Mark Kalesniko spends 400 pages telling us that getting your dream job, if your dream is to work in animation for a huge franchise-building corporation, may be soul-crushing. This is not news to anyone out of their 20s. We’ve all heard about the monkey’s paw, “be careful what you wish for”, and we all know that companies that exist solely to merchandise toys aren’t in it for the art.

Alex is a dog-faced artist stuck in a California traffic jam on his way to work. Intercut with panel after panel after panel of Alex in his car — and while the draftsmanship is impressive, if you are able to finish this book in one sitting, you will feel like you spent a day trapped in traffic the same way — are flashbacks to his relationship breaking up because of her Chinese parents; glimpses of his work environment (full of toxic personalities, those who play politics and obsessive fans and those who work naked on their way to cracking up); flashbacks of his early days getting started; and Alex’s fantasies of what life would have been like had he had the same job in the 40s.

Those sequences, few and far between as they are, were the best part of the book, because they capture Alex’s nostalgia beautifully in just a few moments, although they work best if you are familiar with animation history and can recognize the references. They create wonderful memories of old-fashioned architecture and lifestyle. Unfortunately, as in Kalesniko’s previous book, Mail Order Bride, all his women are Asian, and they function as objects in his life, not personalities of their own. This fascination is the one thing that rings false about his idealized past vision — I didn’t believe that the Asian wife back then would have been as accepted, given the nearness of World War II to the time period.

Beyond the fetishization of history, all the rest of Alex’s memories are miserable. He hated LA from the start, but he stuck it out for the sake of his dream, a dream that came to nothing. After reading, I felt like I’d sat through a year’s worth of therapy sessions that weren’t even mine. Viewed from a distance, this is quite an accomplishment, but up close, I can’t recommend anyone read it.

You can see preview pages at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

2 Responses to “Freeway”

  1. Jennifer Hachigian Says:

    As someone who’s worked in the non-union visual effects industry for 12 years, I think Alex’ story is not the worst fate that can happen to an artist in Los Angeles. I’ve seen far worse outcomes for VFX artists. Few VFX studios offer health benefits, and California allows private insurers to cherry-pick applicants and deny insurance to those with preexisting conditions. As a result, I’ve met too many VFX folks who are broke, dead or dying because they were either uninsured or underinsured. I also know artists whose chronic conditions go untreated and unmanaged because they can’t afford medications and check-ups out-of-pocket.

    On top of that, I’ve met top artists in their late 40’s and early 50’s who have nothing set aside for retirement. Like most VFX artists, they worked from project-to-project, and they used up all their savings between jobs on rent and/or medical emergencies.

    If anything, I’m happy for Alex, who gets three pensions and solid health coverage in exchange for working at a unionized animation studio like “a huge franchise-building corporation.” He may not be a happy artist, but he’s safe.


    If anyone’s interested in another animation artist’s perspective of the Los Angeles animation industry, I strongly recommend these collections of Floyd Norman’s gag art:


    They’re hard-to-find now, but well worth it.

  2. Jennifer Hachigian Says:

    I would also like to recommend two more perspectives of the animation industry from animation artists: DREAM ON SILLY DREAMER and Shamus Culhane’s TALKING ANIMALS AND OTHER PEOPLE.




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