Walking The Line
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its tenth choice, Johnny Cash – I See a Darkness, by Reinhard Kleist, reviewed by contributing writer Joe Gordon…
Johnny Cash – I See a Darkness
Writer/ Artist: Reinhard Kleist
Publisher: Self Made Hero.
“I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since, I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone.”
(Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash)
Back in the early 2000s I was very excited about a new German comicker, Reinhard Kleist. A colleague had forwarded me an article on the new wave of German comics creators, as well as the great Anke Feuchtenberger, and how the German medium, small compared to the neighbouring, mighty Franco-Belgian bande dessinee scene, was producing new talent and works that could hold their head up with that powerhouse of comics creation. One of the young creators featured was Kleist, with excerpts from his graphic biography of the late, great Johnny Cash, published by Carlsen.
Even in the German article I was blown away by the power of the comics panels to convey the flavour of Cash, of the man, his life and his music. This needs to be translated, we wrote on the old Forbidden Planet Blog. And it was – picking up awards like the Max und Moritz, it was soon being translated by the likes of Dargaud in France and further afield. Dark Horse announced proudly that they had secured the English language rights and would be bringing this new talent to the Anglophone world.
And then… nothing. It seemed to vanish, the projected English version disappeared from DH’s schedule. And then in step the still new UK Indy, SelfMadeHero. At that point still finding their way – they were known for their excellent Manga Shakespeare range and now expanding their range. They secured the rights and Cash would be the first translated work they would publish. Which, to me, is another reason to hold this book in a special place, because since then SMH has gone on to do what so many of us have desperately wanted, to translate and publish in English some of the amazing comics works coming out of Europe, allowing English-language readers to enjoy some of that hugely rich seam of comics, something SMH continues to do to this day.
So much for the history, what of the book itself? Well, remember when I said how impressed I was even in the German language original, with how the art and the panels conveyed some of the flavour of Cash’s life, his music, the lightness and the dark inside him? Kleist eschews the normal approach of most biographies, instead opting for an approach which mixes the songs with Johnny’s life. The opening sees Cash as the Man in Black, driving a car with number plates reading “HELL” past gambling joints, to get out in a dark, back alley and gun down a sleazy gambler. Just as you are thinking, hold on, Johnny Cash never murdered anyone, you realise this is Folsom Prison Blues – “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
There are a number of interludes between the more traditional biographical scenes, which are artistic interpretations of some of Cash’s songs – they function almost like dream sequences in other narratives. But where the traditional approach to that kind of scene is to delineate the nature of it by drawing it in a different style, here they are not overly different stylistically from the main chronological narrative. At first I thought this was confusing, then I realised it was quite deliberate – Cash has lived the songs he sung, they are powerful not just because of the lyrics, or his distinctive voice, but because of the honesty of them. You feel these songs, deep inside, you feel he has walked those emotions, breathed them, fought through them. And you cannot untangle the man from his music, because they are all intertwined. This technique, of allowing the artwork to infuse the biography as much as the biographical details infuse the scenes of artistic creation, have been refined and re-used by Kleist several times, to great effect (his most recent graphic biography of Nick Cave – made with Cave’s blessing – is also highly recommended).
The black and white art style only varies a few times – a couple of songs take very different visual styles, such as his tribute to Ira Hayes (the Native American Marine, one of the men who raised the American flag in the immortalised image taken on battle-scarred Iwo Jima), or a moment when his own self-destructive impulses with anger and drugs reaches its crossroads: continue down the path of destruction and damnation, or take the help of his loved ones, of his mother, of June Carter. This sequence reverses the images into a sort of negative, white on black rather than black on white, with the eerie sight of a human nervous system, arced in pain, darkness and light battling within for his life, for his soul.
The music – from early scenes of boyhood, helping his parents in the back-breaking work of picking cotton as they struggle on their small farm, singing as they do, to the iconic concert in Folsom Prison – is shown differently from speech. The normal speech bubbles are for dialogue, but for the music and lyrics, a more stretched out form is used, reminiscent of those elongated, proto-speech bubbles you see in early 19th century cartooning. It stretches over and around the characters, moving through the air, conveying that sense that music and song moves differently from speech. It soars, it flies, like the spirit within. In the Folsom scene we see it rise above the band, above the incarcerated inmates and through the bars to freedom.
Even for those who have never been big fans of Cash’s music (really? Have you listened to some of it??) this is a powerful work, a beautiful take on art and artist ,and how their lives and their art cannot be separated, how they all feed back into each other to create their signature works. It’s the calling card of a then-new talent who has gone on to establish himself as one of the great graphic biographers, of a new-found confidence in German comics, moving out of the huge shadow of the Franco-Belgian BD scene, of the coming of age of an Indy British publisher, becoming more confident, more daring, more determined to find and translate and bring us comics works from other languages as well as the home-grown talent.
Johnny Cash – I See a Darkness is out now from Self Made Hero.
Here’s a link to the first nine of our 100 GNs too