Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Freeway by Mark Kalesniko

No matter how hard storyboard artists and other animation types try, a graphic novel is not the same as a movie, and limiting a comics page to entirely film-derived effects is just as crippling as any other unnecessary artistic limitation. (Writing a novel without the letter 'e," or an opera without the key of C, or trying to tape a live-to-tape sitcom with only one camera -- they can be interesting experiments, but the focus will always be on that live-wire act of the experiment, not the resulting product.)

Freeway is a graphic novel that feels like it desperately wants to be an animated movie, full of camera moves and pans and dissolves, caught up in an entirely film-derived visual vocabulary that denies the physical, tactile possibilities of page-turns and transitions. Mark Kalesniko does use varied panel sizes and placements, but those feel like camera motions -- zooming in and out, changing scenes with establishing shots, making very visual transitions into flashbacks or alternate possibilities -- rather than like pure comics. (Although I may think that because I know Kalesniko is an animator; an actual animator could disagree with me.)

Freeway is the story of both one day -- one morning commute, to be more precise -- and of the whole failed and shattered career of Alex Kalienka, who (like his creator) came to southern California as a young man to work in animation. Alex drives his AMC Pacer to his job as a layout artist at Walt Disney Studios Babbitt Jones Productions, a job that was his dream as a child but which is soul-destroying now for both personal and artistic reasons. Kalesniko doesn't explain anything, and I wasn't always sure what was a flashback, what was real, what was an alternate version of Alex's life, and what was pure fantasy. But Freeway dips in and out of all of those things, showing Alex's arrival in LA in 1979 as the requisite dewy-eyed Canadian youngster, how he got his job at Babbitt Jones -- and how his artistically-driven but politically unwise choices of friendships slowly got him into trouble -- how he met his girlfriend, and how their relationship suffered from the onslaught of her large Chinese family, and other events in his working life. But it also shows what seem to be entirely fantasy sequences -- as when Alex imagines his own death on the highway several times -- as well as a perfect version of his own life, lived in the late '40s, in which his girlfriend and work are both perfect and he's always happy. And the end of Freeway jumps ever-more-quickly among these different levels of reality -- often panel-to-panel -- leaving the reader confused about what "really" happened.

More frustrating is the timeline of Freeway. Both the fantasy life and Alex's first visit to LA are closely fixed in time -- in the late '40s and 1979, respectively -- but his Babbitt Jones career is fuzzier. He clearly didn't start working there until some time after that first trip -- but is "some time" one year? Five? A dozen? Any of those are plausible. And his career at Babbitt Jones doesn't seem to have lasted more than a handful of years -- so does that mean that the "now" of Freeway is set in the late '80s? Or the mid '90s? Or really "now"? (How old and decrepit are we meant to take that AMC Pacer?) My impression is that Freeway is meant to take place only about a decade or so after that first visit, that Alex is having his first crisis about the value of his work and the purpose of his life, some time in his early '30s. But the book never says that, and never makes it clear -- this is a book published in 2011, so the default reader assumption is that it's happening "now".

So Freeway is a frustrating book: lovely and thoughtful, but one that keeps the reader thinking about technical and story considerations (when is this taking place? is this scene real or memory or fantasy?) when he should be falling into Alex's life and experiencing his crisis directly. Freeway is very ambitious, but perhaps a little too much so: a little more clarity, and a little less flashy camera-work, would have made it flow better and punch harder. (And its lesson is unfortunately banal for anyone Alex's age or older: the working world, and the world in general, is not a wonderful, special place full of love and light and happiness, but work -- often unpleasant and always directed by someone else -- full of people that we don't get to choose.) Read Freeway for those masterful shifts of focus, from reality to fantasy to flashback, but keep your eye on it and all of your attention, so that it doesn't get away from you.

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