Comic Biographies The lives of others

The Boxer
The Boxer | Photo: © Reinhard Kleist

They should be part of every good book store. The International Literature Festival Berlin dedicates a special section to comic biographies. One of the most successful comic artists is Berlin-based author Reinahrd Kleist

The audience was special and, at first glance, didn’t have much to do with literature: 20 young men of different age – between 17 and 20 years old – wearing the grey prison uniform of the penal institution Tegel. They all gave Berlin-based author and comic artist Reinhard Kleist their undivided attention. On the agenda that day was “Cash,” Kleist’s comic biography about the famous American country singer. In 1968, Johnny Cash had given a legendary live performance in front of prisoners, (“Folsom Prison Blues”) and in 1969 released another performance as an album (“At San Quentin”).

The venue of this event, which took place within the frame of “The Lives of Others” – the official title of the festival’s special section on comics – was chosen carefully: the Berlin juvenile prison was also part of the International Literature Festival last year. During the reading, the prisoners already bombarded the comic artist with questions regarding biographical details of Cash’s performances – and the author’s technical work. It was an exciting encounter, as Kleist recalls: “I have to say, I never had such a great audience before. At least, the applause at the end was frenetic.”

Two more events about comic literature were part of the Berlin festival’s programme. Together with Reinhard Kleist, authors David Vandermeulen (Belgium) and Alfonso Zapico (Spain) on September 14, 2014 discussed the question of how much fiction is allowed in a drawn biography. According to Kleist, it is a balancing act: “For a public person like Fidel Castro, every step has been documented, but always from a different perspective. But it’s the artist’s freedom which part of the story he chooses. For some scenes, I even have to invent the dialogues completely.”

Comics as literary art form

After studying graphic art and design, Kleist moved to Berlin where he shared a backyard studio with other artists located in one of Berlin’s trendy hotspots, Prenzlauer Berg – and took his time to work on his travel sketches. An assigned trip to Cuba – after the resignation of Fidel Castro – deeply changed his way of working: for a travel diary, he had traveled to Cuba rather inexperienced – and saw himself confronted with a culture beyond the West German romanticism of the revolution. “I was torn between the questions: do I actually think it’s good what is happening here? Is it not actually really terrible? I came back and had to realize that I didn’t find any answers to these questions.”

It was a culture shock with positive side effects. “Unlike in Berlin, where nobody cares about what you are drawing on the side of the street, over there, you are permanently surrounded by people. And, of course, immediately start a conversation.” Kleist pays a lot of attention to seemingly minor details that often reveal more insight into the culture of a country. He takes a close look and captures atmospheric details in his works. “Like, for example, the old man in Cuba, who sits on the waterfront and looks out to the sea. Then you get to another level, which tells a story about the longing to be able to leave the country.”

Award-winning work

As comic author and illustrator, Reinhard Kleist has already received many awards: his comic biography about Cuban chief of state Fidel Castro – a book that spans no less than 288 pages – was named “Best German Comic” in 2011. This was followed by the Children's Literature Award in 2013, as well as the award for best historical comic in France for his picture story about the Jewish boxer Hertzko Haft. Haft had survived the concentration camps of the Nazis – and began to fight for the Allies after the war.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a high-profile national German newspaper, published his impressive life story as a serial novel – it became a great success with its readers. The English version of “The Boxer” is currently nominated as “Best Graphic Novel” for the highly remunerated Ignatz Award in the US – which is a double recognition for him as an artist. “For me, there is a connection between the pictorial aspects of comics, the experimental form and the story telling. And I have always harbored a passion for the story telling.”

Comics as universal language

The historic comic biographies by Reinhard Kleist are also in demand on an international level. “1914,” a book about the short life of Franz Marc, belongs to this list as well as his current comic strip on Somali sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar who broke records at the Olympic Games. His German publisher Carlssen sells the rights to his books worldwide: comics speak a universal language, says Kleist. They can also be utilized effectively when learning a foreign language. Once the picture story has been understood, the structure of a sentence and new vocabulary can be learned faster.

Kleist, who was born in 1970, is often traveling around the world by invitation of the Goethe-Institut. When he holds workshops, he can see firsthand what moves young people in the countries he visits. “When I was in Amman, I realized that very often, there was a sense of longing. Like in Jordan, for example, where they don’t really get out of the country. There just isn’t a rock concert taking place every weekend.”

Drawing as artistic performance

At the moment, Kleist is packing his suitcase and drawing materials for a six-week trip to Indonesia. He was invited by the country’s Goethe-Institut. The international literature festival in Bali in October offers courses and workshops with the Berlin artist. The peak will be a live performance: in front of an audience, Kleist will draw scenes from his comic biography “Cash” on a projector, while a band is playing songs of the legendary country musician.

“They actually managed to organize a Johnny Cash cover band in Bali.” For Reinhard Kleist, this performance will be a true challenge. “I am standing with them on stage, something I am not used to do. It will definitely be something of a nail-biter. If I am making a mistake, everybody will be able to see,” he says with a laugh. “That means that I have to fully concentrate on my work.”