Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Well, you're my friend, and can you see?
Many times, we've been out drinking;
Many times we shared our thoughts.
But did you ever, ever notice, the kind of thoughts I got?
Well, you know I have a love; a love for everyone I know.
And you know I have a drive, to live I won't let go.
But can you see its opposition, comes rising up sometimes?
That its dreadful imposition, comes blacking in my mind?

And then I see a darkness,
And then I see a darkness,
And then I see a darkness,
And then I see a darkness.
Did you know how much I love you?
It's a hope that somehow you,
Can save me from this darkness.
My late mother loved Johnny Cash's music. She had a great collection of 33s by the Man in Black. My mom was a Jewish woman from the streets of Brooklyn, the grandchild of immigrants who spoke Yiddish. However, it never struck me as odd that she so dearly loved the music of a very Christian man who would use a Mexican mariachi band to back his most famous song. Such is the power of great music to transcend its specifics to become a work that people anywhere can embrace and love.

She especially loved his At Folsom Prison live album. I have very happy memories of her slapping some of his Sun Records vinyl on our home hi-fi when I was in elementary school, and I have specific and warm memories of my mom and dad singing along to "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," and "A Boy Named Sue" with its very funny ending. Though the actual Folsom Prison was Hell on Earth, it will always raise a smile in me because of its very warm associations through the music of Johnny Cash.

Looking back, I think it's the power of Johnny Cash's personality as much as any other aspect of his life that made him such a compelling musician. The dark clothes that Cash wore reflected a dark and haunted soul--one that easily could have been imprisoned in Folsom Prison or worse. God knows that musicians with Cash's horrible habits died from some of the same experiences that Cash survived.

To this day, the thought of my mom imitating Johnny Cash singing in his very rich baritone, "because you're mine, I walk the line" just makes me smile. It brings back happy memories of my dad and her joking around, of their little jokes that sustained their marriage for 40 years. It's ironic that a man haunted by his own past ended up providing so many good memories for me.

I came to Johnny Cash's music many years later via the amazing and revelatory American Recordings series that Cash recorded with producer Rick Rubin. Over a series of five collections of music, Cash performed a group of songs that are astonishing in their power and soft intensity. By the time he recorded these albums, Cash had almost literally gone to Hell and back--living a life that would have killed men who were just not as damn stubborn as Johnny Cash. By this time in his career, Cash had grown into an astonishing voice that seemed to reflect every one of the horrific experiences that he had lived through.

Cash was also a real professional, amazingly adept at pulling the very guts out of some of the songs he covered by finding a deep connection between his experiences and the messages of the songs themselves. He turns U2's "One" into an amazing secular hymn--appropriate for a man who found inner peace with Jesus—and he brings Nick Cave's "Mercy Seat" into a quietly explosive meditation of a man facing his own, deserved, execution.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I'm yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I'm not afraid to die.
Additionally, Cash made Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me" his own. When he sings, "The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars," it's impossible not to read Cash's personal experience into the song--and he sings "God help the beast in me" like a man truly in repentance for all the sins in his life, aware of all the hell and pain and horror that he has created in his life.

The songs on the American Recordings albums are austere but not plain, quiet but intense. They are cover songs that reveal the depth of character of Cash's life.

On discovering those five collections, I became a big fan of Johnny Cash--just like my mother had been. Like her, too, I'm haunted by the astonishing power of Cash's singing voice.
I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine,
Since, I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin' on,
But that train keeps a-rollin',
On down to San Antone.
All of these thoughts were brought to mind after I read Reinhard Kleist's terrific graphic novel Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness.

There are two ways that one can do a graphic novel biography of a noted historical figure. One approach--as in Sharon Rudahl's A Dangerous Woman--is to perform a dutiful recitation of the facts and actions that filled that person's life. In her book, Rudahl tells the story of Emma Goldman in a short 128 pages--presenting the story of the noted anarchist with passion and verve in a very straightforward manner.

I enjoyed Rudahl's book quite a bit but its style is a bit distanced, quite strong on the use of the omniscient narrator and somewhat weak on the use of realistic dialogue. In other words, we learn about the life of Goldman from an arms-length distance.

Reinhard Kleist chooses the opposite approach in I See a Darkness. His work on this graphic novel is more subjective than Rudahl's approach--more about getting inside Cash's head and allowing readers to experience the events that really shaped the great singer.

The book is as much a psychological portrait of Johnny Cash as it is anything else. The artist is confident enough in his skills, and the power of his story, to allow his graphics to tell the story as much as his words. Kleist's use of blacks to reflect the bleakness of his story is a tremendously powerful asset for this graphic novel.

One great use of blacks comes when Kleist presents an intense and moving scene in which Cash, at the nadir of his drug addiction, wanders blithely into a cave with just a flashlight that's low on batteries. Using blacks almost as a second character in the scene, Kleist literally shows the blackness that has come to envelop Cash's soul at that moment in time. When Cash literally and figuratively emerges into the light, that light seems to shine straight from Heaven--a deeply healing light that reflects Cash's emergence to finding some measure of peace.

You can see below a great example of the way in which Kleist uses blacks and symbolism to present Cash's story. The singer's descent into alcoholism and despair are summed up wonderfully in this single image, and the book is full of moments like this.

Appropriately and intriguingly, Kleist presents fragments of song lyrics and interpretations of scenes from Cash's songs along with the biography. The book opens up with a very noir interpretation of Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," which starts the book on an intriguing note and throws the reader off balance.

It's clear that Kleist intends the fragments to reflect Cash's meditations, and he succeeds wonderfully with that juxtaposition. I adore the scene towards the end of the book in which a very aged Cash sees himself as a cowboy besieged by beasts drawn straight from the Pits of Hell. The facial expressions as Cash is confronted by his dark vision are incredibly moving and interesting.

As much as I obviously love this book, there are still some flaws in it--though not substantial enough to warrant a reduction in my bullet rating. One problem is that the scene featuring Bob Dylan just does not ring true. I'm a big fan of Dylan's work, and Kleist fails to accurately capture Dylan's life or his style of communication.

I also thought Kleist's portrayal of June Carter felt a bit shallow. Though we understand why June was such a powerful influence on Johnny, we never really get inside her head. She's kind of a benevolent cipher at the service of her tremendously fully fleshed-out husband.

Nevertheless, I found myself completely caught up in Kleist's presentation of Cash's story. He doesn't present every singly important event in Cash's life, but he presents enough that it allows me to get a complete and nuanced interpretation of the life of the man--and that interpretation is as important (and perhaps more interesting) than a recitation of facts. It feels appropriate somehow for the life of a musical artist to be presented in a way that is as much about the interpretation of facts than the facts themselves.
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!
Reinhard Kleist has presented a terrific psychological portrait of a fascinating historical figure.

I'd thank Kleist for this work if he had just delivered a book that was just entertaining. However, beyond that, he also got me to dig out my favorite Johnny Cash songs and he resurrected some really sweet memories in the process.

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