He likes to describe himself as a comics artist who does graphic novels. Reinhard Kleist, though, is rather a one-man-film crew. Either based on true stories, like the award winning Cash: I see a darkness and The Boxer, or fictional like the vampire political satire Berlinoir, his books unfold like movies on paper. I recently sat down to watch the three Berlinoir stories. Written a long time ago, they have now been revised by the artist and republished as one book. So we inevitably attempt a leap back in time and then slowly work our way toward the present day.
That was many years ago, during the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was already familiar with Tobias’ work and found it very interesting, so the idea of collaborating seemed very appealing. We very soon agreed that it would be a vampire story, but not a typical one. Initially we were thinking of trying a mafia version of the Romeo and Juliet theme, but soon we were leaning towards towards something more political. And so we ended up with a sort of a political satire. But the leftovers of the initial mafia idea are still visible in the aesthetics; in the way the vampires dress, for instance.
The vampires do look very stylish, as opposed to the people.
Yes, that was our joke…The idea was that the vampires should look very stylish and have this 1920s golden era style, whereas the people, the rebels, would look like peasants. They are dressed horribly and have dirty faces.
Why did you choose to populate the city with vampires?
I always wanted to do something with vampires because, artistically, this is an extremely challenging theme. But it was Tobias’ idea to use it in a story about politics. I liked the fact that it is based on a very simple to grasp metaphor -the government represented by the vampires sucking the blood of citizens- which provides ample opportunity to build upon. Berlinoir is attempting to show the different aspects of a very complex system. How do the people react to power, how the citizens are not always necessarily averse to power, how there are always those who are constantly fighting against government, while others are collaborating and then there is another group of the population who simply want to have a quiet life.
One gets the impression you have long nurtured a love of fantasy and science fiction. Even your first ever professional graphic novel’s title was Lovecraft. Is it still so?
While I was a child I loved fantasy and science fiction, but not anymore. Or at least not that much. The reason I was drawn to H.P.Lovecraft was because I admired the way he developed a story. The way he is handling the reader’s expectations, how he chooses what to disclose and what to withhold, is very clever; but I was never that fond of all his crazy ideas. But anyway, reading changes with age and I now read completely different stuff.
Do you read a lot?
Yes, I do, I read all the time. And I am always fascinated by the way authors develop images in the mind of the reader. Especially the way some specific authors do it, like for instance Cormac McCarthy. Or Ray Bradbury, who was one of my favourite authors while I was younger and whose style I still admire a lot. Writers like these two can create images that are so strong, so persistent, that any attempt to draw them on paper, to make an illustration based on their books, is due to fail. I am very interested in writing, I have always been. On and off I’ve been toying with the idea of sitting down to write a novel myself. But, no, I have too much respect for the written word to attempt this.
Didn’t you then like Francois Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451?
I did, because the movie went in a different direction than Bradbury’s novel. Truffaut created his personal version. Apart from this film, though, I cannot bring to mind another good adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury. Having said this, I might as well add that I did the illustration for a publication of Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s something I would normally refuse to do, but in this specific case I wanted to do it. It hasn’t been published yet, there have arisen some problems with the rights.
Are you reading something good these days?
A John Le Carre novel, which my father gave me. I used to be a little dismissive of Le Carre…and then I started reading him. I am totally fascinated by his storytelling; the way he builds the plot, but also the descriptions of the people and the places is extraordinary. You can almost feel the air in a stuffy room, you can smell the paint on the walls.
When in need of a good story, is it books that you draw ideas and inspiration from?
I draw it from all different sources – the theatre, a movie, literature, and comic books, definitely. And from history, in which I have a very strong interest.
Let’s take the example of The Boxer, this true story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who emigrated to America after being liberated from Auschwitz.
The Boxer started out as a project for the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine. So I was searching around for a good idea and one day, while I was browsing in my favourite bookstore down the road, I saw the cover of his biography, written by his son. The picture of the boxer and the mention of the Holocaust on the cover caught my attention. So I read it and that was the beginning of the whole thing.
But as to the way I develop scenes, the inspiration comes from movies. I always think in terms of moving images. I don’t think in panels, like comic panels. When I develop a story I have a movie in my head and I try to first write it down, before then cutting it into the separate panels. I thus give the reader the necessary information to see my movie.
It’s a little like you draw, write, and direct your own paper movies, without all the production trouble or the actors doing whatever they please and getting on your nerves…
The funny thing is that in the comics’ language we very often use terms from the movies: Script writing, cut, camera movement. The idea to be the director, to be in complete control of everything that normally takes a whole film team to accomplish gives me a great sense of freedom. I also have some experience working in a movie, as part of a team. That was several years ago, when I was responsible for the design and the art direction of some animated sequences in a movie. I really hated it.
It looks horrible.
You hated the result, but did you also hate also the procedure?
Yes, I hated everything about it. The thing was that none of us really knew how to do it, so the result didn’t look good. And very often I scold myself for not having being more pushy, because I ended up doing what everybody would dictate me to do, when in fact I should have been doing the opposite. I am not really a team worker. It’s not that I develop everything on my own; I have my editor and I have my friends, with whom I talk a lot. But I write my own stories. In that respect Berlinoir is an exception.
What was the first book you wrote the story for?
There was one book called Fucked – but I wrote it together with an author. It is a fictional story but it is based on the places that I knew and my feelings for Berlin during my first years in the city. But I don’t like it anymore.
For Cash: I see a darkness, you went about telling the life story of Johnny Cash by dramatizing some of his songs. Why did you make this choice?
It has to do with the idea for the book itself, which was born during a dinner party where together with a couple of friends -one of whom is now my editor and the other one my press agent- we thought it would be nice to do a comic book about music. Later that night I mentioned this to my then room-mate who was a singer in a Johnny Cash cover band and a huge Johny Cash fan. He handed me Cash’s biography by Franz Dobler. I read it and was totally fascinated so decided to move on with the project of combining comics with music. I wanted to treat the lyrics like short stories and illustrate them. And I also wanted to make evident the connections between his songs and his life.
The concert in Folsom Prison takes up a significant part of the book. Did you find it was the most interesting part of the story, then?
What interested me was that a lot of loose ends of the story were coming together in that concert – there was the love story, and then it was the first thing that he did after having quit drugs. So this specific concert was very important for him personally. Moreover we know that it has also been very important in the history of rock music. And in any case, I was taken by the fact that it was such a huge adventure. I wanted to show how music can be an adventure and even a sort of suspence thriller. And this is how I consciously portrayed it, by slowly building up tension through dialogue.
Your book more or less coincided with the movie Walk The Line, isn’t this right?
The movie came out about half a year before the book, maybe even a little earlier. The funny thing is that I had stumbled upon the film’s trailer on youtube, while I was doing research for the book. I immediately phoned my editor and said OK, we have to stop the whole thing, there is a movie coming out and they are doing exactly the same thing – that is using the Folsom Prison concert as a turning point in the plot. But my editor believed there was nothing to worry about. So I simply kept on working on my project and put it out of my mind. When the movie came out in Germany I must have been among the first people to watch it. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat. Until I realized that the movie’s approach was completely different than my own.
Cash: I see a darkness was nominated for the Harvey Award as well as the Eisner Award, which is called the comics Oscar. Did that have an impact on the reception of your work?
That was cool, yes. But it didn’t have much impact on the sales. The book was doing OK in the US, already, but it’s not like sales went through the roof after the nomination. People told me that the market in the US for graphic novels is quite small compared to the German one; strange but true.
Do you like Will Eisner’s comics?
Oh, yes, very much so. He was a very big influence for The Boxer. It was not intentional. Maybe the reason was that The Boxer was first developed as a newspaper strip, or it was due to the fact that the story plays out mostly in the ‘30s and ’40s, so there’s the influence of Eisner’s atmosphere and style.
Did you read comics as a child?
Not many because my parents refused to buy us kids comic books. They would only buy us Asterix comics. Some friends had super hero comics and I would read those sometimes. Oh yes, there was also this stupid comics magazine called Gespenster, which was full of ghost stories. I remember we were reading them in secret…
What then got you interested in doing comics?
We were drawing comics at school, with friends. We mostly made adaptations of movies, like the Star Wars. Later I got interested in serious art and wanted to study painting, but in the end decided to pursue something more practical and so enrolled in a school for Graphic and Design in Münster. But very soon I switched to illustration and I came upon the work of American and English comics artists like Dave McKean or Bill Sienkiewicz; comics artists that were using painting and photography and experimenting a lot. I was very much impressed by the way they were working because it was close to the things that I was doing during the time I was trying to be a serious painter. So I started working in this direction.
Your first book, Lovecraft, was a big hit.
And it was incredible because it was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, at the booth of my school, where it was spotted by the designer of a big publishing house. Six months later they sent a contract, the book was published and it won a big prize. So my career sort of went from 0 to 100 – and then slowly went downhill and kept on going downhill for a few years. I am OK now, no complaints, things are good. But 2004 was the most horrible year careerwise, I even considered giving up comics.
Why was it so bad?
The books were not selling at all, I was not getting any jobs and I was running out of money. I had the feeling that my career had come to an end. Well, it did not help that the whole German comics business was going down and everybody in it was depressed.
It’s a good thing you didn’t quit, because it didn’t take that long for things to change.
Things are completely different these days. Now the situation in Germany is fantastic. It’s not like hundreds of thousands of copies are being sold, but we have a situation where people make really good, interesting books which sell. And there are reviews, there is a lot of interest, when ten years ago nothing was happening. A lot of German comics artists take on serious subjects and often look into history for subject matter, which leads to them writing really exciting graphic novels. And since there’s a lot of interest for graphic novels worldwide nowadays, this probably helps explain why German comic books are so popular.
By the way, how do prefer to describe yourself? As a comics artist or as a graphic novelist?
I am a comics artist, but I do graphic novels.
Is it a coincidence that in recent years many graphic novels are autobiographical stories? In that sense you are an exception. I am not implying that your life is boring.
Hm, but that was what I was going to say…My life is boring, there is no reason I would want to narrate it.
Still, do you have an explanation for the abundance of autobiographical graphic novels?
I wish I knew! I have to admit that I am not reading a lot of them, because I sometimes have the impression that the life story is not that interesting…But what is interesting about many of those books is the way they tell it. Because a lot of these artists have a very strong personal style and they use the autobiographical storyline in order to experiment. And sometimes this is what makes the book interesting, instead of the story itself. Having said that, an example where both the story itself and the way it is told are intriguing, would be Ulli Lust’s work. She not only has a very powerful story to tell, but the way she tells it is also powerful.
What characteristics should a person’s life have in order for you to be tempted to turn it into a graphic novel?
Usually it’s not like I decide that I have to look for a new biography and then set out to find it. Mostly I just find it. There are many stories I come along, but only very few stick to my mind. This is how it happened with the story of Samia Yusuf Omar on which I am now doing a book. I learned about Samia’s story last year while I was in Sicily doing research on the theme of immigration in the context of a project of the Goethe Institut that I was involved in.
Why did this particular story stick in your mind?
Samia Yusuf Omar was a sprinter from Somalia who had competed in the 2008 Olympics, where she was the very last to reach the finish line. Yet she was determined to compete in the 2012 London Olympics, but she had a very hard time preparing not only due to political situation but also due to the discrimination against women in her home country. So she decided to follow the migration route from Somalia to Libya, which was in the midst of a civil war. Her trip was a long odyssey that ended tragically on a boat heading for Italy. Samia was drowned just off the island of Lampedusa. The story of Samia is a typical and at the same time not typical – it’s a story about contemporary migration but it is also the portrait of an exceptional woman.
When will it be published?
It will first be published as a series of comic strips in the FAZ beginning next year, but I have no idea exactly when. And then I will work on it again as a book that will be out at the end of 2014 or early in 2015.
Did you research the story yourself?
I did a lot of research on my own, but also had contact with Tereza Krug, an American journalist who was Samia’s friend and is currently writing a book on her life. And I also did an interview with Samia’s sister, who lives in Helsinki. She had managed to get out of Somalia a few years back.
Don’t you allow yourself some artistic freedom? In the case of Hertzko Haft, the Boxer, did everything happen exactly as it is narrated in the book?
I made some very small changes. But then there are also long periods in his life about which one cannot possibly verify that things happened the way he said they did. It took Hertzko Haft 50 years to start talking, so it is pretty obvious that sometimes his memory may be distorting things. It looks like he’s putting together events that maybe happened far apart…But in my opinion this is totally OK. And on my part, I have tried to find my way around it. To be honest, though, I am a bit tired of having to be faithful to facts. It’s like being constrained by a very narrow corset. So for my next project I want to do something where I can have more freedom, where I can experiment a lot more.
Did you find it hard to decide upon a way to draw the scenes in Auschwitz?
I believe it is not possible to portray the death camps. That is the reason why there is not much background in the scenes that take place in Auschwitz. In the episode in the crematorium, for example, you don’t see the whole picture but only small images which then blur and progressively become nothing more than brushstrokes. I focused more on the faces and the words of the people instead of showing details. Because this was something that cannot possibly be shown. In fact I think that any attempt to show it contains the danger of sensationalism. Only last weekend I was at a seminar where I saw parts of comic book about the Holocaust – it was horrible. This comics artist had drawn the scenes in a gas chamber in such graphic detail… I imagined him sitting there and drawing -with a lot of love and devotion- the bodies piling up..It is awful. I think he meant for the image to provoke horror but he did just the opposite. To not show something can be much more powerful than to make a perfect picture out of it.
In the long run, how important is accuracy? Do you tend to be as faithful as possible to the facts?
I try to do exhaustive research, but I can never be 100% accurate. It is not possible. It’s not my intention, either. In the book about Fidel Castro I tried to be 100% accurate because he is a politician so every little detail matters. But working on the story Samia Yusuf Omar is very different because, to begin with, I cannot go to Somalia. I mean I like traveliing and I don’t mind a little adventure, but Somalia is probably an extreme case…I know that I will not get everything absolutely right, but it is OK. After all I do not intend to draw a portrait of the political situation in Somalia; I want to make a portrait of a specific woman.
Was Castro published in Cuba, by the way?
No, no, paper shortage deems it impossible.
Have you had any feedback from Cubans who have read the book in German?
Yes and they mostly thought it painted too positive a picture of Castro. Of course I mostly know Cubans who are not at all fond of their home country’s government. But I see the book as “criticism with sympathy”, as Volker Skierka, the journalist who helped with the text put it. Because there is a lot of criticism, it couldn’t have been any other way. At the same time, there have been so many things that I admire about the Cuban revolution. Some ideas were truly brilliant. What became of those ideas, the reality that ensued the revolution has been quite depressing. I have tried to show why it came to that point but I fear that analyzing the whole thing risks making one a misanthrope…I am talking about this tendency to take something good and hopeful and turn it on its head; it definitely makes one wonder what’s wrong with humankind. Nevertheless, in Havanna my conflicting feelings on Cuba are pretty obvious.
You have also been doing a series for zitty magazine, called Berlin Myths, where you have a German -Turkish taxi driver narrating several legends about the city. How did you decide upon your protagonist?
We were thinking that there must be someone who is telling us the stories. So who could that be? We had in mind different kinds of persons, among whom I was quite fond of a hairdresser. But I settled upon the idea of the taxi driver, since it’s only natural the he would know every corner of the city. And this one is a taxi driver who is interested in local history. At first he was supposed to be a typical West German taxi driver, but then my studio colleague, Fil, said this was too conventional and suggested I went with a very talkative Turkish guy. That was a fantastic idea. So far he has been only the narrator, but I think that during the series I will be adding a lot more to this character. I will give him a personal story, I want to show his family, for example.
What about your personal Berlin story – when did you come here?
In 1996, when I was 26 years old.I had had a very protected childhood; Munster is this nice, tidy city and suddenly landed in Berlin where everything was wild and there was a very lively underground scene.
Was it then a cultural shock for you?
It was, but a pleasant one. I came here after my studies and for a long period I didn’t have much money, but I didn’t care. I was having a great time. I was partying a lot, there was the techno scene, the illegal parties, the factories, the punk electro scene, the whole ‘90s thing. Until some time later I started thinking, OK, and now what? And I realized that oh, well, nothing. It was 2004. It was quite a depressing time.
But you had already had your work published. I mean, you had a career.
Yes, but that I felt that my career was going that the drain. And so at that time I made some decisions, one of which was to take on bigger projects. Which was how Cash was later realized.
If I asked you to recommend a book or a film about Berlin, which would they be?