Review: 'Eel Mansions' #4 is a delightfully knowing respite from the continuity of adulthoodA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin , Taylor Lilley, Keith Silva
From the Concierge: It has come to the attention of the editorial staff at ComicsBulletin.com that the three prior reviews of Eel Mansions by Mssrs. Elkin and Silva have … how shall we put it … been effusive in extremis as to their praise of Mr. Van Gieson and Eel Mansions (5 ½ stars!, ludicrous) and rarely (if at all) carry the critical acumen prized by the rest of our staff. We fear Elkin and Silva (may) have lost any and all objectivity as it pertains to this series, gotten high on their own supply, fooled around and fell in love. In short, Elkin and Silva have become completely unreliable a**holes. 5 Star ratings -- to say nothing of 5 ½! -- should be like ambrosia for the Gods and not handed out willy-nilly.
To curb this abject nonsense -- especially the constant references to pop culture minutia and the gross overuse and misuse of the unfortunate phrase, ''my mama didn't raise no coffee table'' -- we have seen fit to assign Taylor Lilley, a sober Englishmen (are there any other kind?) to reign in Elkin and Silva's fanboy idles. It is our hope that Mr. Lilley will bring a keen eye and the necessary impartiality to these proceedings. We hope he will cut the treacle as the saying goes in the 'green fields of England,' Mr. Lilley's native land, Rue Britannia and such!
Keith Silva: …
Daniel Elkin: What the fuck is this bullshit!
My mama didn't raise no coffee table.
Taylor Lilley: Eel Mansions isn't for me. But I love it anyway.
If True Detective's appeal is that of seeing interestingly dysfunctional people have honest conversations, and Saga's runaway success derives from its function as a safe fictional haven for its readers, then Eel Mansions is both of those. Plus a little transgendered Californication thrown in, Hank Moody made Janet Planet.
Well, I don't know if you still feel as lovey-dovey as you did during your #3 review, but fellas, love has little to do with Eel Mansions. I'm picking up the whirr of well-oiled chainwheels, full tread tyres skittering over rubber-smoothed dirt, donuts within donuts hoping to spin out. This is an engine screaming for a vanishing point, but finding only intermittent traction, and I can't figure whether Van Gieson's riding the handbrake or slowly drawing in the walls of his gymkhana.
Janet and Frank. Armstrong and his family. Doomin and a plot. Things destined not to be together, yet unable to refrain from circling each other. Eel Mansions is a distraction from real life populated by distractions from real life. Armstrong longs for his family, but only quests for them when he hits car-shilling, mainline-cleaning bottom. Frank's buffet, a culinary crystal duck if ever I saw one, is but the latest in a series of gestures he makes with the quiet resignation of those unable to escape an unhealthy orbit. Doomin is a vessel for Janet's antipathy toward her own storytelling success, a way of avoiding writing's hardest trick, the ending.
And through all of this the motifs (all familiar, all misplaced and thereby discomfiting) of cupcakes, mayonnaise, and mysterious brunettes, or the recurrent strangeness's of the negative orphans, the agents ever-tasked but never effective are but Eel Mansions background noise, the storytelling equivalent of telling the reader: 'on one of these pages something truly horrible will happen.' And that's what we come back for. Something truly horrible. As your densely allusive reviews have shown, Eel Mansions is inside our heads, constructed from the fragments we've shored against our ruin. The only destination for this comic is ruin, but whether DVG will depict it, or indulge fiction's license to linger in bittersweet atrophy, I do not know. And I don't care because I'm not on board for the destination. I'm not here to find out what happens. I'm not here to catch the references, or figure out what ragging on The Floyd or Clapton says about the record store clientele (though Slowhanders are possibly my favourite fictional splinter faction since Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents).
I'm here because Eel Mansions is the closest thing to being inside another person's head I can get, and I love it. I adore the six-panel pages, thematic establishing shots for what has come, what will come, what you wish might come. The oscillation between South Park-level expressive grotesquerie and faces like those I see every day. I can see why you guys find cannon-balling into the depths so rewarding, and like all good works you get out what you put in, but for me, Eel Mansions is an indie soap opera, too smart for cliffhangers or page-turn reveals, but nevertheless dependent on the well placed non-sequitur. So much of the story is so achingly familiar, the sad comfort of the spurned-but-close-by lover; the rush of having purposefully disappointed expectations of yourself, followed by the disappointment, lagged but not left behind; or the return to a world, a part of your life where your identity was certain, where you are still recognised, for a quest that everyone can see is noble (if a little late in starting)… all these feelings and deeds are things we've all done. But in the past. In, if not our youth, our less responsible days.
So for me, Eel Mansions is a delightfully knowing respite from the continuity of adulthood, a repository of all the romance that crafting stability, choosing maturity, and striving for something, anything, leaves less room for. Eel Mansions are not to be dwelt in, but swum through. Tell me, dear chaps, is this just a dreadful Imperial lack of imagination?
Elkin: Bred, I suppose from a steady diet of Mushy Peas and oddly placed 'u's.' Lilley, if, as you say, the story of Eel Mansions strikes you as 'so achingly familiar' then perhaps the problem is not your English-ness, but your obvious hobnobbing with demons (not to mention a Zapf). Are the stories British mothers tell their children at bedtime 'Tales of Abstraction House?' You worry me, Lilley, but I worry because I care.
Still, you said two things in your typically (?) English ambiguous critique that caught my thinking by the short hairs and raised the caloric content of my critical mouthfuls. By calling something 'a distraction from real life populated by distractions from real life' and combining it with the observation that this series is suffused with the expectation that 'something truly horrible will happen,' you make a kind of circus tent for all sorts of suppositions and give room for someone like me to freely bandy words like: 'fecund' and, more importantly, 'Kafkaesque.'
Am I pushing the segue too hard? Or does walking through something like the fourth issue of Eel Mansions require this kind of upper body strength?
Screw it. ''We have a Red Alpha in Sector Goddamn Seven! ''
I'll step over the obviousness of 'fecund' and jump right on to 'Kafkaesque' -- I've been waiting since our last review of Eel Mansions to bring up David Foster Wallace's essay ''Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed.'' I felt the procreant urge to lean towards this DFW essay because Eel Mansions is pretty fucking funny -- but funny in that sideways way that causes you to sweat when you laugh for fear that what you are laughing at is ultimately yourself and the horror of your existence -- you know, like Kafka is funny. Maybe this is that familiarity you reference, Lilley?
In his essay, DFW talks about ''exformation, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.” Eel Mansions, as with much of Kafka, is awash in exformation, and, like Silva has been viciously pointing to all along, it is the associative connections that drive the narrative and create the tension. I'm slow pitching in the adjective 'funny' to our discussion too, because it needs to be there, much like how I tried to point out the preponderance of sandwich references in our last review. For all the mind tricks and heart beats we've written on this series so far, I wonder if we've yet to pull up to the bar for some laughs?
I'm certain Lilley will have some insight into this. Them British are a funny folk, ain't they Silva?
Silva: Two words, Elkin: The Larch.
And here we go again … further and further down the rabbit-hole of nods and winks and nudge-nudges. Foster Wallace! Kafka! And Gymkhana for chirssakes! Will it never end?
Were there shackles about Mr. Van Gieson's ankles, were he in servitude to some corporate comics master (and its parent company) Eel Mansions #4 would include pointless punctuation like an exclamation point (let's say) and contrived combinations of the words 'all' 'now' and 'new' and the capitalization would be all higgledy-piggledy. Lucky for us, Mr. Van Gieson is one of those striving-starving-garret-dweller-artist-types so we can be thankful Eel Mansions #4 is not #1 or #1!
It's morning in Eel Mansions, again. Let us be grateful and drink our breakfast wine.
If we three agree there's such a thing as a 'sense of humour' than can there be a 'sense of comics?' Does one have to 'get' comics to understand/appreciate them on levels myriad? Keep these questions rhetorical or the tangents will, I fear, undo me and us.
If you can't pick ''the Mick Fleetwood statue'' out of a Hellscape Bert and Chee Chee find themselves in than you don't get it and won't get it and that's O.K. If so, I will refrain from writing you deserve every ''God-damned tentacled scum bag'' you can fend off. Nor will I accuse you of having forgotten laughter (I could make a The Song Remains the Same reference here, but I won't) or ask you why you don't find dangling balls funny. Instead, I weep. I weep for your soul. Kidding.
How can you have gotten this far in life and not seen the cover art to Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' and not wondered what Mick Fleetwood has hanging in his thigh gap and for the love of Lindsey Buckingham WHY(!)? Again, I weep. My joy for Eel Mansions insider humour has been well documented, but this one visual gag had me laughing out loud because it allows me to wallow in my own classic rock album cover crapulence. In other words I get it. For me, it's what Lilley so poetically calls, 'the fragments we've shored against our ruin.' If you've never caught the trolley or lorry or light rail on pretentious classic rock album art or Fleetwood Mac, I get it, this joke doesn't work, but if you do …
All humor is local. Meta-humour or self-referential humour even more so, in the most literal sense, all jokes are in-jokes. I'm not surprised, Lilley, that the 'Slowhanders' made you think of Infinite Jest which is perhaps the insider joker's Bible of all insider jokers bibles. Van Gieson has very post-modern sensibilities and yet, as Elkin continues to doggedly point out, Eel Mansions is full of heart as well, so something for everyone, yeah?
To slip between the sheets with Janet, Frank, Armistead and all the rest a reader must endure some silliness and absurdity along with the stories of drama and emotion, love and loss. To me, Eel Mansions feels very vaudevillian. It's a long(er) form XKCD with more references to Paul Peterson and Howard Crockett. The Doomin strips and the excerpts from 'Milk City' and 'Tales from Abstraction House' stand in as plate-spinners while the on-going narratives of Armistead, Janet and Frank and Bert and Chee Chee are the headliners, and then there are the oddball animal acts like The Record Store Guys and the Negative Orphans. I would argue Eel Mansions pater familias is the Muppet Show. We haven't talked muppets or wuppets, and if we are (or want to) than Eel Mansions #4 is the place.
As I hand this back to my favourite Imperialist, I would ask him to remember the words spoken by that jester of jesters, the clown prince of Calesvol and the cad of Caledfwlch, Arthur, King of the Britons, who has second thoughts about riding to Camelot because, like Eel Mansions,''tis a silly place.'' Your move, good sirrah!
Lilley: Yes, Wuppets! Kafka via DFW to puppetry works for me (though Eel Mansions has more in common with Meet the Feebles than the Muppets), but let me linger on those two lodestars a minute. DFW and Kafka are immersive (or is it oppressive?) storytellers, building works we disappear into, consumed by dense, near-unbroken passages of prose double-stuffed with thought and humanity. We trudge along with the protagonists, witness to their actions and dreams of actions. Eel Mansions, instead, oppresses by discontinuity. There is no rest in these chambers, and no resolution, either.
My favourite page of Eel Mansions #4 concerns a record store customer calling out the store manager for ordering him the wrong album (the customer wanted Iggy produced by Bowie, he got raw Iggy). The manager, in recognisable High Fidelity fashion, informs this customer that he requested the wrong album, but has been ordered the correct one.
So far, so in-joke. But the customer stops, thinks about what has been said, and then asks if he can have one of the manager's donuts. Obviously, a bathetic moment, but it stings. Lancing the boil of cultural snobbery and vinyl bullying, Van Gieson cuts to something deeper. We spend much of our lives struggling to find the 'right' way of being, across the entire spectrum of meaning, but probably more often than not in the pastel shades of cosmic triviality. We contemplate the 'right' albums to listen to, the 'right' comics to be reading writing about or the 'right' feelings regarding them, the 'right' aspirations, or just right action regarding our families. And most of the time we like to think we've found what's right for us, which is as close as we're ever going to get, truthfully.
But sometimes we find ourselves pressed between our 'right' and someone else's, like that customer does. And in those moments, the truth is almost always that we want nothing so much as a simple pleasure. When pressed, we reveal our simpler selves, like Bert and Chee Chee, who reclaim alpha male action banter from the lead-footed one-linerism of popular culture with… well… one line: ''Your generation ruined the moustache,'' while fleeing tentacled hordes. In moments of peril and exertion, of forced decision, we revert to our most deeply-held, least-processed convictions. However, the record store scene also acknowledges the profound truth that we find it hard to concede a point, especially one concerning our 'right' choices, without trying to claw something back from our bester. So we'll accept their version of what’s 'right' for us. But we want a donut for it. Gimme.
Van Gieson refuses to let us see these moments resolved, though. He's created characters too psychologically real-feeling to develop, because then whatever quantum storywebs he's weaving would be unstrung by the burden of the characters's autonomy. So instead they're all stuck in humour's amber, clearly observable, risible, but unknowingly doomed to never check into that motel, get to eat that donut, see that interview posted online, or get their desired reincarnation as ''a truck. '' At least, that's how it feels to me.
Which makes me conflicted about the wuppets. They pair with Armistead's arrival at Amscray, refractions of the same critical trajectory addressing the sad fact that ''The need to conform and consume was a greater problem than we anticipated,'' and for me these arcs are where the comic skews toward ''things ain't like they used to be.'' Implicit in the weirdness, the shadowed roads skittered upon by underworld creatures, the subterranean temples and obscure cartooning, is a subtext of corporatized consumerism repudiated. Our very first encounter with Armistead, flogging cars for cold-souled masters, says all we need to say of the outside world, the reality these characters distract themselves from with unrequited love and inter-generational disdain. More importantly, it says everything about his personal (and not just ideological) relationship to that corporatized, consuming reality. So the offering up of a subversive puppet show as some kind of origin story? Van Gieson has already asked so much trust of us that I wish he'd trusted us back, spared us the obligatory origin, and let this pocket universe be less a mirror to ours, and more the kaleidoscope it so often appears to be, truly a 'silly place.'
But you guys both know; I hate me some origin stories.
Silva, you mention vaudeville, and of course the wuppet-derived Muppets operate in that tradition, but I put Eel Mansions closer to a surrealist sketch show, mining the absurd with truth drills. The best humour, aside from the snappy one-liners, derives not from the material itself, but from the context, especially the comics within comics, be they 'Doomin,' or 'Tales of Abstraction House.' They aren't funny in themselves, but in the context of their production and consumption. Doomin is funny because it's a bird-flip replacing Milk City, a comic we've only seem a couple pagers of, but whose brilliance we are utterly convinced of (we are, right?). Tales of Abstraction House is funny because of its references, I presume? (Actually, guys, what's the deal with Tales of Abstraction House? We never had anything like that with our mushy peas…)
But I return to my humour as amber analogy. Humour functions in this comic to keep anything from ever truly 'happening.' And when something is 'happening,' humour is inserted to downplay its consequences, like with Bert and Chee Chee, allegedly in peril, until a rock is rolled and some quips are made, and the threat level can return to amber. The laughs in this comic are neither of angels nor demons, but of the impotent at themselves. Which is a striking motif for a comic of such specific vision, and dedicated realisation. How, I wonder, does Van Gieson replicate the feckless with such fidelity while doing comics virtuoso? Elkin?
Elkin: Is that even a question, Lilley? Or are you following Silva's advice to 'keep these questions rhetorical'? I don't even know where to begin. You've thrown me so many bones here I could put together a skeleton of the man I hoped to be just to watch him dance.
For example, you toss out the idea of 'when pressed, we reveal our simpler selves.' I tend to agree from my personal spinelessness, but, for me, the narrative in Eel Mansions is all about layering on obfuscation in the hopes of stumbling upon a truth. When the rope gets taut, things bend to the weird in this series. I understand your donut, I bless it in fact, but I also want to draw your attention to its punch-line jig, swirling in the edges of exformation, Kafkaesque in its breakfast/desert dilemma.
It may also lead the strong legs toward the concept of 'corporatized consumerism repudiated' – it's a heavy donut, after all, a siren song of sickly sweet heart thickening desire. What is a donut if not fried circle, hollow inside? Van Gieson has his hatreds, but underneath them all there lies his heart. “Inside the bag, however, was another Brenda from another story.”
**ah, shit, Elkin's waxing romantic again. Fools in love? They think they're heroes**
Think of the Doomin P.S.A in this issue where the figure bemoans how Motown has been ruined for him(?) by corporate consumerism and over-exposure. The Doomin Dancers step in to reveal the beautiful belly underneath the behemoth. The gritty gems of R. Dean Taylor, the bat shit crazy drama of The Hit Pack, Chris Clark's haunting “I Want To Go Back There Again” -- the sound track to Eel Mansions is a love letter to the possibilities the individual creator can bring, even within the concrete dictates of corporate culture. The independent artist will always find a way. Van Gieson has all of his narrative layers infused with this realization, the heartbeat of creation, the procreant urge (again) of love.
And it's this that keeps its snark funny, a snark that, in the hands of the less savvy, could have a vicious sheen which could not help but come off reflecting insecurities or doubt. Van Giesson's snark is funny because it comes from love. It's an exformative snark and it leads folks like us to write thousands and thousands of words about it. It makes artists and lovers of us all.
Perhaps it even makes Eel Mansions literature? Is it the mayonnaise at the end of Trout Fishing in America? Naah, Van Gieson won't even give us that. “The idea of passing of some cheap cartoon as literature was a poor one.”
And since nobody's taking me up on my sandwich concern, I'm just going to ignore the whole Wuppet conundrum.
Silva: You know, Elkin, 'Wuppet Conundrum' is the name of my Lo-fi, Close harmony, Chason, Freakbeat, Filk, Space house octet, right? And 'Sandwich Concern' opens most of WC's shows. They're a couple of DJs from Scarsdale, mostly Nintendocore with some Modal jazz influences. They're both quite good as you would expect.
See Lilley, this is why you're onboard this un petit excursion we're calling a 'review.' You ask for the 'clearly observable' and the 'risible' when Van Gieson, to this point, is all about deferment or as Janet says, ''some hand stuff.'' It's like that old English sea chantey goes, 'don't choke off the chicken(s) who haven't yet come home to roost,' or whatever. Let's talk Janet. Let's talk about ''some kissy kiss and some hand stuff.'' O.K.?
The scene between Janet, her roommate and the Riesling is a crystalline example of what you noted Lilley as DVG's use of humor as deflection, the impotent laughing at themselves, at their own impotence, laughing all the way to the gallows. Janet can't fully commit to anything (unless it comes in a glass and is served by a cyclopean barkeep). I think she wants to find some middle ground, some solace, but she wants it on her terms. For now, Janet and 'compromise' don't go together like chocolate and peanut butter. She's no 'Double Decker.' When her roommate chides her for leading Frank on, Janet gives a Janet-like response, ''you just wanna fuck him.'' ''You're funny,'' her roommate says and adds, ''nice deflection, by the way'' (my emphasis). Janet -- perhaps she's emblematic of Eel Mansions, a bearer of the brand -- is a series of deflections, all the way down.
Van Gieson's style doesn't lend itself to emotion. He's not the van Eyck of cartoonists. But, man, when he nails it, he nails it. Janet's coy smile when she admits to her 'hand stuff' with Frank, faultless. The coup de grâce, of course, is the look Janet gives when her roommate asks, ''so when are you going to draw Milk City again?''. That sideways glance says everything about Janet the reader needs to know. The cat clock on the wall in that last panel kills, it defuses the heaviness of the moment, defers it so to speak. Janet is going to have to make some hard decisions, admit and commit, but not today and not yet.
As for 'being right,' Lilley, I'm surprised you're so above it all, so willing to concede to the customer. You work in London's most swinging joint for comics. You can't tell me when someone comes into your shoppee and asks for Jim Lee and Scott Snyder's Superman Unchained (is that still going on?) you secretly don't want to slip them John Byrne's The Man of Steel or Morrison, Quietly and Grant's All-Star Superman instead. And I know (I know!) with every beat of my Sons-of-Liberty loving heart, you die a little inside and want to spit out your Earl Grey when someone buys Dark Reign, Secret Invasion or Secret Warriors instead of S.H.I.E.L.D by Steranko. Admit it. Admit it! Right and wrong don't enter into it if we accept the journey, the trail of referential breadcrumbs that lead back to the garden, to the source, back to 'Dum Dum,' 'Izzy,' and 'Pinky' or even, Milk City. Detour, defer, doesn't matter, the source (and the song) remains the same.
Elkin is right, quips and snarky sidesteps aside, the address of Eel Mansions is the heart. Plus there are donuts. Come to think of it, isn't that donut a deferment as well, one more off ramp on the A1? Proof we can choose not to choose either and ask instead after the (metaphorical) donut and defer the entire argument all together. Van Gieson doesn't show us which mix the customer decides to buy. The decision is up to the reader. It's a moral choice: Raw Power with its carelessness and its raggedness or some vapid knob-twiddling on the part of an indifferent Bowie. Janet can choose to love Frank or to fuck Frank or fuck with him. To bring it back to comics, one may choose to live in a Bendis-y handjob-like world of 'Dark this' and 'Secret that' or go with the flipside, throw in with the 'raw power' of Steranko. Choose.
Right or wrong, Eel Mansions wallows in deferment. There remain two more rooms to unlock, two more curtains to pull back (
two paths you can go by) in which Van Gieson will reveal if Janet, Armistead, Bert, Chee-Chee and all the rest learn anything, want anything or if it's all endless deferments, one liners and record store horseplay. We are, all of us, our choices, our references and our deferments. It's how we form alliances, build empires and create cultures. Van Gieson is only doing what comes natural to artists, artificers and Gods: to make, create. What falls to us is to choose.
From the Concierge: We regret to inform our readers Mr. Lilley was worn down (eventually) by Elkin and Silva. He choose not to make a counter argument. In a direct message on Twitter -- which was bought for the going rate of ''many Bothan lives'' -- Lilley concedes he was ''turned around'' by Elkin and Silva's arguments. Nonetheless we have attached an asterisk (*) to Mr. Lilley's Five Star [sigh] rating to demonstrate like Cornwallis at Yorktown there is honor in surrender.