Monday, July 11, 2011

iPad App Review - Johnny Cash: I (Can Almost) See a Darkness

by Reinhard Kleist

Full Disclosure: The music of Johnny Cash is in my blood. His songs were my lullabies - and I don't mean that figuratively. When I was little, my parents kept a turntable in my room and a stack of their Cash 45s on the spindle. I'd go to sleep listening to the hits and, if I stayed up late enough, the b-sides. In my memory, these songs still have the vinyl pops and hisses in them, and I know them all note for note.

Needless to say, when I learned about Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel JOHNNY CASH: I SEE A DARKNESS, I was excited. And when I discovered that it was available for the iPad, I jumped on it. I'd been reading and enjoying some free comics (like those from comiXology, and Throwaway Horse's Ulysses "Seen") on my iPad, so I figured that my first actual digital comics purchase was only a matter of time. The fact that DARKNESS for the iPad was a "soundtrack edition" (it plays portions of relevant songs as you read the graphic novel, if they're in your iTunes library) just seemed too cool to pass up.

Story-wise, I SEE A DARKNESS follows the young Johnny Cash up through the concert at Folsom Prison, with a brief coda from the end of his life, at a recording session with producer Rick Rubin. It'll all be a bit familiar to anyone who's seen the WALK THE LINE biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon; much of the plot emphases in both tellings are identical. But DARKNESS focuses almost exclusively on Cash himself - June Carter's role, while pivotal and important, remains rather small. This is definitely a "warts-and-all" presentation of Cash, with his pill-popping and stubbornness central to his portrayal. (I admit, there were times in reading DARKNESS where I did not much like my hero.)

Cash's life story is balanced by two other narrative strands. First is that of Glen Sherley, a Folsom inmate who's obsessed with Cash and who has written a song that he hopes Cash will sing. The second strand is actually a series of occasional song adaptations, all starring variations on Johnny Cash as the various protagonists. These adaptations help to build the mythology behind Cash, just as the main narrative helps to ground his life in reality, and that balance helps make the book sing.

A final word about the story-telling: Kleist's renderings are beautiful. His Johnny Cash is particularly impressive, always recognizable no matter what age he is supposed to be. More than just photographically realistic, the images live and breathe. This is fine cartooning.

While overall I was impressed with the book as a graphic novel, as an iPad app it leaves much to be desired. First, the "soundtrack" option simply doesn't work very well. The song snippets don't always play when they're supposed to - they usually only played a while after the relevant portion of the narrative had already passed. This problem was accentuated when re-entering the app after using another app (I did not manage to read the entire book in one sitting) - not only did the songs seem to get progressively later, but once the app even lost my place entirely, and I had to re-find my page (there is no bookmark feature that I could find).

But music is only an add-on, one that's peripheral to the reading experience. More importantly, the book itself has a serious display problem. You really only can read it in the "animated frame," or panel-by-panel view. The "full page" view, bizarrely, uses only a portion of the screen, not its entirety, as you can see below:
The lettering in the book is on the small side to begin with, so when the page is presented at this miniscule size, the lettering is pretty much indecipherable. You can pinch the image to make it fill the screen, but (1) you'd need to pinch and hold on every single page, since as soon as you stop pinching, the image reverts to its original size, and (2) the resolution is such that, when you enlarge the images, they get blurry and hard to read. I cannot understand why an app designed for the iPad fails to make use of the entire screen. And even in the panel-by-panel view, there's lots of wasted screen real estate.

The app also seems generally unstable. Occasionally during the animated frame presentation, usually when it was showing a full-page panel, the display would get stuck in a loop, zooming in and out and back again. And several times the app simply crashed for no apparent reason.

If I had it to do over again, I would have spent the extra money and purchased the printed book instead of the iPad app. The innovation of having relevant music play as you read doesn't work as well as it should, and the lack of a real full-screen reading experience is a definite disappointment. JOHNNY CASH: I SEE A DARKNESS is a book that deserves a better presentation.

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7/16/2011 1:35 AM  

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