With his furrowed brow and black attire, Nick Cave’s appearance makes for appropriate caricature material in Reinhard Kleist’s graphic biography Mercy on Me. However, although successfully conveying Cave’s look, Kleist is ultimately unable to deliver anything more profound about the eclectic musician.
Mercy on Me tracks Cave’s beginnings in small town Australia with The Birthday Party, his international travels, and eventual success with The Bad Seeds. However this is only semi-biographical, as Kleist obfuscates both conventional structure (each chapter starting before the previous one) and truth (Cave’s endorsement of the book acknowledged that it’s filled with “half-truths and complete fabrications”).
In this book, facts are less important than feeling. Yet without this grounding influence, we are only given access to snapshots of Cave’s career, making his impatient characterisation appear unwarranted and his success unearned. The book is peppered with lyrics from Cave’s notable songs including ‘King Ink’ and ‘Red Right Hand’. However, as the book lacks a clear narrative, they act as superficial flavouring rather than engaging and reflecting the text.
Evidently this book is aimed at already knowledgeable fans rather than newcomers, something emphasised by Kleist’s impressive array of references. Sequences are built around song lyrics, while figures from Cave’s musical scene briefly cameo. Again, these networks of references unfortunately fail to build to a greater whole. In a typical sequence, provocative singer Lydia Lunch appears for a few pages, makes a few esoteric comments, and quickly disappears again. It is unclear what insight of Cave anyone will gain from Mercy on Me, regardless of how familiar they are with him as a person.
This is doubly disappointing given Kleist’s clear talent and skill, which particularly shines through in his artwork; his scratchy, raw and deliberately messy illustrations capture the crazed and rebellious tone of Cave’s music. When the art comes first in Mercy on Me, like when Cave’s brutal vocals are presented as decapitating his audience, the book is most effective. Unfortunately, the art usually comes second, constrained by narrative boxes, expository dialogue or song lyrics. Rather than embracing the expressive potential of the comics’ medium, Kleist’s visualisations of Cave’s lyrics are incredibly literal, presenting the most basic interpretation of his songs.
Perhaps Kleist is fundamentally hindered by converting the purely auditory medium of music into the purely visual one of comics, especially the mythical and emotional music of Nick Cave. But Mercy on Me’s main issue is it cannot be as subversive as its subject matter, given that it is so unwaveringly beholden to it. At one point, Cave gives a typically obscure and polemical comment on a German band’s songs: “they’re just words! Beneath the surface is so much more! Monsters lurk there! Music lets us tease us out!”. If only Kleist had recognised Cave’s advice, and followed the music more than the words.
Nick Cave: Mercy on Me by Reinhard Kleist.