It seems almost redundant to pay tribute to Johnny Cash after his passing in 2003. Everyone's said it, and everyone knows it: Johnny Cash was the fucking man--quintessentially American, old school country, and utterly badass. He lived a rock star life that would kill most men, and then came back in 1994 for a later career renaissance under producer Rick Rubin. He released four albums and a boxed set under the American Recordings masthead that were among the best work of his career. When he passed away, Rubin promised there would be more of Cash's final recordings. In 2006, American V came out to great acclaim. Finally, about three weeks ago, American VI: Ain't No Grave, the (supposed) final album of new material, hit stores. That makes this a fine time to review Reinhard Kleist's 2009 graphic novel biography, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness.
Johnny Cash's 1997 autobiography Cash proved compulsively readable, but credit that to the singer's voice and storytelling acumen. As a narrative chronology, it proved a bit disorganized. Cash starts at the beginning and then jumps all over the place with one anecdote after another--many of them entertaining (the endless trashing of hotel rooms and the near incineration of a national park), and others tragic (the childhood death of his older brother Jack, Cash's endless battle with drugs and alcohol). Kleist's graphic novel is a bit more organized in its approach, but it works from a formula that boils down Cash's wildly eventful life to a few key events. Kleist hits the familiar points and fleshes them out in greater detail than he could if he covered everything. He also intersperses some amazing vignettes that retell several of Cash's songs in comic form. At the book's start, we see Cash driving to Reno and drawing a gun on a rich, fat man about to take a prostitute into an alley. He, of course, shoots the man just to watch him die and promptly lands in Folsom Prison. Now, contrary to popular rumor, Cash never spent any extended time in the joint. But, he was constantly in trouble with the law and performed concerts at both Folsom and San Quentin. And, I See a Darkness follows the first vignette with the story of Glen Sherley, which Kleist interweaves through the book. Sherley was serving time at Folsom Prison for armed robbery. Upon hearing that Cash would perform, he recorded Greystone Chapel and persuaded the prison chaplain to take it to the Man in Black. Cash surprised Sherley by performing the song at the end of his set. The story begins with Cash's early life in rural Arkansas on a New Deal farm, leading to his brother Jack's death after an accident at the sawmill. The story continues through Cash's time in the Air Force, his marriage to Vivian Liberto, his rising success in music, the alcohol, the drugs, the arrests, his romance with June Carter, and his eventual redemption following his effort to die alone in a cave. After the concert at Folsom Prison in 1968, the narrative skips ahead to the 1990s, with an aged Cash alongside Rick Rubin during one of the American Recordings sessions. Cash concludes the story of Glen Sherley in flashback, and then briefly reflects on his life since the Folsom Prison concert--a couple of uneven stints at Columbia and Mercury, and through a glimpse of photos on his wall, the many people who had passed through his life by that point--including his wife, June. In the garden, Cash sees a vision drawn from one of his songs. Kleist leaves us with a lingering melancholy that reminds us that Cash died a saved man in every sense of the word--in the Christian sense, and that of one who could've easily ended up dead or in prison any number of times. Kleist leaves us feeling that, more than anything, Cash had survived his own life by that point.
In that regard, I See a Darkness proves a difficult and melancholy read. Most contemporary reflections on the singer's life are nothing if not celebratory. But, I See a Darkness takes a sadder tone that leaves us seeing Cash as an old man, seated alone in his garden--most of his friends dead, and only recording with the help of Rick Rubin. Kleist closes the book out making us feel relieved that Cash escaped the darkness that followed him all his life, but it doesn't convey the joy that most people feel when thinking about the man. In many ways, things were actually better for Cash in the last 10 years of his life than Kleist suggests. In 1994, the Man in Black promptly reminded everyone that he was the baddest motherfucker in music by recording with the guy who had produced Slayer, Danzig, and Public Enemy. American Recordings came out and the video for "Delia's Gone" was promptly banned from MTV. Apparently you can't sing about machine-gunning a woman while burying Kate Moss in a shallow grave. He went on to record three more albums with Rubin, enjoying a late career renaissance that turned a million hipsters into fans of "old school country." He died only a few months after June Carter Cash, right after his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" became a phenomenal hit. It's not like Cash spent his final years just staring into the abyss. In the months between his wife's death and his own, he continued to record--ultimately giving us the tracks on American V and VI. But, Kleist makes you feel sorry for Cash. Granted, by the time he passed away, he'd lost his wife, his health had failed, and he was blind. But, that's the story of the end of everyone's life. The fact that Cash continued to record until his death shows that, if nothing else, he went out fighting and doing what he loved.
Still, Kleist performs two great services to Cash with I See a Darkness. The illustrated vignettes of Cash's songs are brilliant. Kleist could've made a book with just those and it would've been a pretty amazing read. And, seeing Cash's life depicted in comic book form is a feat in and of itself. Kleist employs of whispy, broad strokes of black on white, reminiscent of Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole) and Craig Thompson (Blankets). It's as if Cash's world could be blown away by the wind at any moment. The episodic approach Kleist employs makes the singer's story feel abridged, but it's the best choice for the medium. A prose biography can run 700 pages without any problems. Comics have a higher page-to-story ratio by their very nature, and a thorough examination of Cash's life would be unreasonably long--an ongoing series in and of itself (any takers?).
Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness has won many awards in Germany, where Kleist first published it. It's definitely worth a read, though it retells episodes from Cash's life that most of us know. The Man in Black's extraordinary life has been told and retold in two autobiographies, a bunch of other books and documentaries, and the movie Walk the Line. Still, it's a first for comics, and Kleist does Cash's music a great service by retelling some of his best-known songs. It's just an unusual reflection on the man's last years that doesn't really show the blaze of glory in which he left us.
Rest in peace, Johnny. We all miss you.
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