BOOK REVIEW: Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness By Reinhard Kleist

BOOK REVIEW: Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness By Reinhard Kleist

It is almost fifteen years ago since Johnny Cash passed away aged 71. His global impact on music cannot be understated. One could even attribute superhero status to him. Why? After all only superheroes get graphic novels written about them. Wrong! In 2009 Reinhard Kleist published his graphic novel: Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness. XS Noize, courtesy of SelfMadeHero, was able to get an exclusive copy and scrutinise the graphic novel to see if it worthy of the numerous graphic novel awards it has received and how it fares as an atonement to the man in black himself: Johnny Cash.

The introduction begins with a deftly drawn mini, but nonetheless exhilarating action movie, offering an imaginative retelling (using Johnny’s lyrics of his classic song) Folsom Prison Blues. You are already enticed and ready to continue reading about the bass-baritone vocalist, who was not merely a musician; but also a storyteller. Whilst Kleist does retell Johnny’s life story chronologically, he avoids falling into the mundane trap of Johnny. R. Cash was born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. He was the fourth child to... Kleist begins in 1935, when the Cash family, under a New Deal initiative move from their home to work as cotton farmers. The family bonded and sang songs together to help with the monotonous and arduous work.

Reinhard delves into the special relationship Johnny had with his favourite older brother Jack who studied his Bible diligently hoping to become a preacher. Jack following an accident at a saw plant died at aged fifteen trying to make extra money to support the family. Johnny was just twelve at the time. Throughout Johnny’s life, Johnny would often ask himself; what Jack would do in a particular situation. Another aspect of Johnny’s childhood was much to the disapproval of his father Ray; his love of listening to music on the radio. Johnny was first introduced to the guitar by a crippled boy called Pete. Johnny was no prodigy; he struggled and lacked patience when learning to play the instrument that would define his career. Johnny’s first band, The Tennessee Three, despite being well groomed in black; all had limited range and skills.

Despite a plethora of barriers; Johnny Cash’s career would take off. His band would rename becoming Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two. This band would get many gigs supporting Elvis Presley. A definitive moment in his band's career was playing the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee. As a child, Johnny had grown up listening to country music stars playing on the radio playing at this venue, dreaming one day he would play there too. His touring would become increasingly extensive; playing up to three hundred gigs a year. This put a strain on his first marriage to Vivian Liberto and Johnny would become addicted to Benzedrine in order to try to cope with his touring demands.

Chapter two opens with another exhilarating action movie; probably one of the greatest westerns ever drawn by hand. This time Kleist uses Johnny’s lyrics to Don’t Take Your Guns to Town to tell the story of the ill-fated Billy, a song covered by many acclaimed artists including U2. Chapter 2 also wittily retells the story of Johnny’s creative relationship with Bob Dylan. On a more sour note, Kleist examines the darkness; about how things started to go bad for Johnny, from losing his voice, forcing him to cancel gigs; to hitting rock bottom. Support from June Carter, his parents and a vision from his brother Jack would help Johnny turn things around saving Johnny’s life, reputation and his career.

Kleist appropriately devoted a large section of his graphic novel to Johnny’s 1968 Folsom Prison gig alongside June Carter. This gig which saw Johnny play to inmates serving multiple life sentences would become a massive selling live album; rated the third best live album by Rolling Stone magazine. Unlike the film, Walk the Line, Reinhard does not allow the Johnny Cash story to end in 1968; after all, Johnny would live for another thirty-five years and record music until his final days. Kleist, again with good humour, explores the relationship the now veteran Johnny Cash had with producer Rick Rubin. With Rubin, Johnny would record a cover of Will Oldham’s Bonnie Prince Billy: I See a Darkness; the title Kleist gives to his graphic novel. Johnny would also record Nick Cave’s, The Mercy Seat and Nine Inch Nails cover, Hurt, to name a few. Johnny would record several albums with Rubin including a collection of Christian spiritual songs and hymns that Cash originally learned from his mother growing up.

Through his exceptional graphic art, Reinhard Kleist, with humour, passion, diligence as well as sadness and darkness eloquently and coherently tells the story of the life of Johnny Cash.

To find out more about this book, its author Reinhard Kleist and where to buy it from; please visit

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