Year of the Artist, Day 220: Bill Sienkiewicz, Part 4 – Big Numbers #1
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 Big Numbers #1, which was published by Mad Love (Publishing) and is cover dated April 1990. Enjoy!
Big Numbers always makes me melancholy when I think of it, because I think it would be one of the greatest comics ever if it had ever been completed, but it’s never going to be. We got two issues (of 12), we got another one that you can find on-line if you so choose, and we got years of recriminations. Sigh. We’re not here to hash over the fate of the book, though, we’re here to look at the gorgeous artwork, so let’s get to that!
These two pages, early in the book, introduce us to Christine Gathercole, who for the two issues that exist is as close to a main character as we’re going to get, as she returns to her hometown of Hampton after having become a semi-famous author. In Panel 2, Sienkiewicz smears the drawing, probably using a photocopier (it was 1989, probably, when he drew this, after all), to show the transition to the dream state. In the “real” world, Sienkiewicz uses a more naturalistic style, but Christine’s dream is cartoonish and unpleasant. Panel 5 on the first page is nightmarish, as the “people” in the front seat are faceless and terrifying. On the second page, the dream becomes more extreme, as Sienkiewicz continues to draw in the cartoonish style we saw yesterday, contrasting it with the art in most of the book. He uses thick lines on Dream-Christine (the harsh woman is her, as she confirms below) in Panel 2, and Sienkiewicz draws a scent reaching her nostrils. The exaggeration of her face implies that it’s a strong smell, and when she investigates, we discover that, yeah, it is. Sienkiewicz combines airbrushing (which he uses in the “real” world art very often) with his thick lines, so we get a haze over the entire scene, adding to the dream-like state. In Panels 5-7, we get more exaggeration – the people in the front of the car show only mouths and eyes, while Panel 6 is a crude drawing of the driver slamming on the brakes. Panel 7 then shows a giant car from a strange angle, so that it seems to intrude on our personal space. As it’s a dream, there’s no sound, so Sienkiewicz gives us “Stop the bloody car” in sign language. The weirdest thing on the second page is the doll-like nature of the girl – later, Christine will describe her as “handicapped,” so perhaps that explains it. Panel 10, for instance, turns the girl into a decrepit doll (as giant ants stroll across her head), and it’s a truly disturbing image. Sienkiewicz continues the cartoony aspect of the dream as the bottle flies in, with a dotted line indicating its path. The bottle is a rock or bolt that kids are throwing at the train’s windows as it passes, and it’s intruding on Christine’s dream. Alan Moore (oh yeah, Moore wrote this) and Sienkiewicz understand dream logic really well here.
I apologize for cutting a little bit off of these pages, as the book doesn’t completely fit on my scanner. The rest of these should be fine, because I’m not showing the entire page!
Sienkiewicz used a lot of models for this book, as you might be able to guess. He obviously did a ton of work on the book, and he’s written about the problems he even had with models, as they moved or grew up and changed appearances. The use of models was crucial, I think, because as we’ve seen, Sienkiewicz was moving away from “realistic” artwork, but Moore wanted this comic to be really naturalistic, so Sienkiewicz chose to make it as naturalistic as he could. He realized that using models was far too time-consuming and in the unpublished issue #3, he began to move back to straight pencil and ink, but he also realized that the way the book went, with its own entropy increasing with each issue, that was probably a good stylistic move. We would never see that much of the move, but it makes these pages, with the use of models for the characters, much more interesting. I’m not sure how much work with the models Sienkiewicz did, as he’s noted he doesn’t love relying on them, but if he just used some photos as a template for the cab driver, say, then the first three panels, where the driver goes from enthusiastic to talk to Christine to judgmental of her choice to have an abortion, are really well done. Even it they’re based on photographs that Sienkiewicz took, he does a really nice job shading the man’s face as he moves it back and forth, and of course the airbrushing on the vision Christine has in Panels 4 and 5 is very nice, as it stands in such contrast to the rest of the page.
Sienkiewicz, obviously, isn’t adverse to using photographs of cityscapes to set his scene, as we see here. I don’t know what city that is, but considering that Sienkiewicz lived in Connecticut at this time, maybe it’s Hartford? Beats me. I’m ambivalent about artists doing this – I know it saves time, and it’s just an establishing shot, so what’s the big deal, but I’m still ambivalent. I think it definitely works better in black and white, as color versions of this kind of shot often look tinted, as if they’ve been colorized like old movies when Ted Turner got his grubby hands on them. In the second row, we can see the blending of styles Sienkiewicz brought to Big Numbers. Even if he was using models, we see that Ms. Spiteler seems to be a bit more angular than a “real” person, suggesting that Sienkiewicz might have used a model but he probably etched her a bit more in the Sienkiewiczian mode. The background is full of artwork that is fairly typical of Sienkiewicz’s style at this point – on the left, we get a very abstract shape, while between Paul and Ms. Spiteler, Sienkiewicz gives us a heavily inked, rough tableau. The blending of all kinds of Sienkiewiczian styles in this book is what makes it so interesting.
This is just a mundane scene (which, to be honest, is a lot of the point of Big Numbers), but Sienkiewicz still draws it beautifully. In the background of the first row, Christine appears behind her sister, Jan, and Sienkiewicz draws her like a ghost (one wearing a Cure T-shit, but still). In Panel 3, she’s sitting down, smoking, as Sienkiewicz hides her behind the smoke and the implied mist of the iron. Christine hasn’t been back to the town in years, and Sienkiewicz is showing how distant she’s become even from her family. In the second row, he once again uses pencils, showing Jan’s comfortably boring middle-class living space and how little it means to anyone. The lightness of the line work helps the figures around that row stand out, showing the Christine and Jan have solidity, while Jan’s possessions are ethereal. It’s a nice touch.
Alan Moore had a better sense of humor in his early career, but he still has some fun in his comics, as we see here with Mr. World’s fantasy about gutting Hilary. This is mostly Moore, but Sienkiewicz has to sell the violence, and he does so quite well. Again, he’s probably using models, which works because there’s not a lot of action, but when Mr. World stabs Hilary, he does a great job showing the shock on her face. Obviously, he uses paint spatters for the blood, which contrasts well with the sedate nature of the rest of the sequence. Mr. World’s slight change of expression in Panel 3 is well done, too, as he looks just a bit annoyed at Hilary, implying that this is both a fantasy (because he doesn’t actually pull out a knife) and reality (because he doesn’t really want to answer her, but knows it would be rude not to). Moore’s writing is nifty, but Sienkiewicz needs to make it real, and he does it very well.
Sienkiewicz shows the little action in this comic very nicely, as we see here. The boy puts down the skateboard and takes off, and Sienkiewicz already shows the motion by blurring the background figures and keeping the main character solid. In the second row, he again uses airbrushing to blur the character, making him more and more abstract until in the final panel, he’s just a blurred black shape in the corner. The lack of backgrounds in the second row isolate the boy, allowing us to track his chaotic movements across the page, as he refuses to stay inside the panels. Sienkiewicz cleverly gives him a smile, showing that he’s having a grand time skateboarding across the town. The contrast with his dour school uniform is well done – he’s out of school and happy!
Sienkiewicz sets a nice mood here. In Panel 1, he again uses airbrushing to create the drifting clouds and the sunburst coming through, making the sky both gauzy and ominous. Then he uses paint streaks to create rain (or so it seems) that slowly blurs into Christine’s room, where she looks wistfully out the window. The paint streaks turn into the curtains through which she looks and the chair on which she sits, framing her non-streaked body and head. Sienkiewicz pushes her all the way to the right, which is where our eyes would naturally go, of course, but because he doesn’t have her do anything until the next row (which I didn’t show, obviously), this row isolates her very well, as she’s beginning to realize that coming back might have been a mistake. It’s a fairly standard visual cue, but it works really well.
Sienkiewicz has written about working on Big Numbers, which I found here, and it’s worth a look (although why people think white lettering on a black background is a good thing is beyond me). It’s really fascinating, and he also mentions that he had to take a break from comics after working on the project. I’m not sure how much else he could do in comics, because he had moved so far beyond what was considered “mainstream” that he could probably only tackle idiosyncratic projects like this (and Stray Toasters, his own book from 1988). He did a lot of covers, and later in his career, he began inking a lot of other artists, with varying degrees of success (he’s so powerful he often overwhelms the pencil work, but with someone like Jim Aparo, his inking works quite well). He has done some interior work, though, and tomorrow I’ll finish my look at Sienkiewicz with a very recent story, one that shows his work combined with some of the more modern techniques of coloring and production. It’s kind of odd, but that’s the way it is with Sienkiewicz, isn’t it?
Hey, don’t forget about the archives! You can find Sienkiewicz inking Aparo, sure, but also a lot more cool stuff!