Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark Kalesniko

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.

As with Japanese folding screens, such as those based on the tale of Genji, there is a uniquely eastern way of reading such art. Like comics, these screens were divided into panels to tell a story. Unlike many comics, one is not meant to dwell on individual images or details. Instead, the entire screen had to be read in order for the viewer to have some input into the tale. This Japanese style was later borrowed throughout Europe as a decorative art style where artists such as Maurice Denis adapted the more naturalistic nude female form onto the panel folding-screen format. Denis's followers, especially French illustrators of the early 20th century, would later exaggerate the thinness of the nude form against the thin panel layout, creating a distinctive style represented in fashion. Kalesniko's comics (like Crepax's) are an extension of this. His pages are filled with long, narrow panels and nude women who are posing in movement, yet trapped by frames. The influences of Asian artwork and a clash between the decorative, traditional and expressionistic are all represented in Mail Order Bride. While the front cover shows a figure with skinny, Schiele-like hands overwhelmed by an expressionistically drawn dress, the back cover appears as though it were drawn with a Japanese brush on rice paper. The book opens up with a nude figure crammed into five thin panels side by side. While these three images differ greatly from each other, they somehow remain stylistically Kalesniko's own.

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.

The story sounds simple enough in words, yet it is with lines that Kalesniko tells it. And even though the story is told through static, multi-sized frames, one cannot help but be taken by the implied motions. There is little repetition here as each panel serves its own purpose. The more detailed artwork exists only in the traditional ornamentation of Chloe's blanket that she later transforms into a more abstract, splattering design, reminiscent of Pollock. Chloe herself is a thin outline and the whiteness of her form works in perfect contrast to the ominously black shark. For Chloe, and for Kalesniko, the traditions and safety of a domestic, family lifestyle lack the same beauty of chaos through expressionism and freedom of the unknown. Kalesniko maintains this struggle and duality in his work between the balance of light and dark, simplicity and complexity. It is with elegance that Kalesniko is able to juxtapose the outlined Chloe against the whirlwind splattering of her blanket/painting and make it appear completely natural.

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.

It is through Alex's paintings that he is able to present the town in a new light. Kalesniko's protagonists must recreate their artistic traditions in order to gain freedom. This new art by Alex, coming from his subconscious, is drastically different from the stylized production of his Disney-like animated bunnies. Again, Kalesniko places the bold and the cartoony against a preference of abstraction and expressionism. In doing so, a great struggle is created for the artist in representing beauty. Alex ends with an attractive woman appreciating Alex's work and understanding what it represents. This implies some hope for a future outside of the restrictions of his past in Bandini. Still, expressionism does not provide solace to Alex as it did with Chloe in S.O.S. Kalesniko's male characters are weaker and lonelier than his women. At the end of Alex, Bandini remains looming forebodingly, hinting to the reader that more of this story has yet to be told.

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.

Kalesniko's ability as a cartoonist shines in his presentation of action. Aggression is afforded the room for movement through eloquent layers of destruction. When Kyung decides to add chaos to Monty's well-ordered comic book store, her movement and ensuing fight with Monty, stretch the length of an entire, nearly wordless, 15 pages. A similar scene is presented in Alex, when in a fit of rage, Alex attempts to destroy his work, his study and everything that goes along with it. In both works, this build up usually takes the story in an unsatisfying direction. For afterwards, the characters do not continue to make their escape. Instead, more realistically, Kalesniko shows his characters compromising. His work, like music, reaches a crescendo, with a sometimes humbling end.

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.

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