This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin.
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.
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.
Daniel: OK, so my first "issue" is assuaged and it seems that I don't have to convince either of you that spending the time unplugging Stay Toasters will ultimately reward us with something sensible upon which to snack ("Every kid I know eats that kind of shit."). So now let's spread some jam on this.
Giampaoli did an excellent job of breaking down our overarching plot point story line narrative noggin and I'm glad he's worked that out in the same way that I did. Putting pieces of the puzzle together. It only took me four reads of this book to suss these relationships Sienkiewicz blends and bleeds -- liquefies and drains -- "Fug. Some bastard done killed muh child-hood."
I'm thinking that pursuing pieces will lead us to big pajama pants picture gazing, so let's do that. I'll propose some questions and you may answer them directly or quote indirectly unquote: Question One, How are Todd and the Tuxedo Butler connected -- certainly it seems that the Butler is plugged into the socket in Todd's neck, but what are we really talking about here? Which leads me to Question Two: Why is there a socket in Todd's neck?
While you are answering these questions (or ignoring them entirely), try to keep in mind that there is the larger picture that Sienkiewicz is painting -- and I'm thinking it's a Hodegetria as mother/child imagery washes like ink, like oil, like oranges in this book -- and, by golly, there is after all a distinct hell and a whole happy family of devils playing a prominent role in Stray Toasters.
What is a toaster if not that which burns the bread of life?
Justin: I will answer your questions with questions, answer your questions, and then ask more questions. Don't the answers to your first two questions depend on whether or not you intended them as literal or figurative? I'll answer them literally (direct as you say) and figuratively (indirectly then). Literally, I honestly never read more into the sockets, plugs, and connections any more than I read into Deckard encountering a synth replicant or Starbuck encountering a skin-job Cylon. Futurist works with healthy twinges of sci-fi always seem to feature a more naturally occurring symbiosis of man and machine, as technology assumedly evolves. I think it's maybe not relevant to ask questions like these, not in a literal sense anyway, because it becomes an inconclusive journey that dead-ends inside Pandora's Box. How does Todd even build the Tuxedo Toaster in the first place? How does Dr. Violet conduct those demented experiments straight out of La Chambre des Cauchemars? How do moms get wired up like common lamps? Getting bogged down in pragmatism misses the cautionary aspect of these stories, the social parable we may apply to our own reality.
Figuratively speaking, I essentially read the dirty technology as a metaphoric umbilical cord. Why are they connected via a mechanical socket in Todd's neck? Because it provides him the energy, the warmth, the nourishment, the love, and the emotional connection, everything he actually needs mentally and physically to live, if not thrive, everything his real guardian failed to provide. So, as Dr. Malcolm cautioned on Isla Nublar "I'm simply saying that life, uhh… finds a way."
Leave it to Elkin, waving his wand like Prospero on his little island, to conjure words I've never encountered before and must actually play follow the link with. Hodegetria. Yeah. Not only does Sienkiewicz lace this mother with mother/child imagery and overt parental concerns, but I'd say he moves it a drastic step further to a more complex exercise in sublimation with Oedipal Opposites. Nobody here wants to kill their father and fuck their mother. Dahlia kills kids and fucks fathers. Robots kill mothers and try to protect kids. Maybe Todd wants to kill his mother and fuck a robot for all I know. There are so many pointy triangles in this family circle. One of the clear messages I pulled from this, one of those big answers was about parenthood in general, something you never quite master, you're always chasing, never pacing. Parenthood can't be a binary act. In the unrelenting attempt to reconcile consistency with flexibility, you can't smother (as the robot attempts to envelop Todd in an effort to protect him) and you obviously can't disengage and abandon (as Dahlia did). We must find balance, as Abby ultimately does. Am I really saying that a book about killing kids contains a teachable moment for parents? "I do so love a good paradox."
I guess this is an okay segue to the strong religious overtones of this book? There are some choice examples. I like the sort of "Black Swan" thing that Egon has in terms of the women he's caught between. Dahlia is the killer of kids. Abby is the savior of kids. They sit atop his shoulders like proverbial devils and angels. Dahlia is very conflicted about her own sexuality, thinking it's dirty, dirty, dirty, even though she enjoys it immensely. If that ain't repressed Catholic guilt, what is? Stray Toasters opens with cynical mockery of the family unit, but ultimately the holy trinity of familial love conquers all, as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph -- that's Todd, Abby, and Egon -- or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pick your poisoned apple, come together to form a functional unit, with Abby never actually giving birth to Todd. Immaculate Conception, some would say. Maybe the best example is how we're initially conditioned to resent Dahlia as Todd does. With all her religious fanaticism, it made me feel that Sienkiewicz was devoutly anti-religion, but by the end there's a religious paradigm that fits nicely. Egon is essentially living a life of purgatory after losing the child with Abby (maybe that's what his time in the asylum also represented). The Devil encounters him (posing as the old lady neighbor/mother figure). He's then sent to "hell" with Dr. Violet to atone for his sins. Later, he sacrifices himself to save Todd. He's "reborn" as a kid, a clean slate. The book believes in redemption.
Before I stray even further, here's what I think is one of the keystones to the whole thing. Silva mentioned "intricate folds and switchbacks." Scientists often suggest that time is not linear, it's fluid. Elkin says Sienkiewicz "liquefies" and "bleeds" narrative elements, and you're all onto something. It's stacked. It's cylindrical. It's quantum. Ellen Einstein understands the nature of the labyrinth. Remember her? In a weird infomercial interlude, this creepy cook says that time does not merely repeat itself; it folds back upon itself, points at either end touch and blend. Events are the same, only different. It's like, does Todd grow up to be a killer? Does the killer project himself as a childlike visage in the form of Todd? Better yet, does Todd grow up to be Egon? By the end, Egon has basically reverted to being a young Todd, complete with a Tuxedo style cat, his life a do-over. "Points at either end touch and blend." Life is doubling back on itself like Ellen Einstein's precious cake batter. Stray Toasters reality is a time continuum cake without the oven of a bitch this time around. AKA: WHITE DWARF TESLA SOUFFLE. How's that for some big picture-gazing questions?
Keith: Sex. Death. Religion. Art. Mothers and sons. The nature (and shape) of time? All from a co(s)mic book, huh? Imagine that, a comic book.
Elkin, Giampaoli, were we three elbow to elbow to elbow (?) at a bar, I would chew my scotch and say: I don't give "a flying colostomy bag" as to why Todd has a socket in his neck or how he and the tuxedo butler (aka Big Daddy) are connected, they're close that's all we need know. Now, since we are separated by a continent and you can't catch the subtleties in my tone nor parse my gestures, I'll say this: that's the genius of the thing, innit? Stray Toasters embodies the phrase: interpretation all the way down. So many stratums to sift, so much scotch to chew (on).
Good questions, yes, and yet, more (mere?) threads in the larger tapestry. Of equal import could be: how does the obese cyanotic doctor -- "do you know what cyanotic means?" -- who has mechanical birds do his bidding -- a perversion of the Wicked Witch of the East perhaps? -- survive without a body, or without his brain encased in a skull? How about Phil? Why is this hell dweller, who serves as the narrative's one demon Greek Chorus, visiting our (?) world -- cats and slimy lawyers aside -- why is he here? And then there's Abigail Nolan, a psychiatrist who moonlights as a dominatrix, what's her angle? Is she some Madonna-whore simulacrum? In light of these other narrative strands, the boy with the ungrounded socket in his neck seems … normal.
Like Science-fiction and like superhero comics, Stray Toasters extracts a great deal from a reader's suspension of disbelief. Once one locks into this world, the next logical step is to search for meaning, for subtext. Were we paranoiacs or conspiracy theorists perhaps we would find clues Sienkiewicz has (?) buried in the text that speak to grander theories, suggestions or allegories about political scandals long forgotten, perhaps Iran-Contra, Abscam or the Keating Five. PerhapsStray Toasters speaks more as an oracular spectacular; perhaps, its leaves contain mysteries yet unknown. For me, albeit a noble pursuit, the search for meaning, any meaning, in Stray Toastersmakes for a fool's errand. But such a work of genius, something so deliberately opaque, must mean something? Should it?
Like other mid to late '80s comic books, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Stray Toastershas a timeless quality hard-wired in its DNA -- twenty-five years after its initial publication it remains a dense and enigmatic text. The questions we are asking form the quantum level of Stray Toastersstructure. The one character who wants, who craves/requires structure, Harvard Chalky, is the work's most pitiful player. Chalky wears a diaper, he is impudent and even when he tries to act, he gets it wrong, he fucks it up. Chalky tries to make sense of senselessness. Where's the law, what's the law in a lawless world where children are killed and no one cares? Of course, Chalky, a gimp-like Dudley-Do-Right does get his man which leads to an ironic twist and paves the way for Egon's redemption.
Giampaoli worked out the details, the plot, but I maintain this is a "plot-less" story. Stray Toastersworks because of the messiness, the confusion. Sienkiewicz color coordinates the dialogue boxes (thank Christ!) or else we'd really be in the dark. Giampaoli pulls sexual repression, doubles and the non-linear-ness of time from the text. Each one a legit theme -- I've got to admit as a product of a thirteen year parochial education I feel a deep shame over the fact I missed the blatant Catholic connection, I mean, goddammit, Dahlia recites the Hail Mary and the Our Father … sort of.
So, Elkin, are you ready to put your questions aside? Are you ready to admit Stray Toasters hews too close to life's unpredictability, its randomness and that's why it confounds? Thrill me with your acumen.
Daniel: It is a stray toaster that browns the best bread after all, Silva; the ones that burn unpredictably are often tossed out with the trash.
Are you forcing me to confront meaninglessness in my art again? Don't you remember how much that hurt me last time when we discussed Bulletproof Coffin? Why would you even begin to take me down that path once more? Even Giampaoli is seemingly assaulting me with his admonition not to get "bogged down in pragmatism" -- why can't my quest for meaning be something other than quixotic? I have to believe that I can't shake Stray Toasters BECAUSE … well.... something -- something of meaning, of substance, of great importance. Perhaps it is your own fear that makes you so fidgety.
So let me wire up a thought Giampaoli unplugged earlier: "The book believes in redemption." Without electrocuting the concept, it's an avenue I've been driving down with each subsequent read of this book. I can't quite make it through to the final destination, though, as there are too many speed bumps Sienkiewicz strategically (?) has placed along the way. After all, it is a circular journey, the "points get worn down until that triangle round -- a ring with a single softened edge." When you polish it, it "glows with a soft luster... Generation after generation..."
How can there be redemption if the son commits the sins of the fathers who have committed those same sins as his father before? Nietzsche's concept of Eternal Recurrence is a moral principle, not an avenue for redemption. They say when you repeat the same action over and over again expecting a different outcome you are classically insane. Or very, very optimistic. Or both. But redemptive?
I want/have to think -- believe -- that in Stray Toasters, Sienkiewicz wants us to unearth hope from the strata ("to sift"), but it is painted thick with such anger at all the institutions we embrace as nations, communities, families, that it is hard to disinter anything other than scorn. Who has the last word in this book (as well as the first)? Even the Devil gives up on the "whole crazy, sordid mess" that is our world, feeling "humbled by the depths and heights (we) traverse on (our) own," only to return to the warm embrace of his family in Hell. Hell, even the Bolle-Happel press release on the final page reads, "all free rides must come to an end. Even for tough old bastards like us."
Dahlia, a child of incest, must end the cycle of guilt by killing her own child.
Who is watching over Egon in the end, going so far as to bring him a cat for company?
What does Todd want for breakfast after the whole ordeal?
This second chance has the stain of the first chance all over it, smelling of blood and oranges.
Still, I am left with the nagging feeling that Sienkiewicz has a secret smile hidden behind his clenched fist. While I will admit that I have a propensity to project my desires on the art that I love, I do have to wonder if Sienkiewicz is only just railing, then why subvert anything at all? I think there is more going on than just spewing -- I can't catch the redemption -- so what is left?
Justin: If there's further mystery and meaning hidden behind that secret smile, let us delve further into the mysteries wrapped inside of these riddles inside this particular enigma. What's left, for me, are the interactive components that Sienkiewicz uses to propel reader engagement in lieu of any semblance of a traditional narrative. I see three primary mysteries offered with varying degrees of success.
The first and most obvious mystery introduced is "who is the killer?" Phrasing it like that is, of course, deceptive since there isn't a single killer, but at least two, Dahlia and the Toaster. For the latter, we know the Toaster is killing women up front, and it never rises to be anything more than that, so the only real mystery left to this thread is why? By the end, we get our misguided answer. The more fascinating part of this in terms of story construction was Dahlia's identity as a killer. Sienkiewicz telegraphs early on that the killer is Dahlia. We see it verbally when Dahlia refers to the killer as "she" and Egon overtly picks up on it. We see it physically when her body markings reflect the same type of aesthetic as one of the kids in the morgue. On top of that, sorry, but FBI brain kicks in and profiler John Douglas would have classified this killer as one that, though sociopathic, was a logical, highly organized killer, one who probably knows the kids, or is at least projecting the identity of a child she does know onto the victims, since she doesn't hurt their faces, and she doesn't sexually assault them, because those actions are both too intimate. Back at Quantico, all available evidence leads to Dahlia. We're given the answer so early on, and we see Egon considering the answer so early on, that I initially suspected it was a red herring designed to throw us off track. But, there's nothing more to it, which to me steals some of the interactive thrill. We're given clues up front as to who the killer is, we guess who the killer is, we watch the ostensible protagonist guess who the killer is, and there's no deviation from that. We simply watch it play out. Elkin will call this blasphemy, but I thought that was borrr-ring.
The second mystery I found myself contending with the moment Dissler is ruled out as a candidate was "Who is Todd's real mom?" and by extension "Who is his father?" As for maternal identity, I feel like Sienkiewicz again reveals this prematurely. There's an early double page spread (a beautiful one, BTW) with Abby on the left in front of her oven as Todd looks on, then an evil mirror image of Dahlia on the opposite page with a younger Todd, his cat, and several toasters, which probably explains his autistic fixation on them. They imprinted on his developmentally delayed psyche since they were present during a traumatic childhood experience, probably his cat being killed. The less obvious piece of this is who his father is. I kept asking myself "is Todd actually Egon's kid?" I'm not sure this timeline works. We know Egon's with Abby and they lose a child (not Todd), then he's committed. Has he been out and having sex with Dahlia long enough for sufficient time to have elapsed to have this kid together? Could she have hidden it from him? I don't buy it. Besides, I like the Immaculate Conception theory more anyway, and I also like playing with the quantum theory that Todd and Egon are somehow connected as an entity as we've already discussed. So, I'm left feeling not very impressed by this mystery either.
The third mystery, the one that really did it for me, was the most obtuse one: "Who is Mona?!" I'm dying to know what you guys think, but I'll offer my theory first because that's what they pay me for. I believe that Mona is Egon's name for the child that he and Abby lost together. We're never told how she was lost, abortion, in utero, stillborn, as a result of Ego's alcoholism, etc., but we know it's deeply affected their relationship. It was enough for Abby to lie about what Egon did and to have him committed. It haunts Egon to this day. He repeatedly blames Mona for his troubles. He blames Mona for Abby having him committed. Perhaps if Mona had lived, Abby wouldn't resent him. If Abby didn't resent him, he wouldn't have been committed. If he wasn't committed, maybe he wouldn't continue seeing pink elephants and need to redeem his actions and save another child. Whenever the name "Mona" is uttered in the book there's always an odd juxtaposition, either visual or textual association, with kids and/or Abby. When Egon gets shot and thinks he's dying, his life flashes in front of his eyes, he sees images of her, of the life he never got to share with Mona. This is part of the reason I maintain there is a redemption story here; Egon has to make up for losing Mona by saving Todd and Abby. He finally preserves a family unit after botching his first attempt. He's square with the house. In some ways, the loss of Mona is just as much a catalyst for this story as the Dahlia and Todd dynamic setting things into motion, which Abby and Egon just happen to get caught up in the middle of as the two family dynamics converge.
I'll laud limited exposition in most cases, but it's almost done to a fault here. There's very low narrative clarity. Guys like us are certainly up for the challenge, wrestling with a narrative, analyzing for deeper meaning, but I think the average audience is put off by this amount of work, proving and disproving their own character theories by citing different evidence and snapping puzzle pieces into precarious place. Sienkiewicz's ability to move the plot of Stray Toasters along is highly dependent on the reader's ability to reason inductively. It's a big gamble to rely on the audience's focus, mental acuity, willingness to re-read a non-traditional and non-linear bit of storytelling, especially in the 1980s, because, well, uhh, people are stupid and they want superheroes hitting villains and Larfleeze The Orange Lantern Limited Edition Action Figures, amirite?
I did some research to prep for this roundtable discussion and I wish I'd bookmarked this to cite it, but I saw a mention (it's in my notes, honest) that Sienkiewicz wrote this book in like 3 weeks between the hours of 2am and 5am while working a manual labor day job and contemplating being abused himself as a kid. I have no idea if that's based on fact or a salacious urban legend. You guys are more familiar with his body of work than I am, do you know anything about the origins of this story? What do you guys think about the effectiveness of the mysteries? Who the hell do you think Mona is?
Keith: Mona? Mona's Mitch and Murray; and she's Bruce and Harriet Nyborg too. To cop aVerbal-ism, Mona is a spook story that butlers tell their Todd's at night. She's Nanny or, for you more highbrow types, Mona's Godot, Rosaline and Dulcinea. Maybe Mona is what Egon calls Dalia's "rosebud?"
I was ready to reprise my role as our trio's resident "wet sandwich" and say these questions about who's who and how what's-it ends up where all equate to blind alleys in Stray Toasters and then I saw this:
"Rosebud." Is this that secret Sienkiewicz smile you were asking after, Elkin? As to "guys like us," Giampaoli, versus the average reader's capacity to twig the nuances and subtleties of, shall we say, a challenging work like Stray Toasters, I advise caution especially when it comes to the Larfleeze-lickers out there, innocence is bliss, after all.
I stand steadfast in my belief that Stray Toasters isn't as obtuse as it may appear. Maybe it's my papist upbringing, my own engrained catechism which leads me to believe it's O.K. to let certain mysteries remain mysteries -- if you can swallow transubstantiation, you'll believe almost anything, I suppose. Maybe it's a question of faith. The fact Stray Toasters engenders the type of discussion we are having is a (mystery) a wonder in and of itself.
I was on a search for redemption in Stray Toasters -- a snipe hunt for textual proof of self-sacrifice and Christ-like actions in a book where there exists a paucity of mercy -- when I came across the panel of the sled and little Egon gone ass-over-tea-kettle. Like a bolt out of the blue it hit me, Stray Toasters is one of only a handful of texts I've experienced to reward randomness which therefore allows for kismet, for understanding, for grace. Every page of this book is an invitation, no prior knowledge is required. We are all "Phil-like," apart of the crowd and yet a part from it as well. So what? If an ingress is an egress what's the point? Where's the logic if the blueprint we've spent six thousand or so words pointing out if is all random? Levels, Jerry, like ancient Egypt, levels.
A googling of "Sienkiewicz," "inspiration," "stray," and "toasters" brought up an interview Sienkiewicz did in 1998 at San Diego Comic Con for a Danish publication. The interview was reprinted (for the first time in English in 2008) by Katherine Keller on Sequential Tart. The interviewer, Henrik Andreasen, asks Sienkiewicz if Stray Toasters is the result of his own process to establish his identity, the compulsion we all experience to reject the father-figure or mentor (in Sienkiewicz's case Neal Adams) in order to become oneself. Here's part of the exchange:
Andreasen: I thought that [in Stray Toasters] you disguised a very straightforward story in layer upon layer of different art styles … was that to confuse the reader and avoid trouble, with the story focusing on a very controversial subject — the dysfunctional family?
Sienkiewicz: That was in there as well. I always liked SF, and setting it in the future was a way to deal with some personal issues that I had to deal with […] I decided that the toasters were a metaphor for me, something that's electrical that you plug in. You put the toast, the bread or the bagel in it, and it warms up and does as it is supposed to do, and when you do not need it anymore you leave it on the counter. And I sort of felt that in a dysfunctional family, that's how the parents treat their children, as appliances. Something to warm up and provide the parents with something, when it is actually the parents" job to provide for the child. So that was sort of the underlined meaning, that idea of a child creating his adult version of a monster i.e. "Big Daddy" — creating his own child version of what a daddy is. I firmly intended to do my actual childhood, but in a much more straightforward kind of story, something like a Harvey Pekar or Art Spiegelman story, without being like that.
I think I removed myself enough from the SF to tell a straightforward story that deals with an absolute psychopath, someone who has no trouble killing animals. And what children need to do, and what I need to do, to find all that okay, even though that it wasn't, is to find a place where you are safe. Comics was my place to be safe and in control when I was growing up, because so much of what was around me wasn't.
Now, "guys like us" are (and should) always be wary of explanations that come from the creator about his/her work. Sienkiewicz doesn't say exactly what "personal issues" he was dealing with -- abuse, perhaps, as Giampaoli indicated, but that's not clear. What catches my attention is Andreasen's use of the phrase, "layer upon layer" and Sienkiewicz's claim that he was telling a "straightforward story." We've figured out the second part, we know the story; what we're tangled in is the "layers," stuck between stations, lost in the funhouse.
We've all implied Stray Toasters is a layered story, an impasto of artistic styles, a painted text, something akin to spreading jam over butter over toast. Kane's "Rosebud" and Egon's "Mona" represent symbols of loss -- the "who" and "what" are academic -- take it on faith, perhaps, it's "loss" that counts, nothing less, nothing more. Symbols imply layers and Stray Toasters is lousy with symbols and stand-ins and metaphors and similes and …
Loss sometimes presupposes a gain, a balance, a reward, experience, and redemption. Those who remain standing at the end of Stray Toasters find solace, evil is punished, lost boys and lost mothers unite, and a demon hands out a cat to provide comfort. Maybe it's true after all, maybe "the family circle is a triangle." I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I betcha" it's symbolic like a sled, like Mitch and Murray -- motivation, propulsion, the means, not the ends.
Daniel: Fellas, fellas, fellas, what big eyes you have for they are indeed better to see with.
But I will toss these two crumbs into the fire just to watch them burn:
Doesn't Abby ask Egon who Mona is when first they meet up again?
All Egon wants to do is get "Fugged" -- why bring up Mona then?
See what happens when I pay too much attention. I end up putting crossroads on the highway, and the devil waits at each, clutching a steel guitar in one hand and a pen in the other.
In some ways I feel we are getting closer to our destination while it drifts further out to sea. I'm a pragmatist at heart. I guess.
Thanks for bringing Sienkiewicz into this conversation, though, Silva. By his words, he calms my earlier unease by pointing to meaning in this work -- a process, a working-through to heal and understand. There are answers in this book to questions I have yet to ask, and it seems that there may be a redemptive quality to them after all. "And what children need to do... is find a place where you are safe." Is Stray Toasters a form of palliative care for lost innocence, childhood trauma, repressed memories? Is this why it has to be so convoluted? I'm reminded of what I think is the most poignant line in Toni Morrison's Beloved: "Anything dead coming back to life hurts." There can be no healing without pain.
And perhaps this is the frequency of the book and why it resonates in my life. It is perhaps this process that provides the bridge from entertainment to art and adds further layers to a subconscious connection.
What Sienkiewicz says about why a toaster is a metaphor for him... hmmmmm.
Earlier in this review (?), Giampaoli tells a personal anecdote about how this book imprinted upon his memory and he wondered about the connection between that and our present discussion. I'll use this opportunity to convey my own story now. In 1992 I was living in San Francisco. One night I had a dream which consisted of me looking down upon myself sitting naked in an alley, in a pool of my own urine, holding an unplugged toaster that was burning bright. As I looked down upon myself, that self looked up and, as it stared me in the eye, it opened its mouth and let loose this plaintive and pathetic slowly escalating howl of distress. I woke with a start with that sound echoing still in my head. All that day, I couldn't shake it or the vision revealed in the dream. It permeated and resonated every aspect of my actions.
That evening, my roommate's boyfriend came over and told us about his day's experience at the Tattoo Shop. He was getting an extensive back piece done at the time, and he kept referring to the artist who was doing the work as "crazy". Then he looked at me right in the eye and said, "I mean, she told me what she really wanted to do was put a toaster on somebody." Everything came together for me in that moment. I was that somebody all right. And so I have a tattooed toaster on my arm. It has been a reminder of that dream for me every day since.
I tell that story now to add another layer to our conversation. Perhaps this is why this book is so important to me. Perhaps this is why unpacking its intent is heavy on my bucket list. Does Stray Toasters answer its questions by the end? Do we as readers get to that safe place? Or am I asking the same questions again in hope of obtaining different answers?
Justin: In dream interpretation, some say that every character and every object in our dreams is merely an aspect of self. You're the toaster too, Elkin, burning bright…
For so long, perhaps because we are writers, we've looked to the story for answers. Let us seek elsewhere, since we've barely touched the visceral Sienkiewicz art. It too has had a ripple effect in the industry and perhaps in our own lives. As long as we're sitting at the bar telling stories…
If the general Sienkiewicz aesthetic can be called a "thing, " then I didn't start appreciating this hyper-stylized artistic approach, this "thing " here, until the late '90s. It's nice to finally examine a possible origin of some of that lineage in this relatively early Bill Sienkiewicz work. I've mentioned before that I grew up largely on DC Comics and I can objectively trace how some of those early pull list titles informed the looks I ultimately gravitated toward, which were all very different than ol" Bill.
While he was toiling away on New Mutants, the best two artistic examples of what I was reading at the approximate time are probably George Perez's work on New Teen Titans and Dave Gibbons on Green Lantern. These were clean, open, almost austere styles than emphasized somewhat realistic figure work and emotive faces. It's no surprise, then, that my adult comics diet favored artists exhibiting a similar joie de vivre, like John Cassaday or Jamie McKelvie. But around the late '90s, I walked into the old Lee's Comics location on El Camino Real near Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and was captivated by a book called Kabuki by David Mack. It was like nothing I'd ever seen.
Mack exploded onto the scene with a seemingly anarchic mixed media approach, blurring traditional comic book line art, pen and ink stippling, oil paints, watercolor, photography, collage and decoupage, altering realistic and highly stylized visuals at will, usually to dizzying effect. One of his trademark go-to visual moves was bordering some images or panels with rows of tiny little decorative inked triangles. It was a staple visual motif in the various Kabuki series, and he even used it again when he created the character Echo in his very early Daredevil run with Brian Michael Bendis.
I found those rows of triangles in Stray Toasters.
In short, Mack openly cited Sienkiewicz as an influence and that immediately pushed me toward other artists born of that style. This journey included multiple trajectories expanding out like a shotgun blast to Kent Williams (The Fountain), Ashley Wood (Automatic Kafka, Popbot), Ben Templesmith (Fell), Jason Shawn Alexander's painterly aesthetic, and many more. Maybe it's worth pointing out that Automatic Kafka is one of my absolute favorite cult classic books and that (along with Popbot) also features wacked out robots that seem to owe some slight creative debt to Sienkiewicz. I see his seminal influential style all over now, from early Frank Miller to Howard Chaykin.
As a narrative, I think Stray Toasters has had a lasting impact as well, and these things can range from relatively simple nods to more thematic complexities. For example, a book that Elkin and I are currently enjoying is Todd The Ugliest Kid On Earth. It seems more than coincidental to me that the titular kid's name is "Todd" and, though I pinged writer Ken Kristensen on Twitter about it with no response, I'm gonna" go ahead and assume there's some subconscious connection there. Warren Ellis used the "Just Us" vs. "Justice" line in Planetary and there's no doubt in my mind that he caught that in Stray Toasters first. Joe Casey's The Milkman Murders seems to be a kindred tonal spirit to Stray Toasters. Did y'all catch the poster in Abby's apartment for Violent Cases? That was an interesting nod, as there are thematic similarities in this pre-Sandman book from Gaiman, about the relationships between children and their parents, their recollection and interpretation of pivotal events early in life.
Todd being autistic made me think of writer Jonathan Lethem and artist Farel Dalrymple (with uncredited sequences by Gary Panter) helming an outstanding reimaging of Omega: The Unknown, which came out a few years ago. It was certainly the bravest most unique thing Marvel Comics has produced in the last, oh, let's say 20 years. There was speculation that Lethem wrote this book from the POV of a (his) child with Asperger's Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. Both books, to some extent, feature kids who have issues processing external stimuli and perception issues with the world around them, sensory issues with feeding, antisocial behavior, responses to repetition, etc., so again it's hard for me not to think that Omega doesn't owe some small debt of inspiration to Stray Toasters. I could keep doing this all night, but you see my point.
I think it's kind of sweetly quantum apropos that David Mack is currently working on Daredevil: End of Days and is actually working with none other than Sienkiewicz as a collaborator, which I'd imagine is quite a thrill for him. Like Egon and Todd, time folds back on itself, "points at either end touch and blend," as the younger generation now headlines a book with one of his earliest artistic influences from the prior generation. It's come full circle, because "the [comics] family circle is [literally] a triangle" in this case. So, yeah, I got a few problems with the narrative construction ofStray Toasters, I guess -- I have problems with lots of good stuff, that's on me, but there's certainly no denying it's a seminal work from an even more iconoclast and influential creator. Silva, I'm curious about your final thoughts before we ask if Elkin's ready to drop the mic on (t)his enigmatic existential exercise.
Keith: Elkin brings dreams, Giampaoli drops knowledge; where's the leave me? What the hell am I doing here? Hell, hmmm, interesting place, interesting idea, inspirational even. The "points at either end" of Stray Toasters "touch and blend" in Hell. Whatever happens with Egon, Todd, Abby, Dahlia and Dr. Montana "quote unquote" Violet is up for interpretation -- we've followed those breadcrumbs so let's follow the ones that lead into the inferno.
Here at the end, it seems odd to address beginnings, but this is Stray Toasters -- it's all relative, it's all quantum. Stray Toasters begins at 11:59 PM on March 11 as Phil -- a demon from Hell with an itinerary and film loaded in his camera -- lights out for world aboveground. What he finds as he hoofs it in the footsteps of these characters both intrigues and disgusts him. He doesn't understand their actions, but he can't help himself, he's compelled, "this is turning into a working holiday," to collaborate.
I'm surprised as our resident profiler, Giampaoli, you didn't look into events on March 11 or March12, there's some good stuff there; and you Elkin, our dreamer, what such stuff as dreams could you imagine in that minute before midnight? For me, Phil represents us, the reader, and the final collaborator of any and all art. The strength (the force) of Stray Toasters is that it craves collaboration, it requires to be plugged in and the reader is its power source.
Brian Eno, a great collaborator in his own right, famously has said, "that record [the Velvet Underground & Nico] was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!" Same thing holds true for Stray Toasters, it's a legacy; it's art so it stands to transcend. If you find Stray Toasters in dreams or in other creators (other collaborators) you get it. This revelation doesn't mean you're in Hell, it means you've wandered into Paradise -- a peculiar and idiosyncratic paradise, sure, then again, inspiration and creativity are strange bedfellows; put them together, they make rock-and-roll, Stray Toasters and better yet, they inspire what comes next and that's what completes the circle, or, if you prefer, triangle.
Daniel: And so, fellas, we end where we begin. There are just some things you can't shake. Bill Sienkiewicz's Stray Toasters is one of those things. Whether it's because of the personal connotations you pull from its pages or the mirrored images you see in the works of other artists, this book stomps hard on our plane(s) of existence and blazes a trail to where, unbeknownst, you have always needed to go.
While Stray Toasters may not be to everyone's taste, it power is undeniable.
Having written approximately 9000 words about this book with you guys, am I any closer to answering the profound questions whose answer will solve a myriad of my life's issues? Yes and no. One thing I am sure of though, is that I am all the better for having made the journey.
"I rest my case.""I guess Ponce De Leon didn't know where to look.""Toast and jam.""Anyway, I miss you. I will be home soon.""Ashes to ashes, crust to crust..."
Keith Silva likes paintings, collage, found art and comic books that use all three of these mediums to tell a story. Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter and read his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. The first movie he saw in a theatre was The Black Hole. The first mini-comic he ever read was Henry by Tim Goodyear. He's been trying to make order of chaos ever since. Award-Winning Writer @ Thirteen Minutes, Senior Reviewer @ Poopsheet Foundation, Host @ Live From The DMZ, Freelance Contributor @ Dark Horse and DC Comics. Follow@thirteenminutes.
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