Sunday, September 27, 2009

Comics Review: Big Numbers 3, Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A bootleg version of the third chapter of the legendary unfinished graphic novel has surfaced--and leaves one even more wistful over the promise of what might have been.

Big Numbers 3 has never been published in print format. Jpegs of the "bootleg" version can be seen by clicking here.

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 were far more complicated than what I indicate below. He also states that the discordant appearance of the third issue's artwork was entirely his doing. The art was drawn on Craftint illustration board, which explains the presence of mechanical tone. Please read the essay below with this in mind.

The unfinished works of exceptional artists always hold a special fascination for their audiences. If one is captivated by what is there, one can’t help but wonder about the glory of what didn’t see completion. Michelangelo’s Tomb of Pope Julius II, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood--these are but some of the treasures that were never fully realized. In the book Beyond Life, the fantasy writer James Branch Cabell put forward the idea of a library “contain[ing] the cream of unwritten books--the masterpieces that were planned and never carried through.” Cabell’s imaginary library is one that any lover of the arts would revel in visiting.

The prize of that library’s comics shelves would undoubtedly be Big Numbers, Alan Moore< and Bill Sienkiewicz’s unfinished graphic novel from the early 1990s. Moore and Sienkiewicz were arguably the most accomplished talents working in adventure comics in the 1980s. Moore’s scriptwriting on books like Watchmen showed an insight, imagination, and command of narrative craft that could hold its own with the best that contemporary film and prose fiction had to offer. To paraphrase one reviewer, Moore brought adventure comics as close as they would ever get to literature, and he came closer than anyone could have guessed. As for Sienkiewicz, he had evolved from an attractive though derivative illustrator to the most visually audacious cartoonist working. In Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, both scripted by Frank Miller, he brought the Neo-Expressionist aesthetic to adventure comics. Eclecticism reigned, and whatever style or medium he considered most effective in rendering a scene was what was used. A collaboration between these two promised to be a spectacular piece of work.

The premise of Big Numbers only raised expectations. Using the tenets of chaos theory as a guide, it would dramatize the impact of a U. S.-style shopping mall being built in a British Midlands community. The book was to be modeled on literary fiction. The fantasy and adventure trappings of Moore and Sienkiewicz’s previous work would not be present. It was hard to escape the impression that the authors saw their previous efforts as part of an artistic stage they had outgrown. This statement on modern life was part of a new, more mature phase in their work. Judging from Moore’s statements in interviews, he saw the projected 500-page work as his magnum opus.

Two installments encompassing 80 pages were published in 1990. Moore introduced readers to a wide range of characters in a series of deftly written scenes. The scripting was frequently humorous and melancholy all at once. Sienkiewicz dramatized Moore’s script in a nuanced, elegantly naturalistic style that largely relied on subtly toned pencil renderings. There was no sensationalism in Moore’s scripting and minimal hyperbole in Sienkiewicz’s art. This was a work of literary fiction conceived in comics form, and one couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.

No further installments were published. Sienkiewicz, who reportedly felt overwhelmed and constricted by the massive detail in Moore’s scripts, lost interest in the project and abandoned it. Al Columbia, who assisted Sienkiewicz on the first two installments, was hired to take over, but he lost interest as well. It is believed that he destroyed the pages he completed. Sienkiewicz did finish the art for the third installment, but after Columbia gave up on the book, the decision was made not to publish it. In the years since, ten random, unlettered pages from the third issue were printed in a couple of magazines, and Moore’s script for it was published online. But despite its availability, the prospect of looking at the disparate, incomplete material for the third issue was off-putting. It seemed like eating a dish by consuming the ingredients separately, with a number of them missing or in the wrong amounts.

Bill Sienkiewicz's original, unlettered page 12 for Big Numbers 3.

But this past March, the complete and lettered third installment showed up on the Internet. The pages were sold to Moore scholar Pádraig Ó Méalóid, and with Moore’s permission, this “bootleg” version of Big Numbers 3 was posted on The presentation is not ideal. Sienkiewicz’s rich pencil rendering is covered with mechanical tone, and the pages’ appearance suggests that they began as faxed proofs of the original art. But as cheesy as they look, the pages are readable. The sauce may be a supermarket-shelf generic instead of gourmet, but the food underneath is still first-rate. Sienkiewicz’s intentions for the art are apparent, and one finds Moore’s narrative becoming increasingly sophisticated. Big Numbers will never see completion, but the achievement of this third installment is impressive, and it is easily one of the key comics of the year.

The "bootleg" lettered version of page 12.

Moore maintains the easygoing pace seen in the first two chapters. He and Sienkiewicz again invite the reader to relax with the characters, and the nuanced understatement of the panels, despite their unfortunate surface appearance, still compels the reader to lose oneself in them. The craft on display in the third installment is just as remarkable as in the first two. The detailed visuals reinforce the languorous rhythms, but Moore never falls into the trap of letting the scenes meander on aimlessly. Every one is structured to end on a pointedly ironic note. The structure and detail in the scenes play off each other wonderfully, and one again finds oneself caught up in the lives of the numerous characters.

The third installment remains guided by the view of human interaction that informed the scenes in the first two chapters. Every person is regarded as an idiosyncratic entity, with those idiosyncrasies finding expression in routines and behavioral patterns. Alienation, which defines virtually every relationship Moore depicts to some degree, results from those patterns meeting, coming into conflict with each other, and creating tension. People then either retreat from one another, or they fall back on routines intended to bring the tension level down, such as making jokes or following through on courtesies. Moore apparently sees behavioral constants as the means through which people impose order on the uncertainty of their lives.

But Moore doesn’t become complacent in his depiction of the characters. The third chapter highlights that a key aspect of people’s dealings with one another is reductionism. We cope with our experience of other people--particularly in new encounters and peripheral relationships--by reducing each other to stereotypes. In keeping with Big Numbers’ roots in mathematical theory, one might say that people respond to complex input by simplifying it into a more easily processed form. This has its obvious bad points and its less obvious good ones. The bad is that it leads to prejudice and bigotry. The good is that it allows for more pointed and confident interactions with each other.

The chapter is at its most enjoyable when Moore emphasizes the absurdity that reductionism creates. A recurring scene features a young welfare clerk sitting at her vegetative husband’s hospital bedside: she's good-naturedly--although haplessly--trying to fill out a shopping-mall marketing survey on his behalf. The mall’s American personnel, including its architect, managers, and marketing supervisor, are shown making complete asses of themselves while trying to ingratiate themselves with the Midlands locals. All they do is repeat one boorish stereotype of British people after another. The marketing supervisor in particular is so obliviously obnoxious in his prejudices that every scene featuring him is a comedic gem. One also sees some sharp satiric ideas from Moore, such as the role-playing game the architect’s teenage children are product-testing. It’s called “Real Life,” and the first three things the kids determine in setting up the game characters are their race, gender, and economic class.

Nearly everything in the chapter emphasizes the process of reductionism found in contemporary life. There are the marketing surveys and canvassers that nearly every character is confronted with. The goal is reduce each of them to a marketing profile. People are presented to the public through photographs. A local author participates in the effort to turn her life into column inches for a local newspaper. That same writer is hard at work on a novel, another distillation of life into the two dimensions of the printed page. But reductionism is difficult for her. She writes of a character, “It was very hard to sum her up,” and feels blocked.

The chapter’s most memorable scene depicts a teenage boy explaining the chaos-theory concept of two-and-a-half dimensions to his depressed father. A piece of paper is two dimensions, and a ball is three. However, if one crumples the paper into a ball, it’s no longer a two-dimensional object, but it’s not quite a three-dimensional one, either. The father is intrigued, and the boy describes the second-and-a half dimension as “like a new planet” and a place to go on holiday. The crumpled paper--the image is used for the chapter’s splash page--is a metaphor for a new way of thinking about the way we relate to others. It illustrates the possibility of a middle ground between the overwhelming input of human interaction and the reductionist approach people rely on to manage it. Judging from this scene, happiness in dealing with others may be found in a synthesis between the facile stereotyping perspective people rely on and an impossible all-encompassing one. Moore's metaphor suggests that there may be a way beyond the alienation that defines contemporary life.

One will never see how Moore might have expanded on that idea. Judging from his other work, it’s impossible to believe he had done more than just scratch its surface. The opening chapters of his From Hell and Watchmen are compelling, but no one could guess those works’ ultimate richness from those chapters alone. The same would have been all but undoubtedly true of Big Numbers. The third chapter brings a fuller understanding of what was lost by the failure to complete more than a quarter of the book. The failure is beyond a disappointment; it’s about as close to an artistic tragedy as one can imagine. But even so, it does not overwhelm the pleasure of going over the 120 completed pages again and again. Even in truncated (and partially adulterated) form, they are dazzling in their wit, craft, and artistry. The knowledge that this beautifully realized and possibly very wise work will never see completion makes Big Numbers perhaps the most bittersweet effort comics will ever know.