Reviews: from the Holocaust to the Ring, Kleist’s “The Boxer”
This book is moving.
Personally I don’t read a lot of smaller publications because usually it is really hard to find something well written or with decent production values – there are so many smaller start-ups or people chancing that people will think they’re as good a storyteller as they think they are that you have to wade through a lot mud and mediocrity before you get to the gems. That said, this book is a Gem! I’ve never heard of German creator Kleist or SelfMadeHero (you’ve not been reading the many SMH title reviews we’ve posted on the blog in recent years then! Including work from the excellent Kleist!- Joe) but I’m a huge boxing fan, and a fan of war stories so a book that combines the two piqued my interest enough that I’d give it a try (and worse case scenario, I’d an extra book to take up space and be talked about on my shelf).
Kleist, from what I gathered from the promotional material, is an experienced biographer and graphic novelist, so this wasn’t his first foray into the medium. He has a very distinct style in both writing and art and, thankfully, doesn’t make the mistake of over-filling the page with writing but frequently let’s the art tell the story. And the story is Grim. It tells of late 1940s professional Boxer Harry Haft, who is also a Polish Holocaust survivor. It details his life from roughly 1936 and then through when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, his time in the death camp of Auschwitz (where his physique gets him marked out for boxing by the SS, ironically giving him a chance to survive and a vocation) right up to his post-war prize fight against Hall of Fame hero, the legendary Rocky Marciano. The story is dark, moody and heart breaking at times as it tells of a man who lost family, freedom, the woman he loves and even basic human rights as he struggled to survive in some of the worst conditions imaginable.
I read this in two hours, it’s that gripping; I simply couldn’t put it down, nearly every scene was a page turner, and I would audibly gasp and exclaim ‘wow’ as I went on the narrative with Haft (the book is told from a first person point of view). Adding to the narrative is the art; Kleist uses a beautiful ink style, whilst keeping the whole story in black and white. His expressions are clear and cartoonistic, reminiscent of a Chris Samnee or a Francesco Francovilla but with a brush and ink style, rather than pencils and line drawing, similar to Jock on Detective Comics or his recent Savage Wolverine arc. He also heavily uses shadow, which can detract at times from the clarity of the narrative but the trade off for that is that it enhances the mood – occasionally I would look at panels and take a little while to understand what was going on -although it was also likely that what was happening was so horrifying, I didn’t want to understand what was going on. Kleist pulls no punches in either the narrative or the artwork and illustrates what exactly Haft went through and felt.
The book is beautiful, visually it really is candy for the eyes but conversely at the same time it’s horrific as the subject matter is from a man’s darkest and most painful period. You spend your entire time empathising with Haft and feeling his pain, and in some scenes I was nearly reduced to tears. I would strongly recommend this book- it’s in the same category of storytelling as Primo Levi’s ‘If This be a Man’ or Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. It is accessible and relatable and I can’t say enough good things about it. I may well have to read it again (I generally write my reviews just after finishing a book whilst it’s fresh in my mind) immediately, but will most certainly pick it up and re-read it frequently- as well as lend it to friends, it’s one of those kinds of books you find yourself recommending and loaning to others.