Cash: I See a Darkness
“If you wanna save your soul from hell, cowboy, then change your ways today. Or you’ll ride with us through these endless skies, forever on the hunt for the Devil’s herd...” Ghost Riders in the Sky
Reinhard Kleist is, without a doubt, one of the bright new talents to emerge from the German comics scene in recent years – smaller than the great Franco-Belgian scene, but like the UK scene growing in quality and confidence with some great new creators, works and publishers. We were bowled over by his Johnny Cash biography when we glimpsed the original German pages several years back, and were delighted when the UK’s SelfMadeHero translated and published it in English (something they are still doing with some excellent European works, I am glad to say, this was pretty much the start of their expanding into translating European works as well as publishing great UK talent), and I pounced on it eagerly. With SMH having just published his most recent work, The Boxer (reviewed here by Colm), and with Kleist appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August (where he and Nick Hayes will be in conversation with yours truly – do come along!) it seemed like a good time to re-visit this, his first book with SMH, so I’ve gone over my original review from several years ago and expanded on it:
Anyone who’s listened to Cash’s music over the years knows his songs came out of his life; the darkness and the light were both there, he lived through them – he pretty much lived his songs in many ways. And that’s part of the point Kleist makes here, how so many people (including people like me who’d normally run a mile from anything remotely labelled C&W) bought into Cash because his singing is honest; you feel the raw emotion in his voice, in the early work and even in the final years (his cover of Hurt is immensely raw and powerful, for example, it could have been made for him to sing at that late age in his life, decades of emotion poured into a now much older, more gravely voice, better even than the original version). Cash’s songs often deal with loss and the struggles against the forces that can all too easily grind us all down in everyday life, and living those songs means he himself never had an easy life; Kleist selects segments of Johnny’s life, from the childhood days on their New Deal sponsored cotton farm, struggling to fight their way out of the Depression, singing to keep up their spirits during back-breaking labour under the hot sun, marrying too young, to his self destructive, amphetamine and booze fuelled behaviour touring on the road as his success grew, the love growing between Johnny and June Carter, that famous music gig at Folsom Prison (as wonderful as the classical music scene in the superb Shawshank film for depicting the moving power of music even in places usually bereft of hope).
Its a long work as comics go, over 200 pages, but even so there is no way it can pack in as much in depth and detail as a prose biography and Kleist wisely avoids the temptation to simply jam in as much of Johnny’s life as he can. Instead he opts for a roughly chronological approach, which takes in elements of the life that shaped Cash and his music, interspersed with comics interpretations of some of his songs. In fact the book itself opens with one of these songs being acted out – almost the equivalent of the dream sequence in a movie, where the protagonist drives a car with number plates reading ‘HELL’ through the streets of a gambling city where he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” While some of the song sequences have a slightly different style (often slightly lighter in tone) about them Kleist keeps the differences in style mostly small, so on a first reading it isn’t always obvious you’re in a song/dream segment and not an actual ‘proper’ biographical chapter, until the penny drops and you realise this is based on one of Cash’s songs. At first I thought this was a bit of a failing on the artist’s part, not more clearly differentiating between biographical and song-based chapters. But as I was drawn further and further into the book I changed my mind and decided that this was actually a good decision on Kleist’s part. As I said earlier you can’t really separate the man and his music; he sang life as he saw it and lived it, they were part of him and he’s in each of them, so although the song chapters are a sort of fantasy they are also, in their own fashion, biographical, the man and his music, combined, not separated, and clearly Kleist recognised this.
The art through most of the book is mostly in a suitably moody black and white with some grey tones for effect, although occasionally for the songs Kleist uses a more cartoony style (such as he uses for ‘A Boy Name Sue’) to interesting and enjoyable effect. There are a couple of much more distinctive exceptions to this, however: a section where June and his mother try to help Johnny kick his dependence on drugs that’s leading him down a dark highway is executed in negative: white lines on a black background, an eerie sight of a human nervous system arced in pain, a glowing ball emerging from within, darkness and light, black and white, drugs dependency and love all warring within his body in a couple of wordless but very powerful pages.
A song segment for The Ballad of Ira Hayes (Native American hero of the iconic flag-raising on Iwo Jima event, who suffered from his sudden, unwanted fame) is again in a totally different style, much more symbolic and cartoony (with ethnic overtones) but equally powerful and, given the contrast they make with the principally more regular style through the rest of the book their impact is much stronger. Similarly an elderly Cash sitting peacefully in the countryside sees a vision of spectral riders, the Ghost Riders in the Sky, damned for eternity, telling him how he can avoid their fate; the art here departing from the more realistic to a dark fantasy style, dripping in disturbing atmosphere, his fears of what the wrongs he has done in his life may do to his soul and if this now old man, nearing the end, has done enough to repent before his soul goes to final judgement.
“Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war
There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again
And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes” (the Ballad of Ira Hayes)
The music itself is normally presented in long, winding strips, reminiscent of the stretched out, long, narrow proto-speech bubble you see on say, nineteenth century cartoons, before the more common, modern speech bubble developed. Here Kleist uses speech bubbles for, well, speech, while reserving the long, thin ribbons for the songs. It’s a simple but hugely effective technique (in later works such as Castro Kleist has shown a genius for depicting sound, music and voice visually), giving the reader something of the feel of music, the way it doesn’t always seem to come from one source but moves through the air, reflecting, echoing, drifting, carried on the wind, almost an elemental force. It also allows Kleist to visually display something of the power of music; for me he achieves this most powerfully in the chapter on Folsom Prison, as the music drifts out seemingly on the wind, across the echoing, depressing halls, through the bars, the razor wire and out into the trees beyond, free, unfettered, carrying something of the soul with it even though the body cannot follow. It’s hard not to think of the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption and like that remarkable scene of modern film this too has a simple, elegant power to it about the ability of art to touch lives and reach through barriers, a short scene but powerful because a few panels are all we need to instinctively understand it at an emotional level.
Its a wonderful read; in fact I found after I’d finished it I had to go back and re-read it more slowly and enjoyed it even more on the second reading. I knew it would be one of those books I would feel the urge to return to again in later years and indeed I have just re-read it again now in preparation for talking with Kleist at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival (hope you can come along and watch us!) next month. It’s a story of a twentieth century icon, a man who bestrode pretty much all normal boundaries of genre to appeal to a far wider audience and who lead a remarkable life that could have ended early like so many other famous people who immolated themselves in their fame, but love and music offer him redemption again and again, even though the path would always be hard. It’s a story where the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are just supporting characters (let me say that again: Lewis, Elvis, Dylan – I mean come on! Great flawed gods of music). But mostly it’s about a man, the darkness he sees around him that almost swallows him, and the lights that lead him back out the edge of the darkness (although he’d never be completely free of it), the love of his mother, his lost brother, his wife June, his music. This made my best of the year list when it first came out; revisiting it years later I still find it a powerful, moving work, beautifully executed by one of our great European comics creators.