For fans interested in a lovingly drawn, boundlessly creative vision of Nick Cave, Mercy on Me is the real deal.
The biggest music gods come with extraordinary origin stories. Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads, Jim Morrison possessed by the spirit of a dead Native American, whatever yarn Bob Dylan is currently spinning about his youthful days in Minnesota—these legends fuel the larger-than-life images we enjoy ascribing our rock heroes. Joining the canon of indelible stars is Nick Cave, who now has a graphic novel, Nick Cave: Mercy on Me, dedicated to his history.
However, writer Reinhard Kleist will disappoint anyone looking for a straight telling of the Australian’s backstory. Mercy on Me is a blood-splattered funhouse of what Cave himself calls “biographical half-truths and complete fabulations.” This isn’t the Nick Cave we’ve seen laid bare in recent documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth and One More Time with Feeling. Instead, it’s a fever dream that cherry-picks from the legends surrounding Cave’s destructive rise with the Birthday Party to entire digressions where songs such as “Jangling Jack” come to life before our very eyes.
It’s hard to imagine Nick Cave as a young man, before his persona took hold. In the book’s more realistic passages, we see the musician and his band eschew his native Australia for London, living in squalor whilst fine-tuning his violent stage act. In these scenes Cave is arch and petulant, sparring with bandmates while drowning in the bleak sorrow of London and missing his girlfriend, Anita Lane. He soon descends further by becoming hooked on heroin, and here is where Kleist is most interested.
Like a similar graphic novel he wrote about Johnny Cash, Kleist tracks Cave’s path to redemption, charting just how an ex-junkie has progressed to become one of the most beloved and respected modern musicians. However, Kleist eschews straight narrative in telling his tale, instead giving life to characters from Cave’s songs and novels. We see Euchrid Eucrow, Eliza Day, the criminal from “The Mercy Seat,” all kaleidoscopic pieces of the Cave legend.
Sometimes Kleist veers too far into fantasia. Instead of building up all the players who helped create Nick Cave, such as Blixa Bargeld, Warren Ellis, Mick Harvey and Tracy Pew, the supporting members in the musician’s life are relegated to caricature or mere cameo. Those without a working knowledge of Cave’s backstory will likely be hopelessly lost as the story jumps from time and place.
For fans interested in a lovingly drawn, boundlessly creative vision of Nick Cave, Mercy on Me is the real deal. They will likely appreciate Kleist’s renderings of Cave as he progresses from a wiry, dour youth to his dignified, besuited older incarnation. Casual listeners and those who know little of the musician will have to do some homework before stepping into Kleist’s pages. It has taken Nick Cave a long time to get his due. Kleist’s tome is likely just the beginning of the lionization that the artist deserves.