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April 6, 2010

Comics Are My Religion: Johnny Cash & Redemption

Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialogue about religion in this column. Be warned, if you haven’t read the series discussed below, you might want to go read it and come back, as this column may contain spoilers!

If there’s three things I love, it’s comic books, religion, and Johnny Cash.

I can remember sitting in my grandfather’s old Ford truck as a child and hearing the unique bass-baritone voice of the Man in Black coming out of the radio. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I remember hearing his voice again. I used to hate country music, but when I heard Johnny Cash sing Deliah’s Gone from his American Recordings release, I knew this guy was hardcore. I fell in love with those American recordings, and began collecting the older compilations of songs I had heard in passing in other places like A Boy Named Sue, Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues, and Man In Black.

Over the years, Johnny Cash has drifted in and out of my life in unexpected ways. I was in Scotland visiting my brother-in-law (who’s Irish), and heard him sing Ring Of Fire when he thought no one was looking. I remember being moved seeing an episode of Smallville, where Lex Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum, was locked up by his evil father Lionel in an insane asylum as they played Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s Hurt. I remember hearing Man In Black after I was ordained to the priesthood, and really understanding what Cash was talking about in that song and later using his answer of why I wear black as a priest. I even played A Boy Named Sue at a talent show at my last church.

So I was delighted to hear that German creator Reinhard Kleist had done a graphic biography of Cash in last year’s Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness. I thoroughly enjoyed the film Walk The Line that came out a few years back, and had heard that I See A Darkness was a great book that focused more on the man Johnny Cash rather than his relationship with June Carter. This book includes some of that, but really tells a different story.

Cash’s story is one of redemption, and this graphic novel does a beautiful job of telling this story. I See A Darkness traces Cash’s history to his childhood growing up in a poor family in Arkansas. We see the beginnings of his love of music. Most clearly, we are witnesses of his close relationship with his brother Jack. This relationship shapes Johnny’s outlook on life, but also his faith in God. When Jack dies, Johnny’s spiritual journey takes a detour, but also leads him to further pursue his career in music.

Eventually, as Johnny’s popularity increases, he succumbs to addiction and a growing darkness begins to surround him. However, he is not completely overtaken, as even in his darkest hours, he sees visions of his brother, who in the story is a strong image of God in Johnny’s life. Through his faith, through the love he shared with friends, Johnny emerges anew.

However, what I love about Johnny Cash was that while he struggled with addiction, and turned over new leaves more than once, he never became preachy or holier-than-thou about his redemption. His music always seemed to portray a humility about where he had been and what he had done wrong. In fact, the graphic novel shows this really well in how Johnny is driven to play his famous show in Folsom Prison to the inmates. Johnny never puts the inmates down in that show, he never tells them to pursue righteousness. Instead, he provides them the same gift that he received. He gives them a bit of light in the midst of their darkness.

That’s what redemption really is. It’s light in the darkness. Despite popular belief, religion is not about a bunch of rules that are supposed to make you feel bad about yourself. Religion is intended to help us learn about right and wrong, but in order to learn about the wrong, you have to go there. Without it, how can you truly understand that the pain of this world is not the end? I believe all the major faith traditions offer the concept of forgiveness and redemption.

In the Christian tradition, we have the story of the Prodigal Son, where a son is given his inheritance, blows it, then realizes that he blew it. So he goes back to his father and his father forgives him, completely, and even throws him a party. This is a central concept to Christianity that even Christians forget. Redemption is always at our fingertips. We all make mistakes and bad choices. Yet all can receive the light of God’s love. Redemption isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. With redemption comes a great amount of humility, which Cash exudes especially in his final days.

Kleist does a brilliant job of displaying this concept throughout the book. Johnny Cash doesn’t appear to be a saint at all. He destroys his first marriage and family. He becomes mean and difficult to work with. He pushes people he cares about away. He can’t even function at one point. Yet somehow even his music tells the story of his sorrow and his redemption. In a way that could only be done in sequential art, Kleist cuts into the narrative with graphic retellings of Cash’s songs, starting with Folsom Prison Blues and ending with Ghost Riders In The Sky. These songs pop up at poignant periods of Kleist’s history of Cash’s life, with Cash always as the lead character in the song. Despite all the songs Cash finds himself in, in the end, he receives his redemption from the Ghost Riders in the Sky.

This book is best enjoyed if you know the songs of Johnny Cash. If you don’t know them, get a compilation, and play them while you’re reading. But Kleist does a great job of tying them in, so even if you don’t know the songs, you can see how the lyrics fit. Kleist’s work in black and white is perfect too, to show the difference of these two colors in the life of Cash.

I think I’m drawn to Cash because his story is so much like my own. I have not been addicted to drugs, but I understand the darkness that life can bring. I understand what pain is. I know what it’s like to feel lost. But I also know that pain, suffering, mistakes, and wrong choices are not the end of the story. Death isn’t even the end of the story. Instead, we all live in that wonderful mystery of life that continues for eternity. Cash knew this too, and reminds us that even if you “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” or beat up your dad for naming you Sue, or if you “took a shot of cocaine and shot that woman down,” you’re not outside the realm of redemption.

Click here to check out previous installments of Comics Are My Religion!

Jeff Jackson



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Comic Attack. Comic Attack said: This month in COMICS ARE MY RELIGION: Comic books, God, and Johnny Cash!! http://tinyurl.com/y94e4my #comics #god #johnnycash […]

  2. I never knew about this book but from what you state here Jeff it’s a definite must have for any Cash fan.
    The Prodigal Son story is probably one of the most relateable stories in the bible whether you believe in God or not and it’s funny how I actually thought of that when I saw Walk the Line as well.

    As always Jeff a great and insightful read!

  3. Kristin

    I’m a little confused. Is the book a collection of graphic stories about Cash’s life, or is the whole thing a bio by Kleist?
    Is the graphic novel based on a biography of Cash?
    And how much does it run? Because my husband is a big fan too.

  4. @Kristin–The whole thing is a bio of Cash’s life, but at certain intervals it throws in a graphic depiction of one of Cash’s songs. It’s done really well. If your hubby likes Cash, he should read this. It retails for $23.50.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Comic Attack. Comic Attack said: Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness TPB is the focus of this month's Comics Are My Religion! http://tinyurl.com/yblrhll #comics #johnnycash […]

  6. Billy

    Awesome work Jeff! Really insightful info. I like Cash’s music eventhough I wouldn’t consider myself a hardcore fan. He always seemed to have an open-hearted quality about himself.

  7. This is something I’ve always pondered- religion connections or no: can there be redemption without forgiveness?

    Also, what is it that makes a man truly feel redeemed? Tough questions that hurt my brain when I dwell on them for too long…

  8. Johnny Cash changed the world of music forever, and the music world will not be the same without him. His music touched to tons of people around the blog. RIP Johnny!

  9. […] Writer/Artist–Nonfiction • Reinhard Kleist, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (Abrams ComicArts) • Willy Linthout, Years of the Elephant (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) • Joe Sacco, […]

  10. Jeff Jackson

    @Andy-That’s a great question. Forgiveness on the part of whom? I don’t think redemption rests on the forgiving nature of the one wronged, per se. But forgiveness of self is a prerequisite of redemption. What do you think?

    As for your second question, I think that is only answered by the individual who feels redeemed. I would say those who feel redeemed, yet are then quick to judge others, have not felt the full sense of redemption. One who is redeemed is humble above all else, knowing that redemption isn’t a remedy for future mistakes.

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