Review: 'Eel Mansions #5' Hush, hush. Voices CarryA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin , David Fairbanks, Keith Silva
From the Concierge: Having conquered Britannia in their review of Eel Mansions #4, Mssrs. Elkin and Silva have been informed that their crusty brand of effusive braying was beginning to rub the youth of today as poppycock and the gibbering of toothless old fools who still clung tightly to their convictions that musicians like Barbara McNair, R. Dean Taylor, and The Hit Pack inform contemporary music. Hoping to skew younger, the editorial staff at ComicsBulletin.com thought that they should bring into the critical fold the non-crusty perspective and youthful vigor of young David Fairbanks.
In a somewhat desperate and certainly embarrassing desire to appear hip and relatable, Silva and Elkin celebrate the addition of Fairbanks and have found themselves infused with the energy of youth. The editorial staff at ComicsBulletin.com have since explained to them that, at their age, the liberal use of the phrase, ''Dang, son'' and bandying about words like 'jacked' and 'wanksta' was both ridiculous and pathetic and would subsequently be edited out of any final copy. To this end, Silva and Elkin have agreed to comport themselves in accordance to their age, provided it be well established that neither of them is a coffee table.
Daniel Elkin: So, gentlemen, we have before us the penultimate issue of Derek Van Gieson's Eel Mansions and issue 5 reads much like the love child of Willy Loman's sad reveries of happier times and David Foster Wallace's footnotes to his ''Dear John'' letter. Things move fast and frenetically in this book, pushing toward an ending with increasing velocity while Tokyo Drifting into new areas of madness drowned in the soundtrack to a “supernatural kind of noir kind of thing”.
You could dance to it if you could just keep the beat. Give it a try:
Eel Mansions #5 looks to wrap up through moving the narrative forward while gazing ponderously behind. This is the first issue without Armistead Fowler, while having Fowler's backstory be the centerpiece of everything that is going on. Hmph. Still. When will the sub-plots be revealed to be functioning in tandem? Van Gieson is keeping everything up his sleeves, but they are poking out teasingly from beneath that plaid smoking jacket he so fashionably is styling. He's been looking good so far sporting that thing, but has he been wearing it so long it's now torn and frayed and seen much better days?
No. Eel Mansions is still dernier cri and by golly if Van Gieson ain't still his own kind of Lizard King.
To whit: Janet Planet has set her ''way out'' in motion, Bert and Chee Chee (sort of) are that much closer to their confrontation with Armistead, Record Store Guys continue to ''do their thing,'' the Negative Orphans are still pondering ''life's deep questions'' and 'Doomin' gets more abstract while 'Tales of Abstraction House' gets more non-sequitur (if possible). And then there's even more 'Milk City,' where the grass is green and the seagulls regret ''yesterday's late night drunken quest for burritos.''
We're set up for closure here, boys, but it's closure on Van Gieson's terms. As Janet Planet says, ''Everything's all commercial (sic) now. They're squeezing the Golden Goose. Now we're gonna squeeze back.'' Because this is love, brothers, love for the artistic intent.
I've been saying all along that Eel Mansions has been a canticle to the creative act – that's the problem now here's the hook. How Van Gieson ends this series is all about how Van Gieson wants his series to end. Ain't nobody's business but his own. All along he has been helming this ship, fore and aft, rutting while ruddering as it were. It is his offspring and he's setting the rules to how this baby is to be raised. A child born from what Silva called 'the anxiety of influences' is bound to sublimate intention into the miasma of ingenuity.
''Muselix I summon thee!''
While perhaps the most narrative driven issue of the series so far, Eel Mansions #5 is still a Van Gieson book and it oozes with artistic fecundity. Plot points seem to be coalescing to a degree, but your brain still has to bend to make even the slightest connection. When I was a young man, courting the girls, there was a show called Diary on this cable network called MTV that had this tag line, 'You think you know … but you have no idea.'
I think this resonates.
Then again, I think sandwiches understand my pain.
Dang, son. 'Just as long as the guitar plays [Elkin] // Let it steal your heart away, steal your heart away. Just as long as the guitar plays [repeat 5X]'
Speaking of borrowers of the blues (and outright thieves), the beginning of Eel Mansions #5 has a very 'After Midnight' kind of vibe which carries throughout. It's a kind of mid-tempo '87 slick slinkiness that's been reworked from its boogie roots. Van Gieson hasn't sold out, he isn't trying to sell 'draught beer to connoisseurs' as much as give readers a different way of 'letting it all hang out' in order to find out 'what it is all about.' (Now THAT'S some tortured backslider-ing that is) So yes, we've come to the time of the last but one and everyone knows it. And so what if Eel Mansions #5 feels like a cover version of Eel Mansions, it's still Eel Mansions. A joy, yes, but we've passed the two drink minimum long, long ago. It's like Benson says in the Lion movie: ''It is time.''
For example, in each of the previous issues, Van Gieson uses the first six panels as a trailer, a tune-up as he assembles his musicians. Here, instead, we get demons in hoodies and sweats bearing funhouse mirror versions of corporate logos, 'MOIST' instead of 'JUICY' on the ass-end of a pair of sweatpants. It's the kind of sarcastic humor I expect from Van Gieson and yet it kills me (and surprises me) every time. This satanic set doesn't look at all too different from the regulars at Snowflake's on the following page. Hell is Hell, as above so below.
I get so consumed with these characters and this story that until you pointed it out, Elkin, I didn't even notice Armistead is AWOL from this issue. Lost in the corporate hellscape of the Neu Town Mall, I suppose. Oh, he's very present and accounted for, of course, everywhere and nowhere. I miss his guile, his damn-the-torpedoes-sense-of-action. Most of all, I miss his Virgil, his horned empty-eyed interlocutor. I love that demon. Not to mention Zapf 51 continues (one assumes) to be 'Chik Chik Chicking' it's way on back roads and down blue highways. Where's my critical distance? My frame of reference? Have I lost it? Has Eel Mansions made me child-like -- a Donny Kerabatsos wandering into the middle of the movie -- wanting to know yet content to be unawares? A shot of Janet outta clear this right up, hair of the dog … hair of the dog.
Back at Snowflakes, Janet talks smack about the Blues and whatever stream-of-know-it-all-nonsense she can't keep from going on and on about with Bruno -- and it's said, 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw boulders, ha!'. Unbeknownst to our favorite indie darling, forces have begun to marshal against her. Janet strikes me as one of those people who'd complain about the horsehair count of the rope while she stands on the gallows. Then along comes Shelby (did we know her name before this?), Janet's roommate, who gives her the skinny on the shit storm Jaque's essay has kicked up online (and off) and how it's making mincemeat out of Janet's already suspect reputation, especially with her publisher. Do all indie cartoonists carry such burdens? Are all comic book critics so powerful?
We've eschewed -- I believe the French-Austro-Prussian dialect pronounces it -- le origin du Armistead to this point. Can we continue, then, near Christ-like and ask to 'let this cup pass from [us]' or do we dare delve into wuppets, rare books and occult knowledge?
''So yes,'' Fairbanks, ''my comics are on the bed …''
David Fairbanks: 'People say friends don't destroy one another; what do they know about friends?'
I'm just going to let you two digest that for a little bit while I recover from reading 200 pages of Eel Mansions in the span of about 48 hours, and it is because I have the utmost affection for the both of you and your opinions that I also proceeded to binge on your previous four reviews of the series, to the point that my brain feels like the proverbial clogged toilet and these letters you are presumably forming into words in your sinister minds are as molecules of water cascading to the floor – seeping into carpeting and warping the hardwood beneath.
Four reviews and neither of you proposed that Derek Van Gieson was the lovechild of David Hine and Shaky Kane with Eel Mansions serving as one of the very, very few pieces of comic bookery that deserves to be placed on a shelf alongside The Bulletproof Coffin? Has your love of sandwiches made you slow, Elkin? Silva, is he rubbing off on you? It matters not whether Van Gieson is intentionally creating a work inspired by The Bulletproof Coffin or if it is simply accidental, but the similarities between the two –if only similarities in tone and style – seem impossible to ignore. Perhaps the absence of Kane's trademark flats and the influence of Van Gieson's heavy inks were enough to shroud from the both of you the artistic similarities between the two comics, but the disjointed meta-narrative marks them as siblings if not formerly conjoined twins still bearing jigsaw puzzle-shaped scars that compel me to fuse them back together again.
While the similarities to Bulletproof Coffin are both incredibly interesting and important from a critical sense, I can forgive their absence far more than the lack of one word from any of your previous reviews: Moomin. Moomin, where Tove Jansson admitted that characters were based directly on real people, with some being seen as psychological self-portraits of the artist. Moomin where the philosophies of characters are juxtaposed for the sake of satire. Moomin, which 'Doomin' is very clearly an homage/reference to. Look at this and tell me it's not Moomins all the way down:
The gluey knowledge inherent in these little bits connects the seemingly disparate tales of Eel Mansions much more tightly than both of you think it has at this point, or perhaps my mind is simply fractured from reading 200 pages of this mad, mad comic over the span of a couple of days and the only superhighway back to my sanity is paved with Moomins and Burroughsian cut-up panels of The Bulletproof Coffin. I contend the both of you have done admirably summing up this issue, that I too didn't even notice Armistead's absence until it was mentioned by Elkin, but Van Gieson had Armistead scrawl a Baphomet in white chalk across the inky black tapestry of the comics medium to obscure just how deep he dug this rabbit hole.
It's a beautiful scrawl to stare at for a while, but I get the feeling he'd rather we dive deeper and follow him to the pits of comic book hell.
Elkin: See Fairbanks, this is why we needed your eyes on these pages. Your youthful, succulent, life-giving eyes. I can't speak for Silva, but I'm not square enough to be hip to Jansson's Moomin, so how could I draw those parallels? As for David Hine and Shaky Kane, though Silva and I have spent two years trying to recapture that lightening in the bottle writing we did when we wrote about Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, neither of us even gasped at a modicum of a suggestion of similarity. Our connective sense, like our tissues, have been enfeebled by familiarity, time, booze, sandwiches, and whatnot. Or at least mine have. Silva should have the opportunity to speak for himself.
So what is it? What are the connections? The more I try to put pieces together the more frustrated I become, as if I were building Doric columns out of repelling cylindrical bar magnets. And yet instead of being pushed back, Van Gieson keeps pulling me in, further and further through motel rooms, record stores, seedy bars, and Neu Town Mall.
Wait... the room must listen to me filibuster vigilantly.
Here's where the connection to Bulletproof Coffin becomes a blue canary in the outlet by the light switch. Looking back at the desperate fear I displayed in the face of a purposeless narrative (and Silva's soothing voice talking me down) makes me realize how far I've come in these two years. I'm more comfortable now in the liminal space between order and chaos and, as such, Eel Mansions serves as my docent as I tour around and gawk at the green shag carpet in the Jungle Room.
And thus, perhaps, this informs my reading of Armistead Fowler's ''origin'' story which takes up so much of this issue. My significant need as a sense making being to follow narrative and understand associations is like Operation Menu, specifically Operation Brunch, dropping ''over 2,400 tons of ordinance'' on the demons of chaos, uncertainty, and casual supposition. These demons, the discord of unintelligibility, rise forth and destroy for two full six-panel pages. Only Armistead and his co-pilot are spared ''in order to describe the horrors they had witnessed.''
Armistead lies in between these two forces, he bridges the gap as it were, and though existing in this transitional area between sense and nonsense has wreaked havoc to his existence, he is ultimately or seemingly or outwardly the protagonist to this tale. He holds the door open to all the entrances of Tales of Abstraction House and the Wuppeteers and Milk City and the Negative Twins and all the Eel Mansions. By being the avatar of the in-between he provides access for everyone. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
Eggman. Walrus. Koo koo Kachoo, my brothers.
Silva: You'll always be my pornographic priestess, Elkin. What a gift our resident ingénue has given us? First, he deserves gold stars for quoting lyrics written in the last ten years (or so), while we're still stuck on Beatles and the Stones. Second, Fairbanks uses the word, 'disparate' -- a word which has only come up once in all our palaver, I checked -- to describe the many narrative bits and bobs in play and up for grabs in Eel Mansions. Fairbanks gets there with this Doomin/Moomin business. Who knew self-reflexive parody could bring about change, sez Silva … sarcastically (!).
You two like poetry, yeah? You've supplicated yourselves to that particular muse, once or a thousand times before? Is this 'fifth coming,' Van Gieson's way to bring some order into these proceedings? Instead of a warning ''things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; // Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,'' Eel Mansions #5 is a fingerpost to a way out, the means by which all of these unrelated (?) elements will tie together. It's Armistead's origin, yes, but it's also an explanation of how his world went so off the rails in the first place.
Those 'demonic entities,' the ones Armistead fights against in Vietnam, could they be why ''the hookers in Dinkytown got the space clap something fierce?'' Are the Negative Orphans demonspawn? Is it some demonic DNA that keeps Lizard Lord Wilma (and her kind) from being able to digest mayonnaise? Is the creation of the Zapf(s) a direct result of the military industrial complex's unchecked aggression during operation Brunch? Most important, are these same old ones why Janet stopped drawing Milk City and started drawing Doomin? When we walk the cat back, each of these threads leads to Armistead, except Doomin. Whither Doomin?
Janet and Armistead are the poles of this island we call Eel Mansions, separate and equal hemispheres, but where do they meet? What is the barrier between these two worlds? And who can cross it? Is the answer Jesus? No, Elkin's right, it's Armistead. When Chee Chee first steps into Snowflake's in EM #1, orders a Malibu and coke and sits down to read 'Behold a Satisfaction Pony,' Janet tells him about Armistead, the wuppets and all the rest. Frank then does Chee Chee a mitzvah and gives him one of the last copies of 'Tales from Abstraction House.' This sets Chee Chee down a path of classified documents, conspiracy theories and complicated comic books; welcome to Eel Mansions.
Van Gieson nests comics within comics with little distinction between the two, maybe there's something there. Maybe this is why Fairbanks picks up a Bulletproof Coffin vibe from Eel Mansions. Hine and Kane are mad for how comics fit in our world and in the world of comics themselves. With comics as the lubricant (?) Hine, Kane and Van Gieson's methods become downright orgiastic. I don't think Van Gieson's 'meta' is showing as much as theirs; he's more modest than Hine and Kane (must be his Midwestern sensibilities) not to mention he loves the mad cap laughs of the non sequitur which makes him harder to pin down.
Goddammit! Elkin is right again (sorta'). Eel Mansions is about love … the love of comics. To borrow from another book about another Midwestern crackpot: ''The one constant through all the years [Elkin and Fairbanks], has been comics. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But comics have marked the time.''
Talk about a ''ridiculously funny (?) way to get out, but a way out,'' nonetheless.
Fairbanks: I can delve further than a decade back for the requisite lyrics if you want me to? I think it's rather appropriate to have our analysis (discussion, debriefing?) of Eel Mansions peppered with references that, while relevant in their own right still have some weight for those readers who don't understand them. When I was mainlining the entirety of the series up to now, I stumbled on bits that I knew were referential, but referential to media unfamiliar to me.
Yet they still worked because Van Gieson doesn't hang all of his hopes on hitting a single wink or nod – and the winks and the nods are capable of standing on their own, more or less -- rather the strangeness of Eel Mansions means that even if you have no idea who The Yardbirds are, those pages will just read as a strange non-sequitur in a comic loaded with them. And if you don't know who or what Moomin are, you can still appreciate 'Doomin' for that very same reason. As to any allusions to The Bulletproof Coffin, I get the feeling that they are rather unintentional, but it doesn't surprise me to find that two comics dabbling in metafiction and overall the overall strangeness that is pulp might produce a Venn diagram with a notable overlap.
We could talk for days about allusions and the tangled web Van Gieson has been weaving – I would wager we could even craft a dissertation of notable length on Eel Mansions and what it means for the comics medium -- but like most great works of art, Eel Mansions demands to be experienced. As Elkin has said, this is truly a love letter to the medium, with homages to so many different corners of the comic's world in both the varying artistic styles and the unraveled and subversive narrative.
Reading these five issues has felt like watching what I thought were the shattered remains of a teacup slowly recombine into a bust of Eric Clapton or staring, mouth agape as piles of yarn ravel themselves back into some grotesque tapestry. It is because of this reversal of shattering, this un-unraveling that Eel Mansions #5 seems to make more narrative sense than anything that came before it. Van Gieson is putting his pieces in order, although the cliffhanger ending makes me curious for what will actually happen next and whether or not our expectations will be further subverted.
Elkin: Finally, everybody agrees with me about love!
Now gentlemen, I think it's high time we finally address all the references to sandwiches that are sprinkled throughout the entirety of Eel Mansions. I, for one, have to say that this is obviously Van Gieson's …
THE CURTAIN DROPS SUDDENLY