“You can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot, how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people” High Fidelity- Nick Hornby
A few years back, after heavily getting back into comics, I was gifted with the book 500 Essential Graphic Novels and surprised by the breadth and depth of the selection set about bookmarking and ordering a few dozen titles. Amongst them was Mark Kalesniko’s Alex, A character I instantly fell in love with and creator who’s work I quickly consumed.
Having moved back to his home town of Bandini in Canada, with his tail between his legs, after abandoning his dream of animation at ‘Mickey Walt’, Alex wakes up on a park bench, groggy from another night of alcohol fuelled self destruction. Hungover, high school yearbook in his jacket and with an expressionistic painting of the town he has no memory of.
The frustrated Alex fills his time wrestling with his past, struggling with artists’ block, hard drinking, and Gilligan’s Island whilst avoiding old school friends and facing up to the unthinkable. Having to be an artist, rather than a cartoonist. Freeway, drawn over ten years features a younger Alex in his animating career. Stuck in a seemingly never ending traffic jam he reminisces about his uncertain start in LA , whilst he imagines himself living an idyllic life, back in the golden days of animation.
Although optimistic now, I spent most of my teens and twenties as a shamefully stereotypically moody and sullen sod, even now I’m drawn to characters like Alex. Back then my favourite book was High Fidelity, which is the reason for the quote at the start of the review which pretty much sums up Alex’s story. Both books features a downtrodden lead character, stuck in their ways and unhappy with the way life turned out. Kalesinko’s work is great for wallowing in self pity and misery, in the same way that we’re drawn to sad songs, knowing full well they’ll bring us yet deeper into sadness. Tackling themes of depression, self destruction, inner peace and the death of a dream, they are both hugely moving and funny reads. Kalesinko can tease out the comedy of even the most disastrous and destructive events of Alex’s life, presented with his sparse fine line with the pacing and sense of movement that clearly comes from his own stint in animation.
While a lot of elements are shamelessly autobiographical in his books, after emailing Kalesniko over the course of a few weeks, he’s far from anything like his destructive stand in from his comics, and amongst one of the nicest people I’ve had the chance to talk to since starting this blog. The rest of this article is dedicated to the interview I had with him, I don’t usually say so, but he gave some great answers, and it’s one of my favourite interviews to date.
Marfedblog: I found the short Alex story ‘OCD’ funny, but also touching, it’s odd that on every occasion in other media people who have it are presented as being unaware they are doing it, or at ease with it, whereas you presented Alex as getting annoyed even with himself. Does this come from personal experience, do you share any of these traits with Alex? Are there any other of your traits you’ve imbued him with?
Mark Kalesniko: Yes this does come from personal experience, I do suffer from OCD and find it very frustrating and exhausting especially when leaving the house. I did exaggerate some of the traits for comic effect and the last gag with the iron I have never done but wanted to.
I do draw from my own life experiences for my Alex stories but they are in no way autobiographical. First my own life is quite dull so I will incorporate events that have happened to other people just to make my story more entertaining. For example, in my book “Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself?”, I have a bully who enters Alex’s house and beats him up right in his bedroom. That incident never happened to me but it did happen to a neighbour kid so I incorporated in to my story to show the horror of a bully out to get you. That is the beauty of fiction is to combine different ideas from different sources to make a more interesting story. Also in fiction, the story can wrap up to a conclusion that is both satisfying to both the author and the reader, while reality doesn’t always conclude so neatly.
MK: OCD is exhausting and anxiety inducing malady and to show it with humour I believe breaks the stigma. I am not laughing at the person who suffers from it, I laugh with them. I am trying to make the OCD smaller, less brutal, give some one who suffers from it some distance, to see that there are others who are going through it and they are not alone. When we laugh, we can begin a conversation which in turn helps both those that suffer with OCD and those who know people who suffer a better understanding.
Humour and comedy has always been a good way to broach difficult subjects be it race, religion or illness. A recent example is the comedian Tig Nataro who created a whole comedy routine over a series of tragic events that happened to her. By using humour, it eases the pain and makes things more bearable especially for people who are suffering through their own personal problems.
MB: Again in Overpass you write about a difficult subject, Suicide, and inject humour into it with Alex musing over the practicalities of the act. What was your intention with the comic? Similar to making OCD smaller in the other story?
MK: I have written about suicide before with “Uncle Bob” and “Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself?”. Both stories dealt with the tragedy and confusion of such a desperate act. In “Overpass”, I started thinking of the act itself and how much effort and planning it would take and that Alex is so depressed that even the act is not worth the effort and in turn he actually saves his own life. It’s humour born out of the absurdity of the situation.
MB: How did the idea of drawing Alex as a dog come about? Is it simply to make him stand out more visually amongst other characters or is there something else behind it?
MK: The dog headed character of Alex is based on a character I created as a child. Originally, Alex had a brother and they went on adventures alone the lines of Carl Barks “Donald Duck.” As I got older, I wanted to create stories with more complex themes and decided to haul out my childhood character and put him in adult situations.I found that using a dog to represent Alex could reflect alienation and loneliness. Although Alex doesn’t actually look like a dog to his family and peers, his seeing himself as a dog reveals the way he feels about himself, that he is different. For the reader, the dog evokes a sense of distance and perspective in seeing elements of the plot, just as animals were used in fairy tales centuries ago to represent ideas or character traits.
MK: The Alex time line is confusing. Originally, “Freeway” was suppose to come before “Alex” and was the back story for why Alex moved back to Bandini but when I completed “Freeway”, I purposely ended it in the mid 90s a few years after Alex’s time period. The reason being, I had more stories to tell of Alex in L.A. but I couldn’t figure away to tell them if he was still in Canada. Also at the same time I got a germ of an idea for another Alex/Bandini story set after the events in “Alex.” So to solve the problem, I decided to free Alex of the time line. All the books and stories of Alex stand alone and do not need to be read in any particular order. And I wanted to explore different aspects of Alex’s character that both L.A. and Bandini bring out in him. So Alex is unstuck in time. As for “Overpass”, “Tarantula” and “OCD” they are all set in L.A. and take place after “Freeway” as does the new Alex story I’m currently working on. If I live to 100 I hope to also draw the Alex/Bandini story.
MB: Freeway and Alex both tackle the subject of artists working within a strict system and how stifling that can be for creativity , has this been your general experience of certain industries and do you personally see this situation changing at all?
MK: “Alex” and “Freeway” were both written when I was a young man and express the views that an artist should be free of any constraints and working for himself. At the time, I felt that working in a corporate setting was stifling, political and no way to reach your artistic expression. Now that I’m older, I have a more nuanced view. Working in a corporate setting, an artist can exchange ideas, learn new things and be part of a bigger project that can be satisfying and rewarding. So I see the value in both and its the choice of the artist to balance the two to get the most reward from it.
MB: Who were your inspirations when developing your own unique drawing style?
MK: Egon Schiele is probably my greatest inspiration for my drawing style. I love his lines, the expressionism of his paintings and drawings. The raw feelings he has for his subjects. It is very powerful. He inspired not only my graphic novels but also my personal paintings. In comic books, Guido Crepax has had a strong influence. His line work is very sensual and I love the way he lays out his pages. Also I love Carl Barks “Donald Duck” and Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace”, both drew with a strong draftsmanship that let me the reader go to different places and actually look around. As matter of fact it’s “Dennis the Menace in Hollywood” that was a huge inspiration for Freeway. When I was a kid I loved exploring the detail of each page and how he took me on a virtual tour of Los Angeles. It inspired me to draw my own tour of downtown L.A. in Freeway.
MK: I have never had a block that stopped me from finishing a book. I have had blocks in certain sequences of my books where I had to put that section away and hope when I get back to it I’d have a solution. One of the best examples of this was during the creation of Mail Order Bride, I had a scene where Monty and Kyung were arguing about her art school friends. I originally had a very weak argument that Monty was making and I knew it wasn’t working, so I put it aside. One evening , my wife and I were in Pasadena enjoying these Hurdy-Gurdy street performers who had as part of their act, dancing puppets of a maiden and devil. As Matter of fact, those puppets inspired the puppets in my book. Talking to the performers later, I said how much I like your maiden and devil but one of them corrected me and said that’s not a devil that’s a fool. That statement inspired me and I was able to rewrite the scene using the devil/fool puppet as a symbol of the foolishness of Monty’s argument with Kyung.
Why do artists explore the artist’s block in there work? I believe it’s every artist’s greatest fear. What if I can’t come up with a new idea? What if I never create again? For myself, it scares me to death.
MK: The route that Alex and Chloe take in present day Bunker Hill is the same route I take when my wife and I go downtown to explore. In researching and drawing the Bunker Hill of the past, I was quite surprised how well the two routes synced up. The Bunker hill of the past is completely gone, not only are the buildings demolished but even the topography of the hill was radically changed. When I did my research I was pleasantly surprised at how the present and the past would lead in and out of each other making the journey through time much more seamless. I could not have planned that.
My favourite structures to draw were Angels Flight and the Bradbury Building because they both still exist. There is nothing like drawing something right in front of you. You can see how the building is built. How it fits in to space. How big or small it is. In a photograph, which in Freeway I needed because so many of the structures of the past are gone, I sometimes had difficulty making out how a building worked. A shadow could be too strong or an angle just a little off and I would have no idea how to draw it or what details were there. I’m grateful to have those photos but it’s easier if you can draw something right in front of you.
MB: Do you have any plans for other graphic novels any time soon?
MK: Yes, I’m working on two books at the same time. One is a horror story and the other is another Alex story. They should be out in a year or two.
Mark Kalesinko’s books can be bought from amazon and most comic stores, his shorts and further information are available from his website.