Friday, November 24, 2017

CARTOONS SHOULD BE ON SOON: A Round-table Discussion about Bill Sienkiewicz's STRAY TOASTERS

(Editor’s Note: This “conversation” between myself, Justin Giampaoli, and Keith Silva about Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters originally ran on Comics Bulletin on April 18, 2013 -- after four and a half years, I thought it would be nice to revisit. Some minor changes have been made to the original posting.)


Daniel Elkin: There are just some things you can't shake, like the image of your child being born, the eyes of your first love, the smell of the hospital room where your grandfather died, a really good club sandwich, eczema. For me, Bill Sienkiewicz's Stray Toasters is one of those things. It haunts me.

Since 2008, I've been toting the Image Comics trade paperback of Stray Toasters through one failed marriage, two changes of career, and three apartments. Throughout all these permutations, this book has stuck with me as a thick mystery, deep in its intent, heavy in its import. Somehow, I've begun to conceive of this book as a fundamentally profound question whose answer, upon arrival, will solve a myriad of my life's issues.

For me, Stray Toasters has become a koan of sorts, testing my progress as a reader, as a thinker, as a seeker of truths. But as of now, the answers it contains have remained shrouded, viscous, fecund, unavailable, and frustrating. I return to this book over and over again trying to unpack its contents and put together its pieces, but time and time again I've only ended up with new questions, slanted thinking, or reverie askance.
Originally published as a four-issue miniseries in 1988 for Marvel's Epic line, Stray Toasters was one of the first books Sienkiewicz both wrote and illustrated. It came on the heels of his collaborations with Chris Claremont (New Mutants), Frank Miller (Elektra: Assassin), Andrew Helfer (The Shadow) and Alan Moore (Brought to Light). Working with these gentlemen seems to have taught Sienkiewicz how to tell a story. In Stray Toasters, he gets to tell his story.

But what is the story? Ostensibly it's a murder mystery. Eleven boys have been drained of all of their vital fluids and have had their brains liquefied and sucked out. These victims are then left in various locations around town, the latest being on the couch of Ed and Alice Crewel, propped up and watching reruns of Star Trek. In addition to these horrors, there's been a woman murdered. Her killer has drilled her eyes out and "wired her system up like a machine." As the officer on the scene says, "She would've worked … if the guy who did this hadn't crossed some wires." Grizzly stuff this — the murder of children and mothers is fraught with all sorts of emotional, psychological, and mythological resonance. In this, Sienkiewicz is not subtle.

Into the mystery of these murders comes criminal psychologist Egon Rustemagik who has only recently been released from the Bosley Mental Institution, having been put there by his former lover, Abigail, who claimed that he abused or killed their child. Rustemagik is also an alcoholic who has the requisite Pink Elephant hallucinations following him around.

From there the plot turns around and into itself, introducing characters like bondage fetishist (and shark enthusiast) Assistant District Attorney Harvard Chalky, a toe-headed lad named Todd, a bloated and festering Doctor Montana Violet, Rustemagik's current lover Dahlia, a lord of the underworld named Phil, mechanical butlers and crows, the aforementioned Pink Elephants, and Mona.

Stray Toasters is an art book. Sienkiewicz pulls out all of his tricks here and as a visual piece of storytelling it is unparalleled — beautiful, horrific, confusing, stunning, enigmatic, uncanny — in this Sienkiewicz shows his mastery, and this book is unquestionably his masterpiece. But it is the story that leaves me with that feeling that I can't shake. It is in this story that my answers lie. I just can't figure them out.

So after working on unpacking The Coffin and Eel Mansions with my fellow reviewers Justin Giampaoli and Keith Silva, I felt it time to turn to them to try and make sense of this book, and thereby, perhaps, make sense of my life.

Fellas?


Justin Giampaoli: First off, I want to thank Elkin for inviting us as fellow archaeologists of the sequential arts on this particular grail quest. It takes some gumption to publicly tackle something that's a persistent personal puzzle. I also think it takes stones as a critic to admit that, although you may be intensely drawn to a work, you don't fully grok all of the intricacies of said work. I've always believed in my role as a critic that if life is a mysterious maze, artists are constructing the walls of a labyrinth trying to make order of it all, to build a way out toward some cosmic meaning, so perhaps critics can help navigate that byzantine chaos, continually looking toward that literary North Star. Let us together bring order to the chaos, gentlemen.

Personal anecdote, in 1987 I remember sitting on the floor of my room (in a house that subsequently burned down, the acrid smell of burnt toast filling the air) when I was in eighth grade. At this point, I'd come up reading a steady diet of Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans, Jim Starlin's cosmic opus Dreadstar (also from Marvel's Epic line), and I'd somehow gotten my hands on early issues of their in-house magazine Epic Illustrated. This was most certainly for mature readers, but my counterculture parents always encouraged such things. I recall seeing a full page ad for Sienkiewicz's Stray Toasters. I knew only peripherally (growing up largely a DC kid) that he was that "weird" artist on that book New Mutants that I didn't read. I highly doubt my 13 year old brain could have successfully navigated what would have then seemed little more than a word collage, nor was my eye yet visually attuned to such stylized art, but the memory was something I couldn't shake. It imprinted because it seemed so foreign. It's now mysteriously reentered my life 26 years later. Everything happens for a reason. Is this why I met Daniel Elkin? I wonder if Elkin likes his sandwiches toasted?

That said, this was my first (three) read(s) of Stray Toasters. While maddening at times for reasons we'll surely get to, I'll say for now that I was immediately drawn in by the fascinating central mysteries the work offers, and by the superimposed blend of genres Sienkiewicz was working with. There's this neo-noir detective procedural skimming the very surface. There's a PKD sense of sci-fi futurism, with sentient robots, low female survival rates, 97 dogs left on the entire planet, and the dystopian visage of a bleak, tagged-up Statue of Liberty. We've got this creepy-as-hell torture porn swimming in horror elements, all wrapped up like Laura Palmer in a Se7en style psychological thriller that predated David Fincher's filmic escapades by a decade. Sienkiewicz shoving these disparate genres together was quite avant-garde, nobody was really blending genres in mainstream comics back then.

I think you guys know that I started out professionally working in federal law enforcement, so I tried to engage with the work like I was legendary FBI profiler John Douglas, to approach it somewhat forensically and recreate the narrative, which is obtuse and non-linear. My mind tends to work in bullet points, so, if I may, I'd like to identify some of the walls in the maze, to reassemble what I believe the sequence is in order to answer Elkin's semi-rhetorical question "But what is the story?" for my own benefit, for the benefit of our mutual understanding as a launch platform, and perhaps for the benefit of any readers coming into this cold. If you can establish a timeline, you can infer causality, with causality you can consider motive, establishing motive leads to identity, and somebody said this was a murder mystery. That said, uhh, spoilers ahead, I guess?!

Dahlia has a baby. She wants Dr. Montana Violet to kill it because she believes it is evil due to her misguided religious zealotry. The baby is Todd. He's not evil. He's autistic.

Dr. Violet does not kill the boy. Despite conducting arcane and unethical medical experiments, he saves Todd out of a dichotomous sense of dedication to the Hippocratic Oath.

Todd's Savant Syndrome compels him to create robot guys in the image of Tuxedo, his cat, whom his mother killed. The robots provide warmth and an interpersonal connection (both items literally and figuratively) to Todd, in lieu of his absentee parent(s).

Todd ends up with a woman named Dissler who secretly attempts to raise him. She's ultimately killed by a Toaster (one of the stray robots).

Todd is then taken in by Abby, who is Dissler's psychologist.

Abby had a prior relationship with Egon Rustemagik. They lost a child together. Abby blames Egon for this and was instrumental in having him institutionalized for a time.
Dahlia is killing children in a psychopathic effort to excise the "evil" Todd, who she suspects is still alive and "coming for her."

Tuxedo Toaster is basically sentient and is killing what it believes to be unworthy mothers in a misguided effort to protect Todd and serve as a surrogate parent.

Egon Rustemagik, the criminal psychologist, is called in to investigate these murders (everyone mistakenly assumes there's a single killer). Egon is an alcoholic who sees flying pink elephants.

Egon has a current sexual relationship with Dahlia.

Egon had a former romantic relationship with Abby.

As a bonus, we have The Devil himself traveling the Earthly plane on vacation, sending postcards back to his loving family.

It takes a long circuitous route to get there (in fact, I'd submit that for most audiences it's too obtuse for its own good), but ultimately Stray Toasters is the story of Dahlia and Todd getting back at each other for slights, both perceived and quite real respectively, while Egon, Abby, Dr. Violet, and everyone else are all just caught in the middle. Yes, "the family circle is a triangle," with many hard edges.

I have so much more I'd like to discuss in terms of themes, storytelling flaws, influential aesthetics, and the core mysteries that propel reader engagement with Stray Toasters, but for now I'll defer to the resident scholars. Does that about sum up the basic narrative thrust as you guys interpreted it?


Keith Silva: "Follow the bouncing ball … oh-the itsy-bitsy spiiider …"

If my body ever ends up wrapped in plastic or on the edge of a lake or some muddy estuary with a Death's-head Hawkmoth stuck in my gullet, I hope, Justin, you are there to walk back the cat.

Elkin, my friend, I don't know what to say except to lean on my penchant for an insider's weak-ass defense, the wise-ass witticism: "I think my colleagues … we have a quote problem unquote."     

As I have already pledged undying fealty to Mr. Sienkiewicz, there seems little at stake in this confession, so here goes: until pushy Elkin (like some mechanical mama-bird) force-fed us his agenda, I choose not to drift too close to this Scylla, this Charybdis, this Stray Toasters. Instead, I choose to cleave to the familiar (The New Mutants,) and the conventional Daredevil: Love and War.

Yes, Elkin, this is Sienkiewicz's masterpiece, his David (who shows up here), his "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea," — the art of the possible. Why did I stay away for so long? Have you seen Stray Toasters? "I mean shit — appliances? Whud izzissshit?" To pile cliché upon cliché: next to the phrase, "this may not be for everyone," in the comic book critic's omnibus, slouches a picture of Phil, of the electric boy and of the entire Bolle-Happel catalog. I like what you said Elkin, this is Sienkiewicz's "art book." Perhaps, it should hang in a gallery?

My apologies, I'm sputtering on. You want to build some scaffolding around this bitched type, to "[re]introduce this bastard [of a book] to some structure," make some sense of it. Giampaoli provides the forensics: who, what, where and when. (All) we need sort out is how, more, why. Easy, yeah?

Giampaoli sez author, artist and text tasks the critic to "help navigate that byzantine chaos" in search of the proverbial lodestar. Okay. What if (at first) the narrative appears less like fiction and more like life? More like Stray Toasters? In our otaku, we talk (a lot) about the "the unlimited potential of the comic book form" and yet this capacity remains (for the most part) chimerical in the week-to-week and month-to-month cavalcade of the stale and the pedestrian. I know Stray Toasters rests within your ken, Elkin. No one carries something with them through life that doesn't resonate on some level at some frequency.

Where I think Stray Toasters succeeds (and fails) is that it presents as un-plotted, messy, life-like, but in the end for all its many intricate folds and switchbacks, Stray Toasters forms a tight, pre-creased construction; it begins flat — all potential — and by the end, origami-like, it becomes something else, something recognizable, a story, a plot, a narrative. Now, I'm not saying it's not without its raggedness, its wandering plot threads and over cooked narrative crumbs, but the answers — which is, after all, the expectation, the covenant one makes with fiction — appear in the end. Oh, before I forget, I can't imagine anyone would read this in singles. Stray Toasters is, as it's said, "of a piece."

So, Elkin, where to next? Let's go further. Do you want to ask about Phil? Rustemagik's questionable choices in sexual partners? How about what Sienkiewicz has against noses?

Quote unquote.

Monday, November 20, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 11/13/17 to 11/19/17

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM 

* John Seven takes this quick look at PRESENT by Leslie Stein, saying "Stein's comics do read a lot like a gift, like that gift is an expression of something that is happening with her or something she is feeling, and it is presented with the idea that you, too, might be going through the same thing."

* Alex Hoffman reviews SHINER by Nathan Cowdry, "a weird conglomeration of sexual obsession, violence, zeitgeist-prodding, and an aesthetic that looks pulled straight out of a 60's shojo magazine."

* Sally Ingraham on LAKE JEHOVAH by Jillian Fleck, which she calls, "a good example too of how a comic is an active relationship between the maker and the reader."

* Joe McCulloch reviews Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck's TWILIGHT OF THE BAT.

* Sam Ombiri on TONGUES by Anders Nilsen, which he hesitates to call "a culmination", and yet does so for all the right reasons.

* Edward Haynes just can't seem to click with Chris Gooch's graphic novel debut, BOTTLED.

* Ryan C. takes on the problematic greatness of Aaron Lange's TRIM series. After having wrestled with my own issues with Lange's work, I'm always glad to see someone else struggle with it as well.

* Rob Kirby has this MINICOMICS ROUNDUP on four books "focused on managing the impacts of grief, trauma, or simple day-to-day struggles."

* Rob Clough looks at a number of books by LIZ SUBURBIA.

* Meg Lemke presents an excerpt from EVERYTHING IS FLAMMABLE by Gabrielle Bell.

* Kayleigh Hearn, Rebecca Henely-Weiss, and Kat Overland highlight some of their purchases in this roundup of short reviews titled SMALL PRESS BITES: SPX EDITION over on Women Write About Comics.

WHATNOT

* Hillary Brown interviews SOPHIE GOLDSTEIN about her new book, House of Women.

* Alex Deuben interviews ANDERS NILSEN about his new series, Tongues

* Graham Techler's EVERY SUPERHERO MOVIE IS A COMEDY.

* Nick Hanover's THREE BILLBOARDS AND THE EXPLOITATION OF BLACK ACTIVISM.

* Art Vinyl has announced the nominees for its 13th annual awards celebrating the YEAR'S BEST RECORD SLEEVE ARTWORK. Go Vote Now!

* Marjorie Ingall's TRANSGENDER JEWS FIND A PLACE IN THE MIKVEH.

* Gabriel Heller's short story, BEDTIME.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Adapting Crime Fiction is a Heady Game: Jason Sacks Reviews HEAD GAMES from First Second Books

(Editor's Note: This is now the FIFTH of what I hope to be many contributions to this site from other writers writing about off-the-radar small press books being published today. Today, Jason Sacks talks about the perils of adaptation. When you finish reading this piece, also check out these previously published pieces: Austin Lanari writing about š! #26 'dADa', Nick Hanover writing about GORO by Sarah Horrocks, Alex Hoffman reviewing the anthology NOW #1 from Fantagraphics, and Josh Hicks on RIPPLES by Wai Wai Pang.)

First Second Books recently published a graphic adaptation of Craig McDonald’s noir detective novel Head Games. The new comic book version, written by McDonald with art by Kevin Singles and Les McClane, is a rare work that stands on its own as a literary work. In doing so, it reflects the ambition of the original while also showing the potential of the comics form.

Head Games is a deeply haunting journey through dark back-alleys of 20th century America. As the first of McDonald’s stories starring policeman-turned-novelist Hector Lassiter, and thus the first to appear in comics form, this book is the ideal introduction to the gritty world Lassiter inhabits. In his books, McDonald presents a view of American history that illuminates dark corners of our shared past while providing thrilling plots and fascinating characters. This new adaptation is a captivating counterpart to the original work. McDonald’s meticulous prose and detailed storyline combine with empathetic artwork to deliver a book that combines the best of comic art with a novelistic structure to deliver a uniquely powerful book.

Illustrated by Kevin Singles and Les McClaine, Head Games, the graphic novel, is an often labyrinthine work that successfully combines thematic density with the sparse storytelling virtues of comic books.

McDonald’s original novel twists several urban legends around a series of fascinating plot threads that result in a high-octane thriller that also reveals a darker side of American history seldom reported in newspapers. Set in 1957, Head Games revolves around popular crime novelist Hector Lassiter who has retired from a life of action and adventure. However, when he journeys South of the Border for a chance find of the skull of Pancho Villa (rumored to have a map to a buried treasure), Lassiter drags himself back into a life of violence for one final adventure. With the help of poet Bud Fiske (assigned to profile Lassiter for Fact magazine) and Alicia Vicente (former Hollywood actress and hanger-on), Lassiter follows a trail through the American Southwest that leads him to encounters with 1950s Hollywood royalty, Mexican mercenaries, and members of the Harvard Skull and Bones Society.

That latter group is led by Senatorial candidate Prescott Bush. Throwing Grandpa Bush into the story is a fascinating and delightful bit of stagecraft which allows McDonald to add an additional level of historical heft (or outright historical slander) by bringing the father of two American presidents into this outrageous but realistic-seeming story. In fact, George W. Bush has a quick cameo as part of Skull & Bones, an inclusion that had an odd effect me. Readers can look at people like Orson Welles through a historical lens, but we all feel we know Bush well. Incorporating him into the story feels transgressive and moves this tale from a historical exploration to a piece with contemporary echoes.


The pulpy elements of McDonald’s concepts provide a nice meta-textural flair to the comic. They reflect the types of crime and revenge stories popular in the 1950s comics, full of double-crossing gangsters and world-weary private dicks. But Head Games transcends that juvenilia with a storyline that adds smartly designed characterization that transcends cliches. Those elements may not have been in the original novel, but they live as a quiet heartbeat in the adaptation, allowing the comic version to expose unexpected resonances.

These historical references provide a lot of the thrill of reading this book. McDonald includes some delightful anecdotes about Villa, name checks Ernest Hemingway, and drops readers on the set of Orson Welles’s doomed film Touch of Evil, among other things. These ground the work in a definitive past, one in which we can easily tie the terrible and haunting events of McDonald’s historical insertions as small touchstones. It made me want to go back to watch Touch of Evil to investigate some of the rumors McDonald shares.

But what gives this book much of its power is the complexity of its leads. Lassiter is the kind of hero you can imagine portrayed by Robert Mitchum in an old crime film, all 1950s masculine swagger tightly wound like chain-mail armor around an inner pain too horrible to contemplate. The poet, Fiske, is no shrinking violet but instead quickly finds himself compromising his morals because of the roughness of the world to which he is exposed.The descent of Fiske has a brutal power. We witness Fiske perform his first killing, watch him engage in subterfuge and espionage, and watch as his exposure to the vast conspiracy takes its physical and emotional toll on him. The woman, Vicente, likewise shows her inner grit, a strong, angry woman who defies 1950s stereotypes by being an equal partner to her two alpha-male companions. These pulpy heroes echo back the era with characterizations that surf close to cliche but meticulously avoid it, a counterpart to the “murderous wife” crime stories that were so popular in comics and pulps at the time.


Cartoonists Singles and McClaine deliver the story in an art style that provides a nice match to the story they’re telling. As McDonald discusses in his Afterword, the artists take McDonald’s literary approach and transform it into something different, a work that stands on its own as a comic, following rules and expectations of a work of comic art while remaining true to the literary and novelistic roots of the book they are adapting.

In fact, most of all I was struck by two aspects of the art. First, Singles and McClane provide just the right amount of detail. They never overpopulate their backgrounds with endless detail that distracts from story. Echoing McDonald’s writing, the details Singles and McClane emphasize have significance and add to the life of the work. The vastness of the Arizona desert, the desultory features of a sleazy hotel room, and the facade of a seemingly glamorous film set all come to life wonderfully by the artists. Secondly, I was struck by the amount of life given to these characters. Singles and McClane deliver people with life, verve, and energy, while also allowing the reader space in which they can see their own interpretation of these characters. Facial expressions are often enigmatic rather than on-the-nose, which often gives readers a sense that these men and women are thinking ahead, planning their next moves on the metaphorical chess board.

Head Games is one of those unique graphic novel adaptations that does not diminish or demean the original. McDonald, Singles, and McClaine avoid common pitfalls by remaining true to the spirit of McDonald’s original book. They deliver a work with smart complexity that features characters who transcend stereotypes and become three-dimensional as we explore their increasingly ramshackle lives. Head Games, the graphic novel, shows that when empathetic creators work together to create a complex story, they can deliver a uniquely satisfying experience.


-------------------------------

Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

Monday, November 13, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 11/617 to 11/12/17

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM 

* Rob Clough reviews Anders Nilsen's TONGUES, which he says has "the potential to be Nilsen's best work yet" -- which, if you know Nilsen's work, is high praise indeed.

* AJ Frost writes this really great review of CARTOON CLOUDS by Joseph Remnant, "a testament to the art of the subtle, as well as a bold thesis about the inanities of the millennial experience."

* Carta Monir introduces us to TITTYCHOP BOOBSLASH by Higu Rose, "an extremely good, extremely trans comic" that could be "an excellent resource for any young trans person navigating the healthcare system."

* Shea Hennum reviews RUN FOR IT: STORIES OF SLAVES WHO FOUGHT FOR THEIR FREEDOM by Brazillian cartoonist Marcelo D'Salete (translated by Andrea Rosenberg) about the Brazillian slave trade. Hennum writes, "D'Salete constructs a space of immense humaity. That is, characters and communitess are here afforded depth, complexity, and a multituted of simultaneous emotions. He peoples his stories with love and loss, joy and struggle."

* Phillipe LeBlanc reviews STAGES OF ROT by Lienna Sterte, which "creates a fully realized world just odd enough for us to feel destabilized, yet familiar enough to understand it."

* Angelica Frey writes about I'M NOT HERE by GG from Koyama Press, a book whose "relative visual silence and quiet emphasize the sense of uneasiness that seeps from the pages."

* Tom Baker reviews two books from Glasgow-based small press publisher O Panda Gordo (which has to be one of the best named small press publishers in Glasgow), MONEY WORRIES #1 by Joao Sobral and SPARE ME by Disa Wallander in a piece with a headline that includes  the phrase "Adventures in Capitalism and an Escape in Nature".

* Someone over at Pipedream Comics pens this plot-heavy, open-faced review of GEIS BOOK 2: A GAME WITHOUT RULES by Alexis Deacon, which I link here not for the quality of the review, but because Geis is series more people should know about.

* Ryan C. is genuinely surprised by how much he enjoyed Brian Canini's THE BIG YEAR and does a pretty good job here explaining why. Ryan also features some interesting books on his WEEKLY READING ROUND-UP, notably Mark Beyer's Ne'er-Do-Wellers and Plastic People by Brian Canini.

* Robert Kirby has mini-reviews of the latest four releases of MINI KUS! COMICS which "underscore what makes this publisher a unique, exciting, and valuable branch of the indie comics scene."

* JK Parkin previews Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck's TWILIGHT OF THE BAT.

* Sean Edgar previews the final volume of Jason Shiga's DEMON from First Second.

WHATNOT

* Mike Dawson and Zack Soto interview SARAH HORROCKS about her new series, Goro, plus "her writing and drawing process, philosophy of pacing both within a story and a page, mark making vs. legibility, and staying true to the emotional content of the work over traditional styles of representation."

* Matthew James-Wilson interviews JESSE JACOBS about his new book, Crawl Space, as well as "nature, drugs, religion, and how to avoid making the same work twice."

* Hillary Brown interviews BRIGITTE FINDAKLY and LEWIS TRONDHEIM about their book, Poppies of Iraq.

* Over on the Comics Alternative, Derek interviews JOSEPH REMNANT about his new book, Cartoon Clouds.

* Alex Dueben ALSO interviews JOSEPH REMNANT about Cartoon Clouds.

* Tom Spurgeon has this brief interview with the new CAB co-curator MATTHEW JAMES-WILSON.

* The Spring 2018 lineup from CONUNDRUM PRESS seems to be filled with some interesting books. Check it out.

* Lucy Bourton talks about the amazing ANIMATION ABOUT BI-POLAR DISORDER created by Uncle Ginger for TedEx.

* Phyllis Chesler puts forth this amazing bit of writing on Angela Sells' new book, SABINA SPIELREIN: THE WOMAN AND THE MYTH, "a case history of pathological patriarchy, anti-Semitism, Stalinism, Nazism, and genocide. It is also the story of an incredible pioneering thinker whose ideas were freely 'borrowed' by the Great Men of Psychoanalysis whose followers conspired in defaming and demonizing Spielrein's character and all traces of her subsequent 30-year history of intellectual and clinical work."