Thursday, May 13, 2010

Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness

In Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness, artist Reinhard Kleist did something rarely seen in biographies: he reigned in the bullshit and let the facts speak for themselves. Mostly.

The graphic novel recounts Cash's life in both broad strokes and angular symbolism. Cash's "stories" — his songs — make literal appearances in the book, adapted by Kleist at random intervals and usually without warning. The opening chapter recounts the back story of the song "Folsom Prison Blues," but you have to pay careful attention to the tale's details to even recognize what it is you're reading. It was fascinating to see these songs translated to a medium without sound and Kleist sufficiently shows how near and far the two mediums really are from each other.

But these songs are just a small part of the overall tale and are used sparingly to illustrate Cash's sometimes whimsical nature and darker impulses. Cash is shown discussing this gulf in her personality with such folks as Bob Dylan, Rick Rubin and his own family, none of whom really seem to understand him. It's likely the readers of this book will feel a closer kinship to its protagonist than the rest of the story's cast.

To Kleist's credit he steers clear of the common pitfall of dramatic biographies by not tying the subject's life into a narrative that never really existed. The thread that ties the story together is Cash's appearance at Folsom Prison and the impact it had on the life of one inmate. What you get from this book probably depends on how you choose to interpret this element of the story because, by its end, even Cash is baffled by its significance.

But the overall randomness of the story is as apt a metaphor for life as I've ever seen. I See a Darkness is a lengthy collection of random events without clear cause or effect. Kleist seeks depth without depending on superficial or melodramatic cliches and he finds it more often than not.

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