Bill Sienkiewicz Stray Toasters (1988)
As I recall, Stray Toasters emerged during the post-Watchmen media frenzy over graphic novels and how the comic had grown up, was no longer just for kids and so on. Nevertheless I rushed out and bought this, doubtless frothy of mouth and sweaty of palm, and principally because it was Bill Sienkiewicz and his artwork on both Elektra: Assassin and New Mutants had blown my nuts off, figuratively speaking. For those to whom the name may seem unfamiliar, Sienkiewicz arguably elevated mainstream comics - or at least some comics produced by mainstream publishers - to the level of art and design, specifically art and design by Russell Mills or Vaughan Oliver. A typical Sienkiewicz page - were there ever such an animal - might feature his scratchy and beautifully observed line drawing, painting, photography, collage and found objects attached by means of glue or staples, needle and thread or even screwed onto the medium. Stray Toasters for example makes use of transistors, circuit boards and the like. The effect is visually mesmerising, and it's an approach for which Dave McKean is probably more widely known, but for my money Bill Sienkiewicz did it better and first.
In addition, Stray Toasters is written by Sienkiewicz which presumably thus allowed both narrative and visuals to develop together in organic fashion, one inspiring the progress of the other. His writing seems to work by similar terms to his art - suggesting rather than stating, as is most obvious in his use of narrative clouds wherein swarms of disjointed words or phrases summarise a state of mind much in the way of Burroughs' cut-up technique.
The story, so far as I am able to tell, follows criminal psychologist Egon Rustemagik's efforts to unravel a murder case possibly involving a vengeful robot constructed from - amongst other things - a toaster by a small and quite possibly autistic boy - with no distinction made between the metaphorical and the presumably literal. It's difficult to tell quite what is happening, not for lack of narrative direction so much as too many narrative directions all pointing down different paths, although this heavy layering of text and subtext is really what makes Stray Toasters work as a graphic novel in the true sense of the word - as opposed to being just a stack of back issues of Secret Wars all wrapped up in a fancy cover.
I have to wonder if Stray Toasters is in certain respects autobiographical, at least in a symbolic sense, what with the emphasis on themes relating to parenting. Stray Toasters hints at children reduced to consumer commodity, something to be left on a shelf in the garage once they have ceased proper function; and the emphasis on toast - the one hot meal which even the most dysfunctional parent is usually able to prepare for its little darling - seems to underscore the idea of parental love which, if sorely deficient, is at least genuine. This might be extended to a wider critique of society as represented by masochistic attorney Harvard Chalky and nightmarish surgeon Dr. Montana Violet, and further suggested by the observation and commentary of Phil, a demon on vacation from hell in the style of The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis; but as with anything, this thematically loose and often surreal interpretation may depend on the individual reader. As a narrative, Stray Toasters roughly works with the obscure logic of a Max Ernst painting - all suggestion and hints towards some darker occurrence off the edge of the canvas, and with little communicated by straightforward means.
For just a few months, the comic book actually did grow up, and this was what it looked like, and Lordy how I wish we could have had a few more like Stray Toasters since.