Reinhard Kleist: interview
Nuno Pereira de Sousa: How did you become interested in making comics?
Reinhard Kleist: I was always drawing comics when I was a kid. But actually I wanted to become a director for movies. According to my disability to work in a team, becoming a comic book artist was the proper compromise.
NPS: When you were 26 years old, your first book, Lovecrat, won the Comicsalon Erlangen’s Max und Moritz award for the Best German Album. Forgetting all the prizes you won since then, how did that influence you at that particular time?
RK: Well, it put me from 0 to 100 in the front row of German illustrators. From then on it went downhill. Until I had the idea to do a book about the life of Johnny Cash, which I could only do with a big publisher like Carlsen. The book sold over 25.000 copies in Germany and opened a lot of opportunities to publish books all over the world.
NPS: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Fidel Castro, Hertzko Haft, Samia Yusuf Omar an now Nick Cave. What drives you to translate real stories into comics?
RK: I am often asked, if I would not like to tell my own story, but I cannot help – I find so much better stories in real life; I have a list of stories that I just came across and got interested in and started to search for more. I have written another story about a boxer recently. But this one has to wait until I finished the work on the Nick Cave book. I like to search for something behind the story, that lies under the facts. In the case of the book about Cash it was the theme of freedom and being caged “behind fragile bars”. In the Boxer it is what is happening to somebody who was going through such a horrible past, who put so much guilt on his shoulders.
NPS: When did you first hear about Harry Haft and how did you make the research for The Boxer?
RK: I found the book in a store while I did search for material about the Holocaust, because I had to do some illustrations for a magazine. On the cover you could see that it had something to do with boxing and the Holocaust. I couldn’t bring these two together so I bought the book. I contacted Alan Haft, the son of the Boxer, who wrote the book about his father and asked him, if he would like it, if I turn the book about his father into a Graphic Novel. He send me a package with all the fotomaterial from the families archive, which was not very much. So a lot about the family is from my own imagination. But I did some research in memorial sites of concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Flossenbürg or Sachsenhausen. The rest is research on the internet and in libraries.
NPS: The Boxer is being translated in many languages. Why do you think so many people around the word believe this is a book that should be read?
RK: People are still fascinated by what happened at that time. And they like to know something about an aspect of it, that they never dreamed was possible in that context. Boxing and the Holocaust? How does that go together? And besides that, it has a powerful love story. Many people told me that they had tears in their eyes at the end. Isn’t that fantastic, that a pile of paper can do such a thing to you? I am still, after 20 years working in comic books, amazed by that.
NPS: You were born in 1970. In Germany, what kind of feelings and thoughts has your generation regarding World War II?
RK: When I was a kid and was tought what happened in Germany, I cursed myself: “Why was I born into a country with such a disgusting past?” I cannot speak for my generation, only for myself. I try to do everything, that such a thing will not happen in this country again. Or the world. This book is a little contribution.
NPS: Can you tell us about your experience working with ARTE in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq?
RK: I was invited by ARTE to do a comic report about the Kawergosk camp, where at that time 11.000 Syrian war refugees were living. Alongside were a writer, a filmmaker and a photographer. You can see my story here. I offered them to do a comic workshop while I was there, because I did not only want to go there and get infos from the people, I also wanted to contribute something. So on two days I was painting with the kids, you can see some results in my report. There was a heartbreaking moment, when I saw a kid making a drawing about the war (which I did not want, but he was doing it anyway). There is this tiny, but amazingly strong image of a man holding a gun and crying. I do not know where he saw that, but I hope it will disappear from his nightmares after he painted it.
NPS: Nowadays, what are the more common genres of comics being read in Germany?
RK: Many biographies, autobiographies, historical subjects. People like to read something about reality seen through the eyes of an artist. With the Graphic Novel movement, comics became a much wider audience than before. TV, radio, newspaper are now regularly reporting about the books, something that was not the case 10 to 15 years ago.
NPS: How old are your readers in Germany?
RK: All kinds of ages. Last time on a festival a mother came to me with her 12 year old son and said that he liked the book very much. I asked if he didn’t get nightmares after that and she told me that her and her son had a long discussion about the book.
NPS: How do imagine comics will be 20 years from now?
RK: We are facing at the moment a decline of the print. In Germany comics are not so much affected like newspapers or books. I hope comics can stand that way in the future. In these times, people are bombed with so much information, that it is hard to concentrate on one thing. To read a book, it takes time, concentration. The attention span of most people including me gets smaller and smaller. That worries me and I try to swim against it. Still, a book can take you on such amazing journeys. It only takes time.
NPS: In your opinion, what’s the purpose of comics nowadays? What’s its value?
RK: Comics can reach you on a different level than movies or writings. They are very easy accessible. There is a magic that comes from the combination of text and image and/or a sequence of pictures. Even people that say that they do not read comics cannot withdraw from it. In my case, reality in comics, they tell us a truth, that you can feel.