[2 June 2009]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It is the secret tyranny of objects. Poststructuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze first observed it in Capitalism and Schizophrenia. “Words are not tools”, he writes, “Yet we give our children language, notebooks and pens, like we give our workers pickaxes and shovels”. In Stray Toasters, writer-artist Bill Sienkiewicz sees this same gaunt and terrifying parade play itself out on the streets of 1980’s New York. For Sienkiewicz, as for Deleuze, there is a deep and abiding psychological horror when language is made to behave like objects. And with Stray Toasters, Sienkiewicz gives scope to an immaculate vision of characters trapped in systems of malfunction.
In some senses the graphic novel reads like a conventional crime thriller. Psychologist Egon Rustemagik is called to consult on the killing of yet another victim. Battered and bruised by the world, “Magik” is clearly a hardy survivor. He’s canny and confident, silently capable. But almost immediately the generic conventions breakdown. Magik, readers discover, is himself recently released from incarceration. A cruel trick played on him by professional rivals, or is he the ultimate untrustworthy narrator? What evidences arises, serves only to position the reader as the final judge. And the serial killer he hunts is no ordinary murderer. The killer ends human life by essentially making of that life a household appliance. Nervous systems are overtaxed by electrocution. Victims are rendered unconscious then wired up to power outlets at the points where body parts have been removed. And to make matters worse, the devil is loose on the streets of New York.
What makes the graphic novel intriguing, and arguably what allows it to remain powerful even a generation after having being originally penned, is the twofold nature of Sienkiewicz’s offering. On the one hand, Sienkiewicz’s art is vivid, semi-abstract. It would not be unfair to liken his style to LeRoy Nieman. But Sienkiewicz’s art comes armed with the teeth of pure joy, sheer terror, rabid and ravenous emotion. For Sienkiewicz, comics are conceived of at the level of pages, not panels. Whole pages of Sienkiewicz’s work would not be out of place at MoMA.
On the other hand, Sienkiewicz exceeds in storytelling, not only visual but literary as well. It helps greatly that there is a conventional, generic detective fiction wind its way through Stray Toasters. But this genre-piece is simply one track at play. Sienkiewicz offers regular excursions away from this well-trod literary path. These excursions take the form of character essays. The killer, the devil, the mother alone with her child. Each are subjected to voice and reason, forwarding the story from their own points of view, without betraying their identities. What Sienkiewicz offers then, at the level of drama, is the psychoanalysis of a city. It’s time on the therapist’s couch for humans trapped within systems. Systems that malfunction not so much out of a sense of breakdown, but out of a sense of flawed design. The basic operational premise, lacks functional integrity. These systems were never meant to be sufficient for a human spirit to properly grow. Sienkiewicz then offers the classical Freudian structure of id, ego and superego. And in a cruel, but not entirely unexpected twist, Sienkiewicz casts the vacationing devil as the superego. In New York to take in the sights and the culture, Phil, the devil, seems to be the moral center of the piece.
The art is hypnotic, and the storytelling is gripping. But, 20 years after its original publication, is it worth reading? Or is Stray Toasters simply a family favorite that needs to taken down from the mantle once or twice each year and dusted off? A fond relic of the decade that spawned the book’s literary gestations even as it was drawing to a close?
The answer to this question really lies in Sienkiewicz’s encyclopedic capacity for referencing. And, simultaneously offers the book as a thoroughgoing and continuing challenge to readers.
By way of example. When lawyer Harvey Chalkey is finally institutionalized, Sienkiewicz depicts him straitjacketed in a single panel of a 3x3 grid. The remaining panels are crawling with flies, and coins are stacked to simulate a hive environment. While a savage and apposite criticism of Chalkey, Sienkiewicz deliberately evokes visions of another famous asylum inmate. Visual clues of course point to Renfield from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, another familiar of pests. While reading Chalkey as a failed “bee” would not lead readers astray, spotting the Renfield analogy would only deepen the reading experience.
It is in this respect that Stray Toasters stands as a classic. Pertinent to this decade, as it was to the decade it was birthed in.