Mark Kalesniko: Alex

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Alex

Author: Mark Kalesniko
Publisher: Fantagraphics

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Mark Kalesniko's six-issue comic-book miniseries Alex didn't get much attention when it was originally released in 1995, in part because the mid-'90s were a bleak time for black-and-white alternative comics, and in part because Kalesniko didn't rise through the usual cartooning ranks. While his peers were building their reps by knocking out two-pagers for Raw and Weirdo, Kalesniko was working in the layout mines of Walt Disney Studios, developing a gift for sketching cute characters and making them move. He puts those skills to work in Alex, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about an out-of-work animator who returns to his British Columbia hometown and spends his days drinking, watching Gilligan's Island, avoiding old friends, and falling down. Kalesniko draws the title character as a man with a dog's head—complete with expressively long, floppy ears—and he fills page after page with mostly wordless, repetitious slapstick. It's an exercise in subtle comic pacing.

Alex is also an attempt to say something painful and personal using only a few characters and locations. Kalesniko has his alcoholic hero, the hero's wimpy best friend, a handful of neighbors, a liquor store, an industrial landscape, and an apartment up an impossibly long flight of stairs. In each of the six chapters, Kalesniko shuffles those elements around, adding an incident or a character here and there, and though he's a little too blunt at times about Alex's despair, Kalesniko pulls deep feeling out of his thin lines, white space, and dynamic motion.

A decade after its serialization, Alex is finally being collected, trailing Kalesniko's equally obscure 1997 graphic novella Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? and his higher-profile 2002 graphic novel Mail Order Bride. He still isn't as well-known as he should be, maybe because his polished technique seems, to some, facile in comparison to his contemporaries' earnest crudeness. But there's no denying the energy and emotion of Alex, which has the "little worlds can contain multitudes" vision of the best indie art. If comics had been treated with the same critical respect as film back in 1995—or even the same critical respect that they are now—Alex would've been heralded as the arrival of a major new talent. It still isn't too late.

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