Kinski by Gabriel Hardman

Written and Illustrated by Gabriel Hardman
Published by Image Comics (originally digitally by Monkeybrain)

Things aren't going that well for Joe. His job is on the line, but it's easier to focus on a random, lost dog that he quickly names Kinski. When that focus turns into an unhealthy obsession, the crumbling pillars holding up Joe's life begin to crumble in a story that will tug at any animal lover's sleeve.

Originally published digitally through Monkeybrain, Kinski is a great character study piece from one of my favorite creators, Gabriel Hardman. Joe is likable from the start, and you want things to go well for him. As he makes bad decision after bad decision, it's easy to wince or to want to shout "No! Don't do it!" at Joe, before he makes a terrible mistake. Hardman walks a fine line on this, between having the reader want to root for Joe, and being angry with him for certain choices, which seem grounded more in selfishness than in saving a dog that may not be in the best of hands. Ultimately, however, we're meant to emphasize with Joe, and as the story plays out, it becomes clear that while he was misguided, he's not a bad person.

That's what makes this one work so well, too. If Joe is too abrasive, we'd want him to fail, so there'd be no drama as he chases the dog into an unfriendly trailer park or gets evicted because he can't hold a job. He wavers on the edge of being sympathetic just enough so that when Hardman decides to redeem him at the end of the narrative, a reader does not feel cheated. It is a plot that could end badly or positively for Joe, and Hardman opts for the latter. (I do wonder if any drafts of the plot had it going the other way.)

Naturally, Kinski is amazing from a visual perspective. Hardman's linework is as strong as ever, and in black and white, you can see them in great detail. I loved how Hardman used different techniques, often on the same page. One scene, on the road, featured thick brush smears for clouds, a ziptone style for some of the shading, thick blacks for the power lines, and thin detailed work for the car, road lines, and other details.

A storyboard artist, Hardman is an expert at layouts, especially in splash scenes. Two particularly strong ones here are the introduction of the trailer park and junkyard. In the first instance, we get a sense of perspective, because Joe and his friend are in the foreground, while the park itself stretches off into the distance, with mountains in the backdrop. The trailers are set so close together, it's almost claustrophobic, yet they don't all look alike. This is even stronger in the junkyard, where a careful eye could make out the general models of the old cars.

In addition to the layouts, Hardman does a great job with the positioning and reactions of characters. There's definite time and care taken to think about how a person might stand when confronted, how they might look after a few drinks, or the way eyes open wide when someone makes an act of desperation. Hardman's people act within the comic, they don't merely take up space. They frown, they smile, they show distaste. It's something that really registers with me, because while it's (relatively) easy to put figures on the page, it's another thing entirely to have them do what they should be doing in any given situation. It's also nice to see Hardman use a variety of body shapes, clothing, and other little touches that add to the realism.

And then there's Kinski, the dog.  He's adorable. Sleek, with changing tones depending on the lighting, he emotes ever-so-subtly in each appearance. It's clear that Hardman loves animals, and it shows. While Kinski doesn't see a lot of screen time, each appearance puts him front and center.

The only real narrative weakness is that the supporting characters are mostly scenery, used to reflect Joe's traits or set up a scene. His boss is only focused on the job, but has a brief moment of caring. His co-worker tells him obsessing over the dog is a bad idea, then walks away. The waitress is a lovely woman in a bad relationship. The trailer park has a mean dude who immediately hates Joe. None of them get any chance to build from their usage. They're all used quite well, but it does mean that whether or not you like Kinski is going to be based entirely on how you feel about Joe.

Kinski is a great character study with amazing illustration. It was a lot of fun to read, and anyone who's ever loved an animal will definitely feel their heart strings tugged in this enjoyable graphic novel.