March 9, 2010

Johnny Cash I See a Darkness

Written by Reinhard Kleist
Illustrated by Reinhard Kleist
Abrams

I'm not all that much for country music, but I really like Johnny Cash. As you might have noticed, I also like comic books. So when I heard the two had met in this book by Reinhard Kleist, I figured I'd give it a try.

Johnny Cash is a biography of the singer's life that starts in his early years and, like the movie Ray (about Ray Charles), focuses mostly on his early years when he had the most personal problems. It shows Cash's rise to fame, but also his battle with personal drug demons. In the end, he is almost destroyed, but Cash's faith (and the love of his family) saves him. After a triumphant return, we flash forward to the end of his life, as he does the American series of recordings.

I really wanted to like this book, but I think it's missing something. Kleist provides the story in sections, but they're too disjointed for my taste. I think the problem is that he's trying to tackle too much in a relatively short amount of room. He starts out the book by linking Cash to the prisoner Glen Shirley but the payoff for this just drifts off as Shirley is written out of the narrative with a notation of his death. Other stars weave in and out of the story, like Elvis or Bob Dylan, but the context is missing. Cash's first wife only shows up to be a harpy, compared to June Carter's patient saint.

In addition, there are illustrated version of his songs, which are the highlight of the book but take even more space that could have been used for telling a linear story. As a result, it's hard to get a handle on what is going on. The book skips and jumps without linking passages, focusing on the events that Kleist wishes to portray. I understand that no work of this kind would be able to show note for note detail, but I prefer my biographies to flow better than this one does.

The Johnny Cash we see in this book is a man who, from an early age, was headed for a fall. Kleist works hard to use events from Cash's life to show this. From not picking cotton as well as the rest of his family to picking fights in the army to being a poor salesman, we see a Cash who's so rash he marries without thinking and then goes off to be a musician, also without thinking.

As he gets more popular, he turns to drugs in order to keep his life going. Kleist picks increasingly worrying disasters from the drugs until reaching the climax. Once redeemed, Cash doesn't seem to be interesting to Kleist and the book soon ends.

That's an approach that leaves a lot of holes. We never get to see the conflict between Cash's religious convictions and the clear violation of his mores that the drugs and dalliance with Carter represent. Cash's treatment of his first wife was probably awful, but we can't really tell, in the building up of how good June Carter is. What about the press's reaction to Cash's antics? The media is almost completely absent from the book, a stunning omission.

I get the sense that Kleist wanted this book to be a story of a man's fall and his redemption, but it lacks something in the set up. The religious experience Cash has in the cave is supposed to be the big moment, but because we didn't get a lot of religion in the course of the book, it just wasn't as powerful as it could have been, at least for me. Plus, after Cash decides to clean up, he credits his mother and Carter, but oddly, not God. I wonder if maybe Kleist was uncomfortable with the idea of a religious conversion?

Regardless, the change just didn't play well for me, and I couldn't find a way to tie it to Shirley, the other point Kleist is working on through the book. For Cash, music poisons him. In Shirley's case, it saves him, at least for a while. If he's going for an ironic connection, I just didn't see it.

Visually, this book is quite good. I love the interpretation of Cash standards like "A Boy Named Sue" and his "Ghost Riders in the Sky" that closes the book is extremely striking. Cash looks increasingly worse as his drug addiction progresses, and the paranoid looks we see from him convey the action very well. Kleist also keeps the panels varied and uses all sorts of camera angles to keep the drama and tension up. The portraits at the end of the book are some of the best material within the graphic novel. There's a lot of hard looks and expressive eyes from those who enter and leave Cash's orbit. I liked Kleist's artwork a lot, and would be happy to see more of it in the future.

Johnny Cash has more flaws than I was expecting, as Kleist tailors the material he uses to fit the story he wishes to tell. Unfortunately, I didn't think he set things up to make the conclusion work, and I get nervous when anyone cherry picks parts of a real person's life in a biography. There's some great visuals, but overall, the book feels more fictional than factual. When you bill yourself as a biography, you need to present the whole story. As a result, I don't think I can recommend this book to others, except for those who really like Johnny Cash.