A few minutes after setting out for work one morning, Alex Kalienka finds himself stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. This jam is a regular feature of his commute, as he crawls his way to work at an animation studio, where he draws backdrops for animated movies. However, Alex’s work isn’t the dream creative job he was hoping for – office politics and work-related frustrations are as much a feature of animation studios as they are of any other office.
Although the entire 400-page book is set during this one, largely stationary but surprisingly eventful journey, the story the book encompasses expands way beyond the column of cars. Alex slips into daydreams as he drives: reminiscing about his past; imagining the myriad of things that could kill him (mostly traffic-related); and dreaming of a separate fantasy life. In this latter daydream, Alex sees himself as an artist working for the studio in the 1930s, during the golden age of animation, when art was appreciated for its quality and office politics were placed firmly behind talent. And there were no traffic jams.
The illustration and writing handle these slippages in time and space seamlessly. Less able graphic novelists might scare themselves silly with the scope of this book, but Mark Kalesniko’s attention to detail in all aspects of his craft – the backgrounds, the emotional ranges of the characters and the slow but steady-paced urbane drama – blends the components together masterfully.
There are a number of things about the book that are particularly interesting. Chief amongst these is that Alex is a humanoid with a dog’s head. He lives in a world of humans, dates humans, and is, to all intents and purposes, human. When dreaming about his 1930’s parallel life, he sees himself with a human head, and there’s no mention of his canine features anywhere in the book. So although flicking through Freeway you could be forgiven for assuming there was a talking-animal thing going on here, Alex’s appearance is deceptive and he could barely be more human.
The book is deeply sophisticated and literary. It deals with humanity’s big questions – love, death, life, and what we do with our time. It’s funny, touching, heart-warming, tragic and very engaging.
It’s an interesting footnote, then, to wonder at how theses universal concepts might get hidden, to a potential reader, by the physical characteristics of the main protagonist. Less sophisticated readers, perhaps picking up this book in a shop, might get distracted by the dog’s head and misjudge the depth and quality of the book. It’s an intriguing choice for Kalesniko to have made, to use such a cartoon-like protagonist in a graphic novel that’s so far detached from a cartoon mentality.
So comics fans should relish this. While it seems like it might struggle to reach the hands of a mainstream audience, it feels like our little secret – a wonderfully sophisticated, modern literary graphic novel, partly disguised by the appearance of Kalesniko’s main character. It’s fascinating, compelling, and full of surprises – as long as you can see past the talking dog.