“I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by the twang of the guitar at the beginning of “Folsom Prison Blues” is how Johnny Cash started many of his concerts. Reinhard Kleist, author/illustrator of Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness, begins his graphic biography of the late, great artist in the same manner.
In his clean, crisp, and simple black and white style, Kleist tells Cash’s early history through Folsom prison inmate Glen Sherley, who idolizes the musician. Sherley readily offers up Cash’s history, gathered from the yellow press, on the eve of Cash’s famous performance at the prison, to any that will listen to him jaw.
Interspersed with a straightforward biography, Kleist illustrates several interludes where songs Cash has performed are brought to life, beginning with “Folsom Prison Blues” and concluding with “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A particularly fun and riveting sequence is for “A Boy Named Sue,” which takes on the violence that is implied within the song, as well as the humor. In fact, much of the book delves deeply into the violence and sorrowful moments of the singer’s life.
Kleist’s illustrations are gorgeous, conveying movement and emotion without overpowering the overall layout. The choice to render his work in black, white and grey exemplifies and heightens the biography on a visual level, taking the work one step further by portraying the “Man in Black” in black ink.
Cash’s history is told from his birth in 1932 to his concert at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. It’s then that the story jumps through time to the early 2000s, while he records “I See a Darkness” with producer Rick Rubin. And where the book begins on a car driving into Reno, Nevada, it ends on Johnny, sitting alone in the woods, a man near his end.
Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness
by Reinhard Kleist
Abrams ComicArts, 2009