”And in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live – and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning.” – Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, PhD.
KEITH SILVA: With apologies to Raymond Carver: what [do] we talk about when we talk about endings?
As I began to write about the end of Eel Mansions — actually, rewrite would be more accurate since Elkin said my first attempt at this review read like I was smoking banana peels again followed by a nutmeg chaser — I took to the warm cottony solace of research i.e. strong black coffee and the internet as a way to spark my imagination. Always the nerd.
The internet claims the existence of a television program called Supernatural. In a voiceover in the fifth season, episode 22 to be exact, a character by name of Chuck says: ”Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can [shit] out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.” As another television personality (and one I have more currency with) Ralph Wiggum might say, ‘Endings? That’s unpossible!’
Ralph and Chuck are right. Besides spotty wifi coverage, a decent 180g repressing of Skip and Flip’s ‘Hully Gully Cha Cha Cha’ and Bâtards with a respectable mouth feel that, at least, look like they weren’t rolled by robots, haters love to hate on endings. Copious uses of words like ‘stick,’ ‘didn’t’ and ‘landing’ are commonplace in said discussions as if the aggrieved parties were all judgey-Le-judgersons and 2002 never went autumnal. The divine right to bitch once the final page is turned or a favorite entertainment shuffles off its coaxial cable is universal.
Enough with the windup, here’s the pitch: Eel Mansions #6 eschews the bitch. Derek Van Gieson may have ninety-nine problems but that bitch (the one about sticking the landing) ain’t one, son.
Revelations occur, comics are read and all are made aware, ”you haven’t heard [Black] Sabbath until you’ve heard ‘em with saxophones!” Speaking of which, in the parlance of the ‘record store guys,’ Eel Mansions #6 is less Last Waltz and more Sex Pistols at Winterland. Instead of an ending-ending, Van Gieson offers more of a conclusion made more useful by its inconclusiveness. It stands we may never hear surf music again, but Janet, Armistead, Frank, Bert, demon baby Chee-Chee, Shelby and Bruno endure. And we may thank God for it.
Janet’s plan to get even with her publisher RE: Milk City bears fruit and she kills off (or erases) her one time meal ticket. Spoiler! Series favorites Barphisto and the Satin Spectre and Kitty and Katherine and Breakfast in Asgard each get to take a final solo and each quick-hitter contains the heartfelt and the heartbreak readers have come to expect from Van Gieson’s comics-within-a-comic. In an act of showmanship, Van Gieson leaves on a high note as he slips in another two unbeknownst Milk City players: The Rat in the Sack and The Smudge Sisters, the former a spot-on ape of a Seuss-ian creation and the latter, a beautiful pencil-on-paper comic with all the meta-underpinnings-and-oddballery that marks Milk City.
Eel Mansions stands as a bastion to non-conformity and the power of personal choice. On this point, Van Gieson assures his immortality with his trademark inky enigmas and non sequitur abruptions in art style as has been his want from the start. These ‘chameleon ways’ — oftentimes silliness shoulder to shoulder with surrealism — emphasize Van Gieson’s abhorrence to the sticky amber of sameness many cartoonists splash around in in order to (you know) earn a living. It’s not that Van Gieson can’t (or won’t) compromise, it’s more about knowing who he is, secure in the knowledge he doesn’t have to settle, escape hatches exist and there always is ‘a dirt road out of town’ should he choose to take it. Perhaps this puts Van Gieson on the artist side of the ledger rather than indie cartoonist, maybe both.
Eel Mansions #6 brings it all back home and at the same time gets ready for the next night’s gig. There’s closure, sure, but also a strong sense of what’s to come. When God closes a door, he opens the next night for Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Elkin, you’ve mentioned Van Gieson’s various sandwich vamps. Care to elaborate?
DANIEL ELKIN: “You don’t want to get wrapped into this Ol’ Trouble Burrito.”
The saddest part of a sandwich, Silva, is when you’ve finished the last bite. Your plate is empty; your sandwich is gone. But rest assured the sandwich is still rooting for you. It rests in your belly, getting processed into the go-juice you need to finish other things. Thus one ending allows for another, every sandwich sacred. Van Gieson may not vocalize this exactly, but he is certainly down with the sandwich — he references them EVERY ISSUE.
But here, so early in our conversation, is not the time to slather horseradish mustard on thick slabs of artisanal 12 grain in preparation for creation. Thus the sandwich discussion must come later. Perhaps at the end, when everything else is done, because this chapped-ass monkey wants to talk endings first as well. As you are well aware, Silva, you can’t produce any sort of ending without beginning somewhere. Nothing ends without a consciousness to process its cessation, the same set of neurons that conceived starting in the past. The artist understands this inherently.
Look out now, I’m going to hang upside down from the tree limbs here and state bluntly I believe the greatest creative act is understanding when to stop. The virtuoso sticks the sign in the mud at precisely the right fork in the all of the roads.
Van Gieson gives us clues to his plans early on in this issue when the demon asks Armistead, “So, what do you think is gonna happen here?” The plan, of course, is the invariable resort of the artistic sensibility, that spontaneous prose of the so-called Bop-inclined, the sartorial moment of stepping into experience. “Just gonna wing it, huh?” Reaction is a form of creation, after all. The purity of no intent. It’s that “conclusion made more useful by its inconclusivesness” that you mentioned above, Silva.
You say Eel Mansions #6 “brings it all back home.” While, it could be easy to see this as some sort of Outlaw Blues, I’ll inherently choose track 11, Baby Blue. While Van Gieson is drawing crazy patterns on our sheets, he’s no empty handed painter. A matter of fact, he’s going big, and remember what Janet teaches us in her final Milk City, “If something is big, then it’s art, and if it’s small, it’s not art.” After all, it’s good to keep things simple.
This kind of thinking is inevitable when dealing with something like Eel Mansions, issue six in particular. This train of thought cuts through the snowy mountain passes of traditional narrative and ends up making stops along the way questioning the nature of storytelling and fueling up at the depot concerning what makes comics, comics.
And this is where a calmer critic would start turning his train metaphor into an examination of Van Gieson’s use of the sandwich as some sort of anaphora, thick with literary intent. But I’m not that calm critic. I’m there in Snowflake’s dancing to Roaches with Janet. I’d like, instead, to point out that Eel Mansions ends with a kiss. Wasn’t there some guy ranting on and on in a review of issue three about this series being a love story? That’s the kind of critic we need reviewing this series!
SILVA: Love, Elkin? Again with this? Well, duh.
Listen, every Eel Mansions-ier worth a Pabst Blue Ribbon (”So, you gonna make we ask, or what? ”) knows, Connie Francis-wise, that ”Love is a Many Splendored Thing.” To date, we’ve been writing, talking and thinking about this series since March of 2013 when the Godfather of small press comic’s criticism, Justin Giampaoli, first offered us a taste. And from then until now, yes, it’s always been about love in its many forms, guises and splendors. To be honest, love is the only rational reason I come up with as to why many of my favorite cartoonists do what they do. Although it’s a certain kind of love, isn’t it? It’s the artist thing, dedication to the craft, commitment, etc. For me, love and commitment go hand in hand down the aisle of ‘watch-the-fuck-out-’cause-there’s-some-doozies-on-up-ahead.’ Now, call me a Pollyanna, but as Connie contemporary, Doris Day, sings, ”Everybody Loves a Lover.”
Perhaps, Van Gieson should be committed simply for the dedication and audacity it takes to put his art out there in the first place. Set aside, for a little second, the simple fact Van Gieson works in a (still mostly) marginalized medium (maybe ”insular” is a better word?). Regardless of how gaga you and I are for Eel Mansions, it is what it is, an idiosyncratic comic far removed from what most comic readers — let alone the millions of mainstream straights — think of as comics. To all that Van Gieson says, fuck it. That’s an artist for you. That’s commitment. There’s your love, Elkin. For Van Gieson so loved the world (or something) he gave us, Eel Mansions.
Here, Iemme show you what I mean. To know Eel Mansions (to love Eel Mansions?) means paying close attention to the scenes that take place in the series’s spiritual home (pun most definitely intended), Snowflake’s. While Janet gets twisty twisty twisty to ”Roaches” by The Judge ‘N Jury, Snowflakes’s cyclopean publican, Bruno, and Janet’s roomie, Shelby — who’s become the seer of the series, its conscience — put Eel Mansions, all of it, into perspective.
Bruno asks Shelby: ”What’s with Janet? She win the lottery or something?” Shelby says, ”She quit her job. She’ll just have to pay her bar tab with some new idea or another.” Nonplussed, Bruno responds with what any rational-thinking person (be he or she a barkeep or not) would say, ”She spends years building up something from scratch and throws it away the instant people give a shit. That’s real smart.” And then Shelby brings the truth: ”She’s an artist Bruno, not a factory.” Cut. Print.
A brown-corduroy-elbow-patch-wearer like yourself, Elkin, might tack on a bit of urn-est forbearance to Shelby’s retort, something along the lines of, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Janet and Van Gieson are artists, not factories. Amen.
Maybe this willingness not to compromise is the fork in the road, Armistead — Janet’s opposite number and EM‘s other other — doesn’t take? Armistead is a torch bearer, carrying the fire and hoping (beyond hope?) he’ll be reunited with his wife and family. Sucker. He compromises; chooses instead to live a double life, family man and straight world car salesman by day and by night, occultist and demon wrangler in the church of Satan. Armistead couldn’t commit one way or the other. Rhetorically speaking, in the end what does he get for his troubles? He’s forced to spy on his ex-old lady and share a ‘doppelchoclobock’ with her new husband, Jake, once, of course, Jake finds his pants. Janet may be as stubborn as a mule, but when all the hurlyburly’s done, she’s the one who’s dancing, stealing beers and making out. Charlie don’t surf and artists don’t compromise, they commit.
No compromise, no coffee … well you know the rest.
ELKIN: All too well, Silva. All too well.
So what do we make of this in the end? An artist who doesn’t compromise, working in a convulsively small niche of an already marginalized (and insular) medium, being reviewed by a couple of 4th tier reviewers on a mildly trafficked internet site awash in a sea of similar sites that have more to say about less complicated and more widely accepted claptrap leading nowhere except breaking some kind of conceptual wall that is holding up this straw house?
Was that even a sentence?
I say he who lives in such straw houses should smoke fewer cigarettes.
Regardless, this niche within niches of niches still vibrates with potential. If you yell a truth in a forest and there is nobody around, does it become a lie? No. It echos, buries itself in the fecund earth to await fertilizer, water, some light of day, and time in order to grow into some kind of truth tree, bearing fruit from which others may someday shove into their feed holes and, from that, gain sustenance to continue whatever beginnings they have begun, or putting the final kiss on their current masterpiece. I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like to shove in my feed hole.
After all, “The Zapf has to lay its eggs inside a host within 24 hours of exposure.” Each layer Van Gieson adds to this series, all the choices he made along the way (especially how to end it), create this sandwich, this “Club Sandwich or Die” as it were – it’s uncivilized, it’s audacious, it’s delicious, it’s art. Who are we to ask for clarity? We who are so hungry? Sometimes you eat for flavor, sometimes you eat for fuel. How rare is the sandwich that transforms us? Van Giesen has laid out such a wonderful picnic. In a way, were too many people to show up it might ruin some of the pleasure we gain from partaking.
But that’s the fucking snob in me talking – I’m not really that guy.
You truth/beauty me? I’ll Keats it up with you, finally, Silva, as at this point I have no other choice. Eel Mansions does “tease us out of thought as doth eternity” but it’s no “Cold Pastoral” whatsoever. In the “midst of other woe” it will be a “friend to man”, bearing fruit, laid out on that red and white checkered blanket tempting bears wearing fedoras and ties. Issue six cements Van Geison’s place in the forest we often can’t see for the truth trees: the respite that nourishes, the journey that leads within, the sandwich that feeds our own struggles with the unfortunateness of our humanity.
Then again, complicated and inconclusive endings – who needs this shit? Why struggle through? Why tax yourself? “You can open a gateway in the town square, it’s like two blocks from here…” I’m headed out to Subway so I can eat fresh and shit quickly as I am way too busy for artists, right? It’s almost un-American to cop out of tidying up. Does Van Geison think he can just kiss-off our need for conclusions? I gotta’ know what happens to Demon Baby Chee-Chee!! Will there be plushies available just in time for Christmas? And where the hell is that Eel MansionsSoundtrack Album all the hep cats should be shimmying to in the bowels of Williamsburg and The Mission District? At least there needs to be the Eel Mansions Line of Hand-Crafted Sandwiches available at your local Whole Foods, right?
Art needs validation and commerce can provide it. These are end times, after all.
I’m losing my way as I’m losing my verve here and I’m entering the negative space created when my loose ends remain torn and frayed. No coffee-table! Eel Mansions has brought out the best in me as it has unearthed the worst. Its kick-me-in-my-brain-crotch approach has consistently made me rethink my own expectations. Through reading this series, I’ve come to understand the power of uncertainty and the anxiety of influences. I’ve grown to admire and resent the artist, mostly for what Van Gieson has demanded of me along the way. I also keep getting damn hungry. All and all, though, it’s been worth it in the end, and this panegyric we’ve put together, Silva, is testament to that.
Now make me a sandwich and bring us on home.
SILVA: I’m supposed to follow that? I think your stream of consciousness washes all sinners (and 4th tier reviewers) clean in Pabst Blue Ribbon, Elkin. Bottom line, everyone should read, nay, live Eel Mansions.
Let us, all of us, now find ”some new idea or another” to pay our bar tabs, metaphorical and otherwise.
Daniel Elkin has large thinigs to say about small things, except sandwiches, for which he reverses the concept. He tweets: @danielElkin
Keith Silva believes comic criticism to be a game for youngsters with deep pockets. Follow: @keithpmsilva
"Van Gieson thinks like cinema. Big. Epic. For the reader, the question is simple: do you wanna ride along? VROOM!"—Comics Bulletin
Eel Mansions, Derek Van Gieson's first full-length graphic novel, is a supernatural soap opera noir. Set in Mill City: a grimy place inhabited by new wave satanists, secret agents, booze-hounds, record-store clerks, conspiracy theorists, murderers, and cartoonists. Derek Van Gieson skillfully unweaves a knotted sweater of intrigue, suspense, and dark humor.
Derek Van Gieson is a Minneapolis-based artist, writer, and musician. His work appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Stranger.