Yes, there really is a town called simply Trail. It’s in British Columbia, in Western Canada, and is distinctive for some of its quirky architecture, its wood-frame houses built high up above each other snuggled into the steep valley of the Columbia river, raised on poles and connected by covered stairways. Trail was home to Mark Kalesniko (pronounced “Kal-ez-SNEEK-o”) and renamed Bandini, it’s the locale for his three graphic novels to date. He left for California in 1981 to study and then landed a job at Disney, where he worked in character animation on Mulan, Little Mermaid and Atlantis. But in 1991 he answered the siren call of comics, a passion since his childhood reading of Carl Barks’ ducks and Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, and found a supportive publisher in Fantagraphics.
Kalesniko first made his mark in 1994 with Alex, originally a six-issue series which was collected only in 2006. This introduced his hapless misfit Alex, a more adult version of a funny animal he had invented as a kid. Alex may not actually have a dog’s head, but he feels so alienated and isolated from others, this is how he views himself and how he imagines everyone else views him. There are some autobiographical elements in this tale of a thirty-something successful animator who abandons his career, and his creative outlet of drawing, and retreats to his remote hometown and into drink and depression. But Kalesniko is not Alex; he comes home only for family visits, and still lives happily in Los Angeles. Rather, as author Charles Bukowski, a key influence, would do, Kalesniko knits together his own experiences with those of others and the sheer freedom of fiction. The result is a raw, sometime angry, portrayal of one wounded man’s frustration with his art and his life.
This remarkable debut included flashbacks evoking Alex’s troubled childhood and adolescence and these are deepened in Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? in 1997. In this Harvey-nominated prequel, Kalesniko answers the enigma of the suicide of the TV actor who played Smith in Alias Smith And Jones through a series of short cumulative episodes which show the mounting, eroding effects on the youngster of the cruelties he endures from classmates. We know, from reading about the adult Alex, that the boy’s opening thought, "It has to be better when you’re grown up", will not prove true.
Bandini is also the setting for the 264-page Mail Order Bride in 2000, the longest original graphic novel Fantagraphics had ever published (a record beaten only this year by their 720-page brick Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw) and Kalesniko’s masterpiece, so far. Monty Wheeler is 39, still single, still a virgin, a self-confessed geek and proud of it, and, his Dad suspects, a "pansy". His Dad and his husky brothers have real men’s jobs at the local fire station and smelting plant. Monty lasted only three months at the plant due to ‘physical dexterity problems’ ("It means I’m weak"). Instead, he has never left childhood and runs a comics, games and toys store, living with his own vast collection in his home at the back.
Actually, Monty has a thing for oriental girls, but it is a glossy paper fantasy from his porn mags that has nothing to do with relating to a real human being. Answering a classified advert in Asian Sex Secrets leads to his ordering Kyung Seo from Korea to be his Mail Order Bride. Monty wants "a cute, exotic, loyal, hardworking, traditional Asian wife", an "ornamental" to add to his collection of china dolls. He wants her to wear her traditional long dress when he silently makes love to her, a dress Kyung grows to hate. Kalesniko repeats this shot twice later in the book, in the same position at the top of a right-hand page, whenever Monty reimposes his control.
But Kyung, tall, elegant, intelligent, wants to leave her past behind and seeks change. Feeling stifled at home and in the shop, she befriends a liberated, Western-born Asian photographer, Eve Wong, who encourages her to pose as her life model and introduces her to new friends and ideas at a nearby arts centre. At first, Kyung uses her wiles to negotiate some independence, but as she grows increasingly disillusioned with her husband, discovering his weakness, his jealousies and his porn collection, she rejects him completely. To spite him, she cuts off her long hair that he loves and is all set to walk out on him with Eve Wong on a cross-country photo shoot. But Eve’s plans change when her ex-boyfriend proposes to her, and at 38, she sees this as her only chance of marriage and chooses to settle down.
Feeling betrayed, Kyung destroys the store and all it represents, an outburst that finally pushes Monty into attacking her. But in Kalesniko’s perceptive twist, Monty finally realises that, much as Kyung may accuse him of cowardice, she is just as much a coward herself, unable to change or leave on her own. As cowards, they are stuck with each other and he is her master. Kalesniko ends the novel ends as it begins, with Kyung putting away Eve’s art photos of her, putting away her dreams into a box.
Kyung had found some fulfilment at the arts centre, where she watched a dance rehearsal, glimpsed briefly in the book’s opening two pages. Kalesniko makes this into a recurring motif symbolising Kyung’s shifting hopes, his sensuous drawing inspired by Egon Schiele. Against a black backdrop, a lone nude female, embodying the spirit of passion and freedom, is threatened on a bare stage by a regiment of funereal cheerleaders. At first, the dancer rejects them and stays free. Then Kyung imagines herself in her role and takes up dancing lessons. Later, however, when her predicament worsens, the dancer is surrounded and swallowed up by the cheerleaders’ pom-poms. Finally, in a coda, the dancer is again swallowed up, but now Kyung herself is one of the sinister, oppressive troupe.
Kalesniko powerfully employs other symbols. Monty’s toys become a threatening presence, in particular a grinning jack-in-the-box, and a pair of dangling puppets who represent their relationship, as the horned devil proves to be a fool and the maiden has her strings broken. He also punctuates the book with the pouting bimbos from Monty’s stroke mags. As Kyung tries to be more single-minded, Kalesniko juxtaposes these pin-ups with their typeset adjectives blown up from the magazine ads promising a bride who will be "hardworking", "traditional", "domestic", "simple". The tragedy is that Kyung is not brave enough alone to rebel and ends up becoming the bride Monty ordered.
Kalesniko’s fragile, scratchy line trembles with emotion, his page layouts coming in dense four-tier grids of up to twenty panels and then breaking into looser configurations. My only quibbles are with the long noses and minute mouths on nearly all his faces and his rather weak figure work in the climactic ten-page "fight scene". But it is hard to complain when a comics creator is far better at choreographing real life and sex than punch-ups. In this interracial romantic tragedy, Kalesniko has created a sad, sensitive analysis of the pressures that can push lonely people into a loveless marriage, and the weaknesses and dependencies that keep them trapped there.
Over the last four years he has been beavering away on Freeway, a 384-page urban psychodrama about Alex, stuck in LA traffic, contemplating and rewriting his past, both real and fanciful. While waiting till 2010 for him to complete what should prove to be his most significant opus, Kalesniko’s output so far, modest perhaps but superbly crafted and sympathetic to life’s losers, comes highly recommended.Posted: February 22, 2009
This article orginally appeared in 2009 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.