Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Elegance and Pain - The Art of Mark Kalesniko by Mark David Nevins

This essay by Mark David Nevins was published in The Comics Journal Volume 3 - Special Edition - Winter 2003 by Fantagraphics Books. I want to thank Mark for giving  me permission to post his essay for my blog.
This essay is copyright 2010 by Mark David Nevins.

Elegance and Pain
The Art of Mark Kalesniko 

Mark Kalesniko may well be the most under-appreciated “alternative” cartoonist currently working in North America. A professional animator who is rarely in comics’ public eye, every few years this Canadian surfaces with another beautifully crafted graphical masterpiece; taken together, these pieces over the last decade or so
comprise a collection of elegant, highly polished, and painfully honest comics.

Kalesniko’s first published work was the short pantomime story “Adolph Hears a Who,” which ran in the first volume of Pictopia, one of Fantagraphics’ several short-run anthology series of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. This 8-pager, the only color pages in the book, is an expressionist tour-de-force, marrying a lush painterly style (a la Sienkiewicz and Steadman) with loose cartoony figures and a gifted sense of camera play. While the strip on its surface seems light and playful, there lurks below the surface a haunting seriousness—and that combination of the playful and the grave is a theme that runs throughout Kalesniko’s work. In his early work Kalesniko seems first and foremost interested in design and formalism—“Adolph” and the one-shot comic S.O.S. are infused with the lively experimentation of an animator discovering the possibilities of comics. S.O.S. is a sweet picture-poem about a young Asian woman lost at sea on a raft, her battles with a shark, and her growing discovery of feelings of freedom and independence. It’s hard to say what this short comic is “about”—it’s whimsical, funny, slightly erotic, and disorientingly dreamlike—but it’s a virtuoso performance of energetic design, use of textures and patterns, and enrapturing movement.

As if to underscore his fascination with the juxtaposition of funny and serious, Kalesniko next presented us with Alex, a stunning and under-appreciated 6-issue series that has been a cult favorite in spite of very little critical press; regrettably it has never been collected, and is not easy to find in the back-issue bins. Alex is a study of the slowly unraveling life of a cartoonist, told in a “funny animal” style that serves to intensify the feelings of loneliness and despair which suffuse the story. A tale of psychological desolation told with deft, fluid drawings, Alex leaves its readers shaken, profoundly moved, and most of all hoping—for the sake of its creator—that the story is not in fact as autobiographical as it seems to be. Kalesniko followed Alex with the slim “graphic novel” Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself?, which received a bit more acclaim. Pete Duel is another sobering apparent autobiography, again funny-animal style, this time examining a child’s struggle to make sense of seemingly distant events that can nevertheless leave indelible lifelong traces. With Pete Duel, Kalesniko perfectly captures that pain which all children must face as they grow up and realize that sometimes the world simply isn’t fair.

* * * * * * * * * *

As we enter the 21st Century, the still-maturing medium of comics seems, in America at least, to be gravitating toward “the big work.” In the last few years, and almost always self-consciously in the shadow of Maus, a handful of efforts have seized the attention of comics aficionados as well as the mainstream press: Safe Area Gorazde, Jimmy Corrigan, Cages, From Hell, David Boring. Kalesniko’s latest book, Mail Order Bride, stands taller and/or thicker on the bookshelf than most of those works, and yet since its publication in early 2001 it has caused barely a ripple. That’s a shame, because this book is ambitious, fresh, challenging, brilliantly drawn, and most importantly an example of a developed and novelistic kind of storytelling far too rare in English-language comics.

Mail Order Bride is the story of Monty Wheeler and Kyung Seo; Monty is a comic-book and toy shop owner (this “easy” and obvious choice of occupation is one of the book’s few weaknesses) and arrested adolescent living in a backwater Canadian town, and Kyung is the Korean woman whose immigration Monty enables by offering to marry her. However, soon after Kyung’s arrival at the airport it’s clear she will little resemblances to the “traditional” Asian wives the marriage service advertising brochure had promised. Worse, as time goes on Kyung rapidly adapts to her new environment, and poses a growing challenge to Monty when she refuses to be the stereotype he wants her to be (“obedient, domestic, hardworking, loyal”). To add further instability to this new relationship, Kyung begins to aspire to a life which is fuller and richer than the small and compulsively ordered one Monty has created for himself. There is an old saying that a woman falls in love with a man and immediately wants to change him, but that a man falls in love with a woman and wants her never to change from the way she was the day they met. Mail Order Bride deconstructs that idea, with the added twist that Monty cannot or will not accept or understand Kyung on her own terms because he’s so trapped by what he wants her to be.

By means of repeated themes and motifs as well as a handful of vivid characters who act as foils to Monty and Kyung, Mail Order Bride offers a piercing exploration of race and identity, but it is also, more subtly, an ambitious study of how humans fashion themselves and how they make sense of others. This domestic story of considerable psychological depth is told via breathlessly graceful and fluid cartooning. Kalesniko’s training as an animator is obvious—he is not afraid to draw, and the book’s 270 deftly laid-out pages pull the reader through the story almost too quickly for him or her to enjoy Kalesniko’s accomplished drawings. Every panel is a perfect illustration, but the pace is almost cinematic or Manga-like. Unlike many talented comics artists, Kalesniko is not just an accomplished draftsman but is also such a good cartoonist that the reader is not trapped in the beauty of the individual panels; what remains in mind after closing the book are not distinct images but rather the broad narrative movements, the verbal repartee between characters, and the powerful emotions captured through Kalesniko’s simple but expressive faces.

This graphic novel arrives at a somewhat unexpected conclusion when Kyung refuses to play her role as either a passive object in Monty’s toy collection or one of the exotic playmates from his pornography collection. Kalesniko has been criticized as a cartoonist who doesn’t know how to end his stories, and I’ve spoken with a number of readers who fault Mail Order Bride for an abrupt ending: that the tone of the book changes too radically, and that the ending is not “realistic.” I disagree strongly with that assessment: while the comic does surge toward a violent ending, that ending is far more “realistic” than “melodramatic,” and after several re-readings I can’t imagine a better ending for this book. Visually and thematically the story comes full circle, and the author knows exactly where he wants to leave his reader: stunned, but struggling for meaning. Because in the end, the points Kalesniko wants to make are in fact not about race or stunted emotional development—rather, his points are about the concessions that everyone who is in a relationship must make; about the compromises people sometimes agree to in exchange for security; and about how the most essential reality of the human condition may well be loneliness. Thoreau famously claimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; Mail Order Bride is a sensitive and unforgettable portrait of one couple who are doing just that.

Works discussed in this essay—all by Mark Kalesniko, all published by Fantagraphics Books:

“Adolf Hears a Who,” in Pictopia Volume 1, Winter 1991

S.O.S. (single issue comic, 1992)

Alex (6-issue comic series, uncollected, 1994)

Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? (1997)

Mail Order Bride (2001)

Reviewer Biography

Mark David Nevins is an aficionado of comics from around the world, and he occasionally puts pen to paper to write about his passion for the unique art that marries words and pictures. He lives in Greenwich Village (New York City), Harlem (New York City), and West Hollywood (Los Angeles). In “real life” he is an executive with an international management consulting firm, and in that role spends a great deal of time on airplanes travelling for business—which is a great excuse for searching out comics in foreign countries. Mark took his Ph.D. in Literature from Harvard University, and taught at the graduate and undergraduate level for several years before “selling out” for a job in the private sector. He is “New York Correspondent” for the renowned Swiss comics periodical STRAPAZIN, and for the last 7 years he has served on the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Conference (ICAF). He also sits on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Comic Art, and in addition to essays and critical reviews he has also published several translations of comics from French and German.


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  2. Great article...I picked up a copy of "Alex" after reading it (yeah, I know, I'm a sheep!) and loved it...great work, definitely an under-appreciated cartoonist!

  3. I picked up "Mail Order Bride" about three or four years ago, and it's absolutely one of my favorite graphics novels.