Monday, October 3, 2011

Comics Review: Stray Toasters, Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published in The Comics Journal #299.

This 1988 graphic novel by Bill Sienkiewicz is more enjoyable to look at than to read, but one will have a grand time looking at it.

Bill Sienkiewicz was easily the most visually striking and idiosyncratic adventure cartoonist of the 1980s. He came into his own when he eschewed the house styles of Marvel and DC and embraced a multitude of visual approaches in his work. And he generally mixed them up in the same project; whatever struck him as appropriate for a given scene or panel was what he used. It often seemed there were more art styles on display in his books than one would find on a tour of the New York gallery world, but Sienkiewicz almost never failed to make them work. Neo-Expressionism had come to comic books, and triumphantly.

Stray Toasters, first published in 1988, was the only extended effort that he wrote as well as illustrated. He tried to give the story the same eclecticism he brought to his art—it’s a hallucinatory mishmash of detective fiction, monster movies and dream narratives, with bits of media satire and absurdist humor throughout. The protagonist is Egon Rustemagik, a burnt-out criminal psychologist who’s investigating two series of murders--one of housewives and one of small children. His personal life is caught between his ex Abby and his current flame Dahlia, who both end up tied to the murders through their relationships with Todd, a semi-autistic boy who has his own connection to the monster who’s been killing the women. The monster is the proud achievement of the insane doctor… and, well, let’s just say the story’s whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Sienkiewicz relies on internal monologues to move it along, but he doesn’t successfully orchestrate the voices of the various characters. They end up bogging things down. The writing’s saving grace is the humorous material, which includes television parodies, a therapist who treats patients with S & M scenarios and, in frequent interludes, a devil’s postcards to his family in hell.

However, no matter how often the story falters, the art is nothing less than remarkable. Every scene has its own distinctive look, with the rendering running the gamut from watercolor and pencil to found-object collage. Some sequences are so visually eloquent that they almost don’t need words, like the scene in chapter 1 where Abby takes Todd into her home, or Dahlia’s whacked-out cathartic ritual in chapter 2. Sienkiewicz was a tremendous cartoonist and illustrator in his prime. Even when the libretto is gobbledygook, his images soar.

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