The enigma of Mark Kalesniko is the variety of traditional influences he draws upon in order to create an original work. As an animator with Disney credits, he tells his story with a reliance on action and quick dialogue rather than heavy-handed narration. As in manga, his stories may stretch across countless pages. Unlike American superhero comics, they do not rely on dynamism and the dramatic angles of action, but instead upon the relationship between people and the sometimes overwhelming environment in which they reside. The multitude of panels-per-page and long bodies are in some ways reminiscent of the French cartoonist Guido Crepax. Yet the simply designed characters bring to mind the iconographic representations of figures in Genji Monogatari-based Japanese folding screens. This, combined with a love for the delicate nudes of decorative artists such as Erte and the more expressive lines of Egon Schiele's early landscapes, may make Kalesniko's work sound confusing. It is just the opposite. His comics are a pleasure to explore; fast-paced and accessible to the reader with an underlying complexity of themes.
Kalesniko's debut work, S.O.S. (Fantagraphics, 1992), creates a near-wordless story that may have more in common with modern dance than anything ever created in American comics. The few words used, in themselves are inconsequential, for they too are presented through action: the process of writing. The central character, Chloe, is a beautiful, Asian woman. Stranded at sea, she initially sends out an S.O.S. to her family. While starving, she is confronted with a shark that ensues in a battle for survival. Taking joy in her body and the freedom of her independence at sea, Chloe is able to assert herself. It is her femininity that enables her to take on the shark, eventually devouring it, and proving her the stronger for survival. Upon realizing the power of her self-sufficiency, Chloe decides to break ties with her family by rejecting her initial cry for help.
All of the themes presented in this initial work, are expanded upon in Kalesniko's fourth book, published ten years later. Mail Order Bride also concerns itself with a young, Asian woman. In this case however, instead of isolated at sea, Kyung, the protagonist, is brought into the fictional town of Bandini, Canada. Readers of Kalesniko's work will recognize this town as the setting of Alex and Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? (Fantagraphics, 1997), his two previous graphic novels. A factory town, Bandini is overshadowed by the towering smelter. It becomes unclear as to how much of this town is based on reality. In Alex, Kalesniko's story appears autobiographical with the hilly landscape, low bridges and apartments (with stairway walkups) of Bandini presented as eerie photographs on the back covers of this serialized comic book's run. Whatever the case, Kalesniko has presented the town as a place of artistic sparks, yet ultimately burnt-out dreams and desperation.
In Alex, the protagonist returns to his hometown of Bandini after a stint working as an animator in California. Alex, a white male, tries to come to terms with his artistic desires through alcoholism and an attempt to reconcile his unhappy childhood. His only personal connections in the town are through his old high school friend Jerome and his high school art teacher. Both characters showed promise in the past but are now pathetic in adulthood. In some ways, the town is blamed for stifling their growth. Jerome is the cowardly man/boy who lives with his mother. The art teacher is reduced to alcoholism. With his obsessions over a high school crush named Lori Chen (again an Asian woman), Alex risks self-destruction.
In revisiting Bandini in Mail Order Bride, Kalesniko creates a situation in which both of his character types are at odds. Monty Wheeler, reminiscent of Jerome in Alex, is a cowardly Caucasian man who never left Bandini. His moderate business success is overshadowed by his compulsion for collecting. Instead of realizing failure, Monty refuses to change. His ability to possess objects (toys, dolls, magazines) is carried over into a fetish for a traditional, obedient Asian woman. While Monty is far from being an admirable character, the reader may in some ways sympathize with him. He is, after all, lonely and still a virgin while nearing age 40. Also, the reader (of a graphic novel), who most likely will not have a bias towards comic collecting, may even relate to some of Monty's obsessions.
Kyung, lost at sea like Chloe, abandons the traditions of Korea in order to find a new life in Canada. Her battle though, begins with Monty, who threatens her freedom like a shark. Nevertheless, it is Kyung who proves to be indomitable. Eventually, she refuses to wear the traditional dress when Monty has sex with her. She finds a new means of expression in herself: her nudity and posing for artists within the community. This arts community at the university center provides an outlet to Monty's world turned inward. She finds refugees like herself in American hippies who fled from (ironically) the Vietnam War. It is within this community that she witnesses a performance dance piece that acts as a metaphor for feminism, for freedom and ultimately the struggle for self amongst oppression.
When Kyung confronts Monty to challenge her Asian traditions and discover who she is, he dons a Kabuki mask. Again, toying with Eastern traditions, Kalesniko allows the mask to in some ways show more expression than Kyung's face. While Monty looks ridiculous in the nude with an Asian guise, Kyung's face, while angry, shows little emotion. Instead, it is Kyung's body and actions that will represent her true spirit. Ironically, it is the joker mask that Monty finally puts on that is truly representative of his character. The mask represents more than what his face shows. That is his pathetic, discomforting sadness.
It is also interesting to note the second Asian woman who becomes a prominent character in Mail Order Bride. Eve Wong differs from Kyung in that she was born in America. Her aggressive actions and passion for art provide the impetus for Kyong to leave Monty. However, just as Kyung is about to make her complete transformation, she is disappointed by Eve. Eve's decision to get married shows that even a strong American woman can fall prey to the notion of domesticity. Her decision shocks Kyung.
Kyung's body makes a transition through various perceptions. The insult of Monty is that he views Kyung only as a symbol for what she represents to him. In doing so, her status as a mail order bride is not elevated from the pornography he continues to look at, as long as she is obedient. Ironically, when Kyung chooses an outlet for expression as a nude model, Monty is unable to tell the difference between these photographs and the ones in his magazines. Kalesniko uses separate rendering techniques to draw distinctions between the crude and the erotic. Finally, the abstract world of Monty's toys becomes dark symbols, representing something far more menacing than childhood innocence. Still, it is Kyung who remains beautiful with her hopes of movement; the potential for development and escape. Tall Kyung, in the end, stands erect, shoulders tall, femininity intact. She is not a stereotype. Yet, like in Alex, Bandini has done its damage. Both books end with their characters' hands crossed in front of their wastes. The damage is of the worst kind, both private and sexual.
In Kalesniko's world, art and passion prevail. The individual, in the process of creation is left damaged by an unflinching world. His characters, whether lonely or seeking freedom, are in some ways left powerless by their surroundings. Escape, if it is to be found, is within oneself. This beauty comes from the motion of abandonment; the pride and uninhibited movement of a nude body through space. As Kalesniko quotes on the first page, "Your body is the bridge between the Earth and the Stars"
Kyung packs up the artful nude photographs of herself and places them on a shelf to collect dust. Kalesniko seems to encourage the reader to go back to the beginning. Through his work, we can take the pictures out of the closet. It is with re-readings that this stack of images will become animated. We can watch Kyung dance once again.