German artist Reinhard Kleist’s award-winning biography of the Man in Black, “Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness,” is available now in English from Abrams ComicArts in the US and Self-Made Hero in the UK. Recounting the storied life Johnny Cash, who won 17 Grammy awards, multiple country music awards, and is a member of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, Kleist’s book follows the singer from his early childhood, through his famous concert at Folsom Prison, and his later-life American Recording sessions with producer Rick Rubin. It also features illustrated versions of some of Cash’s most well-known songs.
“My dad had one record,” Kleist said of his earliest memories of Cash. ” I still remember a picture of Johnny Cash somewhere in our house, and he was wearing black and I thought he was kind of cool.
“The first time I was really aware of listening to his music was when the American recordings came out a few years ago. Before that, I just knew a few songs like ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and things like that you would sometimes hear on the radio,” the artist said. “But with the American Recordings, I was really amazed by them because they were so intense.”
Kleist told CBR that the book originated not as a story about Johnny Cash, but from a discussion with his German publisher, Carlsen Verlag, about creating visual representations of music in comics. “Later on, I came across a biography of Johnny Cash because a friend of mine gave me the book by Franz Dobler [‘The Beast in Me’],” Kleist said. “I thought that a book about a country musician would not be so exciting. I thought, pff, I’ll read it, but it’s not the stuff that I’m looking for. But when I finished the book, I was absolutely convinced.”
The original concept developed with Carlsen Verlag still influenced the shape of “Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness,” as the book includes Kleist’s illustrations of several Cash songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and others. “The idea to illustrate some of his songs as short stories was the result of the first idea, the idea of making music visible in a comic book,” he said. “And also, at the end of the book, I have a long sequence where I’m telling the Folsom Prison concert, [which came from] an idea about how to show music as an adventure, something with tension and suspense in it. I think the Folsom Prison concert was one of the most exciting concerts in the history of music, so that was an idea I wanted to put into the book in a large sequence. I could have done like they did in the movie, where there’s just a short sequence of the concert, but I wanted to tell the whole story of the concert.”
Kleist tells the concert’s tale through the perspective of Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, an actual prisoner, to mirror the singer’s figurative cages. “Glen Sherley helped me a lot to tell the story in that he’s also involved in the story, he’s not somebody from the outside,” the author said. “He’s also concerned about the main theme of the book, which is freedom, to struggle to freedom. Not only the freedom to get out of prison, but your own prison that you build around yourself or other people build around you – the struggle Johnny Cash fought all his lifetime. Sometimes he was not very successful,” Kleist said.
The challenges of producing the biography of a musician like Johnny Cash includes the labyrinthine – and often pricey – process of obtaining permission to use lyrics from the artist’s songs. “I had a lot help from my publisher. They did a lot of research and bought all the rights to those songs so we could use the lines,” Kleist said. “I know that this is a very difficult business, because there is not a central agency and you have to do research for every song, and then you have to negotiate with the rights owners, how much it would cost. It was a lot of work, and I’m so happy my publisher did this for me because it would not have been possible to do this [alone]. We paid for almost every line!”
Kleist has previously tackled the life story of Elvis Presley, though that project took a different form than “I See a Darkness.” “Me and a friend, we wrote this text together, and then we separated the text into ten sections and we gave each section to a different comics artist. It’s like an anthology. You can read it as one story, but it has different styles,” Kleist said of the Presley book, which was written in German, has been translated into French, and will appear in Dutch next year.
Prior to this month’s English-language release in the US and UK, “Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness” has already won several awards, including the Frankfurt Book Fair Sondermann Prize and Germany’s top comics prize, the Max und Moritz Award. Kleist said that he took the greatest pride, though, in “some compliments I got from people, some that I know and some are unknown, who told me at the end of the book that they had tears in their eyes. Especially in the sequence when Glen Sherley and Johnny Cash shake hands at the end of the concert. They told me that they were very touched by this image, and that’s the greatest compliment an artist can get, I think, when he’s telling a story. Prizes and good sales are very good, too, but this is something really special.”