Previously in The Last War in Albion: On the back of his monster success with Watchmen, Alan Moore declared that he would be self-publishing a comic about shopping mall and algebra.
“It fascinates because Sim is an absolutely brilliant maker of pages, a sublime cartoonist with total control of the form… and because, during the progression of the work, you can clearly see his mind crumbling under the pressure of his immense undertaking and twenty-five years of increasing solitude in which he can only express himself to the world through the agency of a talking anteater.” – Warren Ellis, “Grey Fog”
This declaration came in the context of Moore talking about his experiences self-publishing AARGH via his Mad Love imprint. This had been a decision made at the behest of Canadian writer/artist Dave Sim, who had found considerable success self-publishing his satirical Cerebus via his own press, Aardvark-Vanaheim. As Moore put it, “For years, this frosthardened son of the North has been standing there in his snowshoes, haranguing those of us within the bullpens and sheepdips of mainstream comics from an uncompromised position that’s been increasingly difficult to refute. ‘Hey! Why work for them guys? You must be some kinda stupid hosers, eh?’” It must be stressed, however, that Sim was in many ways a latter day William Blake—a singular and visionary talent who could not possibly have had the career he wanted on any terms other than his own. Blake, when this comparison was put to him in a 2020 seance, scoffed that “at least my gender politics weren’t that bad,” and it is notable that Moore would eventually terminate his relationship with Sim after Sim appended an introduction to an interview they did together explaining that “it would be really nice if, as a 50th birthday present, I could just type ‘IN THE NAME OF ALMIGHTY GOD COME OUT OF ALAN, THOU VILE AND ACCURSED.’ And have it work. Just like that when Alan read it. But, alas, I don’t think demonic possession—at least of the sort that Alan seems to have involved himself with—works that way” before digressing into a bit of Biblical exegesis to the effect of “women are hella icky.” Which is to say that, as effective an evangelist for self-publishing as he was, ultimately what worked for Dave Sim was not inherently likely to work for anyone else.
Equally, in a world in which Dave Sim was prominently advocating for self-publishing (and had not yet publicly accused Moore of being demonically possessed), Moore was never going to not try it. A central concern of his triptych of magna opera was the basic fact that these were his great works. They would not be owned by a vast American media company that could endlessly license them off in a cynical bid to bilk as much money as possible from rabid fans of malls and algebra. This was, for Moore, the point every bit as much as his creative interests. From Hell and Lost Girls both found their initial homes in Steve Bissette’s Taboo anthology, published via his own Spiderbaby Grafix, but for The Mandelbrot Set, or, as it eventually ended up being named, Big Numbers, Moore decided to put it out via Mad Love, investing the bulk of his profits from Watchmen (save for some with which he bought his parents a greenhouse) into the endeavor, with his wife Phyllis and partner Deborah Delano handling the business end of it.
For art duties, meanwhile, Moore turned to his Brought to Light collaborator Bill Sienkiewicz. This was a somewhat perverse and counterintuitive decision, given the other artists he was working with on these three projects. Lost Girls, done with the American underground comix artist Melinda Gebbie, could only have been done with her, and emerged out of specific conversations they had about how they might want to do an erotic comic, with the basic premise extending from Gebbie’s stated desire to work with three female leads. But From Hell, which Moore developed with Eddie Campbell, was a far more interesting choice. Moore came to Campbell with the premise for the series at least partially developed—at least as far as it being a comic about Jack the Ripper. Likewise, Moore note that with Big Numbers “The initial idea of this stuff to do with fractal math came from me; this whole idea of doing something about a community of people came from me.” But for all that Moore reported Sienkiewicz “was very keen on doing stuff about a community of real human beings, of people that he felt warm towards,” this was a counter-intuitive move. At first glance Sienkiewicz, who had already drawn an exploration of strange and mystical murders in Stray Toasters, was the obvious person to illuminate the dark horror of From Hell, while Campbell, who made his name drawing quiet autobiographical slice of life comics, was an obvious choice for the intimate portrayal of ordinary life.
Instead, however, Moore had each artist play against type. To some extent this is a self-justifying decision—a bit of cleverness designed to keep everyone involved from falling into their default patterns of the sort that Brian Eno, one of Moore’s artistic role models, might have prescribed in one of his famed Oblique Strategies. Bissette, for his part, apparently described the logic of putting Campbell on From Hell by saying that “it was essential that the artist not be seduced by the violence inherent in the tale,” which again, makes sense. Likewise, although Moore never commented precisely on why he chose Sienkiewicz beyond noting that “Knowing that Bill was prepared to work to really detailed photo reference of Northampton—that enabled me to set it in a specific town rather than in a hypothetical, imaginary English town. It was just little things like that that modified and helped shape my vision of the script to what it became. I could see Bill being the sort of artist who could draw a picture of a coffee cup with the milk just put in and making it look fascinating,” it made a certain intuitive sense that handing Big Numbers to an artist known for rich complexity and stylistic innovation would cut against the mundane setting in interesting ways. But while the decision made sense on an artistic level, it would end up having significant consequences in terms of both projects’ completion.
But anyone drawn into Big Numbers by the promise of two superstar creators and looking for something as populist as that implies would have been greeted by immediate and aggressive frustration. It is helpful to compare the book to Watchmen here—in that book, Moore opened with a strong contender for the greatest monologue in the history of comics, sets up the murder mystery that will be its nominal spine early on by the second page, and has successfully communicated the kicker—that the murder victim is a superhero—by the end of the first scene. It’s an instantly accessible, graspable hook. The book gets formally dense and complex, but it builds to it, leading the reader towards its ambitions, and making sure the reader can still enjoy the story even if they do not fully appreciate the formalist spectacle of “Fearful Symmetry.”
In contrast, Big Numbers opens with eight completely dialogue-free pages that move back and forth among multiple characters who definitionally haven’t been established yet. Instead of an immediately gripping and intriguing monologue its first page consists of a close-up of a train schedule and a pair of wide shots of train tracks and of taxis sitting outside an unidentified building. (It is, in fact, Northampton railway station, although nothing in the panel makes clear that it’s a train station other than the context of the previous two panels.) From there it cuts to a page of children playing in the grass alongside a railway track. Next is the inside of a train car, where a woman is sleeping. A burst of Sienkiewicz distortion and weirdness transitions the scene to the same woman in the back of a cab, a ghostly white child on her lap. This can be inferred as a dream sequence, if only because the photorealistic style Sienkiewicz uses on the first two pages abruptly shifts to something more rooted in the abstract nightmares of his New Mutants work or Elektra: Assassin. An inscrutable dream sequence plays out, and the scene returns to the woman sleeping in the train, then montage of panels—train tracks, a man reading a newspaper in a taxi, a map of the train system, one of the kids throwing a large bolt up and down in his hand. Over two pages we see the train approaching the children, the throwing of the bolt, and then, on the eighth page, a splash page of the woman recoiling from a spray of shattering glass with a simple title: “One.”
This is a difficult stretch of eight pages—one that demands engagement and close reading, and offers little in immediate return. The cynical way to describe this is that it’s an attempt to immediately drive away people whose engagement with Watchmen boiled down to “Rorschach was cool.” Indeed, in many regards Big Numbers seems almost precision engineered to alienate the portion of his readership that Moore had found himself alienated from. It took his post-Watchmen pledge to abandon superheroes in favor of “ the ordinary non-telepathic, unmutated and slightless humanoids hanging out on their anonymous street corner” entirely literally, crafting a story that was not positioned within the science fiction/fantasy genres in which Moore’s prior work had operated. It wasn’t without antecedent—Skizz and The Bojeffries Saga both demonstrated Moore’s interest in depicting working class life. But these were still genre fiction, with space aliens and werewolves.
More to the point, however, Moore’s output up to this point had largely existed within the confines of heroic adventure fiction. There were exceptions—The Bojeffries Saga among them, in fact—but these tended to be short comedic pieces. For the most part Moore had written stories of individuals triumphing over vast adversities, operating along plot structures more complex but ultimately no less rigid than the ones Grant Morrison had in their early and ruthlessly formulaic Starblazer work. Even when Moore critiqued the form and its underlying ideology of individualist heroism, as he did in Swamp Thing and Miracleman, or indeed Watchmen, he was still working within the form. With Big Numbers, however, Moore was drawing on an entirely different narrative structure—one rooted in 19th century realist novels like Bleak House and Les Miserables, and stretching back further to works like Rulin waishi and the Laxdæla saga. These stories cast a wide lens, depicting not the actions of individual heroes, but looking at communities and society as a whole. This was not a genre without its formal structures and systems—that is, after all, what a genre is—but it was very much not a structure Moore had worked in.
Most obviously, Big Numbers did not strictly speaking have a protagonist. Sure, Moore described Christine Gathercole—the woman on the train in the opening—as “the main character that… drives it all,” but this was true more in the sense of her arrival being an instigating event and in the sense of her serving as a viewpoint character through which the reader is introduced to Northampton (or, as Moore renames it for the purposes of the comics, Hampton) than in the sense of being a protagonist. It is clear even from the first two issues that Big Numbers was not going to be the sort of series in which Christine heroically prevented the construction of the mall and saved Hampton’s legacy and history as a working class English town. This was, to put it mildly, far away from the work Moore had made his name doing, even before one considered the fact that there wasn’t an alien squid in sight. And it was very much not what the majority of fans of Moore or Sienkiewicz’s earlier work could be assumed to be interested in.
And yet for all that Moore opens Big Numbers by ostentatiously differentiating it from Watchmen, it is clearly a successor work, right down to its formalist elements. Watchmen had, by design, been an impressive comic, printed on nicer than usual paper stock and without ads. Big Numbers took this even further, printing at the non-standard paper size of 10 inches by 10 inches, in contrast to the standard American comic book size of just over 6.5 by 10 inches. This meant that Big Numbers literally looked like nothing else on the shelves. It did not fit into its readers lovingly curated longboxes of comics, looking more like a vinyl record than an issue of Batman. But Moore and Sienkiewicz made comparison to Watchmen inevitable through the simple formalist decision to build the comic on a tight grid, the same way Watchmen was. But where Watchmen was built rigorously on a nine panel grid of 1.875 x 3.125 inch panels, the larger paper size of Big Numbers meant that it could be built on a twelve panel grid, taking the nine panel grid’s panels and expanding them to 2.5 x 3.125 inch panels, then adding an extra fourth column of three panels. The result was a comic that literally presented itself as Watchmen made even more intricate and complex. [continued]