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Year of the Artist, Day 218: Bill Sienkiewicz, Part 2 – Moon Knight #23

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

24 Comments

Imraith Nimphais

August 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm

OH!
MY!
GODDESS!!!

As huge a fan as I am, I have to shamefacedly admit that I have never see/read the Sienkiewicz-drawn Moon Knight series.

Those are EXQUISITE!

Fantastic! My LGS (local grocery store, ha ha) did not carry Moon Knight, or else I’m sure the costume would have caught my eye and I would’ve tried the book. And then I’d be scarred for life by that scary picture of Morbius! I did get nightmares from the Demon Bear cover on New Mutants #18, true story! I had to turn it over on my desk because I kept thinking about it while I was trying to sleep. LOL Thanks a lot, Bill Sienkiewicz!

But wow what gorgeous art. And a very nice analysis, Greg!

I didn’t discover Moon Knight until the Fist of Khonshu series (volume 2, I guess), and that series didn’t last very long. #6 however did have a killer Sienkiewicz cover!

Err, Morpheus, not Morbius! Gee, can’t imagine why I was thinking about a vampire at a time like this!

Imraith Nimphais: There is an Epic Collection is coming out in October, I believe. You can be sure that I’ll be getting it! However, we’ll have to wait for V2 or V3 to get to the good stuff,

V1 contains (clipped from Amazon):
COLLECTING: WEREWOLF BY NIGHT 32-33; MARVEL SPOTLIGHT 28-29; DEFENDERS 47-50; PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN 22-23; MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE 52; MOON KNIGHT 1-4; MATERIAL FROM HULK MAGAZINE 11-15, 17-18, 20; MATERIAL FROM MARVEL PREVIEW 21 (MOON KNIGHT EPIC COLLECTION VOL. 1)

I was reading comics way back then, and I actually ended up with a partial subscription to the first few issues of Moon Knight when one of the series I was subscribed to was cancelled (Shogun Warriors maybe?) and they gave me the option of choosing another title to finish it out. I was familiar with Moon Knight from Werewolf by Night and also Marvel Preview Magazine (which had a special place in my adolescent heart because it featured Marlene partly nude, which my grandpa had obviously missed when he bought it for me). That’s when I was very young and Marvel used to ship comics in the mail in a brown paper cover sleeve with the top and bottom edges of the comic exposed. I think I had the first four issues and then resubscribed until it went direct sales only. Looking back at other comics of the day, particularly Marvel, the art by Sienkiewicz was something of a revelation. And the scripts by Moench were very solid. I think Moench was obviously relishing in doing what was basically a more adult Batman.

I’m a bit disappointed you’re skipping his New Mutants stuff, because isn’t that where he went from Neal Adams-esque to truly weird? Hard choices, indeed. I’m guessing Elektra or Stray Toasters next?

Imraith Nimphais

August 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Thanks for the heads up DavidTheGrey…I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for it.

I can’t believe you are not going to showcase the Demon bear Saga. Can you at least post a picture of the bear for good measure lol

Greg showcased plenty of New Mutants goodness by Bill Sienkiewicz, including his rendition of the Demon Bear (which after all these years I still find genuinely scary), here on CBR back in March 2011:

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/03/29/comics-you-should-own-the-new-mutants-18-31/

Imraith: In case you’re not sure about getting the series in the Epic Collection, I wrote about it here. There’s a lot more art there, too!

David: Yeah, Moon Knight was an early experiment in direct market comics – ones that only showed up in comic book stores. It meant that Marvel allowed Moench and Sienkiewicz more leeway with the content, but it also meant you wouldn’t find it randomly on a spinner rack.

turk: I think this gives a good indication of what he was capable of, and while New Mutants pushed it a bit further, I think tomorrow’s entry shows both what kind of stuff he was doing on that book and a bit more experimentation. But you’re right – it was very hard to pare this down to five days!

Bizzle: Sorry! Here’s a bunch of Sienkiewicz art from that run, though, with quite a lot of the Demon Bear!

That’s the expression that you have the know the rules before you decide its a good idea to break them. Sienkiewicz clearly had a right proper handle on comic book storytelling, as evident throughout the early parts of Moench’s Moon Knight. Its really cool to see his evolution as an artist as he continues to push the boundaries of what mainstream superhero books could look and feel like.

Ben: Hey, I linked to the same thing! :)

Jeremy: That’s one of the reasons why I think he’s so good, because he obviously knew what he was doing as he began to mess around with stuff. Some artists try too hard to be clever before they know how to tell a story. Sienkiewicz, even at his wackiest, never confuses me (I can’t speak for others!)

Sienkiewicz’s artwork on Moon Knight #23 is astonishing. It is interesting that he made such a rapid, almost overnight, shift in style. Has he ever explained in any interviews what influenced the changes in his work at this time?

Moon Knight 26 Hit It is another great example of Bill Sienkiewicz evolving style. The design of the issue is beautiful.

Ah Sienkiewicz after all this time still the only one who really moved American comics into a more abstract and thus mature way. Comic readers are vety traditional when it comes to their art, so you have to imagine the impact these issues miust have had back in the day.
The reason for changing his style was that he was fed up being called an Adams clone and decided to show his critics that he in fact was much more than that. I am not sure if it really true, but I read this ages ago in some kind of comic magazine which also featured an interview with Sienkiewicz. I would say mission accomplished.

I went from #3, back to #1 (found it after the fact) then didn’t see another until the Morpheus story. Yeah, it was pretty jarring, though not that much so. When I saw Elektra Assassin, that was jarring!

Now, Doug Moench could do a Bond pastiche like nobody’s business (which is why Master of Kung Fu outlived the 70s); and, yes, you can’t beat bikini-clad girls fighting (well, under the comics code, anwyway). I wanted more Moon Knight but direct distribution-only killed that (no local comic shop). Ultimately, it didn’t matter that much.

Ironically, a fan of Siekiewicz poked a bit of fun with him; Dave Sim. The Roach eventually became Moon Roach, who heard a voice in his head, which he called Kevitch. Fun, fun stuff ,before things started to really go down hill in Cerebus and Sim turned it into the comic book chapter of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club.

The later issues of his Moon Knight run are still THE best looking superhero comics of all time.

Moon Knight 23 might be my favorite comic cover ever. It’s definitely a contender for the question of “If you could own the original art to any comic cover, which one would you pick?”

I guess this was the height of Sienkiewicz’s penciling far as I am concerned.

By the time he was on New Mutants he was more distracting (and detrimental to storytelling) than, say, Howard Chaykin.

Imraith Nimphais: You’re very welcome.

Greg: So “Fist of Khonshu” must have been released to newsstands, which is why I came across it? Interesting! It also had that whole Egyptian thing going on (though I really haven’t read enough MK to determine just what Khonshu’s role is – hopefully this will be something I’ll discover after reading all the MK material soon to come in the Epics).

Turk: I remember those Marvel subscription packets. The ones that were rarely undamaged? Before I was 16, I grew up with my Mom in some pretty remote areas of Northern CA and as I have mentioned, only came across comics at the grocery store (or, perhaps a friend’s or friend’s brother’s stash). Somewhere in my early teens I finally was able to visit a comic shop in my Dad’s town, and that visit opened my eyes to a) look at all the pretty comics and back issue boxes, wow! and b) oh, you mean I should be storing them in bags/boards/boxes instead of in a stack in my closet? So between say 13-16 I was ordering them (about 4-6 titles) through the mail and nearly every one was dinged up, dropping the book to VF or lower. It didn’t help that we had a tiny post office box at the local post office, so they had to sort of curl them to get them to fit. Oh the sadness! But, at least those subs kept me reading when I had no easy access to comics, and it installed in me a joy of checking the mail, which I still have to this day (although now all I get is bills). :-)

On that last panel, Marlene’s lips have a bit of lines in them to add texture. Is that a Sienkiwicz trademark? I seem to remember seeing the same kind of lips in an Elektra comic, although I can’t remember if it was Elektra Assassin or Frank Miller’s Elektra Lives Again. Or maybe in FM’s Sin City comics? Argh, well too many choices and now they all seem likely! I am probably way off base.

David: As far as I know, Fist of Khonshu was not a Direct Market only, as that experiment kind of fizzled out, ironically considering that soon enough, most comics were no longer at newsstands but at comics shops. You’ll find out more about Khonshu if you get the Epic Collection – basically, he resurrected Marc Spector, who then became his avenging avatar. There are a lot of layers to that, but that’s the core of it.

I think the lip thing isn’t really a Sienkiewicz thing as much as it is a Miller thing – the Elektra you’re thinking of is probably the one from Elektra Lives Again, not Elektra: Assassin.

Definitely one of my favorite runs ever, and those issues where the high point of the series. I won the single issues, the Essential volumes and the “Countdown to Dark” Premiere Hardcover that came out with the early Kulk Magazine stuff. I’ll probably end up getting the Epic Collection, too. I seemingly can’t get enough of this run.

And Morpheus was a fantastic villain, I’m surprised he hasn’t been brought back after Moench’s last mini series besides Ellis hinting at his history in the dream-themed issue of the current run. He’s my top Moon Knight rogue along with Stained Glass Scarlet.

Greg & Solid Snake – thanks for setting me straight!

That. Is. Amazing. I’ve never seen this before but am very glad I have now!

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