Review by A.M. Larks
“I’m a bad dog,” is the opening salvo of Jeff Kronenfeld’s autobiographical graphic novel, Dog Years, illustrated by Russ Kazmierczak, Jr. The story is one about prison, redemption, incarceration, and the arts, none of it told or experienced in a linear way. Which is, of course, part of the point.
Kronenfeld opens with his entry into prison and his uncertain future beyond the two years to twenty-eight months inside.
“As the chemicals and delusions faded, that awful truth came into focus, I was a drug dealer who hurt people, including ones I loved.”
This journey is unlike the romantic notion of a crossroads with superficial choices and simplistic outcomes. What has led Kronenfeld to this moment is a windy road of personal choices and intervening actions from other parties, which is why the choice to illustrate the entirety of Dog Years in black and white is so crucial. This choice plays into the assumption of the justice system itself (people are criminals or are not criminals) and to our larger assumptions about life (people are either good or bad). In this black and white world there are a range of people—from caring and friendly to mean and spiteful—in every category, whether criminal or prison employee, which is underscored by the range of events and interactions.
Dog Years further uses form to its advantage by transforming prisoners—including Kronenfeld himself—into dogs during the “Dog Year” period. Graphic novels, by their nature, can draw on visual elements to extend metaphors that would be cliché or fall flat in other forms. This narrative choice has far-reaching metaphorical implications evoking caged animals, animalistic behaviors, and sub-human views on incarnated individuals. When a person is chained to a wall, not just like a dog but as a dog, the image, even in cartoon black and white, is haunting.
Kazmierczak’s illustrations showcase an array of styles and techniques. Scaling, scene-in-scene, negative space, and silhouetting are all used to convey the finer points of the narrative, making the reader feel the effects of being inside. In a particularly poignant panel, Kronenfeld lays on the floor of the solitary confinement cell, the bars’ shadows atop his figure, literally pressing down on his person.
The other point is “a critique of the carceral state, of the injustice of the criminal justice system, and the crime that is mass imprisonment in the US.” Kronenfeld feels he has failed at this because too much of his own story has taken over the narrative, but it is through his narrative that we are able to understand the harshness of the system. Without a character to connect to, the information would be emotionless statistics. The critique comes from the events in Kronenfeld’s story. That the readers fear for Kronenfeld’s safety through the multiple attacks on his life, the set-ups, and various other interactions is the eye-opening exposure of a failed system that was needed. Nothing more need be said.
Kronenfeld found a path through the darkness using writing and the arts, but not all do. Dog Years does exactly what Kronenfeld intended it to do, just not in the way Kronenfeld intended—precisely like his path to becoming a writer. He got there. He has done it. Just not the way he thought he would.
On the very last page, Dog Years includes a page full of resources for prisoners re-emerging from prison, fitting for an author who is reaching back into his own history to effect change. Kronenfeld may have been a bad dog, but it seems he has become a good man.
AM Larks’ writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current assistant managing editor and blog editor, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me and former blog editor of The Coachella Review. AM Larks earned a MFA in Creative Writing from U.C. Riverside Palm Desert, a J.D., and B.A. in English Literature