The World Of Comics

Rein­hard Kleist must be a one-off – a graphic nov­el­ist who spe­cialises in bi­ogra­phies

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

F rom Amer­i­can mu­sic leg­end Johnny Cash and Com­mu­nist Cuban leader Fidel Castro to Pol­ish Jewish boxer and Holo­caust sur­vivor Harry Haft, Rein­hard Kleist writes and draws com­pelling graphic bi­ogra­phies which re­veal the se­crets of ex­tra­or­di­nary 20th century lives. For the launch of The Boxer, his lat­est book trans­lated into English by SelfMadeHero, the Ger­man artist came from Berlin to the Goethe In­sti­tut in Lon­don and shared his fas­ci­na­tion with doc­u­ment­ing com­plex per­son­al­i­ties.

Comic He­roes: Johnny Cash: I See

A Dark­ness was your first bio­graph­i­cal graphic novel in 2006. Were you al­ready a fan?

Rein­hard Kleist: “I be­came a fan af­ter I started to re­search the book. Be­fore, I thought he was cool, but a bit old­fash­ioned. Af­ter­wards, I dis­cov­ered he was such an amaz­ing sto­ry­teller with his mu­sic, and that his life was so dra­matic and ex­cit­ing. If you lis­ten closely, you find a lot of his life in his mu­sic and you feel the pas­sion that comes from his heart.”

CH: Were you tempted to play down the con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of Cash’s life?

RK: “No, I think all of that be­longs to what

makes his mu­sic so unique. He wasn’t very kind to him­self in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy; he was very hon­est – some­thing you can also say about his mu­sic. As well as Cash’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, I used a lot of books, es­pe­cially The Beast In Me by Franz Dobler, one of the best books about Cash. I also watched a lot of doc­u­men­taries as I wanted to know how he moves and speaks. The film

The Man, His World And His Mu­sic from the ’60s, is an amaz­ingly good doc­u­men­tary – no com­men­tary, just the cam­era watch­ing him. I also had to write di­a­logue and I made up scenes, but I did that in a style that I thought suits the char­ac­ters. I want to give the reader some facts, but cre­ate an at­mos­phere as well, to feel what Cash was go­ing through.”

CH: How can the sound­less medium of comics rep­re­sent mu­sic con­vinc­ingly?

RK: “A comic for me is some­thing be­tween a book and a movie and it can do all the good things in both me­dia. If it is well done, you can even hear the sound of the mu­sic. My ap­proach for the Cash book was to tell some of his songs as short sto­ries. I also drew a large sec­tion based on his con­cert in Fol­som Prison. The au­di­ence were long-term crim­i­nals and the at­mos­phere was very tense.”

CH: Fidel Castro was your next sub­ject – what was his ap­peal?

RK: “In 2008, I was asked by my Ger­man pub­lisher Carlsen to do a travel book about any coun­try I like. As there had been re­ports of Castro’s res­ig­na­tion, I chose Cuba and spent a month there. I had strong, ro­man­ti­cised im­ages of Cuba in my head but I wanted to find out what lies be­hind them. Is Cuba re­ally like Buena Vista So­cial Club? Is the revo­lu­tion re­ally do­ing any good for the people or have the ideas been cor­rupted?”

CH: So your trav­el­ogue led to the idea to make a bi­og­ra­phy of Castro?

RK: “Yes, I wanted to show how he be­came the per­son be­hind the beard, wear­ing this olive green uni­form. The prob­lem is how to show him when he is 14 years old. There were not many pho­tos but there was one when he was hunt­ing with his dog. The dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture is his long nose, di­rectly from the fore­head – it’s like a Greek statue. He was al­ways a rebel. When he was 12 he wanted to start an up­ris­ing of the work­ers at his fa­ther’s farm. That con­tin­ued through­out his ca­reer. At univer­sity in Ha­vana, he showed his fu­ture po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, he was very clever at us­ing people to be­come what he

wants. People fol­lowed him be­cause he had such a pres­ence.”

CH: You show the cor­rup­tion of the Cuban regime and why there was a need for revo­lu­tion…

RK: “Yes, Cuba has al­ways been a bat­tle­ground for big forces. Castro was the first to give back the Cuban people their pride. That is one big rea­son why the people still love him so much.” CH: Why did you bring in a nar­ra­tor?

RK: “Karl is like an al­ter ego. I wanted to show what was go­ing on dur­ing the revo­lu­tion, rather than show­ing Castro all the time. So when he signs a law, I want to show what hap­pens in the food store. I couldn’t have a nar­ra­tor who is Cuban, be­cause I’m a for­eigner. So I chose this young Ger­man jour­nal­ist, who ar­rives in 1958 full of naive enthusiasm. He sees the tri­umph of the revo­lu­tion and de­cides to stay and see what’s go­ing on. What usu­ally hap­pens with rev­o­lu­tions is that once the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have to take power, the whole thing gets cor­rupted. A lot of people re­signed and crit­i­cised Castro and his fol­low­ers. My char­ac­ter goes through this phase too, but he stays and stands be­hind his ideals.”

CH: How do you trans­late iconic mo­ments in his­tory into comics form?

RK: “I want to show how these ide­alised im­ages are born. I open with the story be­hind Al­berto Korda’s fa­mous photo of Che Gue­vara. Che ap­peared for only a few sec­onds, and Korda took just two shots. I also had a photo of the in­va­sion of the Bay Of Pigs but I was more in­ter­ested in what hap­pened af­ter­wards. I based it on a Cuban doc­u­men­tary, which shows Castro get­ting an­gry. He has a very ex­pres­sive face when he’s mak­ing speeches.” CH: How long did the Castro book take? RK: “It took me some months to write the story down, and the draw­ing and ink­ing took al­most a year. Which was quite quick for 300 pages – al­most a page a day. I had to be quick be­cause I had a tight dead­line. I didn’t know that the book would get big­ger and big­ger!” CH: Is Castro aware of your books? RK: “There was a man who came to get the Castro book signed in Mu­nich and he asked me to sign it to ‘Fidel’. He said he has con­tacts and could get a copy to him. So I had to make a draw­ing for Castro, my hands were re­ally shak­ing! Af­ter my sig­na­ture, I just wrote, ‘para Fidel’.”

CH: What sparked your in­ter­est in the Jewish boxer Harry Haft?

RK: “I dis­cov­ered the Ger­man edi­tion of his bi­og­ra­phy, writ­ten by his el­dest son Alan Scott Haft, when I was re­search­ing il­lus­tra­tions of the Holo­caust for a news­pa­per. At first I didn’t want to do it, be­cause Harry is not a very like­able per­son and be­cause it’s di­vided into two parts: first his sur­vival of the con­cen­tra­tion camps and then sec­ondly his box­ing ca­reer in Amer­ica. But I found the con­nec­tion be­tween these two parts, the love story be­tween Harry and Leah, teenage sweet­hearts sep­a­rated by the war.”

CH: Harry Haft died in 2007. How much help did you get from his son, Alan?

RK: “We had a very in­tense ex­change of emails and he sent me pho­tos of a tour he made in Poland and across Europe fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s foot­steps. He also sent me a pack­age full of amaz­ing orig­i­nal pho­tos. There’s no photo of Harry – or Hertzko in Pol­ish – from be­fore the war when he was kid. The ear­li­est pho­tos are from 1948. So I had to work out how to show him younger. I tried de­pict­ing him with this boxer’s nose but he didn’t have that as a child! I needed a sim­ple scheme

Harry fought other pris­on­ers know­ing the loser would die in the gas cham­bers

of his face so you recog­nise him in ev­ery panel. He had lots of curly hair but that was shaved off in the camp, so his nose be­comes an iden­ti­fier. The line of his eye­brows be­came the fea­ture that makes him recog­nis­able, it shows his en­er­getic and de­ter­mined char­ac­ter.”

CH: Did you be­lieve ev­ery­thing Harry said about him­self?

RK: “Not en­tirely. For 50 years Harry didn’t say a word to any­body and dur­ing this time mem­o­ries change and he prob­a­bly em­broi­dered his story to paint him­self in a bet­ter light. I doubted that a Mafia threat lay be­hind him los­ing his fight with Rocky Mar­ciano. I thought this guy who threat­ened him – Harry called him Frank Palermo – was too Mafioso to be true. But I found out he was real and he looked even bet­ter in re­al­ity. His nick­name was Blinky Palermo and there

are sto­ries that Mar­ciano’s en­tourage were fix­ing matches.”

CH: How did Harry start box­ing in the con­cen­tra­tion camps?

RK: “An SS of­fi­cer picked him as a boxer to en­ter­tain his fel­low Nazis. Harry fought against other pris­on­ers, know­ing the loser would die in the gas cham­ber but he wanted to sur­vive and to pro­tect his brother. Harry was called the ‘Fat Jew’ by other pris­on­ers, be­cause he was given enough to eat.”

CH: What drives Harry to leave Ger­many for Amer­ica?

RK: “He finds out that Leah moved there. Un­able to trace her, he de­cides to train for the first time as a pro­fes­sional boxer to get his name in the news­pa­pers so that Leah would con­tact him. As a Jewish sports­man, he fights with the Star of

David sewn on his shorts. His last fight against the cham­pion Rocky Mar­ciano was out of his league but he hoped Leah would hear about it. Harry de­scribed how dur­ing his bouts he had flash­backs to his fights in the camps, which I show through sub­jec­tive im­ages of the SS of­fi­cers’ dogs and his vic­tims.” CH: Who will be your next sub­ject?

RK: “I am writ­ing about Samia Yusuf Omar, a So­mali sportswoman. She ran the slow­est ever Olympics 200-me­tre sprint in Bei­jing. She was thin, in a baggy t-shirt, and when she came last, she got the big­gest ap­plause. Samia wanted to com­pete in the Lon­don Olympics, but war and cor­rup­tion in her home­land pre­vented her train­ing. She tried to reach Italy to train, but died on a boat cross­ing the Mediter­ranean. I re­ally ad­mire that she had such a strong will to fol­low her dream. Right now I’m pre­par­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Nick Cave. We met last year and he likes the idea. It’s in­ter­est­ing to have his in­put – he has com­pletely dif­fer­ent ideas.”

Castro and Cash: I See A Dark­ness are out now; The Boxer: The True Story of Holo­caust Sur­vivor Harry Haft is out on 29 April.

Above: Harry Haft fought his way out of the con­cen­tra­tion camps and into a ring with Rocky Mar­ciano.

Above: Strong sub­jects: the Man In Black and The Man In Green Army Fa­tigues.

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