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.