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Bill Sienkiewicz: Stray Toasters

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Stray Toasters

Author: Bill Sienkiewicz
Publisher: Graffitti

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Bill Sienkiewicz's art often looks like the inside of a migraine: Jangling with nauseous colors, unsettling visual contortions, and fragmented, overlapping words, the comic books he illustrates are as confusing as they are disturbing. It's just a pity there aren't more of them. Sienkiewicz began his comics career in the early '80s, illustrating other writers' work in a style he openly cribbed from Neal Adams. But he rapidly found his feet as an artist, and began developing the exaggerated, surrealistic multimedia collage style which characterized his work on titles like New Mutants and Frank Miller's Elektra: Assassin, and which found ultimate expression in Sienkiewicz's long-unavailable, newly reprinted graphic novel Stray Toasters. The much-praised 1988 solo project was originally a four-issue series, but it's convoluted enough to demand a one-sitting read-through, and dense and bewildering enough to make that difficult. On some level, Stray Toasters is a murder mystery, in which author and criminal psychologist Egon Rustemagik tries to track a serial killer who has ritually executed and mutilated 11 young boys. But another murderer is killing young women and wiring them like science-fair projects, and Sienkiewicz depicts one of these murders in such nightmarishly distorted fashion that it's initially impossible to tell fantasy from reality. Is a demon named Phil really visiting Egon's town while on vacation from Hell? Does Egon's lover really have giant robot butlers with hand-held faces on sticks, and does his ex really have an electrical child with a plug-in skull? Surprisingly enough, all these images are eventually explained–there's a solidly scripted psychodrama underpinning these dark fantasies, though the art does tend to overwhelm the story. Sienkiewicz often focuses on small fragments of his characters, or on their environments, rather than using conventional framing; even when he faces his protagonists head-on, his artistic style changes so rapidly and profoundly from panel to panel that it can be hard to tell who's who, or where a given voice is coming from. In Stray Toasters, as in Elektra: Assassin, he uses color-coded dialogue boxes and a variety of type styles to distinguish between characters, but readers may still be halfway through the book before the pieces start to fall into place. The process of assembling those pieces, and putting the wild, mood-tempering art into perspective, provides a lot of Stray Toasters' heady wonder; the rest comes from the author's sheer stylistic inventiveness, his impressive artistic talent, and his brutally dark sense of humor. Sienkiewicz has spent much of the last decade producing commercial art, from album covers to movie storyboards, which is something of a loss for comics fans. At the same time, graphic novels don't come much more ambitious, accomplished, or distinctive than Stray Toasters. Having set the bar this high, Sienkiewicz may have felt he was ready for new challenges elsewhere.