Friday, September 12, 2008

Comics Review: Big Numbers 1 & 2, Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Note: Bill Sienkiewicz has written an essay about Big Numbers, published here. In it, he describes the demanding and ultimately onerous process for creating the art in the first two issues, as well as his decision to ultimately walk away from the series. His reasons for leaving were far more complicated than my speculations here. Please read the essay below with this in mind.

A few weeks ago, I came across a blog posting by Frank Santoro about Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz's unfinished Big Numbers project from the early 1990s. (One can read Santoro's post here). Santoro's main focus is on Sienkiewicz's art, which he heavily criticizes for a lack of fluidity and repetitiveness of layout, but some of the digs are aimed at Moore as well, such as calling the series "impenetrable to read," and describing the experience as "trying to make your way through a crowded funeral parlor."

This certainly didn't jibe with my memory of the series, so I pulled the two published issues out of storage and read them again. All I can say to Santoro is that his taste is a lot different than mine, but then "a quiet European film of a comic," as Santoro calls the series, is something I might happily embrace. Big Numbers, based on the two chapters (of a planned twelve) that appeared, is an intricate, delicately written work with beautifully expressive art. Moore and Sienkiewicz achieve a lovely melancholy in their portrait of the people in the book's fictional Midlands community, and it's a shame that Sienkiewicz burned out on the project after two issues, leaving the series unfinished. Given Moore's consistent knack for contextualizing his sharply realized characters in the society around them, Big Numbers stood a good chance of being one of the finest community portraits found in any narrative medium. One could also see it holding its own with From Hell, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta.

Big Numbers 1, page 35. Click image for a larger view.

According to Moore, the ideas guiding his vision of the book were derived from chaos theory, a view of dynamic systems that rejects the notion of randomness. Based on the issues of Big Numbers that were published, it appears his intent was to use the theory to account for human alienation. The characters are inevitably depicted as locked inside their own heads, and unable to find rapport with others despite their best efforts. Their lives are defined by patterns and routines. When those routines intersect, they inevitably bounce off each other, creating tension. Everyone talks past everyone else, and Moore and Sienkiewicz take care to render the pain felt at being unable to make connections. Emotions are in flux, yet behavior remains the same. After a while, one gets the feeling that behavior remains the same because the emotions are in flux; it's the only way of imposing order and control on one's life.

Take the sequence reproduced above. The three characters are Mrs. Gathercole and her two adult daughters, Christine and Janice. Christine is a successful author who's just returned home to work on a book, and Janice is a welfare worker whose husband is hospitalized in a vegetative state. Mrs. Gathercole, whose appearances throughout the series make clear her habit of being polite and friendly at all times, mentions to Christine that she's bought Christine's book. She says she thinks it's lovely, but it quickly becomes clear from the conversation that she's talking about the cover rather than the writing, which she hasn't read. Mrs. Gathercole's inclination to pay compliments conflicts with Christine's inclination to seek a certain sort of compliment, and one can see the pain in both women: Christine is hurt because her mother has no interest in her work, and Mrs. Gathercole is hurt by her realization that she's insulted her daughter. And throughout it all, one follows Mrs. Gathercole's routine of preparing tea in the foreground, which she uses to reimpose order in this upsetting circumstance. Two patterns of order conflict, flux results, and a separate pattern of order asserts itself to dampen the flux.

Moore and Sienkiewicz give readers a couple of dozen characters to follow in Big Numbers, and every scene is a variation of this dynamic in some way. What's remarkable is that despite this, every scene is distinctive in its own right, and every character comes across as a unique personality. This is helped in no small part by Sienkiewicz's exceptional artwork, which combines strong character design with extraordinarily subtle and nuanced rendering, most of it done in pencil. The depictions of emotion and gesture are delicately precise, and the tonal quality allows one to lose oneself in the individual images. The page layouts are conservative--they often consist of cinematic-style pans across an image tier--but they serve to reinforce the series' quiet rhythm. That may be the difference between Santoro and I: he looks for immediacy, and I look for resonance. Sienkiewicz's trademark expressionistic tendencies occasionally assert themselves, but he always keeps them in service to the story and the characters.

Restraint is not a tendency I associate with Sienkiewicz, and the project's demand for it on his part may be why he burned out on it so quickly. He and Moore are not natural collaborators. Despite Moore's claims that he shapes each project in accord with the artist's strengths, he inevitably treats an artist he works with as a pair of hands. The legendary degree of detail he includes in his scripts can easily serve to intimidate. Sienkiewicz's nature favors eclecticism and spontaneity; his first impulse is to experiment. He needs the sort of collaborator he had with Frank Miller on Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War: someone he can bounce ideas off of, and who treats him as an equal when it comes to shaping (or changing) a work's direction. He's the sort who would chafe under the taskmaster scripts of a writer like Moore. It would have been a miracle for a project like Big Numbers, with its expected length of 500 pages, to not go off the rails with these two, and a miracle didn't happen.

One can't help but wish that it did, though. A key story point in the series is the construction of an American-style shopping mall in the Midlands setting. It would have been fascinating to see Moore's view of the inevitable clash between U. S. and British culture, and one develops an affection for the book's characters--one wants to see how they and their relationships develop. There's been talk of producing and completing Big Numbers as a BBC mini-series; if one can't have more of this marvelously realized comic, a television series might be the next best thing.

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