Graphic Novel Review: Freeway by Mark Kalesniko
Freeway takes place during most people’s worst nightmare: the morning commute. Alex, an artist for Babitt Jones animation studio, is on his way to his daily grind. The reader is given a visual tour of downtown L.A. until an already-harried Alex arrives at the freeway and begins his dreaded slog through traffic. Then the image unfocuses, and he is momentarily lost in the beauty of the L.A. of his childhood, the L.A. of his dreams…
While the core timeline of Freeway is only a few hours of frustration spent in traffic, Alex’s mind wanders through past fiction and reality, present fact, and fantasy. Kalesniko, who himself worked at Disney as an animator, designed his main character as an anthropomorphic dog. The result is a wistful, innocent, and somewhat naive protagonist who is coming to the realization that his childhood dreams aren’t quite turning out as he planned.
As Alex rants and raves in his car, he has momentary flashbacks to when he first arrived in L.A. to apply for the job at Babbit Jones Studios, a famous animation studio that resembles Disney. There are actually three separate timelines being shown; Alex’s first visit to L.A. in the ’70s, his actual history at his job, and an idealized, reimagined 1940′s version of his career and personal life. As these experiences blur, present day Alex becomes more and more hopelessly trapped in the sea of cars and begins to have depressing delusions of his own gruesome demise on the freeway.
The events and themes of his life are constant throughout each version of Alex’s reality. He arrives in L.A. and is hired to work for Babbit Jones, and is introduced to the staff. He begins a romantic relationship with Chloe, a fellow artist at the studio, and they explore L.A. together. Alex has preconceived ideas of how his job and romance will turn out, but unfortunately things don’t quite live up to his expectations. His girlfriend’s Chinese family seems to constantly get in the way of their romance, and office politics slowly erode his love of art and animation.
Alex’s small victories and disappointments on the roadway reflect his experiences with people in his life; he just can’t seem to catch a break. Like gazing at a stranger through car windows, Alex can’t quite communicate with his girlfriend’s family or his coworkers.
Throughout the story, Alex is shown obsessing with the L.A. of the past. In between events in the story we see Alex as a child, glued to the TV watching classic programming (with Babitt Jones toys in the background). When he takes Chloe on a tour of L.A., he plays standards from the ’40s in his car and spouts history like a tour guide. This nostalgic attitude is encouraged by his fixation with the Irascibles, a real life group of prominent American artists from the ’40s and ’50s. Alex clings to their image as if it can save him from the disappointments of his career and relationship. As the interlocking narratives continue, even Alex’s fantasy life begins to sour along with his real relationship and career. Even his “…dreams are tainted by realities.”
The novels’ main layout involves four rows with varying panel widths, which gives the book consistency and also variety on the page. Alex’s real and imagined past experiences are interspersed with each other, but always slightly off kilter; the panels often imitate but never quite reflect each other exactly, creating a montage of similar yet asymmetrical images. As a result the structure adds interesting layers to an already complex narrative, without distracting from the emotional events of the story. Kalesniko’s line work is clean and efficient throughout, but in Alex’s dream life everyone looks more pristine, more beautiful; In these visions Alex doesn’t see himself as a dog, but as a normal, attractive everyday man. Comparatively, in his real memories his coworkers look almost like cartoon characters.
I am not much of a fan of cars, and I almost passed up this book because of the overarching roadway theme. It is definitely worth the challenge of meandering through the crammed vehicles to reach those poignant moments of Alex’s life, moments many of us share in our own versions of our adult selves.