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Year of the Artist, Day 220: Bill Sienkiewicz, Part 4 – Big Numbers #1

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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 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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

26 Comments

Imraith Nimphais

August 8, 2014 at 2:19 pm

I bought the very first issue of BN.

sigh

*sinks into abject misery and melancholy thinking about wot might have been and could have been.*

I bought it too. The square 10″ format ensured that bagging and storage would be a huge pain in the ass.

I remember thinking Big Numbers was going to be the Next Big Thing in comics. And I still think it would have been Moore’s masterpiece.

Two issues. And then … nothing for a quarter century.

I still have no idea what happened. I don’t know why I’ve never looked into it in all these years. I guess I could do it now …

tom fitzpatrick

August 8, 2014 at 3:23 pm

I really, really don’t get Moore. Yes, Sienkiewicz left the book, because he’s a genius, and Moore’s a genius, and for some god-forsaken reason, two geniuses JUST can’t work together! But, why couldn’t Moore have found another artist to do the remaining series. (Ben Templesmith or Ashley Wood would have a made a terrific replacement artist)

Note: I know there was an artist (whose name I can’t remember) who did pick up after Sienkiewicz – but I can’t remember the why things didn’t work out.

tom fitzpatrick

August 8, 2014 at 4:12 pm

@ Mr. Burgas: Is there any chance of you showcasing Scott Kolins (the artist who aspires to be the next generation of Geof Darrow with a little bit of Keith Giffin)?

He would make a fine addition to your year of the artist series.

Thing is, Sienkiewicz said that he was perfectly happy to finish the series, if Moore was willing. Moore however, seems to have turned his back on the comic book industry completely, even indie comics.

If Moore could be convinced to finish the scripts, Sienkiewicz would be more than willing to bring them to life.

Tom: the other artist was Al Columbia, a young guy who was helping Sienkiewicz and later was going to finish the book. Well obviously that didn’t happen , some works are just doomed to never see the light.
Here’s a great interview with Columbia-http://www.inkstuds.org/al-columbia/
It’s a fascinating story, here’s an excerpt( text copied from http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/02/the-day-indie-rock-defeated-alan-moore-al-columbia-reveals-what-happened-to-big-numbers-4/)

I was roommates with all the guys in this band called Sebadoh, which were particularly large back in the day — Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Loewenstein, they were all hanging out. And Eric Gaffney was gonna put out this single, this little split single with somebody, and he wanted artwork for it and he wanted me to do something. He was big into collages and stuff like that, and we got the idea that I would chop up all this Big Numbers artwork and make a collage out of it for his album cover. I don’t know how I got the idea, but I just hated [Big Numbers] — I didn’t want anything to do with it, I had already quit it or I was going to, I knew I wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. So we put every page on a chopping block, one of those big slicers, and I just chopped it up madly for about a half hour — just sliced the whole thing up with a chopper. And Marc Arsenault, who’s the Wow Cool guy — I don’t know if anyone knows who he is, the minizine guy — he was a good friend of mine, he came over and just looked horrified. He stood in the doorway and watched me chopping up all the artwork and just went “Oh my God!” I think he must have told somebody I’d done it, and that’s how that [story] got started. But I think even before that, there was something [going around] to that effect. That might have been what influenced me to do it: “Well, they’re saying I did this, I might as well.” I can’t remember, though. But it wasn’t like “Oh my God, I’m gonna flip out, I can’t stand this!” It wasn’t this breakdown. It was just like, “Oh, this’ll make a cool record cover.” That’s it. That’s all it was.

tom fitzpatrick

August 8, 2014 at 6:23 pm

@ Solid Snake: Let’s hope it comes to pass, however slim the hope is. I think Moore is still keeping his hand in the industry with LXG spin-offs.

Hoosier, the replacement artist basically went completely mad and destroyed pages drawn.

Hoosier X and tom: Nick A. brought this up, but if you read Sienkieicz’s account at the link, you can get more of the story. Sienkiewicz drew issue #3, but Moore didn’t have to money to print it. Al Columbia, who was Sienkiewicz’s assistant, drew issue #4, but then destroyed all the art.

tom: I have Kolins on my list, so I’ve thought of him. We shall see if I get to him, because I’d have to see how much work by him I own.

Rob III: Weird, I didn’t see your comment. Thanks for the background.

@RobIII WHAT WAS THE SINGLE?!!!!

This was one of those things that was supposed to be MOST SOPHISTICATED EVER COMIC GUIS SERIOUSLY and it just didn’t happen. Such a weird chapter in both men’s careers.

Then again, it was supposed to be an Eric Gaffney split, so I guess not…

Jeff Nettleton

August 9, 2014 at 2:23 am

I remember when this came out. I looked at either the first or second issue and it just wasn’t something that interested me, subject-wise, in that time period (I was still mostly locked in action-adventure mode). I could appreciate that it was something different; but, I just wasn’t in that kind of place. So, I missed out. I’ve seen these kinds of snippets and the story still isn’t my cup of tea, but I can really appreciate the artistry. It’s similar to the problems I had with From Hell. I enjoy the level of detail and the power of it, but that dark subject just pushes me away.

I bought these issues. I can’t say I totally “got” them, but they were interesting and I would have liked to have seen more (like everyone else).

These two had also collaborated on Brought to Light, an Eclipse graphic novel about the Iran-Contra scandal, shortly before this series. 20+ years after seeing that advertised in Miracleman #15, I finally found that one in a shop and bought it. It was a bit disappointing, not so much a story as a synopsis of that chapter in history (with some freaky Bill S. art).

But at least it shows these two geniuses finished something together! (just not the really cool thing)

I remember reading this when it came out, being curious about the “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” T-shirt, which led to a life-long Cure addiction. Thank you, Mr. Moore!

Well I was hoping Greg’s article would enlighten me to something I surely missed back when Big Numbers #1 came out. But… nope, it remains as obscure to me as it was back then. I can’t say it is entirely Siekiewicz’s fault, the story doesn’t hook me, either.

The art is incredible, though!

Really interesting. I have heard of Big Numbers, but I had never previously seen any of the artwork from it. Looking at it, certainly it is very beautiful work by Sienkiewicz.

David: What did you want to know?!?!?!?

Greg: Sorry, I hope that didn’t sound like you left something out of your piece! No, I was talking more about being able to find that special something that sparks my interest in a book. I don’t know what it is about Big Numbers, but upon new review, it still doesn’t ignite that spark of interest for me. The other day I had indicated that I had never “gotten it” when I first read it, and was hoping your article would reveal something I’d missed as a youth, and give me new appreciation or a new spark. Your articles have already led me to reconsider many comics I’d previously overlooked (or stirred up my memories of books I loved), so I was thinking maybe that would happen here too.
Your article is wonderful, so I think that it is just one of those “this book is not for me” kind of things. It wasn’t back in 1990 (which I was attributing to my being 20 years old), but it still doesn’t sing to me. I’m mystified a bit still… can’t really put a finger on it.

David: Oh, okay, fair enough. I thought it was something specific! But yeah, I feel that way about a lot of comics, where they just don’t hit me where it counts even though they might be lauded. It’s just the way it is! :)

ha i am so happy this very moment i saw the words big numbers i had to comment before i check it out because i have been waiting my entire life to get to this moment, so before my life changes toward a ‘piphany, my sincerest appreciate i have for your spotlight feature in general, but this one in particular will guide how i direct the path of my existence as i move forward. here goes.dotdot

s!moN: I’m glad you liked it so much!

“There’s no need for language”

Always loved that bit from the start. Got this issue for 50 cents at a con once. Never seen #2. Sad that neither the comic nor the TV show ever happened.

And holy crap was Stray Toasters good.

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