So, enough from me: It gives me enormous pleasure to be able to publish this piece by Bill Sienkiewicz, one of the truly innovative comics artists, about one of the most ambitious comics projects I’ve ever seen.
I've been getting emails and links sent to me with a fair degree of regularity since the ‘Big Numbers issue’ over Big Numbers #3 hit the spotlight... again. I say 'again' because quite a few pages of issue #3 emerged a few years ago. There was speculation surrounding the pages then and, if anything, I've discovered that the ensuing years have done little to assuage, or diminish, that conjecture. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that having heard just about every conflicting ludicrous reason, every single link of spaghetti in the chain of events (somehow since miraculously renamed stainless steel rather than pasta), that no matter how inane the reasons given were, ultimately, each and every one - without exception - came from absolutely unimpeachable authoritative sources. Heeuuge air quotes around that phrase, if not actual boldface ones. By now if you haven't yet gleaned my admittedly sarcastic incredulity - yes, even at this late date - well, so be it.
The situation is still rife with speculation. Some folks who have been emailing me ask directly about the provenance / pedigree / credits / yayas regarding those recently resurfaced art pages from that issue. It certainly seemed to me that there are quite a few readers who are at least moderately curious as to what portion of issue #3's artwork is mine and what portion was drawn by Al Columbia, who was my assistant at the time. I'll clarify as best I can, in part because this matter of speculation has exceeded critical mass; it exceeded it ten years ago, but that's one guy's opinion.
So: Though only ten pages have been seen of Big Numbers #3, the entire issue was drawn and completed. All of it. Not merely the ten pages circulating. Now as to who drew what: Except for a few minor backgrounds (and to be completely honest, I don't think he drew anything in that issue at all - but I will admit I may be hazy on that point - I’ll simply say that I'm erring on the side of generous caution, or cautious generosity) that except for perhaps a few possible backgrounds, that ALL of issue #3 - repeat: ALL of the artwork on Big Numbers issue #3 was drawn by yours truly. Or, for those who prefer the obverse: NONE of Big Numbers #3 was drawn by Al Columbia (and again I add the caveat - except for possibly a couple of backgrounds). Certainly Al drew no figures in the background or anything story-related. I can't imagine he'd want to take credit for my work any more than I would covet credit for work drawn by him. I imagine he'd want to take credit for - and rightly so - the work that is completely his own: meaning that of issue #4 (I personally have never seen any of the issue. I hear Al destroyed it in its entirety, but I can't say I witnessed this destruction firsthand). So I freely admit that, except for the cover - I had done covers for approximately half the series at this point - I drew nothing at all in issue #4.
Perhaps the question as to who did what in issue #3 may have arisen due to the change in art style from the first two issues. Issues #1 and #2 were done in a more photographic, soft focus atmospheric airbrushed painterly style. While I loved the style and enjoyed working within those parameters immensely, I came to realize that by choosing to work that way for twelve issues, I was almost literally painting myself into a corner. This approach was incredibly time-consuming and ultimately proved overwhelming and unfeasible. Things were changing from issue to issue and becoming, by nature of the story, more interwoven and chaotic - the series was to have been painted completely in colour by issue #12, with each issue introducing more variables and approaches, colour being a dominant element. Adding to the workload for each issue was the necessity to thumbnail Alan's script thoroughly.
At this point I'd like to say that everything you've heard about Alan's scripts is true, and then some. Alan's a genius, an absolute gentleman. Plain and simple. Yes, his scripts are dense. They're brilliant, layered, nuanced, variegated, textural, beautiful and daunting. Simultaneously so. And although Alan is incredibly deferential and generous as to allowances for alterations made by the artist, the scripts veritably beg, no, demand, to be adhered to in their totality. It's practically sacramental.
So, I admit I found Alan's scripts a challenge of incredible dimension and beauty. Every page was a gauntlet of ornate opulence tossed at my feet, if not swung abruptly at my face, thwacking me a bloody good one. If I cursed him for this, I'm sure it was due to outright awe. Working with Alan was like going from the multiplication table to the periodic chart to quantum physics all in the space of one panel border. Concentrating only on the work Alan and I did collaboratively, foregoing for the moment his impressive oeuvre, just think of the depth and differences between his Shadowplay (Realpolitik via Kafka) and (though only a few issues), his Big Numbers (Reality via Schrödinger’s Kafka.)
So I'd do the thumbnails. I'd then use those thumbnails to choreograph, and then photograph, on average, forty five different people as characters, both primary and secondary. (I should mention that only one of these models was an actual model model. The rest of this Dickensian (Mooresian) cast was comprised of real people with real lives, many of whom, though not all, had little or less than zero interest in comics. Primarily, they held the preconception that comic books were Betty and Veronica, Superman or The Hulk. To them, The Avengers was less Captain America and more Emma Peel, bowlers and brollies. And some didn't even register comics to that minute extent. Some had never given a single solitary thought about comics. They had no relevance or import whatsoever in their lives. That said, I don't want to give the impression that this multi-ethnic ensemble was in any way some sort of artistically disinclined Diaspora. No, pretty much everyone actually seemed very open to this 'comic book experiment.' They were decidedly game, God love 'em, but that's not to say there weren't speed bumps and downright caldera-sized potholes en route. Several of the folks - like the sweet Indian gentleman, who posed for the role of the store owner /model train aficionado, wanted to make sure he wasn't being portrayed in any way contrary to his religious beliefs; the black father wanted to be portrayed with dignity. I understood his concerns but I tried to explain - and thus came up with a release form, that basically laid out that if the characters they were posing for did less than savoury things, it in no way reflected upon the models as people. I know this sounds exotic and extreme, but we have to remember that a great percentage of the populace have no clue as to what posing for another character means. They're simply who they are. It was an interesting adjustment. Time consuming, too.
Then there were the parents who were understandably less than thrilled by the prospect of some crazy comic-book punk taking photos of their little darlings making Molotov cocktails. Can't say I blamed them. But the fact that the town where I lived and worked - Westport, Connecticut - and environs, happened to be the inspirational setting for the novel The Stepford Wives did seem particularly apropos. The contrarian in me loved the wicked irony.
And the 'little darlings' learned a skill.
I was certainly in the thick of it, awash in actual ‘big numbers,’ where coordinating this monstrous and increasingly time-consuming photographic schedule would have been - in and of itself - more than enough lunacy for any sane individual to deal with. The key word here is ‘sane.’ My favourite local watering hole was a way-station for folks in a variety of entertainment and news arenas. Everyone knew everyone. Or knew someone who knew someone. It was two degrees of separation, not six. There were amazing illustrators (Bernie Fuchs, Al Parker, Bob Peak, Robert Fawcett), actors (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Chris Walken, Keir Dullea), artists like Charlie Reid, Bob Baxter, writers like Erica Jong, and many comic book and comic strip artists and writers - too many to name. It was Heaven. An incredible artistic hub. I mention this because I realized that with the huge chunk of reference-gathering I'd bitten off with regards to the photography of so many people, I was negotiating my way around myriad potential landmines. I came incredibly close to calling the driving force of the Westport theatre scene - Joanne Woodward herself - with a plea to recommend actors-people who knew what it entailed to act a part. The only double-edged sword would be in paying so many people for their expertise, and as importantly: for their time. Financially, Big Numbers started to become a money pit. Too much time and effort was involved in getting the reference, leaving very little time to create the artwork. Time. The ultimate tool. The ultimate foe.
Still, as it was, many friends made themselves available as models, gratis. One, the phenomenal cartoonist Stan Drake, who was my father-figure, my dear friend, and artistic mentor, posed as Christine's father, the gent eating his dinner whilst seated on the porcelain throne. A helluva thing. But Stan thought it was great. Odd, bizarre, but fun. John Prentice also posed. He was the abused wife's landowner dad. Frank Bolle Jr. was the traumatized cabby. And at the watering hole, I'd asked a regular, a gent I'd occasionally drink with, a gent named Harry Reasoner, to play a newsman on the English telly. He laughingly demurred. C'est la vie.
Another friend of mine - the one who played the architect - actually was an architect. He'd formerly been a Navy Seal, and true to form, he brooked no shit. Here was as militaristic a guy as one could ever fret to meet in a dark alley or beachfront, and then there was yours truly: the most liberal confrontative wiseass comic book guy in a town of young republican bankers - needless to say, Mr. Seal and I got along famously. He loved comics. And it was he who suggested that I photograph his two sons as the architect's sons. Their ages were exactly as Alan had written. Order from chaos, indeed. (The architect's daughter was played by a friend of the woman from whom I was splitting, so tensions there were high).
Things seemed to escalate in direct inverse proportion to levels of sanity... More, they actually degenerated: Horribly, sadly, two of the models died. One good friend drowned in a freak boating accident. His passing was horrible on so many levels. Both he and his girlfriend worked at the watering hole. The entire town of Westport mourned. It was a death in the family. Another friend, Ray, and I were fellow members of the Loyal Order of Raccoons - yes, those Raccoons - with a nod to the great Gleason. Our once-monthly meetings were really an excuse for fifteen guys to get together to play pool, cards, darts, embarrass our fellow Raccoons by holding wildly inappropriate bachelor parties etc, all done under the influence of the demon rum. Ray died from pancreatic cancer and left a wife and a four year old daughter... Art and life were distilling to a quintessence of extremes. Chaos, love, loss, overwhelmingly intense experience of going through a war together. So many people, so many lives, intersecting as lives and under the rubric of the Big Numbers family...
The biggest challenge to the series was yet to come. The main character, my friend who modelled for Christine, chose that particular time period to get married. Now, that shouldn't have been a real problem, right? Well, normally, probably not, except that she married into the military, and her newly-minted husband was stationed in Germany. So, after the newlyweds cut the wedding cake, and washed it down with champagne, it was auf wiedersehen Christine. I couldn't very well deride her by exclaiming, “How could you do this to me?! To US? After all we'd been through?!” Even I'm not that much of a narcissist. But come on, how dare she presume to have a real life?
Additionally, the backdrop for this time period was chockablock with huge personal changes in my life, such as it was: the fairly well known rift with Al Columbia - well, in the comics universe, it was Peyton Place meets All about Eve . Outside of that arena, no one gave a damn, thank God. - which again only served to fuel greater levels of wild speculation. I should point out that Al and I have long since made our peace. I bear him no ill will. Chalk the feud up to the folly of youth.
Oh, and I just remembered: the musical soundtrack for this period was The Cure's brilliant album, Disintegration. Coincidence? The cut The Same Deep Water as You seemed to become a spooky mantra. In his lyrics, Robert Smith seemed to acknowledge the coexistence of entropy and resignation. I freely admit listened to that album for weeks on end, and tossed in a fair amount of hope and redemption, just because the music was too beautiful to be so overwhelmingly bleak. To this day, the song takes me back.
Anyway - Things couldn't continue to get more bizarre, I thought. No way.
Until they did: i.e., between issues #2 and #3, the Seal's youngest son grew six inches in height. Got very lanky. Endured the awkwardness a breaking voice engenders. Entering puberty will do that to you. He was hardly a ‘little kid’ anymore. More, he was hardly the ‘little kid’ I needed to pose for pix of the youngest son of the architect. I just had to roll my eyes.
Another digression: I should explain at this point that I'm not at all a slave to photography. I hate being a slave to anything that could become a crutch. Photos are tools to be used and modified for any specific need of any specific gig. I myself have posed as everyone from an old crone to a teenage alien. I would use the photo as basic position and proportional guide. Then I'd change things based on my accumulated knowledge from drawing from life - around forty sketchbooks of life drawings. Other times I'd simply 'make shit up'. Artist's prerogative. As Al Williamson once remarked to me about when he was trying to draw scenes from his imagination, rather than using photographs. He referred to it as having to ‘fall back on talent’.
But with Big Numbers one of the demands – prerequisites - I'd placed upon myself was to work almost exclusively from the model as possible. I was going for as great a degree of illustrative photographic verisimilitude as I could muster. Dammit, I was going to adhere to the accurate reference no matter what. It was, in retrospect, a vain attempt to control everything - everything - completely, as things swirled and collided in midair all around. This was my Stanley Kubrick period. Of course, the more I tried to control everything, the more Real Life kicked my ass. Up and down the Route 95 corridor.
So, the more time flew by, the more detritus was spawned, the thicker the sorghum got. I realized, after reading issue three, that a stylistic alteration seemed appropriate, as I'd done in Elektra: Assassin. The benefit would be showing the increasingly chaotic milieu that the characters inhabited, AND it would also speed up the process and output of pages. (Or so I'd hoped: I needed to gain - as I said - a semblance of control of this runaway behemoth.) So, I switched to doing the pages in pen and ink, with additional airbrushing, spatter, and pencil on Craftint board. The stylistic - or rather technical - switch felt incongruous to some, but I was determined to make the stylistic shift work in the contextual Gestalt of the series. Big Numbers was about finding Order in Chaos. And things couldn't have been more chaotic than they were right then and there. And besides, my work has always been about trying to make order out of messes. Or simply making messes - only messes - and nothing more than messes to my detractors' perceptions as in: “What's with all his scritchy-scratchy shit? UGH!” But I just did what I do. It was like breathing to me: making artistic corrections out of what to me were screaming errors begging to be addressed, making silk purses out of a sow's ear or cow sphincter, or creating a sow's ear out of silicone, molly bolts, and matchsticks... but you get the point.
Somewhere along the way, this secular book on mathematics and chaos had blurred the boundaries between religion, and real life – or, rather than religion, more appropriately, say, spirituality - like the Gnostic gospels and pagan idolatry being co-opted for political expediency by nascent religions of Christianity and Judaism (at the time they were probably the equivalent of ‘cults’ - until they went nova for the masses.) Art bled into commerce. Commerce just bled and bled, exsanguinating like crazy. Chaos as Theme met Chaos in Reality... and the clock continued to tick down, calendar pages whirled in a parchment-based purée around my drawing board - as if from some bad film montage. Deadlines were blown. To smithereens. I couldn't sleep, and it served me right. It was entrusted to me to pull it off, to 'suck it up', grow a sack, and I was going under for the third time... Money got tighter and tighter. Productivity suffered severely. Big Numbers became my life. Not just the series Alan and I were attempting, but Big Numbers the actual Petri dish of real life chaos. I'd lost a parent, a relationship, began a new one, went through the art assistant debacle, and realized just how far behind the proverbial eight-ball I'd placed myself. And placed Alan, Big Numbers, and the folks at Tundra - and of course, the all-important readers.
So in plain English, between issues #2 and #3, my so-called life went to complete Hell personally: I'm not saying this as a 'Woe is me’ scenario. Screw that pansy bullshit. I'm reporting it for another self-serving reason: I want to confront the speculators and all these ‘excellent unimpeachable authorities’ - who, please remember, weren't even there! - and who are still actually taking it upon themselves to - quite frankly, as I see it - talk out of their asses (which is a nifty parlour trick, but as a stand-in for expository accuracy it's, well, like talking out of one's ass. Things can get pretty rotten in Denmark. Or in Oz. Or in...) Yes, I know, I'm probably spitting into the wind, stressing all this stuff in an effort to end, once and for all, the speculation, presumption, and ‘he said - he said - she said’ innuendo. As if.
So - All this finally leads to the moment I finished up issue #3 in its entirety, after agreeing to release the reins on the series - and so I handed all the art for Big Numbers #3 to Paul Jenkins and Kevin Eastman, and moved on to doing advertising and illustration work... A break that was imperative... and in doing so, I effectively passed the torch to Al.
I thought that was the end of it.
In many ways it was only the beginning. The 'behind the scenes' tumult of Big Numbers was an amazing correlative to Alan's script. It became Art imitating Art imitating Life imitating... well, at the very least, severely blown synapses.
For those of you not inclined to take this in any sort of light of awareness, okay. I'm not looking for absolution. I'm not looking to duck responsibility, or to make excuses. I'm simply presenting the chain of events to the best of my recollection. To give my responses (good, bad and mezzo-mezz) to each situation that arose. I take full responsibility for losing control of things that should have been in my control. I was the de facto adult in my studio. My assistant was a kid, in many ways ill-equipped to handle certain responsibilities. I'm sure he'd agree things were pretty off the wall back then. We were all riding a wild bull-dragon that hated spurs in its ribs. I'm hoping Al and his family have a tranquil and happy life.
I'm blessed to count Kevin Eastman, Paul Jenkins and Alan Moore as my friends, and generous ones at that. I love these guys. They make my world brighter, both in comics and in life.
If I may be narcissistic for a moment (‘only a moment?’ some of you are no doubt thinking. ‘He's been writing a self-serving treatise since word one.’). Nevertheless, here goes: I pride myself on being a professional, - more than ever these days - and I felt like Big Numbers became my Moby Dick - the great white metaphysical whale that had gotten away from me.
To this day, I've lamented that Alan and I never finished the series. I actually literally can't stomach the thought of it remaining a hole in our creative lives, certainly in mine. And honestly, there's not a week that goes by that I don't think about completing it, about contacting Alan and saying, “Adult here. What say you? Let's kick out the jams!” I understand his great disappointment, though I've no doubt he's moved on. And gotten even more brilliant, if that's possible. I've apologized to Alan personally, and to the others, for my part. And I apologize to you - the readers. You're each and every one of you a diamond, a clear reason to strive, to give something back - a something that makes some small difference - via my limited abilities and in spite of my human failings. I'm by no means religious (as spirituality and religion aren't synonyms). Even so, I'm praying I'm older, wiser, perhaps even better, than I was those many years ago. That cooler, more mature heads have prevailed.
I've simply tried to present my side, the POV of one guy who was at the epicentre of the quake. I really doubt that what I've written will end speculation, or alter other folks' agendas. I'm not naive. I think that in hindsight, that there were simply many many factors that played a part in the Big Numbers implosion. I was but one. A big part, but only one.
I know what it would take to make completion of Big Numbers a reality. But whatever ultimately happens, this will stand as my own Chaos Theory.
Thanks for your time.
Somewhere in Connecticut