Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Kinski. Written and drawn by Gabriel Hardman (Star Wars: Legacy, Secret Avengers), this print collection of the digital-first series showcases Hardman’s immense skill as a storyteller, telling a captivating crime drama with a narrative focusing on one man’s obsessive attachment to a dog that is not his.
On the front cover of Image Comics’ new print collection of Gabriel Hardman’s Kinski, an adorable black labrador puppy stares ahead, eyes wide, head cocked, tongue out, begging to be petted. That visual gives little idea of the trouble the dog will cause, but there is something unsettling about those brown eyes surrounded by pools of black, suggesting a darkness lingering under the huggable surface. He wants to play, but the game he has in mind could spell the demise of the businessman who finds Kinski running through a parking lot.
On the back cover, we find the man who falls under that cute puppy’s spell, an unassuming Jimmy Stewart type whose expression is eerily similar to the animal opposite him. Joe’s eyes are wide, his head is slightly cocked to the side, and while his tongue is still in his mouth, his lips are relaxed and slightly open. He’s entranced by something, and that enthrallment isn’t doing him any favors. He looks like he just came down from a bender, still wearing his suit from the previous day while his formerly coiffed hair dangles sloppily over his forehead and coarse stubble grows along his jawline. Something has gone wrong for this man, but what?
The answer is simple: He fell in love. Love at first sight, actually. Obsessive love at first sight. From the first moment Joe kneels down to put his hands on the wildly affectionate puppy, he’s hopelessly devoted to the creature. He will do anything to have him and keep him, and that dedication sends Joe down a spiral of self-destruction as he fights to protect his claim to a dog that is not his.
Over the course of the story, you get the impression that Joe doesn’t have a regular source of love in his life. There’s no recognition that he has any sort of significant other, friends, or family members that deeply care about him; he has his co-workers who accompany him on business trips, but they don’t show him any sort of deep fondness for him. Margaret tolerates Joe as long as he’s useful, and while Frank is friendlier, the two men probably don’t hang out very much unless they’re traveling together.
This means Joe doesn’t have anyone to give love to in return. If there’s a person he’s passionate about, it’s German actor Klaus Kinski, and that’s a completely one-sided relationship. Joe is attracted to chaotic figures, which is why he creates an immediate bond with this hyperactive animal. In an interview with Robot 6 last year, Hardman discussed his impetus for the story and how Klaus Kinski entered the picture:
I like the idea of using a dog to spark the story because animals are chaotic. They don’t have the same set of social rules to adhere to as we do. Dogs don’t care about our problems! They can send the story off into unexpected directions… The dog was always going to be called Kinski. You know what I was saying about animals being chaotic? Well, the real Klaus Kinski, the actor, was nothing if not chaotic.
Animals are naturally chaotic, but once the puppy is renamed Kinski, that aspect of its personality is pushed even further. For a brief time, the dog is returned to his rightful owners and his original name of Bosley, and that unruliness dissipates as he plays with a small child while tightly tied to a swing set. In that moment, Joe sees the childhood he was denied (he never had a dog growing up), but also sees the shackles of adulthood in Bosley’s leash, a visualization of the obligations that don’t give Joe any satisfaction. When Joe cuts that leash, he cuts his connection to his old life, and Kinski leads him down a dangerous path that breaks the man down before pulling him back up in the story’s final pages.
As Hardman mentions in the above quote, the chaos of Kinski allows him to take the story in unexpected direction, which shouldn’t be spoiled here, but it keeps the narrative momentum moving at a very rapid pace. While Kinski isn’t aware of the problems he’s causing for Joe, the joy he exhibits in the process brings a certain sadistic quality to the animal. Kinski is in full-on play mode and he’s loving it, with no sense of what this game is costing his new owner. Yet with everything Joe loses, Kinski also presents Joe with an opportunity to gain something he’s always wanted: someone to love. And not just a dog, either.
When he’s forced to stay an extra night in the desert town of North Bend because he doesn’t want to check Kinski onto his plane as cargo, Joe meets the bartender Holly, a beautiful woman who shares a similar affection for Klaus Kinski. She’s also one of Bosley’s owners, looking for the man that stole her son’s beloved dog. That presents certain complications for Joe, and when he eventually decides to return his new pet, events take a turn for the worse. But not all hope is lost. After five and a half chapters of tense dognapping crime drama, Hardman’s story takes a sudden turn in a more uplifting, romantic direction, ultimately putting Joe in a position where he can have everything he was hoping for when he first met that mischievous little black Lab.
Gabriel Hardman works consistently as a Hollywood storyboard artist, contributing to movies like X2, Superman Returns (he worked on the thrilling airplane rescue scene), and Tropic Thunder, as well as Christopher Nolan’s last three films: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and this week’s Interstellar. Working in film, he’s sharpened his moment-to-moment storytelling skills by breaking down specific emotional, action, and plot beats and honing his framing and staging, and his work on Kinski is truly deserving of being called cinematic, an oft-used adjective when describing comics art.
Assuming you had the appropriate set pieces, you could get some actors, a camera crew, and start filming a Kinski movie immediately using the script and art of the comic book as the guide. Hardman’s attention to character expression makes the character’s inner emotions explicitly clear, and all the set direction you need is in his meticulously detailed environments. He creates a distinct sense of place in this story, making the desolate desert environment a reflection of the apathy within Joe. He was a barren wasteland of feeling until Kinski entered his life, summoning a wave of positive and negative emotions that Joe isn’t adequately prepared to deal with.
The print edition of Kinski is priced at $14.99 for 142 pages, but readers can find the entire story on Comixology for less than half that price thanks to Monkeybrain Comics. And it’s a comic that works exceptionally well in a digital format. The art sticks to a six-panel rectangular grid that presents the story with stark clarity, and that grid makes the comic especially engrossing when reading it on digital devices. Like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, which is also on a set grid—although one of eight panels rather than six—Kinski is a perfect fit for Comixology’s guided view technology. Every panel fits neatly on a digital screen, forcing the reader to spend more time on each individual panel and focus on the craft that goes into creating that visual.
In print, Image’s Kinski collection is a slick package at a size that makes it a great read for a workday commute, measuring just a bit longer than 10 inches and a bit shorter than 6 inches. It’s a size closer to a paperback novel than the traditional collection size for Image Comics, which may seem like an insignificant cosmetic decision, but actually makes the book more accessible to non-comic readers. Digest-size collections are sturdier and easier to carry, and while Kinski isn’t quite that small, the more compact size is a benefit. Book stores love graphic novels at this size, which is why Pantheon and First Second publish books with smaller dimensions, and Kinski is a comic with a lot of potential in those outlets, especially with that striking cover of a creepy-cute puppy. That animal immediately pulls you in, and the story doesn’t let go until the final page.