Reviews: Red Right Hand – Kleist’s superb graphic biography of Nick Cave

Nick Cave – Mercy on Me,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style…

I’ve been a huge admirer of Reinhard Kleist’s work going right back the best part of a decade, before it was even translated into English, impressed with a German journal’s spread on his Johnny Cash graphic biography, I See a Darkness (reviewed here). I was delighted when SelfMadeHero published the English-language edition, their first European translation, if I recall correctly, and happily the first of many since. Over the years since then I’ve read several of Kleist’s books, all published by SelfMadeHero, and even had the pleasure of chatting to him for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And, like many of you, I suspect, I’ve been a Nick Cave fan for, well, most of my life. Singer, writer, poet, actor, an artist that doesn’t fit easily into any generic boxes, creator of works, some of which you can explain why you like, some of which, you can’t articulate, you just feel and know.

So finding out Reinhard’s new book was about Nick Cave? Oh yes, you better believe I’ve been more than eager to read this. I’ve been waiting months for it to arrive on my desk. And was it worth that wait? Oh yes. In fact I would say this is Kleist’s finest work since Cash: I See a Darkness.

Nick Cave seems like a perfect match for Kleist’s approach to graphic biography, much like Cash. And in fact some elements here – quite deliberately, I would think – echo parts of his approach to that earlier work on the Man in Black. Cash started with Johnny hunting down a man, shooting him, acting out “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. Nice Cave: Mercy on Me begins with a young man, stifled in his small home, running away to explore the big, wide world, but coming into a town where a dark-garbed man simply shoots him – strangers not welcome. The shooter resembles a certain Australian singer, but it’s fair to say the young, wounded man is also an avatar of Cave’s personality. Later on Cash will be referenced more directly, as an influence in Cave’s artistic evolution. It feels highly appropriate, two very different musicians, but both of them with much overlapping in common, both driven by inner demons as much as creativity, both with the urge to perform, both of them ultimately larger than their music, becoming cultural icons, crossing genre boundaries.

I referred to this as a graphic biography earlier; that isn’t quite correct, that’s not exactly how Reinhard brings us into Cave’s world. He doesn’t go for the normal approach of a prose biography, the simple, chronological narrative of birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood and their respective events and influences on later life, neatly tabulated. Nor should he – we have prose works for that sort of thing. What Kleist does is more delicate and intriguing and ultimately highly effective: he takes moments from different points in the musician’s life – from his youth in Australia, travelling to Britain, the time in Berlin, the desperate, sometimes self-harming, self-destructive push to be different, change, do something new, through to the modern day, throwing in a burning road through a Hellish landscape, a certain Bluesman from a certain crossroads and even the great particle accelerator in Geneva. Wide-ranging doesn’t begin to cover it, and the use of his own words, Cave’s own writing and Kleist’s artwork all serve to give a perspective only comics can offer.

The insights into parts of Cave’s life we see here intertwine with his work – his music and his writing and even nods to film work like 20,000 Days on Earth. It’s rarely easy to separate an artist from their work, and when it is an artist like Cave, that’s even more true: Kleist doesn’t even try, he understands that both his normal life (if there is such a thing, especially for Cave) and his art and his creative process are all blended at the molecular level, symbiotic, each a part of and informing the other. And so instead with references to his songs, his novels and more and moments from his life against those lyrics – or sometimes the life as part of those lyrics – give us a flavour of the man and his art. This isn’t a chronological exposition of a man’s life and career, it’s more of an attempt to allow us to experience some of his creative process.

There are so many wonderful touches here, Kleist’s art creating many different versions of Cave – not just the obvious ones of younger Cave, older Cave, but the fictional Cave, or the semi-fictional, or perhaps sometimes the totally imaginary, the real man and the avatars from his music and writing blending, interacting. The art goes from depicting the everyday reality – a cold, winter street in Berlin or London, a dive bar in a small Aussie town – to flights of creative imagination, scenes from his songs, or characters from his books and lyrics not just coming to life, but talking to Cave, to their creator, asking why he does what he does to his creations. There are simple but highly effective moments, such as being picked up by his love, Anita, perhaps the only one who can reach him, from an addiction clinic, the back seat of the taxi growing wider between them from panel to panel in a move that visually recalls Citizen Kane’s breakfast table scene, or Cave lost in space, sending a message back to home.

If you wrote a song about us, now, would it be a love song?

Yes, but love songs don’t always end well.”

Throughout it all is a sense of struggling, right from the childhood in a stultifying, boring, buttoned-down small town and the desperate, angry desire – need, really – to push against the norm, to kick it up, to change things, to evolve, mixed with frustration with himself at perceived lack of ability and direction and those around them (often in very self-destructive ways). During his time in Berlin – the Cold War, West Berlin, still divided – a musician friend tells him “if the wall wan’t there, then West Berlin would be as boring as the rest of West Germany.” It’s a remote island surrounded by a savage sea, the first to be overcome should the worst happen, and yet sometimes the edge of the volcano is where some kinds of artists need to dance, they need that sense of danger and urgency, they draw on that energy and channel. Kleist brings all of this over superbly.

This is a book I honestly can’t totally get over in terms of a review, this is, like Cave’s music, something that you can only explain so far, the rest, it just has to be experienced. Stick your best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on the stereo, then sit back and let yourself sink into this headtrip into the creative being of one of our most unique artists. This one will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie,

Nejib,

SelfMadeHero

It was the end of the Swinging Sixties. That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad, like a cold cup of tea. The nasty rain rattled tediously at my windowpane. I was waiting for my new tenants to show up and inhabit me.”

It’s 1969 and dawning into the early 1970s, and it feels like things are changing, socially, politically, artistically. A young couple have come to view a huge old mansion on the outskirts of London, a vast old property well outside their then fairly slim means, except that they intend to share it with a whole bunch of their artistic friends, almost like a bohemian commune. That couple comprises a very young David and Angie – David Jones, with a genuine hit under his belt (Space Oddity) but not yet broken through, not yet Bowie. The talent is there, the love of all sorts of music, the artistic sensibility, but something’s not quite clicked yet. And that’s what this book is about – not an exhaustive biography of the Thin White Duke, but a look at a crucial short period in which the artist who would become the master of reinvention first truly invented himself for the stage. And the worlds of music and arts were never the same again…

Interestingly Nejib avoids the normal biographical form of recreating known events in a person’s timeline and illustrating them one after another. This is telegraphed right from the start as we realise that we are seeing these artistic young people – and they are oh such bright, young things here – from the perspective of Haddon Hall itself, observing these strange, new, young people living in it, not put off like others by the “discreet decrepitude” of the old mansion but instead amused, delighted, charmed by its idiosyncrasies. It’s not long before they and a group of friends are sharing this huge home – at the house-warming party a long-haired David happily showing Marc Bolan around, the house so large they even have space to turn one big room into a rehearsal space. Every musician’s dream, surely, your own space in your own home to play and record and jam…

But when the Last Judgement comes around for pop stars, I shall willingly testify in favour of our two wild blokes, for behind their outsized egos hid two true loves of music. The could talk shop till they were blue in the face.”

There’s some tension between them, a little professional and artistic jealously perhaps, as they both struggle to make it, to stand out from the musical crowd and leave their mark, but mostly what comes across here is a camaraderie, a friendship, and a deep, deep shared love of music. That sense of warmth and the love of music in so many forms suffuses Haddon Hall. There are other events going on at the same time as the struggle to make it as a musician – relationships, children, family. There’s starting a family to think of, and David’s brother Terry is in a care home because of mental health issues, while David is one of the few people he can connect with.

There are some beautiful scenes, like the brothers settling down, just the two of them, like they did when they were younger, to play records together, Nejib delicately illustrating the almost ritualistic form of this, the choosing of the albums, slipping them out of the sleeve, needle on record, perusing sleeve notes, blissing out to good music shared with someone who means the world to you, your own personal little world for a blessed few moments. It’s a scene so many of us can empathise with because most of us have done the same with friends or siblings; it’s a blissful shared moment of music and art that can bond us emotionally with someone else forever so much that each time we hear a particular song on the radio we think on that moment, laid back in our room with them and the music playing and how for a few moments everything is just right (and how even in bad times later those moments come back to us and help us cope).

Those little, very personal moments counterbalance the larger moments in the evolution of David, as he reaches towards what will become Bowie. The BBC is showing the coverage of the first Moon landing, and there’s his Space Oddity being played to the nation’s television sets as one of the most remarkable feats in human history is finally achieved. There’s the need to focus more, to stop spreading himself about, to concentrate on this next album – perhaps his last chance to make it or else be dropped by his label (and this is an era where labels largely rule the roost, very different from today’s music scene, great if you have a contract and success, nightmare if you are a struggling musician trying to get in the door, no YouTube, SoundCloud or Twitter to build a rep with for the struggling newbie). There’s a tension in the air, like the pressure just before a thunderstorm, except here the prayer is for lightning to strike.

Nejib avoids going for a realistic look, sticking instead with a much more cartoony and loose style here (not even panel borders between scenes on the pages), using only a few colours per white page. It works stylistically with covering this story in a less traditional biographical manner (and face it, Bowie is a subject that deserves a non-traditional approach), although one slight problem is there are a few times where it takes a moment or two to work out who is who in some scenes! That’s not too often though and on reflection it may also be slightly deliberate, a visual way of referring to the androgyny of some of the styles of the period.

And there are some lovely moments worked into the art using that loose, cartoony style and limited colour palette, such as David and piano, all in blue, several scenes of working away hard, struggling knowing there is something there, not stopping for a break, pushing, frustrated, the litter of empty bottles and fag ends building up around him as he pushes onwards doggedly and… And then that wonderful moment when suddenly it clicks, the Muse flows, the colour of the figure changes from blue to green and from the piano erupts, a visual flowering of colourful music growing from his fingertips to the keys and out of the instrument to fill the house: it’s the birth of Life on Mars. There are several other scenes which capture that lightning in a bottle moment of creation beautifully, the real emotional jolt and deep satisfaction that comes with creation, be it music, painting, writing, that moment when it suddenly flows and you know you’ve got it. It only lasts a short time before we have to chase it again, but just for those moments it’s like communing with the gods …

This is a beautiful homage to one of the great musical and artistic influences of the last half century of pop culture, one many of us adored and one whose loss we felt deeply just last year. And here he is, on the cusp of it all, young, trying it all, reaching out for that future, among friends, family and the music. Nejib doesn’t exhaustively document like some biographies, instead crafting the style, the taste, the flavour of the era, of changes (pun intended) of zeitgeist and possibilities and magic in the air, if only you can grasp how to control and channel that magic, and how that magic is shared with the rest of us, incorporated into our own lives and moments (can you imagine going through this life without it?). Stick on some classic Bowie on your stereo, and then lie back with Nejib’s lovely book and just groove.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Rob Davis returns with the Can Opener’s Daughter

The Can Opener’s Daughter,

Rob Davis,

SelfMadeHero

can_openers_daughter_rob_davis_selfmadehero_cover

I thought boys were great. I wanted to punch every one of their cheeky little faces till they bled. Well, that’s what I thought I wanted to do to them.”

Here’s a book I have been eagerly waiting to get my ink-stained paws on, the follow-up to the frankly brilliant Motherless Oven (reviewed here by Richard) by Rob Davis. Where the first volume focused on Scarper Lee, the schoolboy whose Death Day was fast approaching, this book gives us some of the answers behind one of Scarper’s questions about the strange girl who arrived in his school then, with his friend Cas, turned their lives upside down – “who the hell is Vera Pike?” We start with a younger Vera, who like Scarper and everyone else in the previous book, has a mother and father that she made. In her case, as you may infer from the title, her dad is a can opener. Her mother? Her mother is a terrifying looking being, an incarnation of the Weather Clock (the very one that caused events like the rain of knives we saw in the previous book). She is also the Prime Minister. And she drinks a lot.

can_openers_daughter_rob_davis_selfmadehero_01

But not of the Bear Park, that strange and compelling mixture of the everyday British suburbia and the often disturbingly bizarre. No, they live in Grave Acre, clearly a much more upmarket place. And as the kids here don’t make their mums and dads, she isn’t allowed to let anyone know that the weather clock is her mother. And as we slowly come to realise, she may not even be the actual weather clock but another version who has challenged her for supremacy. And like many hungry for power she’s increasingly paranoid, using and abusing anyone around her for her own ends, happily bringing forward people’s Death Days if they anger her or could possibly be a threat. Even she can’t do that to her own daughter though, so she does the next best thing to infanticide – she ships her child off to a boarding school, the wonderfully named Saint Sylvia’s School of Bleak Prospects and Suicide, peopled by horrid posh girls like Fonella Bonelli-Magee. Of course they look down on the new child, especially as she only has “half” a name and, shudder, she doesn’t have a name-plate…

Ever the rebel, eh? Of course, everyone is a rebel when they’re young. Then they grow out of it. That’s because real change means taking power, and power makes monsters of us all. It requires that we do monstrous things.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the narrative though – this is a book to get lost in, and I really don’t want to risk any spoilers here ruining your experience of it. As with Motherless Oven the book is suffused with some remarkable imagery throughout – the strange, recursive artwork of the “immortals”, the people who invented death, hanging up in the Prime Minister’s residence. In fact there is so much delicious detail throughout this is a book you’re going to probably want to re-read pretty quickly – I read this just before Christmas and planned to get a review up in time to include this in my Best Of the Year list, but I had to go back and give it another, slower read to let more of the details – and the atmosphere – seep in (so I’ll doubtless include this in my 2017 Best Of list now).

can_openers_daughter_rob_davis_selfmadehero_03

The use of the school is clever, giving us a chance to learn more about this strange, familiar yet alien world through the odd lessons Vera is forced to sit through. It also gives Rob a chance to work in some St Trinian’s homages, which is no bad thing. There’s a lot more world-building going on here – as well as exploring some of Vera’s back-story and the events that lead up to her coming into contact with Cas and Scarper which we saw in Motherless Oven we really get much more of a sense of this reality Rob has conjured up, and a much deeper handle on Vera, why she is as she is, perhaps we even get to understand her more than she understands herself, and with that understanding also comes an inkling of subversion and change to how that world has been ordered up till now, just waiting to happen, perhaps already starting to happen…

There are disturbing scenes – ruthless enforced “suicides”, strange creatures in the woods (an almost Terry Gilliam-esque moment), the vile, monstrous, terrifying Stour Provost, the literally jagged mother, but also lots of humour, much of it gallows-dark or deligtfully absurd. There’s the eternal push-pull dynamic between parents and child, of social class, of youthful fire and rebellion (and that rebellion where you know you want to fight against.. Well, not exactly sure, but you know you need to do it and it makes you angry), of the hunger for power and control and answers – but they may be answers you don’t like and that power you so covet comes with a hard price…

can_openers_daughter_rob_davis_selfmadehero_02

The art is superb, from the cheeky smirk frequently found on Vera’s face to the varied designs of the mothers and fathers, with so many fine touches like the heavy black background for scenes in a chamber of horrors below the police station (home of the awful Stour Provost) that bleeds out a feeling of wrongness and oppression, the comical statue gods in the gardens, or the haunting paintings of the immortals that are endlessly recursive, images repeating and looping back again and again on themselves.

This is some of the best contemporary British comics has to offer – clever, compelling, immersive, brilliantly illustrated,  and it’s one of those books you will want to come back and re-read again and still find more details you didn’t spot before. Simply brilliant.

can_openers_daughter_rob_davis_selfmadehero_04

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,

SelfMadeHero

filmish_edward_ross_selfmadehero_cover

Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.

filmish_edward_ross_selfmadehero_01

Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.

filmish_edward_ross_selfmadehero_02

Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.

filmish_edward_ross_selfmadehero_05

Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.

filmish_edward_ross_selfmadehero_03

It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

American-Middle East relations throughout history: Best of Enemies Volume 1

Best Of Enemies Volume 1 1783 -1953 Hardcover,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Davide B,

SelfMadeHero

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_cover

During a war the kind of “evidence” people are looking for usually doesn’t exist.”

Our world, especially since the murderous events of 9-11, has been dominated by the relationship of the West to the “Middle East”, an often nebulous and catch-all terms applied to a wide geographical area and divergent peoples (although to be fair “the West” is a similarly catch-all term). And in particular modern international politics have been centred heavily on how the United States interacts with the Middle East, and the different ways the countries in that region interact with the US, some openly hostile, some allied (but always for a price of some sort), some can be a friend one day and a deadly enemy who must be fought to the death the next, as changes in administrations, ideologies and military and economic power (the two are often synonymous) dictate new policies and directions, decisions made in seats of government that will have huge ramifications for millions who really had little say in matters. Sometimes it’s a new oil refinery or rights to a naval base, sometimes it leads to all out war, and afterwards the shattered, pained aftermath of civil strife, more civilian deaths and desperate refugees trying to flee events they had no hand in, while in the West innocents are threatened by terrorism and fellow citizens become suspect simply because of their religion.

It feels like a very modern problem, this “clash of civilisations” as it has been called, or also “the clash of ignorance” as the great Edward Said noted. Of course it is not and those who read history will doubtless already be aware that there is a long and quite utterly sordid and immoral history lying behind those current events and situations. In fact there is much, much more than most of us probably know. I’ve read a lot of history over the years, and while there were elements in here that I had some familiarity with – going right back to WWI and Lawrence of Arabia, and British, French, Russian and Turk machinations over the region for strategic and resource control – Jean-Pierre Filiu (former French diplomat, historian and academic) and the award-winning David B’s collaboration here exposes so much history, from the European-facing shores of North Africa (now staging post for waves of desperate refugees and god knows how many drowned on the way, these lands have always been a focal point for events) to the Persian Gulf to Israel and Lebanon. It’s a hugely complex jigsaw over overlapping interests from various powers, from religious fundamentalist leader to greedy corporations with the ears of their governments and competing military and economic interests.

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_03

But it’s a complex subject which Filiu and David B make far, far for accessible using the comics medium (at a recent talk at the Edinburgh Book Fest Filiu mentioned in some of his university classes he also uses comics, such as Sacco’s Footnotes in Palestine, to teach his students about the history of the region). Filiu is a very thoughtful man with vast first-hand experience as well as academic learning on this subject, while it will surprise no-one who knows of David B’s work to learn that he creates some remarkably powerful and efficient imagery to communicate this subject which sprawls across decades and nations – from the devilish grin on the incredibly disturbing-looking US spook-master Kermit Roosevelt (cousin of the famous wartime president) gleefully working in shadows to change regimes (his techniques would later be applied by the US to regimes they disliked in South America too),  to stylised images of cannons with legs to denote military force (or cannon with hands coming out holding money bags or diplomatic scrolls to denote negotiation), while leaders, Arabic and Western, sprout oil pipes for arms or Islamist terrorist and US soldiers alike are shown as human bodies clutching guns, but their faces are just huge, projecting cannon barrels.

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_05

David B’s imagery is quite astonishing here, sometimes referencing older, period art styles (a few panels almost like woodcuts) and varies from realistic to surrealist images, and he plays often with perspective and sizes, powerful figures, be it a Western Admiral or an Eastern Pasha, shown as huge compared to the figures of those he is dealing with, or the giant turbans of 17th and 18th century pashas morphing to become a globe around which all the various parties orbit, or an image of the Grand Turk, his curling moustaches now curving blades of Turkish scimitars, diplomats are shown literally bending so far over to meet their aims that they are facing backwards, while others lie with mouths agape as a warren of oil pipes criss-cross the page, terminating above their open mouths which suckle greedily and insatiably on the oil. The imagery is quite magnificent, this is no simple depiction of events, this is the artist doing what a truly great comics artist does best, working with the author’s words but in a way which doesn’t merely illustrate or compliment, it enhances, tells a whole other aspect of the tale in its own right, making both words and pictures far more together than the sum of their parts. This is the work of a master, and I can see why Filiu mentioned that there will be a gap between the second book and the third, as the process is so exhausting to the artist.

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_04

Space here does not allow for me to go heavily into the details of a century and a half or so of US interactions with the region (in which they actually coin the term “Middle East”) and besides, as I’ve already inferred, it’s far too complex to sum up in a review. Suffice to say it is a fascinating, compelling slice of history, laid out in an accessible, highly intelligent manner (and still retaining at certain points a playful sense of humour here and there to leaven the weight of other events), going right back to the newly independent US in the late 1700s encountering the infamous “Barbary” pirates that the European navies had long been battling (indeed the great Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was once captured and forced to be a galley slave for these pirates who used the mask of religious jihadism to cover acts which were more for their own material gain than any true religious observance – not unlike many today misusing religions as supposed justification for attacking one group or another).

It is just as dangerous to take action as it is to do nothing. There are thing we know and we know we know them. These are Known Knowns. There are also things we know we don’t know. These are Known Unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. What does this tell us? That the world we live in is vast and difficult, a complicated world where denial and manipulation are common currency.” Enkidu and Gilgamesh speaking Bush and Rumsfeld’s words – astonishing that anyone who speaks such gibberish could be taken seriously and allowed to make important decisions…

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_01

And the opening prologue is a wonderfully cheeky delight, taking the oldest written story we humans have, the great Epic of Gilgamesh, born out of those same lands we’ve so recently bombed to dust (the cradles of human civilisation, no less), but reworks that great tale that has been retold for four thousand years around the world, inserting actual speeches by George W Bush and Rumsfeld into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to justify their warlike raids on neighbouring, resource-rich lands. This isn’t just history repeating itself (and repeating and repeating…), it’s myth and folklore and culture and history and the same mistakes over four millennia, and we still don’t seem to be learning.

best_of_enemies_volume_1_filiu_David_B_selfmadehero_02

An image of an ancient Sumerian stele unearthed in Iraq (now in the Louvre) depicts a pyramid made of the bodies of enemies, piled atop each other, then cuts to the infamous human pyramid of masked prisoners US soldiers arranged in Abu Ghraib for their own amusement. The ancient stele is called “the stele of the vultures”, the modern image from Abu Ghrain “a stele of the vultures for our century”. For anyone who admires the way in which comics can open up such complex subjects, and who admire world-class comics art, this is a must read. And for the simple fact it puts in context so much of what has shaped our troubled, modern world, it is also a book everyone should read and then sit back and consider. A modern classic.

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

the boxer reinhard kleist selfmadehero cover

One day, I’ll tell you everything.

Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.

the boxer reinhard kleist selfmadehero 02

Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.

But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:

the-boxer-reinhard-kleist-selfmadehero-02 (1)

We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”

But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.

After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…

the boxer reinhard kleist selfmadehero 03

It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.

the boxer reinhard kleist selfmadehero 01

"Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…"

Cash: I See a Darkness

Reinhard Kleist

Self Made Hero

Cash I See a Darkness Reinhard Kleist

If you wanna save your soul from hell, cowboy, then change your ways today. Or you’ll ride with us through these endless skies, forever on the hunt for the Devil’s herd...” Ghost Riders in the Sky

To say award-winning German comics creator Reinhard Kleist’s graphic biography of the late, great Johnny Cash arrived with a fair weight of expectation – mixed with anticipation – on my part is an understatement. Those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a good while may recall that we first talked about this work nearly two years ago when the original made a big splash in Germany. In fact it sold out its original print run from Carlsen and among the awards it picked up was the prestigious Max und Moritz, before going on to be picked up and translated into other languages by publishers like Dargaud in France and an English language version was apparently on the cards from Dark Horse. Since many of us were eager to read it in English we were pretty happy at this, but then it went quiet and seemed to vanish off the radar until Blighty’s Self Made Hero stepped forward. Home of the Manga Shakespeare and some fine literary adaptations we’ve been very much enjoying this seemed like quite a departure for them. Was it worth the wait? Was it worth the effort? Oh yeah. It was.

Kleist Cash I See a Darkness cotton farming

(The Cash family, including young Johnny, singing in the cotton fields)

Anyone who’s listened to Cash’s music over the years knows his songs came out of his life; the darkness and the light were both there, he lived through them, he pretty much lived his songs. And that’s part of the point Kleist makes here, how so many people (including people like me who’d normally run a mile from anything remotely labelled C&W) bought into Cash because his singing is honest; you feel the raw emotion in his voice, in the early work and even in the final years (his cover of Hurt is immensely raw and powerful, for example, it could have been made for him to sing at that age in his life).

But since Cash’s songs often deal with loss and the struggles against the forces that can all too easily grind us all down in everyday life, living those songs means he himself never had an easy life and Kleist selects segments of Johnny’s life, from the childhood days on their New Deal sponsored cotton farm, struggling to fight their way out of the Depression, singing to keep up their spirits during back-breaking labour, marrying too young, his self destructive, amphetamine and booze fuelled behaviour touring on the road as his success grew, the love between Johnny and June Carter, the famous music gig at Folsom Prison.

Johnny Cash Folsom Prison

(Folsom Prison; no fancy sets or theatre, just Johnny, June and the boys in the band in front of hundreds of hardened prison inmates; a gig that’s passed into musical legend)

Its a long work as comics go, over 200 pages, but even so there is no way it can pack in as much in depth detail as a prose biography and Kleist wisely avoids the temptation to simply jam in as much of Johnny’s life as he can. Instead he opts for a roughly chronological approach which takes in elements of the life that shaped Cash and his music, interspersed with comics interpretations of of some of his songs. In fact the book itself opens with one of these songs being acted out – almost the equivalent of the dream sequence in a movie, where the protagonist drives a car with number plates reading ‘HELL’ through the streets of a gambling city where he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” While some of the song sequences have a slightly different style about them Kleist keeps the differences in style mostly small so on a first reading it isn’t always obvious you’re in a song/dream segment and not an actual ‘proper’ biographical chapter, until the penny drops and you realise this is based on one of Cash’s songs.

At first I thought this was a bit of a failing on the artist’s part, not more clearly differentiating between biographical and song-based chapters. But as I was drawn further and further into the book I changed my mind and decided that this was actually a good decision on Kleist’s part; as I said earlier you can’t really separate the man and his music; he sang life as he saw it and lived it, they were part of him and he’s in each of them, so although the song chapters are a sort of fantasy they are also, in their own fashion, biographical.

The art through most of the book, both the biographical and the interpretations of the songs, is mostly in a suitably moody black and white with some gray tones for effect, although occasionally for the songs Kleist uses a more cartoony style (such as he uses for ‘A Boy Name Sue’). There are a couple of distinctive exceptions to this, however, a section where June and his mother try to help Johnny kick his dependence on drugs that’s leading him down a dark highway, executed in negative: white lines on a black background, an eerie sight of a human nervous system arced in pain, a glowing ball emerging from within, darkness and light, black and white, drugs dependency and love all warring within his body in a couple of wordless but very powerful pages. A song segment for The Ballad of Ira Hayes is again in a totally different style, much more symbolic and cartoony but equally powerful and, given the contrast they make with the principally more regular style through the rest of the book their impact is much stronger.

Johnny Cash Ballad Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes
” (the Ballad of Ira Hayes)

The music itself is normally presented in long, winding strips, reminiscent of the stretched out, long, narrow proto-speech bubble you see on say, 19th century cartoons, before the more common, modern speech bubble developed. Here Kleist uses speech bubbles for, well, speech, the long, thin ribbons for the songs. Its simple but very effective, giving the reader something of the feel of music, the way it doesn’t always seem to come from one source but moves through the air, reflecting, echoing, drifting, carried on the wind, almost an elemental force. It also allows Kleist to visually display something of the power of music; for me he achieves this most powerfully in the chapter on Folsom Prison, as the music drifts out seemingly on the wind, across the echoing, depressing halls, through the bars, the razor wire and out into the trees beyond. Its hard not to think of the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption and like that remarkable scene of modern film this too has a simple, elegant power to it about the ability of art to touch lives and reach through barriers.

Johnny Cash Bob Dylan

(Cash and Dylan jamming in a studio; how much would you love to have been in that room??)

Its a wonderful read; in fact I found after I’d finish I had to go back and re-read it more slowly and enjoyed it even more on the second reading and I know its going to be one of those special books that I go back to every so often and read once more. Its a story of a 20th century icon, a man who bestrode pretty much all normal boundaries of genre to appeal to a far wider audience and a remarkable life. Its a story where the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are just supporting characters (let me say that again: Lewis, Elvis, Dylan – I mean come on! Great flawed gods of music). But mostly its about a man, the darkness he sees around him that almost swallows him and the lights that lead him back out the edge of the darkness (although he’d never be completely free of it), the love of his mother, his lost brother, June. This will be going on my books of the year list.

Reinhard Kleist will be one of the guests at the excellent Comica festival in London this year; He will be in conversation with (appropriately enough) someone well known to Brit comics and music fans, Charles Shaar Murray on November 22nd; details here.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jelyll Mr Hyde Klimowski Schejbal Self Made Hero.jpg

Adapted and illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal,
From the original tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: Self Made Hero

For years men have hired assassins to carry out their crimes – I was the first that ever did so for pleasure.

Jekyll and Hyde, one of a handful of stories which has become so embedded into our culture that more than a century after it was penned, more than a century since its gifted young author died on a Pacific island far from his Edinburgh home we still, to this day, use the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality as shorthand to describe a person who’s personality can vary between goodness and acts of vicious anger rapidly, as if two different people inhabited the one body. Its no coincidence that Stevenson’s original short tale was born in the same era that, among many other scientific advances, saw the beginnings of modern studies of the human nature and the intricacies of the most complex creation we know of: the human mind.

In fact this supposed familiarity with the concept is, I think, often a handicap to a real understanding of Stevenson’s magnificent work; it has been around for generations and has been endlessly adapted to each changing age since it (or should that be them?) was born in 1886 (a decade before Stoker would birth another enduring dark reflection of humanity’s desires and fears with Dracula). Within a year of publication stage adaptations were appearing; by the very early 20th century it was already being adapted to a new scientific wonder of the age, the moving pictures. It would be endlessly re-interpreted through the next century and on in more films, plays, books, games, music and, of course, comics. And this has given many people who haven’t read the original the idea that they don’t need to, that they know it already. In fact I recall some members of my own book group objecting to the book one month because they all knew it. Had they read it? No. Well, I’ll tell you what I told them – if you haven’t read it, you don’t know it. Most books, TV productions, plays and others rarely capture the essence; the story here isn’t just a simple tale of duality and good and evil, it never was. It’s about the eternal conflicting impulses each of us has and the complexities of human behaviour, not simple ‘saintly’ doctor and brutal hedonist; Hyde is Jekyll and those vulgar appetites for drink and warm flesh are Jekyll’s own and oh how he wants to indulge. And – at first anyway – how good it feels when he does indulge (we all know this feeling at some level, from simply breaking a diet to eat cake to something more involved). Klimowski and Schejbal understand this.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski.jpg

(the almost irresistible allure of indulgence, of playing the bad boy, but you must always remember these impulses don’t come from some mysterious creations, they come from Jekyll; its all drawn from Jekyll, however much he might protest or detest the idea)

This comics adaptation is quite lovely, right from the haunting cover (which hints at those early, silent film adaptations such at the 20s Barrymore version as well as reminding me of Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera’s dreadful visage with a hint of Munch’s Scream) to the interior art, which Klimowski and Schejbal have split between them, the former taking the first part of the story (told mostly by Jekyll’s lawyer friend Utterson) and Schejbal the second part, mostly Jekyll’s description of his vices, his desires and the fateful potion he concocts which allows him to indulge those more vulgar passions safely, in a different persona, with no risk to the reputation of the respectable doctor. In fact – and I realise this may sound odd – but while reading this I often had the feeling less of reading a traditional comic but of reading an illustrated book; by that I mean that the panels, most only two or perhaps three per page, felt more like they depicted an individual scene rather than a flowing sequence, little tableaux, illuminating key moments. I don’t mean that as a criticism, quite the reverse actually, I think it’s a style which works beautifully for this story.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski cityscape.jpg

(the cityscape is elegantly depicted, an ordered world of fine architecture and well designed streets, but Stevenson knew from first hand experience that even in his refined, native Edinburgh the beautiful city showed one face but had another in the shadows and alleys and hidden places…)

The monochromatic art helps to evoke the feeling of the period (hints of old photographs, those first, flickering cinematic camera); even the use of black and white and the mix of greys is highly appropriate to the subject, while the art depicts a suitable mix of elegance (gracious Georgian and Victorian architecture, emblematic of the new, clean, ordered cities of progress) and the more horrific (the misshapen Hyde brutally beating a small girl for sheer animal delight). While both halves deal with the same story from different perspectives, the split between the artists also seems to create a literal contrast, with Schejbal’s latter half (again appropriately) appearing darker as Jekyll himself tells of his nocturnal inclinations and his shame at giving into such urges, his discovery of his formula, of Hyde and the descent into a hell of his own making, passing through a glass darkly.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski beating.jpg

(Hyde’s brutal murder of an elderly MP, the crime which pushes him beyond the pale and leaves him a man marked for the gallows)

RLS’s story, as you can probably gather, is one of my personal favourites; its one of the classics of Western literature and a cornerstone of the horror genre (in his look at the genre Stephen King calls it the archetypal werewolf tale). And as I said, if you haven’t read the original tale, you really don’t know the story in its complex, fascinating beauty. Klimowski and Schejbal’s adaptation knows this and unlike some much more simplistic versions it eschews the good versus evil approach for the more satisfying entanglements of the original, while also revelling in the mystery – and you must remember that to most of us today, we know in advance Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, but the original audience didn’t – of who Hyde is and what his relationship is to the respectable Jekyll, events spiralling in a mix of violence, vice, indulgence, regret and half whispered secrets.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski Schejbel.jpg

(the hypocrisy of the fine Victorian gentlemen, suitably attired for the evening as befits a respectable member of society, upstanding, moral, but happy to indulge in vices and pleasures in darkened rooms while always worried about the ruin of reputation should the secret pleasures be revealed to the world)

It’s the best (and one of the most visually attractive) comics version of the story I’ve read since the Mattotti version years ago from NBM (which was more of an interpretation rather than adaptation as here, but very true to the feel of the story) and if you’ve read the tale you should enjoy it while if you haven’t then it should serve as a good introduction to the real story, after which you should then pick up the original text (after which I suggest Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, one of RLS’ literary inspirations). Moody, atmospheric, brooding, wading into the murky depths of the human psyche, it’s a tale that simply doesn’t ever lose its relevance; every time you read of a disgraced politician or religious figure its easy to think of Jekyll and Hyde. And uncomfortably easy to think how we all have parts of ourselves we wouldn’t necessarily want to be made public. Now if you will excuse me, I feel the urge to walk the misty streets and perhaps have a drink in Deacon Brodie’s, named for one of the real life inspirations for the story. Now where did I put my walking cane…

(first published on the Forbidden Planet International blog)