So this German guy made a Johnny Cash graphic novel
and I guess it would be a punchline if it involved a gerbil and a bartender, but it doesn’t.
And, yes, there’s an office cleaning afoot, so I keep stumbling on things to mention by way of avoiding the dust or the folding of clothes or whatever else I should be up to.
My Johnny Cash fixation is regularly on display. His photograph is over the monitor of this computer. This does not mean I consider myself an expert, just that I appreciate the duality (and more) of his life, and his work.
Comics and such are hard for me to read, I should add that part. I read text quickly, too quickly when it’s densely written, and so I have to slow down when reading Silas House or Wendell Berry or Taylor Branch, stop myself from skimming. Since comics weren’t really around my house (nor was television, not until Watergate), I never really learned how to read them. One of my best friends growing up collected — still collects — and I spent no small amount of time at his house trying to make sense of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four.
Working in and around Seattle for many years, I ran up against no small number of folks working in comics, for that’s where Fantagraphics is based (see: Love & Rockets, R. Crumb, etc.). And most of the art directors from whom I stole what little I know about design could wax poetic on comic artists.
Me, I still can’t quite figure out how to take in a comic page. Something about the juxtaposition of words and images, even though I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to figure out how to do that on a newspaper or magazine page. Which is dominant? To what do I attend first? How is the story being told? Where’s the irony, the metaphor, and am I smart enough to notice it? How do you skim?
Point here being that I’m not a fit critic of the form, just a guy who knows a little about pretty things (but not The Pretty Things) and the man in black.
So rescued from the floor is a November release from Abrams Books called Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness, written and drawn by Reinhard Kleist, a Berlin resident whose previous books are titled Havanna, Lovecraft, and Amerika. Translated from the German.
I’m thinking woodblock, before I open it. German Expressionist. I’m expecting…I don’t know what I’m expecting. I’m figuring it will be a curious set of filters, this telling of Johnny Cash’s life.
First off, I don’t like the drawing. I have no idea what tradition Kleist comes from, but nothing about his work…sounds like Johnny Cash, nor the America in which he grew up. It’s soft when it should be crisp, rough when it should be precise…and off, just off.
It doesn’t help that the opening…the preface, I suppose…is a mythic telling of “Folsom Prison Blues,” as if Cash had shot a man in Reno just to see him die.
And the lettering…it’s too small, the wrong letterforms. Just off. As are the words themselves, which perhaps is a function of translation. Perhaps.
Mostly I don’t think Kleist gets it. I don’t think he gets Cash, or America, and I don’t think his telling of Cash’s life story has a shred of insight to it. Not a shade of gray. None of the subtlety with which life is lived. Just the lurid details, a kind of scrawling shorthand.
It’d have been more fun had he imagined Cash HAD shot a man in Reno just to see him die, had done time in Folsom, had been rescued by Merle Haggard, or not ended up a star, or something. Anything.