Books

The graphic novel gaze

Reinhard Kleist explains how he uses his work as a window to the world and its myriad complexities

German artist and graphic novelist, Reinhard Kleist’s work adds new dimensions to history, politics, biography and identity. Think vampires in Berlin (Berlinoir); a boxer mired in the recesses of Auschwitz (The Boxer); the dissection of singer Johnny Cash’s life through his music (Cash: I see a darkness); the story of sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar, both the saga of an exceptional young woman and a portrayal of contemporary migration.

His latest novel, released in 2017, titled Nick Cave: Mercy on Me is, as Cave himself says, “a complex, chilling and completely bizarre journey into Cave world.”

Kleist, who was here in the city as part of a series of events organised in association with the Goethe-Institut, talks about his work, what inspires it and how his own background shapes the stories he chooses to tell.

Edited extracts from an interview

Why did you choose Nick Cave as a subject to base your book on?

It was mostly because I liked his music, he is one of the best storytellers in the world of music.

I had the chance to propose the project to his management and they forwarded the proposal to Cave himself. He was very interested in the project as he is a comic book fan. From the beginning on, there was an exchange of ideas that was very useful.

Your book on Johnny Cash revealed a very gritty, dark side which was very unlike the way he was portrayed in the movie, Walk the Line.

The movie focusses more on Johnny Cash and his love story. I focussed more on his work and also the country music scene.

Also, I wanted to portray the Folsom Prison concert, so that is a major part of the book.

You have also a biography on Somalian runner Samia Yusuf Omar. How did you research her story since sources were so limited?

I tried to use every source I could get. In the case of Samia, she died and was mostly alone on her trip. So no one can say what really happened on her odyssey towards Europe. I talked to her sister and she was helpful.

I also spoke to other refugees, asking them, in their opinion, what could have happened here. And then, some of the refugees told me what happened to them. One person told me he had been kidnapped, for instance, and I put part of their story into Samia’s. I am not saying that everything I tell is 100% correct, but it could have happened.

Your parents were displaced after the Second World War. Did that sense of unbelonging, if I could call it that, carry into your own life?

Yes. Just a few weeks ago, I had a conversation about homeland: your own country and the place you are born. There are so many things connected to that — the dialect you speak, your connection with your neighbours, village...

My parents still live here. They met in a refugee camp at Cologne and settled next to Cologne, but they never had a connection to the people of that village.

I never grew up with the dialect of that area and I never had a feeling that this was home. I like visiting my parents, but I have no connection to that area.

That is reflected in my work. I don’t really have like a main theme. I have this inner urge to go to other places, I think.

Could you talk about your satirical series Berlinoir?

It is a political satire of Berlin: what the city would be like if designed by vampires.

We took that as a metaphor for all the political systems in the last 100 years in Berlin: the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime, the Communist party. The book ends with complete capitalism.

Your boxer, Harry Haft, doesn’t seem to be a very nice person…

Yeah, he was a mean old man. He always was a tough cookie, even as a child, and the war left very deep scars. I think, he must have felt betrayed in so many ways. He was betrayed by his childhood, he didn’t have one, you see. Then there was Leah, the girl he loved.

He found that she had survived the war and went to America to be with her. That is why he wanted to be a professional boxer; he wanted to have his name in the news, hoping that she would read it and make contact. She never did.

He married another woman and had kids. Then when he finally made contact with her, he realised that the reason he couldn’t find her, was because she had married someone else and changed her last name.

Also, she was very sick then and died soon after. This dramatic setup: only life can give you that, really. (laughs)

Can you talk a little about your artistic technique?

I am very traditional. I do everything on paper, using mostly ink, brushes and water colours.

This time, though, I tried something different with the Nick Cave book.

There is an artbook that comes along with the graphic novel and for the first time, I tried working with colours on a computer for this.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 6:59:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-graphic-novel-gaze/article22296258.ece

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