Graphic Novel

Comical and morbid tales – Reinhard Kleist

Reinhard Kleist received the coveted Max-und-Moritz prize at the Erlangen Comic Salon for his debut, Lovecraft (1994), which he devised and created during his art and design course. The jury was immediately gripped by the fantastic, sinister story about a comic artist who is confronted by supernatural events during his work on the biography of the American horror writer. The polished page architecture with which Kleist stages his artistic comic images did the rest. It appeared that a new star of the German comic scene had been born. Yet, whilst critics and comic experts gave his work the highest praise, his publications would prove to be too unwieldy and unconventional for a lot of potential purchasers. Things have changed fundamentally in the meantime.

Kleist drew inspiration for both the contents and the expressive formal design of his comics in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and Oscar Wilde. He amalgamated Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Barker’s Human Remains for his next album Dorian (1996). In his Das Grauen im Gemäuer (2002), he uses unparalleled black and white images to interpret short stories by Lovecraft.

Kleist prefers to set his comical and morbid tales in apocalyptic urban environments. The backdrops to his Berlinoir series (created with Tobias O. Meissner) are based on scenes and locations from the films Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Third Man and Blade Runner. In this trilogy, Kleist projects a dark future vision of the city of Berlin, which is ruled by a bloodthirsty legion of vampires. Only a few rebels dare to resist the excesses of the tyrants and they lead a hopeless underground partisan war. Berlinoir is a pièce de résistance of the fantasy comic and at the same time a biting political parable on existing and past social events in the metropolis. From individual epochs of past centuries, Kleist generates a bewildering, retro-futuristic patchwork of contemporary history, in which aesthetic and political references positively abound, from the socialist workers’ movement, to fascism, DDR socialism and capitalism. Kleist’s utopian comics are a reaction to real events and draw a complex and revealing portrait of society.

A theme of Reinhard Kleist's work is the mythic world of the United States. In The Secrets of Coney Island (2007) the illustrator uses the eponymous amusement park, built at the turn of the last century, as a backdrop for his stories about the losers and outsiders of America. Following a devastating fire in the Thirties, Coney Island has remained a pitiful presence, its glamorous past appearing to be simultaneously present and absent in its shabby scenery. Kleist succeeds in capturing this unique atmosphere in three short stories - his ensemble of lovingly-portrayed off-beat characters include magicians, sword-swallowers and dwarves. Kleist does not put these people on show or present them like a sideshow compere, instead he looks at their fateful lives in a manner similar to David Lynch in his film The Elephant Man.

Kleist published a comic book biography CashI see Darkness (2006) in the same year that Walk the Line, the film about Johnny Cash, appeared in German cinemas. In the book the Berlin-based illustrator looked at an aspect of the legendary country singer that was of no commerical interest to the Hollywood love story, namely his much darker side. In expressive and cinematically-dynamic pictures Kleist tells the story of the ups and down of the man in black, of his successes and failures, caused by excessive drug and alcohol consumption. It was precisely this complexity that forged Cash's personality and gave him the energy to rebel against US politics and become active in supporting the rights of outlaws.

Kleist connects adventure, wanderlust, gambling and ruin to that revolutionary country Cuba and its long-standing charismatic political leader, Fidel Castro. Curiosity drove the comic book illustrator to the island republic for four weeks in March 2008. He wanted to form his own picture of the country. In sketches, illustrative paintings and comic episodes, Kleist was able to capture the voices of the streets of Havana as well as the living conditions of the people. Havanna – eine kubanische Reise (2008) is a biographical travelogue, shaped by the illustrator’s subjective impressions. Kleist himself is quite clear that he only gained a superficial insight into the culutre and society of Cuba. His drawings are not entirely free of clichees, but since his return he has changed his opinion about Cuba, in particular with reference to the social situation in Germany.

He continues his preoccupation with individual personalities in his work Der Boxer. Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (i.e. the boxer: the true story of Hertzko Haft / 2012). In his pictorial narrative, Kleist depicts the story of the Jewish boxer Hertzko Haft, who escaped the Holocaust only because he fought other fellow inmates to the death in an Auschwitz sub-camp, for the entertainment of the National Socialists. In cooperation with Haft’s son, Kleist transformed the father’s life story into a graphic narrative that subtly conveys the horror and develops a pull that hardly anyone can resist. The book, which first appeared as a serial in the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, has now been translated into several languages and has had great appeal abroad on account of its theme and format.

Kleist occasionally draws contributions for newspapers and magazines. His series Berliner Mythen began appearing in February 2012 in the Berlin city newspaper Zitty. The strips - in which Ozan, a Turkish taxi-driver, guides the reader through the episodes - depict stories from the city’s treasury of legends.

Matthias Schneider is a cultural scientist, freelance cultural journalist and curator of film programs and exhibitions about comics.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2013

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