by Andy Wolverton
Just look at that face. Who can resist the cute little guy on the cover of Gabriel Hardman’s new graphic novel Kinski? Certainly not Joe, a traveling salesman who meets the stray black lab puppy while standing outside a motel on a business trip. Joe quickly falls for the dog, proclaiming to his business associates in the motel lobby that he’s taking him home and renaming him Kinski, after the brilliant but volatile (and possibly crazy) German actor Klaus Kinski.
When Animal Control picks up the dog — holding him until the rightful owner comes to claim him — Joe’s attachment turns to obsession. He blows his business presentation and jeopardizes his job to rescue Kinski, a dog that legally belongs to someone else. All of this seems rather impulsive until we realize that Joe really doesn’t have much else in his life that he can hold onto.
From what I’ve just conveyed, you’d think Kinski (originally published in single issues by MonkeyBrain Comics) might be a heartwarming “boy and his dog” type of story for grown-ups, but Hardman (Star Wars: Legacy, Hulk, Secret Avengers, and storyboard artist for Inception, X2: X-Men United, Interstellar) has a few other things in mind.
One of those things is clearly a character study. Why does Joe fall so hard for this dog, risking everything for him? Is Joe getting further away from his true self or closer to it, revealing something about his life that he’s previously kept hidden? Another aspect of the book concerns our attraction to pets. Does Kinski really understand Joe’s love for him or is he simply — as many people thought of his namesake actor — just crazy?
Hardman also asks some tougher questions on a broader scale. At what point do we question rightful ownership (of a pet, in this case) when it becomes clear the owner is acting irresponsibly? And how do we even define irresponsibility? Do Joe’s intentions to do the right thing justify the questionable nature of his actions? What would we do?
Early in the story, Joe — with Kinski in a dog carrier — tries to fly home from his business trip, but is told that Kinski will have to go in the cargo hold. Joe refuses, claiming that if he allowed that, he’d be “no better than the people who lost him in the first place.” Yet twice in the book, Joe seeks to “bend” the rules, saying, “Couldn’t we come to some kind of accommodation?” Later, when trying to explain his mixed feelings and questionable decision-making to his friend Frank, Joe says, “It’s really a complicated situation.” Frank says, “No, it’s not.” There’s a battle going on inside Joe’s head: what he knows is right and what he wants to be right.
Kinski is filled with little (and big) decisions that aren’t easy and are seen differently by different people. Although Kinski contains several moments of humor and levity, it always comes back to the problem of Joe deciding “What should I do?”
Hardman’s art style early in the book reminds me of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, not only in his panel construction — Stray Bullets pages are normally laid out in eight-panel grids; Kinski is structured in five or six-panel grids — but also in his line work. Early on, Hardman’s black-and-white drawings feature clean, bold lines, but as the comic progresses, the edges become rougher and more frayed, reflecting Joe’s deepening obsession. In later chapters of the book, we see a haggard-looking, unshaven Joe, now forced to travel on foot, clearly in the midst of noir-like shadows of isolation.
Hardman rarely draws two consecutive panels with the same point of view, even in scenes with just two characters talking. His writing is also forward-looking, constantly keeping the reader moving ahead with an element of suspense that’s hard to stop once you get started. I ripped through my initial reading of Kinski like a tornado. I had to find out what was going to happen next, how it was all going to end. Although the ending is a bit rushed, it is nevertheless satisfying.
Kinski is a graphic novel with more than its share of depth, action and humor. It’s also one of the best surprises of 2014.
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