The World Of Comics
Reinhard Kleist must be a one-off – a graphic novelist who specialises in biographies
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.