Written & Illustrated by Mark Kalensniko
Published by Fantagraphics
Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride was among the best comics of 2003, so his latest – Freeway – came with considerable expectations. Freeway is a return to Kalesniko’s alter-ego, Alex Kalienka; while trapped in a southern California traffic jam, Alex recalls starting out in the animation field, his childhood dream, while contrasting the reality of office politics, back-stabbing favoritism and compromise against his dreams of creative freedom and loving comraderie.
In the end, Freeway’s concept is stronger than its reality. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book – Freeway’s a perfectly okay book, but just an okay one. The characters are well crafted, and Kalesniko does a fine job contrasting the reality of his circumstances against his dream scenario – particularly in the case of his own insecurity compared to his dream-vision’s easy-going confidence. The office politics are well played and all too real, and the pages are laid out well, the illustrations suitably charming.
Yet the narrative pulls in too many directions, as Alex dreams of not just his past and his ideal, but images of his childhood encamped on a stool in front of a television recur; a dark, sputtering car lurks behind him on the L.A. freeway; and a young Alex frets fearfully over his job interview and ever feeling at home in bustling Los Angeles. And then there are the morbid daydreams of his own demise – each tangent works on its own, but taken together, they pull the story in too many directions.
While the layouts are effective, Kalesniko’s transition panels between dream visions – a three-panel exchange with both past and dream overlaid in the middle panel – becomes heavy-handed and distracted after the first few usages. Some sequences are drawn out too long, although others, such as the multi-panel images of gridlock and Alex’s stream of curses, enforce the insistent inescapability of the freeway’s congestion.
Freeway is a good book, but it’s not quite a great book. A clearer focus would keep Kalesniko’s intent at the book’s fore, that dreams are wonderful, but the world isn’t what you dream. Kalesniko provides no answers for his protagonist – the animation business doesn’t suddenly become everything he hoped. The world is full of compromises, but with a little more care, Freeway could’ve been free of them.