of them, these Buddhistic monks, was by burning them all alive in their temples — all of them.

Once he completed his massacre, he got the fever that killed him. They say it was a curse of the Buddha, exacting his karmic revenge upon Kiyomori for the crimes that he’d perpetrated.

This then sets the stage now for the Minamoto to reconquer Japan and become the most powerful clan. You see, with Kiyomori not wanting to break with traditional Japanese ways, he rewards his eldest son with complete power over his clan, but his eldest son is not the best fighter.

In fact, his eldest son is pretty bad at everything he does. Tomomori is the good son, but he’s the middle son. Tomomori should have gotten all the power. If he had, we’d be reading a very different story today. You see, the eldest son loses every engagement for the Heike. This brings us to the Battle of Dan-no-ura against Yoshitsune and the Genji.

Tomomori finally is given the reins and sets the stage for an epic naval battle, something the Heike were known for. The water was their domain, from fighting to trade to everything else. But Yoshitsune? The Minamoto? Not at all. They were mountain fighters.

So this end-all-be-all fight at Dan-no-ura is on the water, and Tomomori is straight up winning the day. The Minamoto are having a hard time. They're losing men at an extraordinary rate. But then Yoshitsune comes up with the plan of all plans. He knows that even if they lose, they will have to battle the Heike on land later. He knows that won’t end well after sustained losses at sea.

He sends one of his rowers over to Tomomori’s right-hand man, and says, “If you turn and help us, we will save your family, your people, and we’ll reward you greatly.” The guy does it. After the betrayal, the battle turns for the Minamoto, and Tomomori realizes he’s going to be beaten.

Tomomori takes an anchor and ties it around himself. Then, he takes the emperor’s sword, and jewel, and he jumps with the anchor into Dan-no-ura, never to be seen again. No one ever found him or the sword. Tomomori commits the first act of seppuku in Japanese history.

Yoshitsune’s victory led to the tradition of the Shogun, who replaced the emperor as the most powerful entity in Japan. I mean, this sets the stage for Japan until its modern era.

T- It sounds like you’re gonna need more than 30 pages for your story.

W- I do. That’s why this teaser is a sort of sequel to the prequel and beyond for my other work. I’ve reincarnated Tomomori as an American Maine Coon.

T- So, he’s your bakaneko? You mentioned him earlier, but not explicitly this way.

W- That's right. The demon cat, the supernatural cat with two tails. The comic allows me to set the stage even further. In it, I have Emma-ō, the Lord of Hell, who's punishing Tomomori’s owner, the josei, and Tomomori for returning to the land of the living.

I'm not going to tell you what the arc of the story is, because that further develops in the comic and the stories that I've been writing for years now. The comic basically takes place at the end of the Preludes cycle. It acts as the transition from Preludes to wanderings.

T- Does the josei have any shared mythology with Emma-ō or is this something you’ve made new again?

W- She’s something I've made new again. The actual Jigoku, or hell courtesan, is an actual prostitute from the 18th century. She gains renown for wearing a kimono with scenes of hell and Emma-ō on it. At the time, she was courted by a Zen monk and gained enlightenment through this monk. I have interwoven her story with Tomomor’s story, through several reincarnations that allow me to move forward with this tale or cycle.

T- So you get to allude forward to the future from the past and have it all contained with your story arc?

W- That's right, it’s cyclical.

T- Cool. In these 30 pages, what else is there to look out for?

W- Well, it is a comic but it's kind of unlike any other comic that's been done before. You have the underground comics of the ‘60s, but nothing like this.

In the ‘60s there were like three comic book guys that are very famous. Robert Wilson. Greg Irons, who ended up becoming a tattooist, but don’t forget he was a comic book artist first. And Robert Crumb, the most well-known of them all. These guys changed comics from being about superheroes to something else that nobody had really seen before.

There were even earlier instances, too. You had EC comics in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It's caused a scare. With the censors with the government, the government thinking they were directing kids with this horror, murder mystery pulp stuff. But nothing has been based on history, on myth, like what I’m writing — though maybe you could say that Thor was.

T- What’s the name of the comic?

W- Right now we're just calling it wanderings: a tale of Tomomori.

T- Who’s doing the art?

W- Tim Lehi.

T- Tim Lehi? The tattoo artist? Cool. How does Tim’s tattooing fit your storytelling? 

W- Yeah. There's nothing more symbolic and ancient than tattooing. It's timeless. It's eternal. And it's something man has been doing since man's been man. And how and what Tim tattoos, specifically the Japanese bodysuit, he can tell stories on your body — old stories and new ones. The coolest thing, especially with Tim, because he understands the history and the mythology, is that he can take all the imagery and put it onto the printed page of the comic, which gives my story unprecedented depth.

T- Is there a connection between Japanese tattooing and The Tale of the Heike?

W- Yes. There is. Japanese tattooing has always blown away anybody who’s seen it. This even goes back to America’s relationship with Japan back to when Perry opened it up in the 1750s with the black ships. The Japanese thought, for some reason, Americans were very cultured and would find them barbaric. So, when Americans arrived in Japan, the Japanese government made it illegal for their citizens to be tattooed. No touching the natives.

What ends up happening is sailors are sailors. And sailors, especially American sailors, like tattooing and what they saw. They were engrossed by it. So they started getting tattooed by these Japanese tattooers and brought back fantastic work even what's his name? A famous poet. Wrote Hiawatha…

T- Longfellow.

W- That's it. Longfellow’s son went to Japan right after it opened and got tattooed by the most renowned tattooers in the world. He brought his stuff back as a suit basically — beautiful stuff when you see the pictures of it. The tattoo tradition has stayed rich within American culture from that time forward, and it’s kept evolving.

If you fast forward from Longfellow’s kid, look at Sailor Jerry. He who lived in Hawaii and saw Japanese tattoos and tried to recreate and replicate them with American stuff. But, the man who everyone needs to thank for bringing Japanese tattooing to America is [Ed] Hardy. He was the first American to go work in a traditional tattoo shop, and he brought back the stories and culture with him. Hardy wears the famous Tomori back suit. Yes, that’s right. There's a strong tradition of Tomomori in the tattoo world, and Ed’s responsible for this ingenuity.

T- So how’d you get Tim? How’d you know he was right?

W- Tim is a modern Ed. He's capable of drawing absolutely anything. And that's rare. There are a lot of tattooers out there who can tattoo extremely well. Some can also draw very well. But not everyone can do everything very well. Tim’s a master. And he's even earned the title of “master.” He's the right call for almost any type of artwork that you're looking for. Especially for someone like me who's trying to get a comic book out there about a reincarnated samurai cat samurai in modern-day America.

T- In Preludes, you had different art. And even for wanderings, you had different art, too, if memory serves. Tim did the cover for wanderings. But the rest of the art was done by Nathan Wood. So how did you? How did you manage to get Tim for the entirety of this comic? Did you have to retool your story? Was it collaborative?

W- Well, Nathan's amazing. Nathan did all the art for Preludes and wanderings. If I continue with the wanderings, in poetry, he’s perfect. Nathan provides a perfect view of the one shot. So it's all about perspective in how you think a reader is going to see something. How they're going to consume that piece of art that you've provided. For my poetry, the richness of the black and white that Nathan provides for the in-between one-shot pages is a perfect representation of what’s happening. The reader is focusing on the words, and he helps them do that. Nathan gives one beautiful moment — a zen-like moment that you look at, think about, and reflect on as you move with the story.

With Tim, though, Tim's art is beautiful and seamless. He can illustrate every aspect of a story, whether it’s animation or a comic book — he gets brings his own breath of beauty to everything, whether it’s still or animation.

Also, it’s about choosing the right artist for the right job. With Tim providing a cover, he provided movement, a great breath, and breadth to the cover, if you will. Nathan provides a different sort of breath and breadth. Nathan is incredible for the written word, but Tim hits all points for multimedia if that makes sense.

T- Cool. So, next question, and maybe one other after that. Then we can wrap it up. The next question is, how did you come across Tim?

W- I've known Tim for a long time. I grew up with Chris Trevino, aka Horimana. Chris and Tim were the best of friends in the early ‘90s and early 2000s. Tim, as fate would have it, moved to Portland. And I reside in Seattle. When I learned that Tim moved to Portland, I was like, “Oh, sweet, I can finally get tattooed by him. Right?” This is something I've been wanting forever, basically. And so I went down, got tattooed by him and we just kept talking and talking. The more we talked, the more I realized we could work together. And he was likewise interested. That’s how it started.

T- How many years ago was that?

W- I can't quite remember. Pre-COVID for sure.

T- So he worked with you after Preludes? Anything other than wanderings?

W- Well, I've written three plays about Texas history, about the birth of Texas. Tim did the cover for what ended up being the fourth play. I plan to do five Texas plays, but I've only done three. Tim’s done covers for all of them. And those are beautiful works too.

T- So, where, pre- and post-COVID, can you buy Preludes, the Texas plays, and wanderings?

W- Right now, you can get my work through one brick-and-mortar store here in Seattle, Mortlake & Company. It's a great store, Ouroborous Press runs out of it. It is one of the better bookstores we have, honestly. You're going to have to make an appointment to even go in there, because of Seattle’s COVID measures.

T- How soon do you think the next installment would come after this teaser?

W- Hopefully, we'll have the whole thing done by March of next year. I'm not sure how it's gonna get put out at this point, whether it’s going to be done independently or via something traditional. Either way, wanderings: A Tale of Tomomori is a great way of showing people what’s coming and maybe even giving them something to get inspired by and look forward to.

T- Is your back catalog still available?

W- Yes. And no. Some are sold out completely like wanderings. The first play, Houston, is pretty much sold out, too. Talk to Mortlake & Company to see what they have.

T- All right. Well, thank you, William. Thank you for your time. I look forward to the next installment, and I know lots of other folk are, too.


Wanderings - sequel to the prequel comic discussed in the interview

A journey thus begun
a journey He must finish.
A sense of familiarity
washed over Him,
ran through His memory.
He had a task at hand.
He had a task to complete.

The Walker - Short, short, short story

A mound of plastic bags that look much like trash might even be, are piled upon the street.  Behind the bags is an incredibly old man, hunched over, like Quasimodo, slowly shuffling his feet; by all accounts, it would appear that he was slowly walking, laboring, carrying one bag while leaving the rest behind. The bag itself seemed to house the weight of the world, as if he was now Atlas, but didn’t have the strength. 

Over the years this weight had pulled his shoulders forward, giving him his hunchback. His Sisyphus-like struggle, epic in its design, propels him forward, pushing him on with each careworn step.  As soon as he reaches the corner of an intersection, he stops. He slowly sets the bag on the pavement; it is like a weight has been released, and yet he can no longer stand up straight.  Then without another breath, he turns, just as slowly as his walking, and heads back to his collected plastic bag mountain. People pass by him, much quicker, determined, but none more determined than he, hardly anyone notices his struggle, or even cares; they think he is just some sort of weird old freak.  But he falters not in his laborious process, forever moving, forever struggling to get one bag to the other end of the block.

None but he knows what crime he is now paying penance for, but regardless his boulder is forever awaiting him at the end of each juncture.


A sound garden’s
Black hole sun experienced
Nirvana obtained.

Special thanks to William, Ted and Troy for making this interview happen. 

Til next time, gang...


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