Counting to Infinity: Derek Van Gieson's Eel MansionsA comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli, Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva
Justin Giampaoli: As if Tom Kaczynski wasn't already an innovative voice and talented enough creator in his own right (Beta Testing The Apocalypse is currently garnering well-deserved critical attention, including an interview/profile piece right here from Comics Bulletin's own Nick Hanover), he also channeled an entrepreneurial spirit, joined the Small Press Renaissance currently underway, and launched a boutique publishing house called Uncivilized Books. I've very favorably reviewed about half a dozen books in the line to date, of particular note is James Romberger's cataclysmic environmental cautionary tale Post York, which tickled my post-apocalyptic Achilles Heel real good.
But, it was an innocent looking book called Eel Mansions by Derek Van Gieson that lingered in my thoughts long after I put it down. We track story coils unfurling from Armistead Fowler's conscripted service. It's a hypnotic descent into a foreign world lurking just below the surface of our own. It contains twinges of government conspiracy, secret occult cabals, lyrical humor, a dash of music references, and a tendency to subvert familiar character archetypes and to reclaim hipster parlance. The rustic paper stock that Uncivilized Books trades in lustfully swallows up Van Gieson's inky inky art, as mysteriously intertwined story threads slide effortlessly into your gray matter, with a sense of recognition just on the periphery of understanding. There are hints of memory, of longing, of nostalgia, and a devilish flirtation coaxing you to the edge of narrative climax. She wasn't so innocent. She's a very inky girl.
As a follow-up to our somewhat polarizing roundtable discussion of The Coffin: 10th Anniversary Edition, I asked Comics Bulletin's own sandwich connoisseur Daniel Elkin and hot off the pull quote press Keith Silva, indie aficionados both, if they'd be up for discussing Eel Mansions for our next joint venture. Yes, I have questions for these two. So, guys, what did you think? Tell me about your trips (pun intended) to Mill City, and your first impressions of Eel Mansions.
Daniel Elkin: Well, Giampaoli, my first reaction, after a quick gobble first read, was a serious WHAT THE FUCK, followed by fear. My initial bite of this hot hoagie was by far the by-product of the wrong sitting position. Eel Mansions requires a different approach to eating. It's not fast food, rather it is a ten-course feast to be consumed slowly, savoring each bite.
But let's put this food metaphor aside and delve into the Experience of reading this book.
I've now read Eel Mansions five times and, with each subsequent read, have unearthed new subtleties, made new connections, and brought forth new questions. You are right, Giampaoli, that this book is indeed a descent. But on the way down, it jumps through all of these flaming hoops with such nonchalance that it takes a careful reader to even see the progression. It displaces you while carefully setting your piece on the board. It wraps itself in a thick layer of ink and then places itself under the tree, pulsating with potential energy, waiting for greedy hands to tear it open.
"What if I were to tell you that we found what you thought was lost..."
This is perhaps the fundamental question of this book, and all the other conundrums it creates seem to be pushing towards an answer.
Janet is not Wilma.
"There's a little bit of Mr. T and a shit-ton of King Vitamin."
"Just what is it with you punks and your precious Syd Barrett?"
"A little girl stuck alone at the robot prom."
"Got anything for kids?"
Wilma is not Janet.
"Serpent Circle Six has reformed."
These are all pieces. Derek Van Gieson is shuffling them one-handed in preparation for serious chicanery that, perhaps, will leave our mouths agape. There's almost a churning sensibility to these pages, as if Van Gieson is listening to "Sister Ray" instead of "Vegetable Man," as if the velvet is not to be found in blue trousers, but underground. As if the Sousa is soused on whiskey, or mayonnaise (with two n's).
And I love the beat as much as I love the pieces as much as I love the question as much as I love the feast. This is my kind of book -- thick, funny, off-kilter, self-referential, and filled with doom.
How about you, Silva?
Keith Silva: When I do it all over again, I vow to hold the crown as "Queen of the hobo animals!" Here is part of a conversation I half-remember from a recent sojourn to the LCS:
LCS GURU: Fuck superheroes! I like comics! Not superhero comics. Fuck them.
Van Gieson writes comics. I like comics. Here's your pull quote: Eel Mansions inhabits a banana republic between the tangible and places unexplainable, but habitable.
Elkin, I sense your comfort level (your hominess) within the architecture of Eel Mansions. I feel it too. Giampaoli has brought us home. Perhaps what we recognize stems from this tale's play-within-a-play-within-Behold-a-Satisfaction-Pony structure. Eel Mansions coils around the brainstem in the best ways. Yes? Yes I said yes … It's a wonder, Giampaoli could tie his own shoes or refuse "Orson Mayo with Honey" after you put this meta-roundabout down. "You motherfuckers…"
For those of you asking/wondering/demanding a less obtuse explanation: you don't know Eel Mansions. You're like Chee-Chee the homework-catcher-upper-not-hipster. A cellophane kid who wanders into the abattoir and causes Fowler to ask Bert: "C'mon, who is this kid? The agency shit him out this morning?" Eel Mansions didn't raise no coffee tables. When the dam bursts and the stream of consciousness becomes a tsunami you either ride or drown.
Because Eel Mansions courts the self-referential, I feel as though I am inclined to point out I am about to go and do the thing I like to do where I attempt to break down a page and try to connect it to some theme or idea inherent within the thing itself. So, away we go.
Van Gieson thinks like cinema. Big. Epic. He also likes to clean his brushes on the canvas before he paints or inks this "very inky girl," to work out some of the past in the present. The nine-panel warhorse -- with the two off-set panels in the middle (natch) -- gives the reader the answers s/he requires; also, these nine panels unsettle and prime in equal time. All the musicians assemble. All the dread, all the weirdness, all the secret societies, Van Gieson gives all, he roadmaps his story out on the very first page. For the reader, the question is simple: do you wanna" ride along? VROOM!
There is no reason to rescue a swimming sloth, not really. Next question, Giampaoli.
Justin Giampaoli: Speaking of cinematic canvases, let's break some pop culture ground. Who would've ideally directed the adaption of this "momentary lapse of reason, " David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick?
Daniel Elkin: Jan Švankmajer.
Keith Silva: Elkin goes with a surrealist, eh? Lynch is the obvious choice. Kubrick is too grand for such a dirty mambo, you dig? Eel Mansions is more of a Michel Gondry joint. Maybe Gilliam.
Justin Giampaoli: Silva also mentioned musicians assembled; Van Gieson has a band and music obviously plays an integral role in the Eel Mansions tapestry. One, do you think the density of references ever becomes a liability, a gimmick, a crutch, or are they seamlessly sound? Two, give me your three-song soundtrack for Eel Mansions.
Daniel Elkin: I've already talked about "Sister Ray" in terms of churning and pacing and room clearing, so that one certainly has to be on my list, but it must be played quietly, mixed with white noise, and only after the last page.
Then there has to be some Ween, because... well... there has to be. This book drips with Ween, even if not purposefully. Probably because it is not purposeful. And nowhere does it leave its traces. But counterbalance can be important when looking askance from the curtained windows of the Arrow Motel. And for Eel Mansions the Ween we would need is "Marble Tulip Juicy Tree".
Finally, and most aptly, for reasons lost in whiskey, roast beef, tic-tacs, and Sanka, I would expect Public Image Ltd doing "Careering".
All this, mostly, as with Derek Van Gieson, because "I never cared for Clapton anyway..."
I'm sure that with Silva's additions to the soundtrack, we've got ourselves the next Kidz Bop.
Keith Silva: As they say in my favorite movie about quiz shows, Quiz Show, I'll take the second part first.
When Doomin and Leroy are in the used record shop and expose post-Syd Pink Floyd in the best kind of contrarian way, I first thought of "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict." The irony would not be lost on Van Gieson; he may prefer the Man or Astro-Man? panegyric "Many Pieces of Large Fuzzy Mammals Gathered Together at a Rave and Schmoozing with a Brick," taste being what it is, after all.
Eel Mansions feels wet either from booze or moisture, so let's surf. How about "Surfing Drums" by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones?
And as for the first part of the question -- music as a crutch, liability or gimmick in Eel Mansions -- it's all about mood innit? The fact you asked the question in the first place and Elkin and I could respond so lickety-split (and Elkin preternaturally so) sez it's in the air or on the page. Janet's painfully clever take down of post-Syd Pink Floyd is an argument I've heard before from Barrett fanboys. My guess is Van Gieson has too. It's like some hipster shorthand and no different than the reference to Mr. T and King Vitamin cereals. I'm surprised Van Gieson didn't add in Quisp or Freakies.
For the record, Pink Floyd hated that record as well. There is no crime in owning your crappy psychedelic knock-off and moving on. 1960s drug casualties like Barrett -- or Brian Jones for that matter -- become martyrs, trapped in amber and therefore easier to champion because their first mistake was their last. And to answer the question no one has asked, yes, Astronomy Domine is brilliant.
Janet's snarky takedown of some long-forgotten (although not to some, obviously) rock band juvenilia comes off as a character moment. Her palpable condescension says more about Janet than "the Floyd." Janet is bitter, broken and not coping well with her own It Would Be So Nice moment.
Elkin mentions the phrase: "I never cared for Clapton anyway... " which is the last line in a musical interlude between Bert's warning to Fowler to "stay away from the hookers in old Dinkytown, they got Time Space Clap somethin" fierce," and Fowler in repose back home. I like narrative palate cleansers like this one and the zanier the better. I hear kazoos when I read these pages. If this is Van Gieson's attempt to make a (not so) oblique reference to Janet's state of mind (and I think it's a certifiable candidate) then the lyric, "I had a bright future, don't think that it's not on my mind" would answer.
The more I pore over Eel Mansions the more I see what a very tight production it is; Van Gieson wastes nothing. The weirdness and apparent non sequiturs serve the whole. Like the riffs on Pink Floyd's salad days, this goofy song adds atmosphere, character and helps fill in the blanks in this offbeat tale.
So, Giampaoli, give us your shout and answer the damn questions yourself. And remember "we control the Zapf."
Justin Giampaoli: Alright, Jack Barry, as I dab (not wipe) at my sweaty brow and endure staged air conditioning failure, I'll answer the damn questions. As soon as I cracked the book open to that very first page, I definitely felt David Lynch in the room, from the slightly surreal and mysterious emotional valleys of Twin Peaks to the sensual highs of neo-noir Mulholland Drive, you're walking on the edge of a razor. But, for this retro hipster psychological thriller, I think I'd set up a directorial mélange akin to Tarantino's Four Rooms and let a cadre of directors each handle various vignettes. By the time Janet shows up in the bar toward the end, the subtle sexual rush in the room was more Kubrick-era Eyes Wide Shut for me. Perhaps most importantly, I imagine the interlude with Doomin and Leroy as an animated short in the style of the CG sequence in Run Lola Run, or even a crude Simpsons motif circa The Tracey Ullman Show, allowing an aesthetic break for the directors to fade in and out of their respective story threads.
As for soundtrack, oh, Silva, you make me feel like John Cusack in High Fidelity, holed up in the Arrow Motel, grinding out the perfect mix tape while firmly planted in the iPod era. There's such a wide swing in Eel Mansions that the soundtrack would be just as eclectic, as you guys have already pointed out in all your musical erudition. The songs that popped into my head were things like the haunting harmonica interlaced with the collapse of The American Dream in Bruce Springsteen's 1981 track The River, or even his 1982 haunting and regretful Nebraska, about a real life spree killer. I too had Dick Dale & The Del-Tones, but couldn't really settle on a song. Misirlou is sort of the quintessential number, but can it be reclaimed after Pulp Fiction played it out? Yet there's no doubt surf rock has a place; in my mind, Mill City is a seedy LA suburb, subverting the glitz and glamour like it subverts everything else. Lastly, I'd bring it modern with something like Midnight City from M83, subtle, somber, and wistful, but I'd also want to strip out the lyrics like Elkin and just let it run instrumental. For some reason, I also picture young Martin Sheen, circa Apocalypse Now, doing a cameo as someone like Bruno the maybe-he's-also-a-government-agent-why-does-he-look-like-Nick-Fury barkeep.
Elkin pointed out "Janet is not Wilma… Wilma is not Janet." So. The woman in the bar. Janet. Discuss.
Daniel Elkin: You mean the Queen of the Hobo Animals? The creator of Doomin? The lady who has tic-tacs and flasks of rye and bourbon in her purse? That Janet?
How she fits into this whole strum and drang other than acting as the mouthpiece for Van Gieson's didacticism (if that is what it truly is?) remains vague at best. She seems to know quite a bit about Armistead Fowler, so I assume there is a connection in that respect. Otherwise I grasp at straws as I gasp for air on this one.
Still, I'm beginning to wonder if my assertion that Janet is not Wilma is entirely accurate. Now, after my seventh read of this book, I am starting to fall forward from myself and gather new perspective. I begin to wonder whether Wilma is a fiction within a fiction based on how Frank sees Janet? Perhaps Wilma is a character in Tales of Abstraction House? After all, The Council Has Made A Decision -- but what that is remains unknown, unless it is to introduce the Mayo to the Barbacue (sic).
But I trust in purpose and not slap-dashery, and I feel it in my short-hairs that every moment in this book is purposeful, that Van Gieson has packed his bags and sundries and is following his plan of escape. I have to believe that even a full page of six panels for a Sousa line is integral to the story he is telling. Because it FEELS like it is. Somehow. These things are important.
So I could sit here and stab wildly into the eyes of madness and put on my noodle puzzle hat to slowly sneeze out some sort of long-winded suppositions based on hot melt glue fumes and dandelion wine. I could make it seem like I have a firmer grasp on this Eel Mansion than I do. But I respect the two of you too much for such douchebaggery.
And anyway, I'm hoping that Silva's got some actual answers for this question you never really asked, Giampaoli.
Justin Giampaoli: For some reason, I kept thinking about old EC Comics while reading Eel Mansions. Aside from the obvious instances of cover homage, I could never quite pin down if this was an aesthetic concern or a thematic connection. Help me out.
Daniel Elkin: Perhaps it is the Haunt of Fear that brings about Panic and Weird Fantasy. Yeah, I did that. I had nothing to Gaines.
Obviously, I'm no help here. Hope that doesn't make you Mad. Throw a brother a rope, Silva.
Keith Silva: Good God-a-mighty, you two. This is the movie? Right? Right now? We're in it, yeah? I'm starting to think I never want to read another mainstream comic again, slap a small press label on me and fit me with a sandwich board for I am off to preach the good news! Rhetorically speaking, can one have this much joy in a discussion about Larfleeze?
I like to think I catch narrative sleights-of-hand like Wilma/Janet, but damned if I see what you two madmen see. I go back to those opening nine panels, that's our roadmap, that's our Wilma. In Van Gieson, I trust, I guess. Or, I guess? Whatever is going on between Janet and Frank and Wilma and her beau remains in mystery. Maybe, something, maybe nothing. I can say this: mayonnaise is involved.
This point requires me to give the secret squirrel sign to my fellow Pynchonophiles and point out that, yes, I am aware mayonnaise is a staple in Pynchonalia, he says with a silent nod and a knowing wink. Perhaps, Van Gieson is a member of the club as well.
Giampaoli, I dig that you read Eel Mansions taking place in a seedy LA suburb, I can see the same, but I got a more anywhere/everywhere vibe from this book -- seediness, yes, but Snowflake's looks like it would be as home in the environs of Burlington's Church St. or down a back alley of Grass Valley, maybe, even, Pennsylvania, dunno. Dives are universal. Again, for a story that works hard to unsettle by Sousa-ing up the works, Eel Mansions is relatable and addictive. I feel like I've been at that bar and had those conversations -- a sense of stickiness to a half-remembered memory, yeah?
That's the Lynch here, the dreaminess, when the barrier between worlds (between stories) appears at its thinnest, the bounds of elasticity, when former hosts of kiddie TV shows find second lives as Satanists (and apparently authors) and barkers for cars, and yet, the reader finds the roles one plays in a past lives don't excuse (or exclude) having to clean up the mess when someone mainlines in the bathroom.
You have more questions, Giampaoli? More shouts?
Justin Giampaoli: To avaricious hell with Larfleeze and the tight T-shirt wearing goon who created him. Slap a small press label on us all and let us continue clawing at the "bounds of elasticity" between pure fiction and meta-fiction. I'm so glad Elkin mentioned the fiction within a fiction structure at play in the fields of Mill City, as it concerns the theory of fanciful versions/interpretations/applications of the same Janet/Wilma.
Yes, I think we're in the movie right now, Silva, so this one is for you. Janet and Frank attend a comic book convention, no? It's sort of a play within a play riff, industry meta-commentary meets Shakespearean derring-do. Is Van Gieson subverting the very medium he's working in while doing it? Is the serpent eating its own tail, ouroboros style?
For you, Elkin, in preparatory Twitter chatter, you mentioned having read another book by Derek Van Gieson. Eel Mansions being the only work I've consumed from him (so far, let's remember this is #1 and we anxiously await #2 in the desperate hope for additional clarity followed by more delighted bewilderment), how did that go? Compare and contrast.
Keith Silva: Quid pro quo, Giampaoli, sales-wise, which one comes out on top: Larfleeze or Eel Mansions? Right this way to the flasks full of rye and bourbon.
Van Gieson can't compete with your favorite "tight T-shirt wearing goon" when it comes to distribution or dollars. I don't think Van Gieson wants/needs/cares to, but as the saying goes "It Would Be So Nice."
I'm close to Fowler -- I have a "thing" for ex-Satanists, as you know -- but the convention scene in Eel Mansions might be my favorite. Something tells me Van Gieson has seen this sort of thing (maybe) once or twice before, in other words, he's experienced.
Here's who shows up at the table Frank and Janet share with Walt: the suit-jacket-and-tie-wearin" stooge who says, "My word, is this what passes for comics these days? Oh my;" and then a couple of kids show up ("icky" and "inky") and finally the pièce de résistance, the dad, who asks, "got anything for kids?" These aren't Janet's people. I'd hazard a guess they aren't Van Gieson's people either. I don't think there's any subversion afoot. I think Van Gieson speaks truth to power -- caveat emptor. To double-back on my previous comments (ouroboros-like), I like comics. Eel Mansions professes the personal and avoids the banal; it's too damn weird to do anything else. Its uncanniness makes Eel Mansions permanent, makes it real.
Whither Larfleeze his corporate masters? To borrow a phrase from Det. David Mills: "Larfleeze is no messiah. He's a movie of the week. Larfleeze is a fucking T-shirt, at best."
A T-shirt, Giampaoli, at best.
Daniel Elkin: What the hell is a Larfleeze and is there some sort of inoculation available? That sounds like some nasty shit I have no desire to catch.
Still, though, I'm always up for a free T-shirt.
Giampaoli, you mentioned that I mentioned in some kind of tweet that I had read another Van Gieson. I have not, but most certainly will, having supped from the teat of Eel Mansions. I gather you are tweet chatting with a gaggle of sordid sorts, and we are, at best, easy to confuse.
"Everybody C'Mon, It's Time To Get Randy!"
Still, back to the slight at hand. We haven't yet spoke of the lovely couple checking in to the Arrow Motel. You know, the Pollywog looking fellow with the hat and snappy bow-tie accompanied by his Cousin It counterpart with bangs? Who are these fine folk and what role will they play? And how does (s)he get on the TV during the same show that Armistead Fowler is watching fourteen pages earlier.
It begs the question (one of so so so many) of time in this book. How long a period are we looking at and how is Van Gieson manipulating it (and for what purpose)? Or is this a red herring? A duck soup? A hot hoagie?
And who are the fellas breaking into a house (Wilma's house?) in a quest for whiskey? Are they related to our lovely Pollywog/It couple from the hotel? Or is this all just part of Frank's comic?
Or maybe these are the Lizard Lords who were supposed to be dead?
While I have no answers, what I love is the fact that we have now written nearly 4,000 words on a 37 page comic from a small press by a relatively unknown creator. I think that speaks volumes (heh) as to what we've got in our hands, fellas.
Justin Giampaoli: Shit. Sorry, Elkin. I thought we were square when I leveled up with that Banh Mi recipe, but it looks like I owe you another sandwich. Maybe I had you confused with your Janet/Wilma doppelganger, "William." Yes, good ol' Billy Elkin must have read that other Van Gieson book, because "What if I were to tell you that we found what you thought was lost..."
Well, Detective Mills, here's what's in the box. Now that we've penetrated the 4,000 word mark, we've come to my last question. So, let's end at the beginning lest we query indefinitely and steal the thunderous sense of discovery from the forthcoming issue.
I find it hard to believe in the coincidence that there's an indie rock band called Eels which has a song called Mansions of Los Feliz (told you it was LA, Silva), with lyrics that speak of "the edge of my mind" and "where the poor souls go" and "the secrets that live within the walls." That said, I tend to believe in more symbolic meanings. Eels are slippery devils that sidle up to you and alter your perception of sensuality and danger. It's a metaphor for life. We're all living in that world, that house, that mansion.
The House of The Sidling Eel. But, I promised this would be a question, so what do you guys think the title refers to? What does it mean?
Daniel Elkin: Geez, Giampaoli, you and your quest for meaning. Next thing I know you will reveal that your name is actually Louden Swain and you're a high school wrestler from Spokane who has fallen in love with an older woman, an aspiring artist from New Jersey, who is on her way to San Francisco (yeah 1985!).
What is an Eel Mansion? I like your take on it being a metaphor for life, but I'm the kind of fella who has to throw his own two cents at the pigeons in the park, so I'm gonna" go with the Eel Mansion = Human Consciousness avenue (recently paved with sparkly mica).
The brain, being the house of consciousness -- the mansion if you will -- is an awfully squirmy looking thing, much like a mess of pale eels drunkenly fornicating in a desperate attempt to stave off their extinction. Thus the Eel Mansion, the brain, the place where we have our vision quests. The seat of our desire, our unease, our ability or inability to make sense of experience.
And, for a book like Eel Mansions, I think this fits. At least in my head. At least in my brain.
Then again, my brain? "It's been making me fat and moody for the last 14 years."
What do you think, Silva? I'm Crazy for Your answer.
Keith Silva: Meaning, Giampaoli, in Eel Mansions? Step aside whilst I tilt at this windmill.
The beauty of this book is that it doesn't make sense and not in the does-everything-have-to-make-sense-kind-of-way. Eel Mansions invites conversation and engenders questions and that's the point. Van Gieson hides all sorts of Easter Eggs throughout this comic, some are obvious and others are from his own cache of shorthand, inside jokes and confidences -- secrets all. The "sense" the "meaning" of Eel Mansions is what the reader brings to it and not entirely what s/he takes away.
As for the title itself, Eel Mansions, well, eels are slippery… like meaning. As soon as one thinks one has sussed out the meaning of word or phrase it slides away into another context, another story. What does "comic book" mean? Is Eel Mansions what passes for a comic book these days? What about Tales of Abstraction House? Am I in on the joke or is the joke on me?
As for the "mansions" of Eel Mansions, my mind turns to Simonides and his memory palaces -- a devilish mnemonic device to remember things, real or imagined, I suppose. Eel Mansions is an expansive place filled with many rooms, some cavernous, others cupboards, many turn to cul-du-sacs and all, fascinate. My favorite part of Eel Mansions exists (like many things in this book) outside of the margins and in the gutter. It reads: "To Be Continued."
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. The first movie he saw in a theatre was The Black Hole. The first mini-comic he ever read was Henry by Tim Goodyear. He's been trying to make order of chaos ever since. Award-Winning Writer @ Thirteen Minutes, Senior Reviewer @ Poopsheet Foundation, Host @ Live From The DMZ, Freelance Contributor @ Dark Horse and DC Comics. Follow @thirteenminutes.
Daniel Elkin is glad Mr. Toilet never judges him. He is also Your Chicken Enemy and can be found on the Twitter (@DanielElkin) being mistaken for more erudite and well-read individuals, as well as discussing the joys of a good sandwich. He doesn't want to see your face until you've done your homework.
Keith Silva controls the zapf. His Syd Barrett tribute band (if he had one) would be Gerald the Mouse. You'll know him on Twitter as @keithpmsilva and he makes infrequent updates to an obscurely named blog that is not a front for swingers: Interested in Sophisticated Fun?