The Reinhard Kleist interview

Why did you decide to make a comic about Fidel Castro?

First and foremost, it is a biography. My aim was to inform people about what was going on during the revolution, what kind of character Castro is, where he came from and and how that influenced and shaped the man he became. But introducing the character of Karl, the narrator, and Castro’s friends, I had the opportunity to show problems that I came across while exploring the realities of the revolution, such as the role of artists or the restriction of press freedom for example.

You spent four weeks in Cuba in 2008, and from that experience you published Havanna. Would you say that it was critical of Castro’s regime?

I wanted to try to show my conflicting thoughts and feelings to the reader,  so I had the idea to include imaginary conversations with Fidel,  who appears on posters or pictures on walls throughout the comic stories.

Havanna is a critical book, but in the end I tried to show that it’s not a black and white situation. I reflect on my role as a foreigner visiting a country that is completely different to mine and then returning to my so-called freedom in priviliged Europe. At the end of the book I am confronted with the mean face of capitalism, which jarred just as much as the abject poverty and oppression I witnessed on the streets of Cuba.

When I was in Cuba I was very often faced with skewed view of the world. When you come from a rich country and you stand in front of a poster, such as I saw in Trinidad, where an automobile is being fed with grain referring to bio-fuel use, and there is the sentence “The absurdity of the first world” underneath, you feel that there is something really wrong on this planet.

After Havanna you started to work on Castro. What attracted you to the Cuban leader and how did you manage to show a neutral vision of him?

He is a extremely strong character and I wanted to portray a person that is so very different from us. How did he become the man behind the beard in that uniform? I try to show his path to power without commenting it. I portray the force and beauty that lies within every revolution, as you can see in the Arabic countries right now. The problems occur later on, when they have to deal with power and government. Thats why I included Octavio Paz words on the first page: “In taking power, the revolutionary takes on the injustice of power.”

Would you say that you have been absolutely impartial?

No. One cannot be impartial. Some people judge me for being too critical of Castro and others for being too easy on him.

I tried to make it possible for the reader to construct their own opinion of Castro and of the revolution. I tried to avoid making any comments. But the very decisions I made in choosing which events to show in the book and which ones to leave out, for whatever reason, is an intention, and could be construed as an opinion or passing judgement.

What’s your opinion about Fidel Castro these days?

When you look back on the revolution, it did a lot of good things for the people of Cuba. Especially in the countryside. And you always have to judge from the perspective of Latin America, not from Europe or North America. But Fidel Castro and his compagneros have been in charge for such a long time. They should let the young people, who have grown up in the Cuba that Castro created, have the power now, as they need to decide the future of their country.

Castro is your second biographical comic after Johnny Cash – I see a darkness. What attracts you to this format?

It is the combination of the scenes that I write and facts that I have to deal with, in a sense the juxtaposition of fact and fiction and the possibilities and challenges that presents. In the case of “Castro”, I came across such a huge volume of great stories to tell. I had to leave out more than a half of what I found and concentrate on the stories that helped to realize my idea of the book as a whole, which is about how to follow your ideals. Castro is following his ideals and eliminates everything that stands in his way. Karl is also following his ideals, but he refuses to realize what is going on around him and then he has to adapt, and is left wondering where his ideals got him, in the end.

Every time I am interested in a theme I find so many good stories about it. Right now I have five stories that I want to work on. So many ideas, so little time. I can not understand why there are so many boring books from people who have nothing to say. The stories are out there, you just have to grab them!

Is it more difficult to talk about a person when he is still alive?

No, not really. It would be if the person was involved in the process of writing. I would like to do a book about someone who would be involved in the process at some point.

As you reflect in the book, Fidel Castro has had several women in his life. What did they mean for him?

Well, for an ego as big as his, one woman cannot be enough. He needs constant challenges and conquests.

But in the end, he is married to the revolution.

How would you explain such a noble cause like the Cuban Revolution eventually became a dictatorship?

I refuse to call it that, although it fulfils almost all the criteria for being a dictatorship. But if Castro would allow democratic elections he would still win, I guess. The reason why they didn’t hold elections is hard to understand. Things would have been easier for them if they had. But I do not think that it would have changed anything in the idiotic position North America had/has towards Cuba. They would have found something else to object to. Cuba being undemocratic was always a good excuse for the USA to harrass them.

Cuba seems to me like a pressure cooker. And it seems to be that under these conditions no democracy as we recognise it is possible. Plus, you had a strong character like Fidel Castro from the beginning, who always wanted to be the leader.

And can you imagine what impact 600 attempts of murder, a failed invasion, constant threats and offenses have on a leader and the politics surrounding them? Castro did not start the revolution to let Cuba become a communist state, imprison people or gag the newspapers and the public. There lays a logical consistency underneath all that has happenend. It made me sad to see that. Almost misanthropic.

How did you stumble upon the character of Karl Mertens?

He is put together out of different lifelines of people that I stumbled upon during my research. I wanted to have a foreign journalist who stayed in Cuba after the revolution. But everyone I came across either left Cuba or was killed trying to take the revolution to another country.

The way Karl looks is based on some photos I shot in Havanna during a parade. There was a journalist from a French news agency who had the perfect look, a mixture of enthusiasm and naivety, but sympathetic, and clearly European.

Volker Skierka, who is one of the most famous Castro biographers worldwide, was an enormous help in writing this book. He had some problems with the Karl character in the beginning. But after a while he understood what I wanted to say through this character.

What was it that you wanted to express through this character?

He is the character through whom we can enter the story. We can easily indentify with him. When the story unfolds more we can understand his problems and the ones of his friends. Castro is not a person to identify with. Karl is accesible to us.

On the other hand, I wanted to show someone who lives in the city, and give the reader access to the lives of Cubans and people living in Havanna. When Castro was announcing a new law, let’s say for the rationing of food, I did not want to only show Castro speaking.  It was important to show what was happening in the grocery stores, and the implications that Castro’s initiatives and laws were having for ordinary people.

Would you say that your Johnny Cash’s biography was a turning point in your career as a cartoonist?

Absolutely. It was my first really big success and now I can do almost everything I want. A book like Havanna would not have been possible without that, though as it happens I was right, Havanna became a good seller in Germany. And it proved that I am capable of writing my own stories. On most books before I had a writer.

What are your new projects in the short and middle term?

At the moment I am working on the life story of a jewish boxer. His name is Hertzko Haft and he survived the concentration camps where he was forced to box against other prisoners to provide entertainment for militray personnel. This story really touched my soul. After that I might work on a reissue of an old series of mine, “Berlinoir”, which is about vampires in Berlin. Then I’d like to draw a comic book about an expedition. And I found an amazing narration of a boxing champion, but I don’t think I can do another boxing story again. You see, there are so many good stories, and so many options to be explored!

But I would not do a biography about a politician again so soon. It really was so much work! In the case of Fidel Castro you have to fight through 80 years of complex politicial history in order to really undertand the story of how the man became what he is today, and how integral he is to Cuban history.

This interview was conducted by Julio Soria at Madrid’s Agencia EFE and is reproduced here with permission.


Graphic novels by Reinhard Kleist are available online via the following links:

Johnny Cash: I see a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist (French flap paperback edition)

Johnny Cash: I see a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist (HD Soundtrack edition for iPad)

Castro: a graphic biography (paperback edition)

The first 500 copies of Castro contain an exclusive Castro art print (numbered edition of 500) by Reinhard Kleist and can still be picked up from the following independent retailers nationwide:

– Selected Forbidden Planet International
– Selected Forbidden Planet stores
– Thought Bubble stores
– Gosh! Comics
– Plan B Books
– Dave’s Comics
– Mega City Comics

Every fifth signed copy supplied to these stores also has an ink brush sketch by Kleist on the title page, while stocks last. So keep your eyes peeled!

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