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Stuck In Traffic, Kalesniko Envisions Fears and Dreams

"Freeway" by Mark Kalesniko (Fantagraphics Books)

Mark Kalesniko's "Freeway" will be available on March 21.
Mark Kalesniko's "Freeway" will be available on March 21.
By Natalie duP. C. Panno, Crimson Staff Writer

There is something satisfying about a road narrative; it’s an ancient trope, hinting of westward expansion and independence, fast cars and tragic youth. The antithesis of this would naturally be the traffic narrative, which is unpopular for obvious reasons. It has everything Americans hate—a hero cooped up alone, forced into inactivity, and at the mercy of idiots. Mark Kelesniko’s new graphic novel, “Freeway,” is that narrative. Isolated, frustrated, powerless protagonist Alex is trapped in his car at a dead standstill on the freeways of Los Angeles, Calif.. A road narrative has, at its center, an iconic vehicle, but in a traffic narrative, it is the windows that matter most; Alex’s car, in fact, is unidentifiable. As he fumes, the story becomes a journey through his life, dreams, and desires, some of which materialize to haunt him on his way to work. Kalesniko invites readers to look past Alex to see some familiar faces pass by.

Kalesniko has revived Alex Kalienka, from “Alex” and “Why did Pete Duel Kill Himself?,” to chronicle one torturous morning commute on the Los Angeles freeway. Alex, a layout artist at 2D animation studio Babbit Jones Productions, daydreams as he drives. He recalls a disastrous relationship with a co-worker, his first lonely trip to Los Angeles in the seventies, and the career he would have had during the Golden Age of animation—a career much closer to his childhood dream.

Intricately rendered and carefully constructed, the pages of “Freeway” are detailed without being overwhelming. Though Alex inches along, Kalesniko moves at a fast clip through his protagonist’s ranging memory, squeezing complicated narratives, dreams, and visions into 414 pages. The one upside to traffic is the time it gives one to think; “Freeway” is a haunting exploration of the nostalgic, and often depressing, thoughts of a man who just can’t seem to get where he wants to go, in more ways than one.

Alex, a character that Kalesniko has said he first invented as a child, wears glasses and has a few wisps of hair, like many men approaching middle age. Yet, his muzzle and floppy ears set him jarringly apart from his coworkers and fellow commuters. Despite his childish cartoon origins—he more closely resembles his employer’s Bugs Bunny clone, Muck, than he does other humans—his face renders him almost inscrutable. Although Alex’s face isolates him from the world, it doesn’t go as far as the blank faces of the animals in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” or the total foreignness of the Bone cousins of “Bone.” It is cute yet pathetic, a perfect complement to the way Alex is trapped on the freeway, at his job, and in his love life.

Kalesniko has a clean, geometric drawing style that lends itself well to accurate depictions of Los Angeles and the never-ending columns of automobiles. It contrasts dramatically with Alex’s animation style and even Alex’s face itself. Kalesniko seems to have a love for traditional animation, judging from his admiring portrayal of an earlier era of cinematic cartoons, as well as the inclusion of Alex’s gifted mentor. Presented in opposition to an ambitious but untalented rival, the character shows Kalesniko’s clear preference for traditional artistry and experimentation over cliché merchandizing tie-ins. The characters of the two time periods are rendered slightly differently: those in the present day approach caricatures, with Charlie Brown hair and dots for eyes. Alex’s doppelgänger and his friends are not realistic, but they are certainly less cartoonish. A group photograph looks like it could have been drawn by Edward Gorey. Alex, of course, stands out, but he might do so more in a story with a consistent look. At times, the people he meets seem less human than he does. Perhaps this is Kalesniko’s way of noting a relaxation today in animators’ work ethic and artistic goals, or pointing out a growing rift between age and maturity, or emphasizing the beauty of a dream over the mockery of real life. Because Kalesniko does not differentiate the style of Alex’s thoughts and dreams, his purpose is unclear; yet, by maintaining a more even design across stories, he links them together to further isolate Alex.

Near the end of “Freeway,” Alex’s co-worker tells him, “Animation is a lot like sausages. You shouldn’t see how it’s made.” One could certainly debate his claim; after all, sometimes a museum-goer likes to be reminded of the artist’s existence with a fingerprint or a dab of paint. However, despite Kalesniko’s lovely hand-drawn style, with the rare inclusion of computer-manipulated panels, he might have done well to refer back to his character’s advice. The few spots where he does rely on Photoshop to create the illusion of a shift in time but not space, are somewhat disorienting. The choice makes the art look dated earlier than it should be. Elsewhere, Kalesniko masterfully uses close-ups and sequencing to suggest aging or a change in scene, so his use of computer graphics is confusing. CGI and Photoshop are most effective when they are either the primary medium or entirely unnoticeable; Kalesniko’s inclusion of these techniques is neither.

The destination of this anti-road narrative is not, as one might believe, Alex’s office, a converted warehouse sometimes infiltrated by pigeons, but Alex’s early demise. Kalesniko shows death scenarios over and over again, freak accidents all, but originating entirely in Alex’s mind. As Alex lies on the ground, burnt, broken, smashed, passers-by approach to fill the page’s narrow panels, looming uncomfortably large, necks craning to hear Alex’s last words. He imagines his gruesome death, but also the sole moments in which he connects on a personal level with those glimpsed only through two sets of car windows. It seems Alex cannot form relationships, whether romantic or professional, with others without damaging himself. It is a depressing conclusion, but Kalesniko approaches his long-suffering protagonist delicately, balancing his dreams and his failure in a perceptive combination of artistic talent and psychological acuity that lingers in the mind long after Alex has escaped his traffic jam.

—Staff writer Natalie DuP. C. Panno can be reached at npanno@fas.harvard.edu.

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