Thee Comic Column #98: Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters

Stray ToastersIt’s 1988 and I’m 12 years old. While out running errands with my mother in Worth, IL I get her to stop at Heroland Comics on 111th. This is a regular routine for us at this point. I’m always spending my meager allowance on comics, and as I’ve talked about often in these pages the limits on my funds ($5 a week? maybe $10?) dictates that I buy my essentials and then very carefully screen for any other purchases. This is why there’s a lot of series from the 80’s that I have arcs from but did not follow religiously. It’s also why some of the prestige format books that were rocking the comics world at the time remained out of my grasp for several years still. Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters was definitely one of those latter –  although I don’t think it ever found the audience that Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen did. Stray Toasters is an anomaly among the ambitious, groundbreaking books of the late 80’s and unlike the aforementioned classics one that I looked through very carefully from the relative safety of the shelves; Stray Toasters was a book that genuinely scared me. Not, “Oh no, this is scary”, but “What the hell is this? Why does that man have a toaster for a head – or perhaps why does that toaster have a man’s body – and why is it killing that woman? My twelve year old mind, reared as it was on the relative sophistication of Larry Hama’s GIJOE and Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men just had no capacity to process what the hell this was.

I would forget about Stray Toasters for years and then stumble across it in my 20’s and buy the trade paperback collection. I read it. It frightened me again. This time in a much more adult manner. The kind of frightened you get when you’ve lived longer and seen a little bit more of the dark stuff life has to offer; know a little bit more about the way the world works, the awful things people do to one another, and the jet black void that swallows some people whole. “Protagonist” – and I use that word lightly – Egon Rustemagik has been swallowed by a jet black void, and it’s largely his story that plays out in this book. Egon has a drinking problem, a people problem (they all seem to hate him) and a problem with being institutionalized. He’s not a good person, plain and simple. But no one else in the world of Stray Toasters appears to be overly “good” either – in fact that’s one of the things that most frightens me about this book still – Sienkiewicz’s art is rough, uneven, scraggly – it oozes and drips, cuts and chars and that’s perfect because his approach to the art helps lay out the moral aesthetic of the world of Stray Toasters – unsure, uneven, dark and dripping with venomous secrets. Pain and failure.

Rustemagik stumbles through a supposedly rehabbed attempt at having a life when what appears to be a serial killer targeting Stray-Toasters-1women surfaces in the city. Egon gets drawn in, and it’s through him that we get a lot of the story. But there are other characters as well. Innocents. Or…. maybe not so much. This is another frightening element of the book, the idea that even those we seek to protect may harbor dark hearts, secrets or… appetites. And Stray Toasters is nothing if not a book of appetites.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s not an easy read but I’d definitely put it in the class of ‘Literature’ and the most rewarding literature – with pictures or without – often takes some work to crack.

I’m okay with that.

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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