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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bill Sienkiewicz - Stray Toasters *****

"Form fits content" is one of those axioms that anyone who has taken an Intro to Creative Writing at Bumfuckville Community College knows by heart, but generally has no idea what it really means. My interpretation of the timeless adage has always been that you should not allow the style of what you're writing constrain your ideas, but rather employ the aspects of form (diction, syntax, etc.) to further cultivate your content's theme and voice.

The most apparent example of "form fits content" is in postmodern and metafictional writing, where the entire structure of what prose traditional is gets broken down and re-assembled. Even more mainstream authors like Douglas Coupland use these nontraditional breaks in their otherwise traditional stories to make commentary on any variety of things. You also see such attention paid to form in poetry--a genre of writing that from its commencement, has been equally about form as it has about content. But a genre that often (amazingly, to me) ignores form fitting content is the graphic novel.

You'd think it would be on the forefront of such a philosophy, as it depends upon images to help tell stories. And granted, each artist and writer team does bring something out of the content to infuse into their specific illustrations. But more often than not, the individuality ends there--boxed away into four or eight or twelve frames per page, restricted as though caught in an iron maiden inside those black-lined panels. Which is why I realized I needed to buy Bill Sienkiewicz's Stray Toasters within seconds of opening the front cover.

Sienkiewicz should be the poster boy for Form Fits Content, with his overflowing visuals, hedging on insanity bled through by a pen. Frames are used, but in no traditional sense through most of the book--they stretch and shrink and overlap, piling information and color and text on top of each other as the action of what is, at its core, a detective drama trucks on. Forget pen-and-ink: Sienkiewicz, who both wrote and illustrated the seminal work, paints every page, and they come out looking nothing less than pure art. The story almost takes the passenger seat in the case of Stray Toasters, because it's the unbelievable artwork that's really taking the reader for the ride. The story may be, as I've said, a detective drama, but it is also an exercise in insanity, and Sienkiewicz has done an amazing job of translating that onto paper.

I honestly can't think of a better foray into the interior of a character than Stray Toasters, except maybe Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, but Sienkiewicz's plate is doubly as full, achieving such a feat in both word and image. Just glancing through the book again as I write my review is almost... exhilirating? Just watching the colors page by, the stunning, surrealist artwork, makes me want to read it all over again, just to dive into the psychotic world of Egon Rustemagik, the burnt-out, ex-con private detective the story centers on. I have never seen a graphic novel quite like this, and I don't know when I'll see another one again. It's one for the ages. And to think I just picked it up completely at random while looking for a trade collection of Lapham's Stray Bullets.

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