Languages of Apocalypse (Book Three, Part 68: Bill Sienkiewicz)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Bill Sienkiewicz got his start as a Neal Adams imitator drawing Marvel’s Batman imitator Moon Knight, but eventually moved on to a more prestigious project: New Mutants.
I have heard the languages of apocalypse, and now I shall embrace the silence. – Neil Gaiman, Sandman: Endless Nights
This was one of the books in the X-Men line, written by Chris Claremont, then at the apex of his clout as a major figure in the industry. New Mutants was a book focused on the younger generation of mutant characters. Among these was Dani Moonstar, a Native American mutant. From the earliest issues of New Mutants it became clear that Dani was haunted by a bear spirit—one that had previously killed her parents. A year and a half into the book’s run, as Claremont prepared to pay off this story, he grew frustrated of working with Sal Buscema. As Claremont saw it, “[Buscema] looked like everything else. And I didn’t want that. I wanted this to be very much a kid-centric book. There needed to be a totally different visual sense.” And so he turned to Sienkiewicz.
For his part, Sienkiewicz had been on a kick of reading Hunter S. Thompson, with the memorably grotesque art of Ralph Steadman, and watching David Lynch films, and so when Claremont came to him with a story that took place largely in an abstracted spirit world and a mandate to bring a distinctive visual sense, he cut loose. Reasoning that “the benefit of dealing with dream logic and nightmares is that anything goes,” Sienkiewicz embraced a harsh and abstract line that made characters feel as though they had been clawed into the page, less drawn than scratched. His Demon Bear was a towering monolith of crazed eyes, murderous teeth, savage claws, and the vague yet terrifying implication of a snout. The result was moody, kinetic, and like nothing mainstream superhero comics had seen before. It was not, to be clear, that Sienkiewicz was creating new techniques; ultimately he was simply importing concepts from the fine art world (in which he had trained before seeking a career in comics) that the stodgy comics industry had largely neglected—the same concepts that artists like Dave McKean and Duncan Fegredo would hit on as well. But Sienkiewicz’s run on New Mutants was the first time these techniques had been employed in a mainstream American comic. It was also a massive hit, and Sienkiewicz ended up spending a year on the book instead of the originally planned three issues, introducing the cybernetic alien Warlock, who, in Sienkiewicz’s conception, was an shifting mass of circuitry that got to cyberpunk horror a full five years before the twin 1989 releases of Tetsuo the Iron Man and “Driller Penis: Yes, He Does What You Think He Does.”
Sienkiewicz’s work on New Mutants was aided by the particular dynamic he had with Claremont, who, in 1984, was arguably the single most mainstream writer in superhero comics. Claremont’s style was a patient and incremental advancement of Stan Lee’s, with heavy usage of explanatory captions that narrate the events being described, and imposing amounts of dialogue, often in pursuit of a soap opera aesthetic in which character beats and relationship drama was just as important, if not moreso, than superhero adventure. The aggressive lack of experimentation here smoothed the edges of Sienkiewicz’s iconoclasm, creating a comic that was experimental, innovative, but still accessible. Part of why Sienkiewicz could go as far as he wanted with the art was that he had Claremont’s verbosity to clarify any parts of the narrative that were left ambiguous by his intensely stylized approach. Sienkiewicz’s art could be as opaque as it wants when it was accompanied by captions like “Salvation comes in the form of a feisty, russet-hued Scots werewolf—Rahne Sinclair. She goes for the demon’s throat, and is relieved—yet also furious—before she can draw blood.” And where Sienkiewicz was clear—on questions of mood and tone, his approach was intensely complementary with Claremont’s intensely emotive teenage drama.
A year on New Mutants established Sienkiewicz as a star artist, and he quickly moved to a pair of projects with Frank Miller in the wake of his work on The Dark Knight Returns—a Daredevil graphic novel entitled Love and War and an eight issue miniseries featuring one of the supporting characters from Miller’s Daredevil run entitled Elektra: Assassin. These projects marked a significant shift in Sienkiewicz’s career—they were unmistakable prestige projects constructed around the logic of taking two of the hottest talents in comics and putting them together. This, of course is no guarantee of success—one need only look at Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’s strangely lackluster Martha Washington comics to see the ways in which these pairings can fail.
In this case, however, the pairing was titanically successful. Miller’s own style was rapidly evolving from the relatively clear style he’d used while breaking out on Daredevil towards something harsher and more angular, starting with his work on Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns. Though miles away from Sienkiewicz’s moody expressionism, it was a style that similarly sacrificed clarity for mood, in Miller’s case emphasizing the hard-hitting and kinetic style of his hard-boiled action stories. Regardless, it meant that Miller was adept at writing for an abstracted style.
For his part, Sienkiewicz used these projects to move from being a penciller/inker to being a solo artist, handling all aspects save for the lettering, expanding to an aggressively mixed media style rooted in watercolor, but that incorporated collage, charcoal, and other media, and that veered freely from straightforward representational art to the heights of abstraction, flexing according to what Miller’s script demanded. Some sections of Love and War offered perfectly straightforward storytelling, while in others the comic fragmented into fragmentary, nightmarish imagery.
For the most part, however, Love and War was very much like New Mutants—a fairly straightforward superhero story that Sienkiewicz’s art was tasked with elevating. Elektra: Assassin, on the other hand, was something entirely different—a hallucinatory satire of violence and sexism that lurches through bizarre dream sequences, action, and more. The result is a difficult comic—the first issue is famously challenging thing that moves from a drug-addled retelling of Elektra’s origins to an in media res narrative of Elektra having been captured in South America. Later installments were similarly topsy-turvy, with character’s bodies being ripped apart, rebuilt, possessed, and more, as the comic veered into an increasingly over the top parody of the tropes Frank Miller was known for. Unlike New Mutants and Love and War, Miller’s script offered few concessions, leaving the comic an at once oblique and hard-edged thing.
But the collaboration worked. Elektra: Assassin saw Miller cutting loose into the pure self-indulgence that would define his late career, but in Sienkiewicz he had an artist who had seemingly no limits in how far he would go. Elektra: Assassin saw Sienkiewicz move deeper into collage as a style, especially with the politician Ken Wind, a Presidential candidate being mind controlled by evil ninjas, who Sienkiewicz depicts with by superimposing a series of grainy, near identical photographs of a generic young smiling politician onto the shoulders of a watercolored body. Elsewhere he used his by now usual melange of mixed media, adding inked outlines to his watercolors to clarify and harden action sequences, dropping into black and white, sketched sections, veering freely from dark and horror-tinged art into outlandish caricature. The result was one of the most gorgeous books on the racks, and served as last flourishing of Frank Miller as a credible and interesting figure, the tendencies that would eventually be uncovered as tedious reactionary streak, enmeshed in the dizzying, kaleidoscopic excess of Sienkiewicz’s art, still seeming to be a thriving, fascinating weirdness.
Sienkiewicz moved on to a six issue run launching The Shadow for DC before emerging as a writer/artist on Stray Toasters, published by Marvel’s Epic imprint. Nominally this was a crime comic about a psychologist investigating a serial killer, but in practice it was a gnomic slab of surrealism that pushed the medium to a conceptual limit of strangeness. It was not strictly speaking that Stray Toasters was avant garde—in practice it was a crime comic with a sense of impishly transgressive glee that made it a clear cousin to Elektra: Assassin. But it was clearly an effort to push the medium and use comics as a medium for artistic exploration, and firmly marked Sienkiewicz not just as a hot talent but as a creative visionary.
In this regard, Brabner’s decision to pair him and Moore was a savvy one. They were two superstar creators who had not, at that point, ever worked together, and who would bring attention to the project in a way that her and Tom Yeates could not. But more to the point, they were an interesting combination—two supremely talented figures who wanted to push the medium in their own ways. It was a pairing that would be big news in any context, applied, somewhat surprisingly, to a benefit book for a lawsuit about the CIA.
For all their visionary qualities, Moore and Sienkiewicz were both flexible creators who could adapt what they did to the circumstances. In particular, Moore has always been adept at writing for the strengths of his artists, and “Shadowplay: The Secret Team” is no exception. Moore balanced Sienkiewicz’s abstract art with an extremely dense script—pages routinely hit over 230 words worth of captions, a massive amount of verbiage even considering that the pages were 33% larger than a standard American comic. This let Moore create a body of text that could stand on its own—and indeed has, given that Gary Lloyd produced a spoken word adaptation of the comic without additional narration. Far from cutting Siekiewicz out of the product, however, this simply let him play to his strengths, in much the same way that Claremont had on New Mutants. But where Claremont was simply engaging in his usual practice of Stan Lee verbosity and narrating the same action that the artist was supposed to be depicting, Moore consciously shifted the entire weight of communicating what was going on in the comic to the text so as to free Sienkiewicz up to push the expressionism as far as he wanted. He wasn’t required to communicate what was going on in the comic and so could focus on making the history of the CIA look like the bizarre, surreal horror story that, in point of fact, it was.
Indeed, this approach was in many ways a necessity for the material. Where Brabner and Yeates were tasked with telling a relatively self-contained story about a single traumatic event and its investigation, Moore and Sienkiewicz were tasked with taking a subject that people have devoted multiple hundreds of pages long books and tackling it in thirty pages of comics. This is simply not possible to do without a lot of words, and the fact that Moore managed it in as few as he did and had room for splash pages at te beginning and the end is astonishing. “Shadowplay: The Secret Team” collects a gobsmacking amount of information. As Moore wryly explains, the Christic Instiute basically “gave me their affidavit, which was a telephone-directory-sized legal document. They recommended all these various books on Iran-Contra, on the Cuba situation, on the heroin smuggling going on through the Golden Triangle, cross-referencing all the names. They said, ‘Right, this is the entire history of the CIA since the close of WWII. Get it into thirty pages.’” One need only flip through Inside the Shadow Government to see the scale of this task.
Moore’s central innovation in approaching the material is to have it be an embedded narrative. The comic opens on a splash page of a New York City skyline in which something is clearly, tangibly wrong. “You don’t remember how you came to be here,” the narration begins, “putting in to this foul harbor where the dead cats bob upon the graycap waves amongst the oil drums and the excrement.” Nevertheless, the narration stresses, “This is not a dream.” The book’s narratee pushes his way through this nightmarish shadow-America, finds his way into a bar, and is promptly greeted by the figure of a drunken bald eagle in a garrish checkerboard suit who explains, with horrifying zeal, that he represents “the Company,” this being an old nickname for the CIA. [continued]
May 22, 2023 @ 1:17 pm
Wondering what percentage of readers googled “Driller Penis” mid-way through reading this…
Austin G Loomis
May 23, 2023 @ 6:45 pm
It was not strictly speaking that Stray Toasters was avant garde—[…] But it was clearly an effort to push the medium and use comics as a medium for artistic exploration
A year or two later, in an Amazing Heroes guest editorial, Dave Sim (whom I suspect you’ll have to mention at least for Swoon of the Clueless) expressed the view that Sienkiewicz had probably gone too far, but sometimes that’s the only way you can know where “too far” is. Compare and contrast a certain Doctor of Journalism, in his strange and terrible saga of the outlaw motorcycle gangs:
“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others—the living—are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there.”