The Boxer by Reinhard Kleist is an exceptional graphic novel. It is the true story of Harry Haft, a Jewish boy from Poland who is forced to leave his family and his fiancée and is sent to the Nazi Concentration Camps, at which he is forced to become a boxer and literally fight for his life. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Harry survives the Camps, and after arriving in America after the War he becomes professional boxer and gets a chance to battle the great Rocky Marciano. But that chance comes with a wretched cost: Harry must choose between throwing the match and keeping the Mob happy or striving to win and keep himself alive.
This is a tremendously powerful graphic novel that nearly moved me to tears several times while reading it. The scenes in the death camps are powerful and awful – I’ll get to the smart manner in which Kleist depicts them in a moment – but a big part of what gives The Boxer its sense of power and loss is the way that Kleist weaves the story of Haft’s fiancée through his tale. Leah is the love of Harry’s life, and the idyllic passages of the couple picnicking before the Nazis take them away are all the more powerful because we know that the love will never last.
Harry and Leah get separated when he’s sent to the Camps, and she becomes his totem, her Jenny to his Forrest Gump so to speak. As if it’s not enough to tell about this man literally battling to save his life during the Holocaust, the subplot of Leah’s survival adds yet more poignancy and panic to the survival story. The payoff for this theme is gorgeously moving, a thoroughly satisfying and sweet ending that pays off in a deeply affecting manner.
Because this is based on real life, Kleist is able to structure his narrative with an approach that tells an extremely satisfying account of how men and women dealt with the Holocaust as it happened. It’s shocking to see the fear and confusion as people are herded in cattle cars to their doom, terrifying to read a character complaining about not being allowed to take a shower in those dreadful abattoirs when he arrives in camp, appalling and moving to see how smartly Haft figures out little tricks to survive. I almost felt survivor’s guilt by proxy reading his story, nearly regretting the deals with the guards and the incredibly difficult moral decision to fight and kill other prisoners in order to survive.
Juxtaposed against that ghastly morality are moments of extreme brightness, as after the War Haft first becomes a kind of keeper of a brothel and lives the high life for a time, takes up boxing professionally in the refugee camps, and finally – in a stunningly drawn scene – comes to the shining jewel of America, his refuge, shining place of dreams, and residence of his beloved Leah. The difference between high and low is shocking for the reader and even more shocking for Harry; the bizarre unpredictability of our world, in which random events happen to people without any hope to control them, is an interesting subplot.
Reinhard Kleist, who did a brilliant job on his biography Johnny Cash: I See the Darkness (one of my favorite graphic novels of 2009), delivers a stunning story with The Boxer. As was the case with the Cash book, this new book is suffused with a darkness that looms as a black fog that feels like it will consume the characters’ lives. The horrific dread and confusion of these characters’ lives is a chiaroscuro bleakness that is ever-present, a fear of torture and worse that is both abstract and tangible.
Kleist also draws his characters loosely, sometimes nearly abstractly, in part to show their unimportance in relation to Haft in and in part to give the readers a tiny respite from the terrors of the camps. He has a masterful control over his brush, and his contrasting use of thick and thin lines to bring nonfigurative shapes to shocking life is deeply moving and completely exciting. It is as if Kleist is telling the reader that the exact moment is both thoroughly important and unimportant at the same time –one man’s fight among the lives of many others is both completely inconsequential and the most essential thing in the world. One life among six million is, in a way, trivial. It is also the most imperative thing possible.
That use of blackness and non-concrete shapes is at its most powerful in the moments set in those terrible ovens, drawn as slashing lines that seem to nearly rip holes in the page through their forceful drawing. Readers don’t need to see the actual details to feel fear and despair at the characters’ experiences; the nonfigurative nature of the depiction only deepens the horror because the reader can fill in the details of the darkness using their imagination.
The boxing scenes at the end, in which Kleist juxtaposes Haft’s flashbacks to his fights in the camp with the reality of the moment of his struggle with Marciano, are especially powerful. Nearly abstract but completely comprehensible, these moments tie the main action of Kleist’s life together in an especially cinematic manner, echoing previous scenes in a way that gives additional resonance, the PTSD back on the surface as dreadful events are experienced again.
It’s tempting to compare this outstanding book with the sublime Maus, which is one of the greatest graphic novels ever published. In fact, my first tweets and comments about The Boxer made that exact comparison because there are real similarities in quality, plotline and depiction of events between Spiegelman’s classic and Kleist’s new book (in fact, the subtitle to the second volume of Maus, “And Here My Troubles Began”, could also apply to The Boxer).
But it’s premature to make that comparison. Reinhard Kleist has delivered a beautiful, haunting and terrible graphic novel that sticks to the soul and resonates deeply. It will be one of the best graphic novels of the year. History will sort out whether it’s one of the greatest graphic novels ever published. But The Boxer at least deserves to be shelved next to Maus.