Comics You Should Own flashback – Big Numbers
This is the one Comic You Should Own that isn’t even close to being finished and never will. But what we got is so, so good that it deserves the time it will take to hunt it down!
Big Numbers by Alan Moore (writer) and Bill Sienkiewicz (artist).
Mad Love (Publishing) Ltd., 2 issues (#1-2), cover dated April and August 1990.
I do these columns in alphabetical order, and so when I sat down to read the next items on my personal “comics that everyone should own” list, I had a choice between two Alan Moore-penned books: Big Numbers and The Birth Caul. Eventually, I settled on exhorting you to find and buy the two issues of Big Numbers rather than the single issue of The Birth Caul, even though the latter is a decent enough book. Both books have similar themes, both sport fine art (Eddie Campbell does the art for The Birth Caul), and both make you think. However, The Birth Caul is much more of a lecture on why we’re not good people anymore because we’ve lost touch with our roots. It’s from 1995 (and wasn’t published until 1999) and comes from around the time Moore started to go a little kooky. [Edit: I should point out that I don't really mind kooky Moore. But he from the mid-1990s onward, he got kookier. Much of his work is still brilliant, but he's gotten more strident about some of his beliefs.] Big Numbers is much more story-driven, and although it’s implied that we’ve lost touch with our roots and are therefore somehow deficient, it’s in the context of the larger story, which ultimately makes it a more satisfying read.
“But,” you say, “isn’t this Moore’s grand incomplete work? Wasn’t it planned as a 12-issue masterpiece, only two of which ever saw print? Why should I buy something that is less than 20 percent finished?” Well, yes, it is incomplete, and it was planned as 12 issues, and yes, only two came out, but these are still comics you should own. I will prove it to you!
The reasons behind the failure of Big Numbers are long, convoluted, and not necessary to go over right now. I’m sure if you’re that interested you can find the story on the Internet. Or you could buy George Khoury’s fascinating interview/biography of The Great Bearded One, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore (TwoMorrows Publishing), flip to pages 149-154, and read a little about Moore’s take on the series (you should buy the book anyway, because it’s very interesting). The point is, two issues did come out, and they will blow you away, make you ponder your relationship to others in your life and the place you live, and make you wonder what is worth fighting for in this life. Heavy stuff from the Master.
Before I delve into the story, I must mention the art. Bill Sienkiewicz burst onto the scene in 1980 on Moon Knight. For the first 15-20 issues of the title, his art was solid if unspectacular, and the best that could be said about it was that it looked like the art of Neal Adams. Then he started to experiment, and the final issues of his run on Moon Knight show what he was capable of. After leaving the title, his two biggest success stories in the 1980s were his astonishing issues on New Mutants, including his first three, “The Demon Bear Saga,” which took a somewhat insipid title to amazing and disturbing new places; and Elektra: Assassin, in which he really cut loose with photography interspersed among the painted art. Elektra, especially, remained his pinnacle before Big Numbers came out. He did a lot of other stuff, including a bunch of covers, the first six issues of DC’s Shadow series, a Daredevil graphic novel, and Stray Toasters, which he also wrote. These days, unfortunately, he inks more than he pencils or paints. Younger fans might only know him as that, which is a shame, even though his inks, like Klaus Janson’s, make almost anyone’s pencil art look much better. Sienkiewicz is one of the most influential comic book artists of the last 30 years, and Big Numbers is one of the reasons why. In this title, he blends two distinct styles – his more “realistic” style, which at this point had become very photo-realistic, not in the weirdly pornographic style of a Greg Land of today, but in a much more naturalistic way; and his more whimsical style for which he’s more famous. This clash of styles works well in this book, which is heavily grounded in the reality of northern England in the 1980s. For most of the book, Sienkiewicz gives us beautifully rendered black-and-white scenes of mundane English life (there is one part of one panel in color, but the rest is black and white – the plan was to have more and more in color as the series went along), giving each person a distinctive look and personality. These are real people, not comic book clichés, and a lesser artist might have not been able to pull it off. Sienkiewicz also gives us his more surreal style in the book’s few dream sequences, and he is able to shift easily between the two. The first few pages of issue #1 show this wonderfully. Christine Gathercole, the book’s “main” character (there are dozens of characters, but she’s pretty much the focus) is on a train, and she’s dreaming. Her dream is a bizarre, typically Sienkiewicz-ian landscape of eyeless chaffeurs (she’s in a car), hands signing something (I don’t know sign language), angry, grotesque faces, and impossibly sentient automobiles. The scene shifts back to Christine on the train, and the art tones down to the more sedate style befitting the muted feel of “real” life. Sienkiewicz also uses shading and blurring to invoke the weather of northern England. Instead of drawing distinct lines on the page, he smears the features of the characters and the landscape, which does a much better job of depicting the gloom. I’ve mentioned that I’m not a big art critic, so that’s all I have to say about it, but it’s gorgeous to look at.
I want to look at the story and how Moore uses a trendy science to tell it. Yes, that’s right – this is an ode to chaos theory, which became hip in the 1980s and is really fascinating, if you’re interested. Anyway, the chaos theory section of the book never really got developed all that much, because of the book’s demise, but it’s there. Check out the covers – the dot on the “i” in “Big” is a Mandelbrot set. How neat! The only color in the book is a poster of a Mandelbrot set (on page 27 of issue #2). Put simply (because I’m too d-u-m to understand it more), chaos theory looks at unpredictable events and predicts them. Weather, the drip of water from a faucet – that sort of crap. It’s very interesting. Moore is applying the ideas of chaos theory to human relationships, and in these two issues, he is putting his pieces in position. Christine returns to Hampton in northern England after spending a decade in London becoming a successful author. She is drawn back into her family’s drama immediately, but also realizes how difficult it is to go home again (not an original idea, but not a bad one, either). Her mother and sister are wrapped up in their lives and think she’s just going to slip back into her old life. Her father, divorced and living alone in an apartment, argues with the vicar about theology and watches television from the toilet. Meanwhile, an American company is planning on building a garish mall/office building on a field in the town. This is obviously the meta-story that pulls everything together, and it’s not too difficult a jump to think that Moore would have made some kind of comment about preserving the past and holding onto the things that make us human. Garish mall/office buildings are obviously not a good thing in Moore’s universe.
It’s difficult to talk about the story in Big Numbers, because of its incompleteness. We can speculate about the way the story is going, but I don’t want to do that. I want to look at why this is one of Moore’s most satisfying work of fiction, not necessarily of comic book fiction, but of “mainstream” fiction. I don’t mean to separate them, but this is the kind of comic book that rises above the themes we expect to see in a comic book. Moore is a wonderful comic writer, but even in his greatest “comic” works – Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Watchmen – he is bound by the conventions of the medium. Big Numbers does not follow the conventions of a comic book – it is a true work of fiction that happens to be illustrated. There are no heroes and villains in this book, there are only people trying to live their lives. The Spitelers, who are in charge of the project to build the mall in Hampton, are not evil people – they are childless, and there’s some dark reason for it. The mental institution in town is shutting down, and the inmates who are let out might be crazy (one of them fantasizes about stabbing a passenger on the bus) but they are, obviously, not evil, just insane. Moore does a wonderful job, in only a few panels, of fleshing out the characters, despite the fact that there are a lot of them. We see the casual racism of northern England. One character is called a “black bastard” by children, and Gravie Odedra, an Indian character, visits Mrs. Beard, who has recently been released from prison. Mrs. Beard assumes that she doesn’t like Africans, because she’s Indian. Just when we think Mrs. Beard is a typical old English racist, Gravie confirms that she is predisposed against black people because of her experiences in Uganda when Idi Amin was in power. This is a real conversation between two characters who are fully realized in only a few scenes, and there are no easy answers to the questions of who is the real racist and whether we should dislike these people. They are simply struggling to make sense of the world.
Moore is showing a community that has stagnated but is still trying to remain proud and independent. Christine represents the generation that left the town behind and went on to fame and fortune. She is successful but alone, and her return is meant as a metaphor for the grander story. She doesn’t fit in anymore with her old friends, who have become calcified in their roles of unhappy mothers, neglected wives, and lost dreamers. Her mother is living in her own world, and doesn’t listen to Christine and hasn’t read her book. The town is decaying, and the mall/office building offers new hope, but Moore, of course, wants us to ask at what cost. Is it better to let a town die a noble death or sell its soul to rejuvenate itself? We can guess that Moore thinks the sell-out of the town is shameful, but it’s not clear (and doubtless Moore wouldn’t have been so facile about it in later issues) and, as I have mentioned, the people who are building the new complex are shown in a somewhat sympathetic light. There is also the benefit of new jobs coming into a depressed economy, and my guess is that the characters would have to wrestle long and hard with their attitudes toward the Americans and their fancy building rising from the fields. It would not have been easy, and it would not have always been pretty, but isn’t that the way real life is?
There is a great deal to like about Big Numbers, and it’s a bit of a comic book tragedy that we’re never going to see the completed project. This is the kind of book that draws you in and makes you understand what the medium is capable of. Moore gives us a story of loss and regret, history and the future, and how communities function and what happens when they break down. There are many comics about regular people, but rarely are there comics about regular people with such gorgeous art, which elevates the story and the emotions of the characters rather than just serving as a vehicle of the plot. This is a true marriage of writer and artist, which is why it’s strange that it fell apart. These two issues are surely out of print and hard to find. They’re square (10 x 10 inches) and obviously don’t fit into your standard long box, so where would retailers store them? I have no idea how available they are in comic book stores or at conventions or on-line. Despite the fact that this is an incomplete series, this is an amazing work of comic book artistry. An aborted masterpiece, but a masterpiece nevertheless.
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[Edit: I'm aware of the existence of photocopies of issue #3. In fact, I can provide you with a link to where they are posted (ah, the magic of Google!). However, I didn't become aware of this until a few years after I wrote this, so I just don't feel like incorporating the third issue into this post. I am also bitterly disappointed that Sienkiewicz didn't continue, and Al Columbia, who took over the art, isn't bad, but he's not Sienkiewicz. Who is, really?]