Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bill Sienkiewicz, and the issue is Moon Knight #23 (with some context provided by issue #20), which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 1982. Enjoy!
I wasn’t reading comics in 1982, but I wonder what it was like for people who were. So there you are, reading Moon Knight, enjoying Doug Moench’s exciting stories of international intrigue and weird bad guys, accompanied by Bill Sienkiewicz’s solid, Neal Adams-influenced superhero art, and all is well in the universe. After issue #20, there’s a fill-in issue, and then issue #22 hits you like a punch in the nose. What were fans to make of it all? Did they feel the earth shift as comics entered a new era of artwork? I would argue that Sienkiewicz single-handedly changed comics, and 30+ years later, his early 1980s work is still ahead of its time. And it all began in issue #22, which … I’m not going to show. Issue #23 is slightly more interesting, visually, so I figured I’d hit you with that. But first, here’s a few pages from issue #20:
Sienkiewicz is being inked by Steve Mitchell here, and we can still see a lot of Neal Adams in his artwork. The action is dynamic, the flow is very nice, and Sienkiewicz uses interesting angles to make things a bit more exciting, as in Panel 3. Good stuff.
This entire storyline is basically Doug Moench writing James Bond, so OF COURSE there are bikini-clad babes (representing the three races of man – African, Asian, and Caucasian, because I cannot make this shit up), and of course they fight each other! Marlene has infiltrated the bad guy’s inner circle, and she has to fight the other two when they find out. Sienkiewicz draws it well, but would it really matter if he didn’t? It’s three chicks in bikinis fighting each other!
So that was Sienkiewicz as of late 1981/early 1982 (the issue is cover dated June, and I guess it came out in March, so Sienkiewicz probably finished drawing it at least a month or more before that). Then, after the fill-in (which is pretty bad), issue #22 came out in May and revolutionized comics. What the hell, Sienkiewicz? Then, with readers hoping that it was just a weird month and maybe they had eaten too much gnarly chow mein and drunk some flat Tab the month before and imagined the whole thing, they got issue #23, which opens with this page:
Sienkiewicz shows Morpheus escaping into the night, and he uses nice blacks to show how dark our villain is. In the bottom right, he uses a close-up to show how creepy Morpheus is, with his ridged eye brows, pointed nose, and sharp teeth. We see some of what Sienkiewicz was moving toward with the blue flares coming out of Morpheus’s dark eye sockets – Christie Scheele colored this issue, and she does a nice job keeping up with Sienkiewicz. The flares look like simple paint, but I wonder if Sienkiewicz used a thick pen or brush to create them and Scheele stepped in to tint them. As Sienkiewicz got more experimental, it becomes more difficult to suss out where his contribution ends and the colorists’ begins, because later in his career, he began coloring himself, so he knew what he was doing with it.
One thing Sienkiewicz started to experiment with is different perspectives that allowed him to use a lot of negative space. In Panel 1, he places the cabin far back and to the right, so that he can create the vast expanse of white in the foreground. This shows both the weather turning bleaker and also isolates the cabin much more, so that when Morpheus attacks it, we know how far away from help Moon Knight and his allies are. Sienkiewicz is also getting more chaotic with his line work, so that the trees in Panel 1 rise up crazily and the cliff in Panel 2 plunges into a black stream, creating a more hostile environment than had he been more restrained. What we’ll notice going forward, though, is that despite the chaos, Sienkiewicz remains in complete control of the artwork.
Morpheus is able to control people’s wills, and he possesses Marlene, who tries to kill Moon Knight and Jean-Paul. We can notice a few things on these two pages. First, Sienkiewicz the traditional artist hasn’t disappeared, he’s just shifted a bit. Panel 2 on the first page, where Marlene is holding coffee, is a fairly traditional panel, just with rougher inks. In the foreground, Sienkiewicz doesn’t do anything too radical with Moon Knight and Frenchie except use slightly looser spot blacks on their shoulders, for instance. In Panel 4, Marlene herself is drawn like Sienkiewicz was drawing recently, but the rougher inks make her look a bit more “Sienkiewiczian.” The lines on her hair are a bit wilder, her eye brows are a bit more angular, and Sienkiewicz uses sharper lines on her hand, making her not as smooth as, say, Sylvana was in yesterday’s example. On the second page, the explosion allows Sienkiewicz to draw Moon Knight, Marlene, and Jean-Paul as traditionally as anything in the issue – the lines are a bit more angular than his more Adams-inspired work, but the inks make up for it by being pretty smooth. We also see some of the new elements he was incorporating into his artwork. It’s somewhat surprising that Sienkiewicz hadn’t experimented with Benday dots or Zip-A-Tone in his earlier work, but he was still very young, so perhaps he just discovered it, because he began using more of it, as we can see in Panel 1, where we also get the isolation again, as he pushes Moon Knight and Frenchie to the deep right background, allowing the snow-covered ground to envelop them. In Panels 3 and 4, he uses scratchy lines to add crackle to the match that Marlene lights – this would become something of a Sienkiewiczian trope. On the second page, he goes a bit more abstract, as the flames flying from the generator and the faces of the figures in Panel 3 are sketchy, showing the kineticism of the action. Sienkiewicz inks the faces in Panel 3 well, creating shadows on their faces as the flames reach for them. Notice, too, that in Panel 1, he apparently smudges the background with ink or even charcoal, both to highlight the match landing on the generator and also to create a sense of burning with more than just the flame. In Panel 5, he goes even more abstract, as he shows just Marlene’s eyes and part of her hair. Scheele uses yellow, orange, and red to imply that the fire is still burning, even though we assume that Marlene is out of danger. Sienkiewicz’s layout isn’t too odd – we can still read the page perfectly well – but it is a bit unusual, and foreshadows some of the more interesting ways he would tell a story in the future.
Morpheus makes Moon Knight believe he’s fighting a knight even though he’s underwater, as we’ll see in a moment. This nice splash page again shows that Sienkiewicz hasn’t completely moved on. Our hero is very traditional Sienkiewicz, with the strong legs and torso, and while Sienkiewicz inks him roughly, it’s certainly not chaotic inking, just thick. The horse is magnificent, and the knight riding it is very dramatic. Again, though, “new” Sienkiewicz is seeping in. The plumage on the knight’s helmet is insane, with Sienkiewicz inking it so that it almost becomes abstract. Meanwhile, he uses silhouette to create the lance, which isn’t as immutable as we’d expect, with small lines breaking its borders. As Moon Knight is underwater and hallucinating, Sienkiewicz uses some sketchy lines in the background to create a more dreamlike state. The composition of the page is nice, too. The knight and Moon Knight are squeezed to the left, with the horse rearing up and turning, so that both the human figures and the horse form two crescents, reminiscent of the ones Moon Knight has on his belt. I don’t know how deliberate this was on Sienkiewicz’s part, but it’s a neat coincidence if it’s not.
Sienkiewicz, of course, can still move us across the page very well, and as he began to experiment a bit more, he used different sized panels to add emphasis. Moon Knight comes out of his trance and realizes he’s underwater and probably drowning, which is never a good thing (especially because he’s not waving!). In Panel 2, Sienkiewicz pushes him back in the panel, distorting our view of him just a little, which brings home his isolation under the water. In Panel 4, Sienkiewicz shifts the point of view so that we’re looking down at our hero, with Doug Moench’s script matching the POV with Moon Knight’s question about how long he’s been drowing and his thought about reaching the surface. Sienkiewicz then agonizingly stretches the moments during which Moon Knight reaches the surface, with four successive panels showing more of his hand until it finally breaks through. In the final panel, he places Moon Knight on the extreme left, with his left hand reaching to the right, getting bigger as it comes “toward” us, tethering him to the ground as he tries to regain his strength. It’s a really neat sequence, and despite the roughness of the artwork, it shows that Sienkiewicz hasn’t lost any of his storytelling ability.
These are the final two pages of the issue, as Marlene’s brother sacrifices his life to stop Morpheus, and Moench (mostly) lets Sienkiewicz do his thing. On the first page, Sienkiewicz again places the figures in the deep background, both so we don’t see Peter’s corpse (despite the more mature themes of the series, it was still restrained by today’s standards) and to once again show how isolated the characters are, out in the snowy wilderness. It allows him to show the natural setting around them, which is of course indifferent to their suffering. Scheele colors them a deep blue, which works in the context of the wintry night. Sienkiewicz uses great swaths of snowy ground to show the bleakness of the moment without intruding on the intimacy of the scene, and of course the flower in the foreground stands directly opposite the group contemplating death, providing a counterpoint to the sadness in the background by showing life in the foreground. Sienkiewicz places trees along the left side of the panel and a tree line along the top of the page, framing the characters and, interestingly, isolating them even more. Not satisfied with that, Sienkiewicz ends the book with the black-and-white portrait of Marlene, with snow falling around her as she weeps for her brother. He uses very few lines on her hair, while those he does use create a more abstract picture of Marlene than we’ve seen in previous issue, and he uses beautiful thick inks to shade her eyes and around her face, making her face almost float in space so that we’re focused on the tears she’s shedding. It’s a stunning page, beautifully drawn, and an amazing way to end the issue.
This two-part story marked the beginning of the end of Sienkiewicz’s run on the book, as he left Moon Knight after issue #30. But we got eight issues (he skipped issue #27) of ever-increasing weirdness that fit Moench’s ever-increasing “mature” scripts, and those issues, more than the good ones that Sienkiewicz drew from issues #1-20 (with one fill-in), make Moon Knight such a great comic.
In keeping with my restrictive rules (no more than five days for an artist, except for Kirby and Ditko), I’m skipping Sienkiewicz’s next superhero book to move on to another evolutionary step, a comic where he painted the work himself. I know, I know – I love his art on New Mutants too, but hard choices have to be made! Luckily, you can find some New Mutants in the archives – you remember when I featured that comic!
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