Marvel Artist Bill Sienkiewicz Looks Back on Career and "Masochistic" Love of Comics
Bill Sienkiewicz is, simply, a comic book legend.
The writer and artist broke boundaries — and many readers’ minds — with artwork for Marvel’s Moon Knight, New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin in the 1980s. He created work that drew from influences as varied as Egon Schiele and Ralph Steadman, as well as the more traditional Neal Adams or John Buscema. From there, he’s collaborated with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and moved beyond comics with illustration work and fine art exhibitions — all the while continuing to work regularly in comics.
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Sienkiewicz's career, which has spanned almost four decades, is being celebrated with a new trilogy of art books from Six Foot Press, launching with Bill Sienkiewicz: Revolution Vol. 1, which hits stores Wednesday. Sienkiewicz was promoting the book at New York Comic Con earlier this year, where Heat Vision talked to him about the career retrospective and what’s next for him.
How is it, looking back at your career in a book like this?
It feels kind of surreal, because there have been opportunities that have come along over the years to do it, and Six Foot Press, because of their association with the Museum of Modern Art — with comics being art being something I'm always trying to showcase — it seemed to me like this was the right time to pull the trigger.
One of the things I really like about this is that it shows the art aspect of your work. Do you see a distinction between comic book art, fine art and commercial art, or is it all one thing to you?
That's one of those arguments, one of those conversations for the ages, you know. (Laughs.) I just picture Picasso and everybody sitting around at the Black Cat Cafe and just talking to each other about, "Oh, so-and-so's such a hack, you know?"
I was just talking to someone about being in art school, and I remember when Norman Rockwell passed away. There was a whole big perennial conversation about whether he was fine art, or illustration, and if you look at his work now, I mean — it really describes the '50s and '60s. If you base any of that on cost or expense or value, it's like, does that make a fine art? Does it impact an entire generation, which is what art is supposed to do?
There’s an old expression, "All art inspires great music." I think that there’s a lot of truth to that, but I also think that a lot of art inspires great comics. What I mean by that is, comics are an abstraction, they’re a truth through a lie. And, to me, comics are incredibly musical, as well. They're structured like a song, and a piece of music. To me, one of the reasons I say that all art inspires good comics is that comics aren’t just an audio medium — they’re visual, they’re sensory. Not that I’m saying that there are more senses involved so it’s more valid! This is just my narcissistic attitude because this is my language, if you talk to an actor, they’ll say, "No, it’s acting!" (Laughs.)
Comics is also a more immediate art form, in a way; it's a populist medium, obviously, but the speed of production. You can create work and it immediately gets to an audience. There’s something to that. I’m curious — how did you choose the work represented in this first volume?
A lot of that was Six Foot, and Ben Davis, who did the essay. I kind of left that up to them and my art rep, Sal [Abbinati, who edited Revolution]. There were certain things that I want, and those things might go in the second or third book, but what I think they trying to do, because of the work that they’ve chosen, is present the work in a way that best exemplified their point of view. In that respect, I deferred to them.
I was wondering because, in the comic book selections, with New Mutants and Daredevil and Elektra, the first volume really focuses on the mid-to-late 1980s, which is a period where you really started pushing the boundaries of what could be done in a comic. Moon Knight saw you start in that direction, but when you started New Mutants, it was as if you said, "Oh, look at everything I can do with comics." You started working in ways that were both more representative, but also more emotional.
I’d always written and drawn my own comic books in high school; it was something that I did for myself and my friends. Then, when I got into the business, they were like, "No, you’re a penciler." There were a whole lot of inkers out there. At one point, I just wanted to ink my own stuff. I felt like the other inkers just weren’t capturing what I wanted — I might not have been the best inker, but I knew what I wanted. It was one editor, I think it was Al Milgrom at the time, who said, "Let him ink his own stuff, he’s got as much right to mess it up as anyone else," and I feel like I’ve taken that to heart.
For me, I love the idea of artistic vision all the way through; there was certain emotion in the faces that I was trying to get across that couldn’t be inked [by others]. I started doing that in New Mutants, and the [painted work], too. I did that in New Mutants, then Elektra and Stray Toasters. With each one, I felt like I was adding another layer. With New Mutants, I was painting the covers and doing black-and-white interiors, to doing painted interiors on Elektra...
...and then writing and painting Stray Toasters.
Right, and even pulling in more of the fine art, abstract work.
What is it with comics that keeps you here? You’ve worked on a number of different projects outside of the industry and you’re in-demand enough as an illustrator and painter that you could easily just work in those fields. But you’ve always stayed in comics, whether it’s doing full art or even as an inker — you’re about to ink Denys Cowan’s work on DC’s new Question series.
The collaborative nature of comics is something that I really love. I love working with Denys. But also, I had some heroes growing up, like Jim Aparo, Carmine Infantino, and getting to work with some of those heroes — I think that comics is a little bit more of a culture that does show some reverence for those who came before. Maybe not on the business end, but in terms of creators.
I’ve done other projects that have paid very well, but they help subsidize comics. I love comics. I love being able to tell a story through words and pictures. It’s a little bit to me like a comedian — I don’t know if this is a good analogy or a bad analogy — who has a successful TV show, and then after the show is over, it’s like, "I gotta get back onstage and tell jokes to 20 people in a dingy little room." Not that comics is a dingy little room! But there’s something intimate about comics, and what they can do I so expansive. They can be anything.
It feels like you’re still experimenting. Just looking at the New Mutants special that came out last month…
Anybody will tell you that I talked to in the last month will tell you, I feel like I should be apologizing for that. I feel like I shit the bed, it’s awful. I feel like I should be apologizing.
I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong.
[New Mutants writer] Chris [Claremont] and I were all about the characters and the stories, and the abstractions [in the art] were all about how to better convey the emotional content as opposed to for its own sake. And that was really brought back to me working on the one shot. To me, Illyana, Magik — she was always my favorite character, although I have a soft spot for Rahne — I was just trying to get into their feelings. It felt warm and fuzzy, like I was surrounded by family. To me, that’s ultimately where I let it go and just run with it. But for the first few weeks, I was just on razor blades. I would draw a page and just put it aside, throw it away — it just didn’t have the fluidity that I wanted.
I’ve done this long enough to know that for every period I feel like I’m struggling, I got to something good in the end. But for some reason, this one felt like, "I’m done. I got nothing left to give, the tank’s empty, maybe I should just go make pizzas or something." I look at it now and it’s different, but it’s not what I thought it was going to be, or what I expected it to be. And that’s the other beauty of comics — they are what they are. Art is what it is. I may have the best laid plans of how I approach something or how I want it to look, but the work will always kick me in the ass, like, "You idiot. You think you have a say in this?"
Does that make you want to do more? Is there a sense of "one day, I’ll beat this"?
Yes! Yes, or I’m a masochist and I just enjoy getting my ass kicked by my work. But it does throw me enough pieces of gold here or there where I can go, ‘Okay, that one worked,’ and I’ll dance around the room and feel good for about 10 minutes. I’m chasing that high — still.
Is there still a dream project? Is there still a sense of "this is the thing I still need to do"?
There is sort of a nebulous dream project. I’m thinking that, because I’ve worked in so many different styles, I’m almost thinking it might be the time to not necessarily move away from doing stuff for DC or Marvel or corporate gigs, but to dive into what Frank [Miller] did with Sin City, where he took himself back to what he was into as a teenager. I love the idea of doing a three-pager that’s just silly, then a dozen pages that are painted and have a deep, operatic, Wagnerian aspect to them, and then another thing that’s a pop song. Somethings that are narrative, and some things that are not. It’s like waking up in the morning and drawing something and asking, "Is it a horse, is it a cat, is it a cow?" No, it’s blue. It’s like that. It’s jazz.
It’s the classic Picasso line about taking all of his life to draw like a child again; I think I’m headed in that direction. I’m still a little reticent to dive in and be that old guy — it’s caring enough not to care. I’m just going to dive in. I’ve long ago let go of the worry that people aren’t going to like it; I’m going to have a certain number of people either way, but if I’m true to the material and what I’m trying to say, that’s the best I can hope for. People are going to love it or hate it, but if I’m being honest — the worst thing for an artist or illustrator is to lie to themselves, and the thing is, in a commercial world, it’s not that you’re lying to yourself, it’s a good way to avoid getting down and dirty with yourself.
You can become technically brilliant doing stuff like that, and it’s like being able to fly artificially, but a lot of times, people who are successful at a certain thing, they almost don’t want to regress and crawl in the dirt. It’s painful. The older you get, it’s less easy to bounce back. I’ve found that in a certain way, but even though I felt that way about New Mutants, the last story I did, obviously I’m as committed to doing stuff as ever. For me to get that bent out of shape means that I still care.
Bill Sienkiewicz: Revolution is available now. More information about the project can be found here.
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