Graphic Novel

Rory MacLean meets Reinhard Kleist

Reinhard Kleist  © Reinhard Kleist
Reinhard Kleist  © Reinhard Kleist
I spent the summer holidays of my Canadian childhood reading comic books. Not Batman or The Beano which were too parochial for my taste – i.e. testosterone-pumping heroics in Gotham City and daft larks in the English Midlands – but rather The Iliad, Moby Dick and the Lord of the Rings.

In those days an inspirational American publisher named Albert Kanter produced a series called Classics Illustrated. Over thirty years he adapted 169 literary masterpieces into evocative graphic storybooks. Dickens, Dumas, Emily Bronte, Gogol and Goethe – I read them first as illustrated comics. Kanter’s objective was to bring intelligent literature to young people and his work remains the most noble in the history of illustrated children’s magazines.

Since the demise of Classics Illustrated in 1971, new gifted contemporary graphic storytellers – artists like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Posy Simmonds – began to write for adults. Now the energetic and likeable 40-year-old German graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist joins their ranks with the publication of two of his books in the UK.

‘I started drawing comic books when I was a kid,’ Kleist told me over tea in his studio on Kastanienallee in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. ‘I wanted to be a visual artist at the same time as telling a story. When I discovered the work of the English illustrator Dave McKean, I thought “Wow! I can do it!”. He - along with Kent Williams and Bill Sienkiewicz - was my inspiration.’

Kleist studied at Münster’s Fachhochschule für Grafik und Design, producing as his graduation work a biography of the American horror and science fiction writer H.P. Lovercraft.

‘I mixed together his biography with one of his own stories,’ Kleist explained with a gleam in his eye. The work impressed the German novelist Tobias Meißner who asked him, ‘What do you want to do together?’

‘I want vampires and Berlin,’ replied Kleist.

‘Then I’ll write the story for you,’ said the writer.

Berlinoir © Reinhard Kleist

 

The result was Berlinoir, a series of three remarkable graphic novels set in an imaginary Berlin – part-decadent-Weimar Republic, part-fascist dictatorship, part-East German prison – ruled by vampires. Gothic skyscrapers surround the Brandenburg Gate and vampires suck the blood of citizens. ‘It’s a satire of all political regimes,’ Kleist told me.

To date his two most mature books, now published in English by SelfMadeHero – an imprint of Metro Media - are biographies of Johnny Cash and Fidel Castro.

Johnny auf Hocker © Reinhard Kleist‘When I read Cash’s autobiography I realised that I’d waited all my life for this story,’ he said with a laugh. ‘It wasn’t about country music. It was punk! It was rock and roll!’

Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness is narrated by Glen Sherley, a country singer-songwriter who wrote the song Greystone Chapel for Cash while serving time for armed robbery in Folsom prison.

‘I didn’t want simply to reproduce Cash’s biography. I wanted to connect his life story and his music. During my research, I realised that Cash’s whole life was about imprisonment. He was either trying to get out of jail, or - more often - to escape from his own prison. It’s a story of sin and redemption.’

In Germany I See A Darkness was a huge commercial and critical success – the book has now been translated into seven languages – and Kleist followed it with a travel book on Havana.

Seite 104  © Reinhard Kleist‘My publisher asked me to choose a country,’ he told me. ‘I chose Cuba because Castro was ill.’ An exhibition of his Cuban drawings in Hamburg attracted wide media coverage. ‘A biography of a Cuban leader seemed the obvious next step. I considered Che Guevara but Castro had led a much more interesting life. The question was how to compress 80 years of political history into a comic?’ To help answer that question, Kleist collaborated with the respected historian Volker Skierka. ‘It was a close collaboration. Skierka is a very fine writer.’

Among Kleist’s other graphic works are a biography of Elvis Presley, short stories about the ‘lost’ Coney Island amusement park and a retake on Dorian Gray which morphs Oscar Wilde’s classic tale into Clive Barker’s Human Remains.

On Kleist’s drawing table were pens, inks and brushes. On the wall beside him were character sketches of emaciated prisoners and uniformed officers. His present project – which is published in 110 episodes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s literary supplement Feuilleton – tells the story of Hertzko Haft, a Polish Jew who was imprisoned at Jaworzno concentration camp near to Auschwitz. During the war the camp’s SS officers protected the strongest male prisoners for a murderous game. Every Sunday boxing matches were staged for the officers’ entertainment and winners awarded with food.

Reinhard Kleist © Paulus Ponizak‘The Feuilleton’s readers are used to amusing cartoons but Haft’s story isn’t funny. It is the opposite of funny. It’s very dark. I told the editor that I didn’t want to leave anything out and he assured me that the readers could cope.’ Kleist added, ‘What I like about Haft is that he’s not a victim. He’s a strong character, a fighter. He’s not a mouse.’

In years gone by Classics Illustrated introduced young readers like me to the writings of Dostoyevsky, Jules Verne and Erich Maria Remarque. Now a new generation of talented graphic storytellers like Reinhard Kleist are bringing lives and literature to readers through the pages of heart-breaking, educational and insightful comic masterpieces.

Rory MacLean
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Großbritannien
July 2011
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