Narrating Cash’s life and musical career, chiefly the twelve-year period between his early recordings and the famous Folsom Prison concert, Kleist weaves a tale that, while already familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Cashs’ life, easily grabs the reader’s interest. With stunning black and white artwork and an unblinking portrayal of the hard life Cash lived, this is one book that definitely feels like a biography of the Man in Black. While it may not pack the standard level of detail of his life that a traditional biography may include, the sequential art narration of this book makes for a stylistically superior document that justifies its place among any of the other “proper” Cash biographies out there.
Chronicling Cash’s early life as part of a farming family and moving into his early singing career, we see a number of events familiar to fans, from Cash’s interactions with other musicians of the era to his copious substance abuse. His first failed marriage eventually gives way to his infatuation and eventual pairing with June Carter, who struggles valiantly (and often in vain) to break him of his wild habits. We see his meeting of Glen Sherley at Folsom Prison, and Cash’s introspections on Sherley late in his life.
Only having the barest of familiarity with Johnny Cash’s songs and life, I mainly enjoyed this from a storytelling perspective. This is a story of a man whose demons truly do scare him, and that fear often drives him to stupid actions, against the advice of even his closest friends and loved ones. He seems to eventually gain some control over his feelings of hopelessness and loneliness with time and support, giving a feeling of hope towards the end of the narrative.
I also really enjoyed the visual depictions of some of Cash’s songs, which served as interesting segues throughout the narrative. “A Boy Named Sue” was particularly recognizable and amusing, while “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Ghost Riders In the Sky” were also noteworthy for their visual presentations. I kept hoping to see “Ring of Fire,” but sadly was disappointed on that front.
Kleist’s artwork does an excellent job of supporting the narrative. The grittiness and detail of the black and white pictures lends a definite air of noir to the biography, certainly appropriate when one considers the subject and the events portrayed in his life. On top of that, Kleist doesn’t shy away from detailing the hard knocks Cash takes, from the vagaries of his drug abuse to the impact of his face hitting the steering wheel while on a particularly bad bender. Even the lines in his face that come with age and neglect are stark and difficult to forget.