Stray Toasters

shathley Q

On the one hand, Sienkiewicz's art is vivid, semi-abstract. On the other hand, Sienkiewicz exceeds in storytelling, not only visual but literary as well.

Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 224 pages
Writer: Bill Sienkiewicz
Price: $24.99
Graphic Novel: Stray Toasters
Publication date: 2007-08

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.