Review: 'Eel Mansions' #2 gets a coveted 5½ rating from Keith SilvaA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva
Rating: Elkin: 5 stars!!! Silva: eh, 5½
''In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.''
-- Jesus, having recently returned from the dead
''[shouting] Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!''
-- Dennis Hopper, the rich man's Anthony Hopkins
''You're a jittery little thing, aren't you?''
-- Princess Leia, in conversation with an Ewok
Silva: Where the fuck were we? Oh yes, our ''chameleon ways.''
I often hear or read the comic book anythingerati use the phrase: 'this comic isn't for everyone.' Now, these (dark) knights of the keyboard and four color corporate comic catamites never say whom the comic in question is for, but everyone need not apply. Eel Mansions #2 a/k/a Eel Mansions Number Two or EM2, if you're into the whole brevity thing, falls into this vague category of vagueness. I would argue every comic -- from Larfleeze to Deadpool Eats Shawarma -- isn't for everyone. I digress.
Hell, I've read Eel Mansions #1. We've scaled those vertiginous heights together, Elkin, returned and written, in depth, about our adventures. Yet, damn if I wasn't a mule with a spinning wheel when I wandered back into Derek Van Gieson's asylum for dipsomaniac cartoonists, retired Satanists, abstract demons, comic book reading government agents who answer to Chee-Chee, record store clerks, those two guys who are silhouettes and the most intimidating jar of mayonnaise … ever. In other words, Elkin, it's good to be back.
My advice for Jedis and young Padawans alike is to fork over the folding stuff, block out a responsibility-free half-hour and settle in with Eel Mansions #1 before moving onto the harder stuff in this second installment. Van Gieson's brand of referential and conversational sense of humor takes time to kick in. His goofy sense of reality should be a given. Idiosyncrasy, after all, ain't no coffee table.
All the 'dwellers on threshold' from Eel Mansions #1 are back in play with EM2. Boozehounds and enthusiasts of ''old style comics'' take notice: the self-proclaimed 'Queen of the hobo animals,' Janet Planet, gets much of the spotlight here. In one sequence our bourbon over tequila swilling gal agrees to an interview with a French guy (of course) who's in town all week (of course) ''to write an extensive essay about [Janet] and [her] work'' with special attention being paid to her aforementioned, ''chameleon ways.'' Jaque (that's what Janet calls him) falls somewhere between smart educated French guy and (maybe) a blogger. ANYWAY like any scribbler on the margins, he's brought some personal axes along in need of grinding.
Although a delight, this sequence with Janet and Jaque feels self-indulgent and -- the fact it takes place in a dive like Snowflake's before noon notwithstanding -- very dark. There's a lot of calling on the carpet, defending personal peccadilloes, and flogging the dead horse of audience expectation versus artistic intention. So, yeah, very insular.
Elkin, you read a lot of underground-alt-comical-books, both those in the ''funny animal genre'' and otherwise. What did you make of this self-referential palaver? Isn't this the sort of thing everyone expects from an idiosyncratic cartoonist creating mini-comics for a small press publisher? Or is Van Gieson being 'the Janet' and taking the piss?
For me, Janet's offbeat likability comes from her smugness. Sue me. She thinks (knows?) she's the smartest sourpuss souse in Snowflakes because she quotes obscure Bee Gees songs in her work. She does. She is. Jacque calls her on ending her long running series, 'Milk City Comics,' in favor of the comic strip, 'Doomin.' He wants to know who Janet is and if there is any there there outside of her too-cool-for-school eclecticism. Too meta? Not meta enough?
I'll forgive Van Gieson some bellybutton gazing for further (albeit askance) insight into Janet's psyche. Janet is the most normal character in this story. Does that make her the most relatable? Christ on a cracker what does that say about me? Her scenes with Frank are the most down-to-Earth and yes, I'm counting Nub Nub's Uptown, which we will discuss, soon-ish. So, is the scene with Jacque a nice little meta-fictional diversion cloaked in plot, a sly way to introduce kids to the 'Dirty Bird' and what's it say about our ''chameleon ways,'' Elkin?
Elkin: Geez Silva, you've put your left hand in and shook it all about right from the start. But this ain't no hokey-pokey. Eel Mansions is intense, multiphonic, free improvisation. As a better poet than I once wrote, “Holy Bop Apocalypse!” Don't you see the dance Van Gieson is choreographing here? ''Do you even like Jazz?''
Is this scene Van Gieson's justification for whatever wonk he wants to waggle? Or is it, as you (perhaps) suggest, a tocsin he peals to gather the troops together in the war against the corporate comics hegemony?
Or maybe he's just telling you to relax, let yourself go, like Irving Berlin admonishes, ''You've got yourself tied up in a knot. The night is cold but the music's hot?''
We're talking influences, or at least Van Gieson is. We're talking artistic intent. We're talking about the commerce versus vision. Ultimately, we're talking about ''creative freedom.''
But what's Van Gieson's punctuation mark at the end of this conversation? Right now it's an ellipse, as we are only in issue two of a six-part series. Janet is figuring this out. In this book, is Frank Kratznick, author of Tales of Abstraction House, a positive influence on Janet? Has he opened doors for her, the Burroughs to Janet's Ginsberg, or is he the moment when Miles Davis discovered “shit rock and limp R and B thereby creating a Kool-Aid induced mass grave.”
Van Gieson is seemingly of two minds in this issue, and all the other sub-plots seem to be echoing this dichotomy. Each story line expresses an uncertainty between what has come before and the possibilities of the road untraveled. You can see it in Armistead Fuller's tale as much as in that jar of Orson Mayo (with Honey). (Orson) Welles certainly pushed the envelope, right? But what was his reward for those choices?
So what you see as ''self-indulgent'' may just be the thesis statement to the larger argument. Or have I just ''been feeding the dolphins bacon again... ''?
Silva: [with fingers firmly grasping bowl as he points pipe stem Elkin-ward] ''You're a maniac.'' Is it your contention, sir, those Paul Mason ads and their hilarious attendant outtakes were penance for The Third Man, Mr. Arkadin and F Is For Fake? See, there you go again, Elkin, baiting me into playing the 'Janet' role in this little morality play of ours. You throw out 'Welles' and I start hyperlinking You Tube clips and name-checking movies in the Criterion Collection. Point: Elkin.
For me, Eel Mansions is an 'Amontillado.' [Silva makes gross gesticulation] Do you understand, 'Amontillado?' When Poe's unnamed narrator and that ass-clown Fortunado are deep within the narrator's nitre-choked family crypt in search of a 'pipe' of that most desirable and rare vintage, the narrator produces from ''beneath the folds of [his] roquelaire, a trowel,'' it's a sign he counts himself among that most ancient and mysterious sect, Masons. From John Cage's experimentation phase to Eric Clapton's '461 Ocean Boulevard,' each issue of Eel Mansions gives me a giddy thrill whenever Van Gieson references rock-and-roll. It's like the flash of the trowel that signals the unfortunate doom about to befall Fortunado. The mere possibility of such a rare wine or in this case the mention of Quarterflash hooks me, every time.
It's in our nature to want to feel connected to a larger group, to be in the know and for some, the more obscure the better. When you're at one of your country club soirées, Elkin, and someone says their favorite Christmas carol is Bantam Rooster's 'Let's Just Fuck for Christmas,' quotes Louise Mathias or makes a reference to Poop Office don't you smile as you think, 'ah yes, a member of the tribe.'
''Shee-it. Of course I like Jazz.'' I like the Jazz I like. Who can say different?
Van Gieson isn't (entirely) some wise-ass 'record store guy' who can riff on the obscure B-sides and 4-track demoes of pop culture, witness Nub Nub's Uptown, the Ewok-themed bar and grill Frank takes Janet to for her birthday. If you don't get the joke of ''pulled Bantha sliders'' and ''the Bloomin' Sarlacc,'' Nub Nub's ain't for you. Maybe Star Wars humor isn't for everyone.
Maybe this is the 'uncertainty principle' you mentioned, Elkin, the bit about: 'uncertainty between what has come before and the possibilities of the road untraveled?' Do these characters suffer from an anxiety of influences? Weaned on the tit of late 20th century pop culture, do they struggle to transcend these cultural touchstones that have made them who they are? And as creative folk, interpreters of our culture, mirror-holder-uppers, is this a problem? Because there's always going to be a Jaque who asks: ''Do you even like Jazz?'' or ''Does the funny animal genre make it easier for you to dispense your unpopular opinons?'' and ''How long do you intend to run away?''
Elkin: Before I become immured in a discussion of your, perhaps, indictment or, perhaps, celebration of what could only be finger-wagging (or pipe pointing) at, perhaps, the hipster ethos, I must first address your Amontillado allusion or I shall feel that my earlier point has been bested, and, as it reads on my coat of arms, Nemo me impune lacessit (right under Mama didn't raise no coffee table).
Your invocation of Poe in a discussion of Eel Mansions rings roundly as the Gothic pitter-patters through this book on the thick feet of cats turned ''into verbose, upright, sardine eating dogs.''
There is as much of the exuberant horror within these pages as there is as much meaty mystery, and had Poe accounted for his final eight days, I hazard to think that some of it might have been spent penning a letter to Van Gieson detailing plot points for Eel Mansions. So, Point: Silva.
But back to your comments about ''an anxiety of influences'' -- herein lies much of the Moloch in Eel Mansions. Van Gieson drops references reverently, like the sudden touch of the needle on the groove of the vinyl mid-track blasting out sudden sound from speakers turned to eleven. CAROOOOOM! And those in the know get to dance to the beat because we've found our partner who gets the groove. As information becomes commerce and attention becomes the marketplace, we pick and choose who we become through a disparate game of cadavre exquis and then tap the shoulder of red-haired beauty who has clipped the same words as us. But this constant changing of partners along with Blue Masks slivers the self. For who is the man behind every latest fashion? Why he's buried under the paisley sweaters of hipness.
At what point does it become too much and all of our self-indulgent self-references have to be stripped off? When do we shed these dirty digital or plastic skins and bathe in a fresh bath (''don't spare the Butter Beans'')?
Van Gieson makes much of what is forgotten in this obsession with the new. As a middle-aged High School English teacher I am constantly shuddered by the gaps in my students' cultural literacy. In the 1,800 or so words we've written here together, Silva, the two of us have snuck in all sorts of references that, to their ears, would slap flat, as if dropping a sodden sponge on linoleum. Hell, I even made YOU look up Orson Wells.
Eel Mansions is heavy with this observation. And it is this, indeed, which foments the ''uncertainty principle'' of all the characters interactions so far.
But ultimately, is this what Van Gieson is focused on with his series? The constant commentary exists to make that case. But I'm convinced the true weight of intent consists of more succulent meats layered between wide wedges of dark rye slathered in saliva-inducing condiments. ''There's a sandwich for you in the fridge.''
Silva: [Enter Silva; to him, Elkin] you brilliant brown-corduroy-wearing-middle-aged-Ginsberg-quoting-no-coffetable-son-of-a-gun, you did it! You've broken the seal on this vessel of creative whackadoo-ery. All the allusions, the grace notes and the inside jokes, 'all visible objects, [Elkin], are but as pasteboard masks […] if man will strike, strike through the mask!'
I mean 'jeezum crow,' to use one of our quaint Northeastern US regional expressions, took long enough, didn't it? All the winks and nods to pop culture obscura (the visible objects) in Eel Mansions, it's all the top layer stuff. Van Gieson baits his hook with the Bee Gees and the Ewoks because the there there is the universal truth: we don't like being called on our shit even when we own up to it.
Janet does like jazz and no her work isn't ''just a dumping ground for [her] opinions'' it is also about ''creative freedom, old style comics'' In other words to borrow a couple more references/phrases: 'I yam what I yam' or 'that's what comics are all about Charlie Brown.' Eel Mansions works, it clicks, because it's about the struggle to be comfortable in our own skins.
As someone who reads and loves comics – and, Elkin I'm not putting any labels on the word 'comics' here, so I'm talking about it as medium and message kind of shit -- I felt a wave of satisfaction, a sense of belonging and of hopefulness when Chee-Chee's girlfriend asks him what he's doing and why he isn't at work and he responds: ''I'm reading this stupid comic. And it's complicated.'' When she starts to read what he's reading her response is: ''What the hell Chee-Chee this stuff is really creepy.'' Damn straight, sister. It is (a little) creepy and unsettling to admit I enjoy reading 'this stupid comic' and a lot of others. And oh, the more complicated the better. That's me and this 'thing of ours' (writing about comics) exists for the sole (soul?) purpose of turning people on to what we love. No judgment.
Eel Mansions wears its (what were the phrases you used, Elkin? 'hipster ethos' and 'corporate comics hegemony,' nerd) pretense like one of those hats women wear 'on Kentucky Derby day.' And when all that artifice puddles around our feet like so many pairs of brown corduroy slacks and all our chameleon ways resolve to one singular self, aren't we all just riding along in Frank's car headed for a ''sooprize'' and bitching about why labels are bullshit ''pulled out of the ass of a conservative.''? And yet, And yet, left unsaid is that we love Gang of Four. We, The Legion of Janets, love what we love to such a degree that when we hear somebody else undercut them, label them, we have to do the same, undercut the undercutting, temper it and complain about the rhythm section. Call it a defense mechanism or call it what it is: love. To love what we love, free of conditions, to criticize and to praise within the same breath.
''Did you order me a fucking salad?!''
Elkin: I did, and I shall, and you'll eat your greens and be the better man for it, my friend.
For when Van Gieson has one of the shadowed teens ask “What's a loafer?” and has the other one answer, “You are, shithead, you are,” it's here that he cracks open the liquid sky of intent and points his finger directly at the audience.
And now your hokey pokey is augmented by an Electroclash beat. Not only do we 'love what we love' – we define the now-ness of ourselves in the affair.
Recall what the awesomely goateed, black sunglass wearing, shady government agent says after being debriefed about the activities of the ''Slowhanders.'' Ye Gods, he says, ''That's some fascinating shit.'' We are all cultists of one type or another. We glom and we grab and hold tight what we can.
At the end of this issue, Van Gieson has our chronic strange dreamer and Wuppeteer, Armistead Fuller, finally attend the meeting of Serpent Circle Six, only to find that it has been co-opted by Radical Ex-Treme Energy Drink ® ™ and turned into a ''non-theistic men's vice club'' full of frat boy dude-bros who so easily call one another a douche; Fuller has no recourse but to summon the demons of hell to enact retribution.
You know. It's like when you hear 'London Calling' being used to sell Jaguars -- it just fucking breaks your brain and fills your eyeballs with rosy visions of blood vengeance. Because suddenly your definition of cool-self is upended -- the masks that you've donned and the zippers you've festooned are subsumed into the larger culture. Outsider-ness is inside the machine now, the rebel homogenized, and the beast whose eyes are a thousand blind windows are staring at your wallet and holding out its hand for more.
How do you react? Why you tell that little shit who contradicts you that they don't exist.
And in superciliousness, profundity. Naked we can be powerful.
In his lashing out, Van Gieson calls for a group hug. Yea, his target audience is the ''angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night''-- and laugh as we do at the notion, at the label-ness of it, at the definition we can't control, Van Gieson tells us that as we set ourselves apart, we're all in this together. Together we can react. Together we can channel our ironic disdain for the things that encompass us and through that act, open new portals to a larger calling.
Didn't you begin this 'review' with a quote from Jesus, Silva? Jesus understood the power of the hip-a-do cool, and he's inviting us all into his daddy's mansions. You just got to watch out for all the eels.
Silva: Let us pray.
'Bringing it All Back Home' as it were, eh, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega' is that what this is, Elkin?
I'm glad you mentioned poor put-upon Armistead. Of all the 'mad ones' in Eel Mansions #2 he is the oddest of these odd ducks for this simple truth: Armistead acts. He's the one character in this story that doesn't pull a buffalo stance. No bullshit, no witty ripostes, no trips down the rabbit hole of minor b-sides for major bands, nope. He pulls out a piece of charcoal (or a nail dipped in the blood of a virgin) and summons some demons. Piss him off, co-opt his former group and he brings hell down on your corporate sell-out asses. WWJD? What would Janet do?
The verse from John 14:2 came to mind as I continue to wrestle with what comics like Eel Mansions have in common with superhero and more mainstream comics. Everything and nothing, I guess, same church, different pew.
Jesus talks about the proverbial 'Big Tent,' the afterlife, one house, many mansions. Works for 'comics' too, yeah? A question to keep in mind as we continue to parse and prevaricate on the next two entries in the Eel Mansion's franchise, what fun, what fun, indeed.