Every weekend this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new instalment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Stray Toasters # 1
Writer and Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Fine art and comic books have always gone hand in hand. Whether it was the painted covers of the pulp magazines in the 1930’s or the 1970 decade of fantasy and science fiction portraits by world-renowned artists such as Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, paint, brush and comic book panels seem to enjoy one another’s company.
The 1980’s became a bit of a turning point in this relationship.
Although painters had historically always found work in comic books – generally on front covers, posters or advertisements – mainstream publishers such as DC and Marvel began employing this type of artistry inside their comics with much more regularity. The fine artist, interested in comic book work, began a rise to prominence, their names becoming as common as the names of the fictional characters they rendered. It was during this time that artist Dave McKean had much acclaim with his collaged Sandman covers, where John J. Muth’s artistry on the twelve-part Moonshadow series showcased an emerging, delicate talent, where the thick, painterly work of Kent Williams on Blood: A Tale depicted impressions not felt before in monthly periodicals.
And then there was the kinetic, rock and roll art styling of Bill Sienkiewicz and his 4-issue, prestige-format series, Stray Toasters.
I loved Sienkiewicz’s art, but growing up but I never knew how to properly pronounce his name. I can distinctly recall pronouncing his surname as “Sinkwench” or “Signcaywench” and sometimes “Swench” for short. No one I ever had a conversation with about the artist ever corrected me – a tell-tale sign they had no idea how to pronounce the man’s name properly either!
A Marvel Comics mainstay during the early 1980’s on such titles as Moon Knight and New Mutants, Sienkiewicz was inherently a more gifted illustrator than writer. He had only written one story, a painted piece (of course) in the pages of the fantasy and sci-fi magazine, Epic Illustrated, previous to his work on Stray Toasters. But the artist was a fan favourite and well into his ascendancy in the comic book business.
Published by Epic Comics (an imprint of Marvel Comics) in 1988, Stray Toasters had much fanfare surrounding it. In the first issue, readers discover a story centered on a criminal psychologist investigating the murders committed by a serial killer. The characters and narrative are just as fractured, as energetic and sometimes just as displaced as the artwork itself. Where these aspects are strengths for the art, they are distractions for the story.
The main character has recently been released from a psyche ward hospital himself and harbors both odd delusions and strange visions. An old lover of the doctor, a psychologist herself, is harboring the autistic child of one of the serial killers victims, while the serial killer himself looks to be a walking, talking toaster (of the 2 slice variety) who has rage issues against women. In addition, it looks as though a demon is visiting New York City on holiday, sending postcards with unflattering words about lawyers, back to his compatriots in Hell.
Confusing? Slightly mad? Absolutely!
Although I bought all four issues of the series, I remember losing interest each month in the story that seemed to leave me behind in favour of its own esoteric endeavors. There are some that state Stray Toasters is a better read in its collected form. Personally, as a story, I have difficulty going back to it. Still, reflecting on the artwork seems to draw me in from time to time.
Sienkiewicz has a distinctive style that sets him apart from his contemporaries. He has a gift for narrative in his art alone. Something as simple as a 12-panel page that follows a bouncing ball tells so much: a professional woman, arriving at home after work and relaxing; a ball that depicts both movement and hence, time, and the psychological intent of a broken calmness, of a child – not seen, perhaps missing. This scene occurs early in the story, directly before a vicious attack sequence. It’s a riveting set-up.
Like the disparate characters in Stray Toasters, Sienkiewicz switches gears in his artistic stylings as well. Atmospheric painting quickly gives way to pen and ink caricatures, a not-so-subtle treatise on television personalities, in addition to the ongoing, convoluted story.
Yes, there is so much, too much crammed into Stray Toasters.
One of the more delightful elements in Sienkiewicz’s artwork are his full-page portraits. Luckily for readers, there are many in the series. These are the images in which the artist excels: a moment that is large enough, on paper, that he can display his skills with the brush, with his line work, his strength with colour and his sense of design. They also provide a moment of respite from the frantic pace of the tale. Even with Sienkiewicz’s expressionistic, often dark style, there are times where his painted work seems very peaceful, very Americana – even, perhaps, Norman Rockwell-esque.
A strange idea in itself, no? Very Stray Toasters, after all.
Today, careers have been made for the artists who only work on comic book covers, those fine painters who only occasionally apply their labours to the interior as well. It was the work of Bill Sienkiewics who largely opened the doors for this profession in the mainstream comic book business. Stray Toasters may not have been the most memorable of stories but it was an early work that saw artists move to the front billing on the covers they themselves created. It was an example of the type of project that pushed the envelope of what a comic book could be.
And just so you have a clear understanding, Sienkiewicz is pronounced sin-KEV-itch. The man tells you himself on his website! It’s been long enough. Get it right!