Reinhard Kleist: Illustrating dark realities
Hans David Tampubolon
The Jakarta Post
Award-winning comic artist Reinhard Kleist always believes that visual presentation in biographical comics can offer a lot more to readers than those that only come in full text forms.
'A biography in the form of a comic book can add something to the dry facts that allows the reader to come closer to the reality,' the Berlin-based artist says.
Born in Weilerweist, a small town near Cologne in Germany, Kleist had shown a keen interest in comic illustrations since his childhood days.
'When I was young, I read Asterix a lot. I read it twice ' the first to follow the story and the second time to look at everything in the pictures: the details and how the artist drew the background and more. Then, well, Batman and that sort of stuff. I stopped reading comic books until my studies,' he said.
As Kleist grew up, he said he always knew he wanted to become an artist, but becoming a graphic novelist was not in his mind initially.
'My first idea was to study free art, I was producing horribly depressing oil paintings at that time,' the 44-year-old said.
'My father advised me to switch to graphic design, which he thought had more future and was something more serious. He did not imagine that his son would turn toward comic books. But my parents are really proud of their son right now.'
Kleist regained his interests in comics during his university years, in which he discovered graphic novel artworks that would be his main influence for much of the first part of his career.
'I went to an art school in MÃ¼nster, where I studied graphic design with the focus on illustration. It was there where I discovered the artwork of Dave McKean and Kent Williams, who influenced me with their painted and experimental style,' he said.
'I was also influenced by some fellows from school and we formed a loose comic artist group in MÃ¼nster. But I was always very open to other forms of art.'
In 1994, Kleist, during his studies, published his first graphic novel entitled Lovecraft, a work that catapulted him to the front row of German comic book illustrators.
Later on in Kleist's career, he began changing his approach in writing and producing graphic novels.
'I started with the work of these artists from the '90s, like McKean, Williams or Bill Sienkiewicz, but now I am more influenced by storytellers like Will Eisner or Baru from France because I think my artwork in the beginning was too dominant and the story suffered behind an artwork that was there to show people how cool I can paint,' he said.
'I try now to use my artwork to underline the story and to create characters that live in the reader's head.'
As an artist, Kleist writes both fiction and non-fiction graphic novels. It is his latter works, through strong storytelling elements, that have gained him international recognition and awards in the past few years.
Since 2006, Kleist has completed three award-winning graphic biographies.
In Cash: I See Darkness ( 2006 ), Kleist tells the story of the late legendary American country singer Johnny Cash. It was published the same year as Walk the Line, a Hollywood-produced film biography of Cash.
Kleist's work on Cash offered a much darker angle than that of the film. Using expressive drawings, Kleist depicted the life turmoil faced by Cash that was due to addiction on alcohol and drugs. In the biography, Kleist shows how the complexities in Cash's life forged the singer's personality and his rebellious nature against the United States' politics and laws.
In Castro: A Graphic Biography ( 2008 ), Kleist was able to present the vibe of the streets of Havana, Cuba and the social lives of the Cubans under their political leader, Fidel Castro.
Kleist continued to work on graphic novel biographies with The Boxer: The True Story of Hertzko Haft ( 2012 ). In this work, Kleist tells the story of Jewish boxer Hertzko Haft who managed to survive the World War II Holocaust by fighting other Jewish inmates to the death in Auschwitz ' one of the concentration camps run by the Nazis to conduct their final solution of the 'Jewish Issue'.
For the future, Kleist said he had been preparing two more graphic novel biographies.
'Right now I am finishing my work on a book about Samia Yusuf Omar, a girl from Somalia who competed in the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. It is a story about migration from Africa to Europe,' he said.
'But I have a new project already started. It will be a comic biography about Nick Cave, which I plan to be my magnum opus. I want to have this one be more experimental and concentrate more on an overwhelming artwork, coming a bit back to my origins. I am very happy that Mr. Cave helps me with some input.'
In his work, Kleist said that he always tried to come close to the subjects of his graphic biographies to produce the best work possible.
'In the case of the Castro book, I took a trip to Cuba for one month to capture the atmosphere in the country ['¦] For the book about the boxer Hertzko Haft I visited some boxing fights and did sketches from the fighters because I wanted the boxing scenes to be as realistic as possible.'
From a musician to a political leader and finally a boxer, Kleist said that all of the three main characters depicted in his graphic biographies shared the same traits that interested him as an artist.
'It is always the broken characters that interest me. In the case of Cash, it was his drug addiction and how he put all this in his music,' Kleist said.
In Castro, he said it was the difference between his ideals and what came out in the end. 'How he or my narrator in my book deal with their ideals and the difference in reality,' he says.
'In the book about the boxer, it was about how the horrible incidents he suffered from in his younger years, when he was imprisoned in the concentration camps in Germany and where he was forced to fight against other prisoners, had an influence on his and other people's lives around him, like his family.'
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