Picture the library of an American middle school. Awkward teenagers huddle around a desk as one leafs through his copy of The Dark Knight Returns. He and his geeky friends discuss the ramifications. Could Batman truly defeat Superman? Was there ever a Bruce Wayne after the death of his parents? How cool was it to have a chick Robin?
Next, the bedroom of one of the lads. He pulls out his copy of Watchmen. Aside from snickers at the blue wang they discuss the themes of the comic. Would anyone with superpowers wish to protect humankind? Would they look upon us as ants? Do we even deserve protection when we are our own enemy?
The basement of a friend’s home. He proudly displays the latest issue of Sin City. The heads of several whores decorate a wall. The lines are thick and sharp, the inking heavy and dark like blood on the wall of a dark alley. The images shock. It is a return to pulp comics like The Spirit, only with a postmodern nihilism. The heroes are flawed. The villain untouchable.
This describes my experience with the great comics of our youth. Aside from the occasional issue of The Uncanny X-Men or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, exposure to comics was mostly through friends. What I know of 2000 AD or Heavy Metal is mostly second hand. The comics that defined our generation were mostly foreign to me, filtered through the opinion of my friends and their peers.
Looking back I can see why these comics left their footprints so firmly. The great comics spoke of the pressing issues of the times, they addressed the bugbears of the eighties, they pushed at the boundaries of the media. During that time I picked up another comic, one that, though critically acclaimed, did not receive nearly as much attention. That comic was Stray Toasters.
Now Stray Toasters is as much a product of the eighties as The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, or 2000 AD. However, while these major titles looked at the grand scheme of things, Stray Toasters looked inward. Instead of using superheroes as a metaphor describing the societal disease so rampant in the eighties, Stray Toasters concentrated on one of the symptoms, the family.
The first issue begins in Hell. A devil describes how the family circle is actually a triangle. Father. Mother. Child. As innocuous as that statement may seem, it lays the groundwork for the story to take place. The story looks at gender roles and the meaning of family.
It seems a bold start for a comic to begin in Hell. Indeed it is a bold book altogether. Written and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, the story is densely surreal. Besides our introduction to the devil, we witness the murder of a woman. The woman lives alone, having taken in a boy named Todd. Todd is a quiet lad whose constant companion is a toaster he drags behind him. He holds the cord like a leash to a dog. The woman is ill equipped to care for a boy like Todd, a tow-headed boy who shows many of the signs of autism.
One night the woman is visited by a stranger, a robot. The robot accuses her of failing to be a good wife and mother. Through electronic sputterings, he lists many clichés of the typical 1950s American family and how she fails to meet those expectations. The police discover her body later. The robot had rewired her with household appliances. She even would have worked had a wire not shorted.
Enter our reluctant hero, Egon, a criminal psychologist. A trio of pink elephants establish that Egon is an alcoholic. We later discover that he had written a book, which everyone tells him was shit. We also learn that Egon had been institutionalized and recently released. Egon is an imposing figure, dominating each panel. He stands a head or more above the other characters. In one panel he stands amongst a number of uniformed policemen, each illustrated as if with a rubber stamp. Dressed in typical detective fashion, his white hair and mustache makes him look much like Stacy Keach. Sienkiewicz presents Egon’s dialogue in blue blocks; the color being that of the male leading role.
During his investigations Egon determines that the murdered woman had been visiting a therapist. As it happens, the therapist in question is Egon’s former lover, Abby. He bursts into Abby’s office, interrupting a session in progress. In a tub dressed in only a diaper is the Assistant District Attorney, Harvard Chalky. Harvard is preoccupied with sharks. Being a lawyer, he identifies with the cold and ruthless nature of the giant fish. However, he also has trouble controlling his bowels. Meanwhile, Abby sits naked while taking notes. Her role of prostitute and psychotherapist is just one of many juxtaposed ideas in the graphic novel.
Having thrown Chalky out, Egon questions Abby about the murdered woman, Debbie Dissler. Abby is less than helpful, quickly turning the conversation to one more personal. She has reason to be deceitful as she now cares for Todd, having lost her own baby. Complications during childbirth left her barren and she blames Egon. Abby is a stunning red head. Her dialogue boxes are a mild pink, accentuating her role as mother and woman.
With two psychologists as main characters, there is no doubt that Stray Toasters is a deeply psychological comic. While most comics look at the big picture, the scope of the entire world if not multiple universes, Bill Sienkiewicz looks within. The bulk of exposition takes place in the minds of the characters, each with their own unique neuroses. Todd appears to be of two minds, that of the helpless child and that of the protective father represented by the robot. In Sigmund Freud’s words, the boy is father to the man. Todd and the robot are linked. Inside the killer is the mind of an abandoned boy. Meanwhile, Egon deals with his guilt, drowning out his regrets with alcohol. Abby, on the other hand, projects all her faults on Egon.
Debbie is not the only victim. A rash of child abductions strike the city. Young boys disappear only to be found brain dead in front of a television, usually in the home of an elderly couple. Television plays an important part in the story, not just providing exposition, but adding to the themes. The juxtaposition of ideas finds expression through the television. The local news network doubles as a game show, offering points for the most sensational answer to the reporter’s questions. A cooking show doubles as a science program, illustrating how a layered cake mirrors the folding of space and time in what Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence. Sienkiewicz illustrates television in black and white, often with scan lines. He stylizes the people on screen to remove them all that further from reality. The television as replacement for parents cannot be mistaken and supports the main theme of the wholesome family.
The kidnappers make for strange bedfellows. Dahlia is a wealthy spinster, a woman of superior breeding and breathtaking beauty. Her narrow religious views color her actions and often conflict with her more natural desires. Though beautiful, she resents her own vanity. Though disgusted by lustful thoughts, she fantasizes as well as using her wiles to manipulate her partner. Dahlia is compelled to repeat the same abortion she had years ago. She kidnaps boys only to have them killed by her personal physician, Dr. Violet, a habit referred to as abortion after the fact.
Violet is a man of science. He also suffers from leprosy. Surrounded by mechanical birds that tend to his needs, Violet devotes his time sustaining and prolonging his life. His mechanical minions drain the young boys of their life force. They take the empty, near lifeless bodies and dispose of them. Violet is obsessed with Dahlia. Despite his diseased state, he longs for her caress. The man of reason is swayed by base desires. Often marking each chapter is an account from Violet’s journal, the scrawlings of a mad genius. He is also driven by jealousy as Egon had been Dahlia’s former lover.
Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that Egon uncovers the conspiracy. The secret behind Todd/the robot is revealed. Aside from this is a shocking finale that brings the story full circle. In short, Stray Toasters is an underrated work of genius, a comic that pays off every set up, with a story so tightly woven as to defy nitpicking. While all this seems a bit heavy, there is a dark sense of humor throughout. It is a narrow and perilous line to walk, yet Bill manages it and makes it look easy.
It requires patience. Yet, however surreal and mad things appear at first, metaphor takes a more real and mechanical shape. The robot/Todd connection being one instance. The material is dense, but nothing that anyone with the most basic concept of Freudian sexual psychology cannot unravel. Sienkiewicz never loses sight of the central theme, that the perceived role of the family is unrealistic and unachievable. The roles of Father, Mother, and Child must be grown into, not put on like this year’s summer fashion. If one can tunnel through the first issue they will soon find a light at the end.
In terms of art, Bill Sienkiewicz combines many methods. In one sense, he has a surrealist’s touch, rarely representing his figures in a realistic fashion. Perspective is wonky, the backgrounds generally abstract. Furthermore, he uses physical objects in his art. For instance, bubble wrap makes up the padded walls of a cell. Plastic toy flies swarm around a character. Actual wires and circuitry lead from or to the robot killer. Many pages are fully painted splash pages. Panelled pages are often splash pages divided into 12 or 16 panels, each used to convey dialogue or internal monologuing. His work is beautiful and disturbing at once, perfectly reflecting the mood he wishes to convey.
It may not have moved the Earth like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, but Stray Toasters certainly shaped my young mind, influencing how I look at psychology and the family circle. Stray Toasters illustrates the interconnectedness of events, how our shortcomings direct our behavior, and how in serving our own interests we often hurt the ones we love. Finally it is a tale of redemption, a confirmation that we can save our souls through sacrifice and a determination to right our wrongs.