Academic journal article MELUS

Art and Identity in Mark Kalesniko's Mail Order Bride

Academic journal article MELUS

Art and Identity in Mark Kalesniko's Mail Order Bride

Article excerpt

In the mid-1990s Mark Kalesniko, a former Disney animator, turned to the graphic novel as his preferred medium of expression after the field of film animation made the transition to digital production. He attended the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California where he first encountered art's potential to take on profound social and psychological issues, an emphasis he places in all his graphic novels. Kalesniko's work neither idealizes the human condition nor dramatizes the tragedy of daily life, but instead he focuses on the sometimes thinly-veiled desperation of his characters and their situations. His novels are characterized by both a remarkably expressive and much praised two-dimensional drawing style and a story line that plumbs the depths of emotions but then dissolves into "melancholy ambiguity" (Murray). Indeed, Kalesniko is often criticized for this recurring lack of resolution in his narratives. In an interview on CITR Radio's program "Inkstuds," out of the University of British Columbia, Kalesniko remarks that he "likes the idea that things never work out the way you think they're going to work [and] likes the sort of darkness of that" (Interview). A British Columbia, Canada, native, he revisits his industrial hometown, Trail, in his mostly autobiographical works under the pseudonym "Bandini." Both the limited comic book series Alex (1994) and the graphic novel Why Did Pete Dual Kill Himself? (1996) are located in Bandini and share a common protagonist, Alex Kalienka, who is a Kalesniko doppelganger in many respects, including his profession and his name.

Mail Order Bride (2001), the least autobiographic of the three graphic novels he has published to date, also takes place in Bandini, but its narrative focus is much less personal. It concerns the relationship between Kyung Seo, a Korean, and the Canadian Monty Wheeler. (Kalesniko's own wife is Asian American, and he, like Monty, is a comic buff, but that is where the similarities end.) Monty's perception of Kyung is strongly informed by her Korean origins, and his relationship with her is largely built upon a series of misplaced ethnic differences. Kyung, on the other hand, seeks to divest herself of her inherited nationality in order to become wholly Canadian. Seeking a new life under the guise of a mail order bride, she marries Monty, an avid collector of comics, toys, dolls, and Asian pornography. Monty's collector's mentality combines with his sense of inferiority, perceived and real, to produce what L. H. M. Ling calls a "reactionary, exaggerated form of masculinism" (283) in his relationship with Kyung and a desire to possess and dominate her. Monty "purchases" her through his facilitation of her immigration and, as with one of his collectables, "displays" her in his bedroom and behind the counter of his comic book shop, both positions of subservience. However, Kyung is unsatisfied with this prescribed existence and, after a visit from Eve, an Asian Canadian photographer who seems to embody the ideally assimilated Asian woman, Kyung begins to seek a world outside of Monty's rigidly constructed boundaries.

What she discovers is both dynamic and fulfilling. Kyung starts to participate in Bandini's artist community and soon finds a creative outlet in self-expression. She develops relationships based on shared interest in art and develops, by proxy, a large circle of friends. Monty's immaturity leads him to perceive Kyung's popularity as a personal affront, and he is unable to accept her as a person with features other than those promised to him by the mail order bride advertisements. The central conflict in this graphic novel revolves around the tension between the artistic identity Kyung pursues and the pressure from Monty to submit to his preconceived (and non-threatening) notions of what his wife should be.

Kalesniko's novel explores the definitions of selfhood Western culture imposes on Asian women in its representation of Kyung's search for an authentic individuality. …

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