Wednesday, 27 January 2016

"The family circle is a triangle": Stray Toasters review

Bill Sienkiewicz (pronounced sin-KEV-itch) is a masterful artist. Some of his works in comics rank among my all-time favourites. His collaboration with Frank Miller on Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil Love and War are some of the most memorable and masterfully told comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. His career is filled with milestone issues in some of the most popular titles. His style of art incorporates many types of artistic techniques resulting in a unique and immediately identifiable style. Having Sienkiewicz inking another artist’s pencils is enough to give a comic a stylish vibe. His influence is huge and I’m sad it took me so long to read Stray Toasters which he wrote as well as illustrated.

Anybody who’s even flipped through a copy of this comic can attest to its strangeness. While I can say without any reservations that I love his art, I can’t say the same for his writing. When I consider it, there are some similarities between his approach to art and writing and while it suits one, it doesn’t suit the other. The energetic and chaotic art style doesn’t translate well to the written word. Stray Toasters is incredibly confusing and out of that emerged my frustration as a confused reader.

If I were to attempt to summarize the plot, it would be a little something like this. Dr. Egon Rustemagik is a criminal psychologist. He’s an alcoholic and he’s recently been released from a mental institution. You get the sense he’s crazier now than he ever was before being institutionalized. He’s been tasked to work on a murder investigation. There have been two crime sprees taking place in the city: one in which children are being murdered and another in which women are being murdered.

His investigation brings him back into contact with Dhalia, a past lover with whom he had a son, Todd. We learn that she’ responsible for having Egon institutionalized. Todd ends up living on the streets before being taking in by Dr. Montana Violet, a very sick and deranged scientist. After discovering Todd’s affinity for machines and his borderline idiot savant personality, Dr. Violet experiments on him and inserts a power outlet in his brain. Todd gets transformed into one of Dahlia’s toaster butlers (which are all children turned into robot butlers, I think).

Due to his being romantically involved with Dahlia, she finds out that Egon is investigating the child murders. She asks Violet to kill Egon but even though he’s deranged, Dr. Violet still respects his Hippocratic Oath (but he’s cool turning kids into toaster cyborgs). Instead of killing Egon, Dr. Violet tries to provoke Egon to kill him as his respect of the Hippocratic Oath prevents him from committing suicide. He’s been suffering for years but isn’t willing to take his own life.

I can’t remember who the child murder is (Dahlia?) but I think Todd, the toaster boy, is responsible for the women murders. I’m not even sure it matters as Sienkiewicz doesn’t seem interested in telling a comprehensive story. Rather, I think he was trying to tell a handful of specific scenes and play with a few ideas. The story’s setting in the near future, where mostly boys are born and the human race is slowly dying, as well as the inclusion of highly satirical and surrealist asides seems to support this theory. The book also radically shifts from utmost seriousness to complete idiocy, providing readings with an equally tense and hilarious reading experience. Consider that the book is intercut with section of the Devil vacationing in America. He even sends hilarious satirical post cards to his family back in hell. Compare that to the much more serious story of multiple murder investigations and you start to see just how chaotic and wild this comic is.

On some occasions Stray Toasters takes itself too seriously. It's not a pretentious comic but it has a serious intensity that made it difficult for me to settle into the story. It's unapproachable in a sense, keeping me at arms’ length. Part of me wanted to read it because I like Sienkiewicz’s work so much but I was reticent to dive in completely because of the slightly off-putting nature of the story and (occasionally) the art. Overall, the comic is disorienting because of the art and mostly because of the writing. The two just never seem to fit together well. I’m open to the theory that the disorienting and confusing nature of the story supports the comic’s themes of mental illness and the complexities of family relationships, but that doesn’t justify its near incomprehensibility.

Sienkiewicz uses a lot of caption boxes. They’re used as often for narration as for dialogue which is a little unusual. My biggest complaint is that Sienkiewicz relies too heavily on caption boxes to progress the story. His art has multiple layers and it's aesthetically dense but his writing feels contrived. He writes in short, staccato phrases that somewhat jumble together to make dialogue and narration but it often doesn’t add up to much. It's simple an amateurish in comparison to the art. The difference in the level of skill between the art and the writing leaves a large chasm somewhere in the middle. That’s where the reader ends up as they’re forced to reconcile their admiration for the art with their frustration with the writing. I was regularly impressed and mesmerized by the art while feeling cold and uninterested in the words. They never really combine together to form a single unit. 

I was disappointment to discover that for a good part of the book, Stray Toasters felt like art with words pasted on top. Some pages are single illustration (sometimes two or three) with a nine panel grids covering it all. The art works without the grid. The grid's reason for being is to give the caption boxes some sort of structure on the page, rather than be placed randomly. Without the grid there would be too many boxes on the pages for the reader to follow naturally with their eyes. The panel grid is actually a disservice. Its reason for being is to make up for the writing's shortcoming with its unnecessary choppiness.

I appreciated Sienkiewicz’s fierce pursuit of a specific style and tone with Stray Toasters, but the result is a comic that doesn’t make for easy reading. Worse, taking my time and rereading confusing sections didn’t result in a greater understanding of what was really taking place. I like comics that require that I invest myself in order to fully appreciate the story, but comics that don’t reciprocate my efforts leave me disappointed and a little annoyed.

Stray Toasters is a failure as an enjoyable comic by it’s a success as a fascinating one. It's glorious in its excesses it’s beautiful to look at, frustrating to read, and unexpectedly funny and poignant at random intervals. Because it's such an uneven and odd comic, I would avoid recommending it to anybody who hasn't read anything by Sienkiewicz and to anybody who doesn't have a fondness for his art. If you're one of those people I would direct you to some of his other, less esoteric comics. If you're a big fan of his work, then go ahead and pick this up but expect a strange comic which equal potential for enjoyment and appreciation as there is for frustration and dislike. 

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