Formal Formula


Monday, August 18, 2008

Here’s a spread from the kinda rare Big Numbers #2 by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz published by Mad Love back in 1990. Big Numbers was, for me, impenetrable to read, like some overcrowded black and white photographic contact sheet. The series was never finished and honestly I never really read it. I would just pull it off the shelf every now and then and look at the art. I like Sienkiewicz’s energy and line but this book was too stilted, modeled, posed. Yet there are some great formal devices that he uses that feel right to me, that are successful simply as two page spreads. There’s an affinity for direct observation drawing and for realism, photographic realism, that I find pleasing and balanced. The images also reflect the character’s inner subjective view through varying the media and the approach, and that is really a strength of Sienkiewicz’s which fascinates me still.

The issue itself though is a little too formal for my taste and veers into straight up fumetti but it is an interesting mix of drawing and photography. A big influence on the Dave McKean school of cartooning, and sort of responsible for jump starting the last 15 years of photo-realist comics–Big Numbers is what you thought, what I thought, was going to be like a graduate class in the best comics had to offer in 1989: Moore and Sienkiewicz. Maybe it would have been great, but after trying to read the two existing issues, I started to wonder if they both were just totally burnt out by then. They both had almost ten years of monthly or semi-monthly deadlines (something I could never measure or fathom) and were simply dead. Reading it feels like trying to make your way through a crowded funeral parlor. Sorry, mates.

Okay, wait, I take that back. It’s an inspired work, but there is this lack of motion, of movement that adds to the density. Beyond the incredible glass shattering sequence in the first issue, it’s basically a quiet European film of a comic. I’m sure Moore’s script was pretty intense and Sienkiewicz does a decent job of mixing and matching talking heads and word balloons with these formal devices that “open up” the page and let it breathe a little. But again because of the photographic sources, there is always this middle ground focus where every character is shot from the waist up, gesturing. There will be two pages of dense talking head panels and then some sharp detailed sketch within a scene (like above) that is very focused, not only in technical articulation but in feeling. They show great restraint and balance and then release into sketchy memory. The pages are clean in their black white and grey purity but somehow the palette only adds to the gloomy claustrophobia of its rigid structure and square format. Big Numbers, just plods on and on formally like this and ultimately feels like a straight-jacket.

When the series tanked, Sienkiewicz just decided to go the other way and do finishes on Sal Buscema pencils for Spider-man. Buscema would do really light breakdowns and Bill would just go nuts on the flourishes. I remember them being totally off the wall.

Anyways, anybody know what happened after the second issue came out? Wasn’t Tundra going to continue publishing it?

at top, detail of two page spread of Big Numbers #2, pages 4 and 5. The top image is what I see first when I open to this spread, which is the top of page 5, natch. Then my eye goes over to the top of the left page. So, I’m just focusing on the stuff that really moves my eye around formally. There are elements to the spread that don’t relate to the mirroring of the dinner table scenes, so I didn’t scan the whole spread, cool? Cool.

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24 Responses to “Formal Formula”
  1. Douglas Wolk says:

    Oh man. Can of worms there. The Kevin Eastman interview at has one perspective on what happened; the article at has some more.

    There are ten pages of Sienkiewicz’s art from the never-published #3 circulating; they can be seen at .

    I bought a copy of the script for #3 from a CBLDF auction a few years ago. It’s several hundred pages long, fascinating, and probably unbelievably demanding to draw.

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    Nice. Thanks, Douglas.

    Those pages from #3 are pretty amazing, I must say. Not claustrophobic at all and have a lot of movement.

  3. Brian says:

    Have you read Brought To Light? I thought that was maybe the best I’ve seen Sienkiewicz’s stuff look. Really emphasized the Ralph Steadman caricature side of his style rather than the restrained borderline-fumetti side.

    I just saw a copy of Big Numbers 2 a few months ago, and was kind of blown away that it was in black and white- kind of surprising for him to limit himself in that way while still going nuts with the different media.

  4. Marc Arsenault says:

    I don’t think Big Numbers 3 was quite up to the standards that Sienkiewicz set for himself when working on illustrations for Penthouse Forum and other jobs he just completely hacked out. But, I salute Frank for defending it based on the fact that he just, well, drew it, instead of slavishly copying photos of the models for the characters. He goes impressively off-model in number 3.

    My understanding of the pace in those first two issues is that it was a deliberate part of the structure of the series. I think that was sort of explained in interviews from that time. The Mandelbrot set (fractals) being the inspiration.

  5. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    Wasn’t the art supposed to gradually include more and more color as the series went along?


    Was it Spiderman that Sienkiewicz inked, or was it John Buscema on Wolverine? Maybe both? Certainly a waste of his talent, but goddamn if he isn’t just about the best inker (haha) in the history of comics. I wish to Hell I had kept all of those issues, or at least had scans of them. have they been reprinted?


    I wonder if Moore’s plan for Big Numbers eventually allowed for an Elektra: Assassin range of drawing styles? Because I think that was Sienkiewicz’s best work, and I could see BN – had it been finished – benefitting from that sort of variety, rather than the first two issues’ stifling “realism”.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    “The Mandelbrot set (fractals) being the inspiration.”

    Hunh. Thats interesting. Can someone explain that to me? Or anyone know which interview fractals were discussed?

    There is an image of a fractal, in color, at the end of issue 2.

  7. Jason Overby says:

    There was a mammoth interview with Moore in the Comics Journal from around that time. I think it’s in issues 138-140. I remember it blowing my 14 year old mind (his references to Crumb, Eightball, Yummy Fur, and various other great comics were what first got me seeking out the good stuff).

  8. DerikB says:

    Eddie Campbell gets into the story of Big Numbers in “How To Be an Artist”.

  9. chan says:

    I know that the Mandlebrot Set repeats it’s own form at different scales. Is there something in the story that suggests this? Complex phenomenon from simple rules and such?

    The Mandlebrot Set always reminded me of the Venus of Villendorf.

  10. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    haha, maybe the publishing predicament of Big Numbers is actually part of a larger overall plan, and we just don’t realize how it all fits together yet.

  11. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks everybody.

    Funny how this stuff is tying into my rant on the Golden Section.

  12. DerikB says:

    Oh, when do we get to hear the Golden Section rant? I’ve been waiting for that.

  13. Jason Overby says:

    By the way, didn’t Al Columbia do the drawings for the unpublished third issue? Could that be why they breathe more than the Sienkiewicz pages? Wikipedia has a decent entry on the series.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Columbia was Sienkiewicz’s assistant on issues 1 + 2 (and is credited in at least one of them), and he drew the unseen fourth issue. Number 3 is the only one that is all Sienkiewicz. Since neither 3 nor 4 were ever released, it has often been mis-reported and repeated that Al Columbia drew number 3, since he was the new artist on the book.

  15. Frank Santoro says:

    Wow, I never knew any of this, haha! This is great. Like a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.

    Derik, my Golden Section rant is coming soon. I’m just wrangling with the transcription of my lecture from MoCCA and will be making it into a zine of sorts. (My friend transcribed the whole thing! Now that’s kindness.)

  16. Jason Overby says:


  17. Rufus Dayglo says:

    Just bought Comics Comics #4, superb stuff chaps.
    Loved the Shakey Kane article, great to see a piece on this underappreciated atist.

    My friend Brett got him his break in comics in Deadline.

    I’m helping Alan Martin with the new Tank Girl stuff, check out my blog.

    Looking forward to the next issue!


  18. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Rufus,

    Thanks for checking in.

    Good luck on all your work with Alan.

  19. David Miller says:

    I loved the title of this and the graphics. Excellent.

  20. Frank Santoro says:

    Found this while digging through the crates:

    Al’s take on it.

  21. Chris Beckett says:

    This was going to be Moore’s most ambitious work to date, and it just burnt out Sienkiewicz. I read an interview with Neil Gaiman where he commented on seeing Moore’s plan for the series, one gigantic drawing with lines connecting characters and scenes across the entire thing. It was immense, and so complex. Gaiman lamented not seeing it completed, though I have to agree with Frank, those first two issues are terribly difficult to get into.

    What others have said is all true according to what I’ve read. The gradual increase in color from issue #1’s b/w interior to a full color issue with #12, and like Mr. Wolk said, the script for #3 was something around 350 pages. Dense and demanding. I can see why Sienkiewicz bowed out.

    Moore tried to bring Big Numbers back as a radio play years later, but that tanked as well. (I imagine it would’ve been BBC radio, but can’t remember) That pretty much put the quash to any possibility of ever seeing it finished. Too bad. I would’ve liked to have seen how it all connected in the end, but I’m a Moore disciple too.

  22. doczauthor says:

    Here’s Al Columbia’s statement on Big Numbers (long – source:

    ‚ÄúThis will be the only definitive statement I ever make regarding ‘Big Numbers’.

    I recall it being a lot of fun, actually. I got to fuck a lot of girls, spend money and be driven around London in a white Rolls-Royce Limousine (twice!). These are only a few of the luxurious benefits provided by Kevin Eastman, much to his credit and kindness. It is true that Kevin has a big heart–no sarcasm there.

    I suppose at the very least I should apologize publicly to him for withholding and finally destroying the artwork he paid me to do. True, he never purchased it ‘to own’ and legally he had no claim to it, but still….ethically speaking, I should have handed it over to him to use at his discretion, according to our contract.

    I cannot blame him or Paul Jenkins (they are indistinguishable in my mind at this point in terms of their stance on all this) for bad-mouthing me all these years. I have even been entertained by some their more imaginative accounts of what happened.

    The simple truth is a truth much worse than rumor. At the risk of ruining the mystique surrounding the whole affair I will recount how I remember things to have occurred…as briefly and as clearly as possible. I was paid $9,200.00 to complete issue number four of Big Numbers. A lot of times Paul Jenkins was good enough to pay me as I went along, without even seeing the pages. I actually came to like Paul after a while. I felt bad for all the responsibility and pressure that was taking it’s toll on him. I remember he was often sweating and that his eyes were always popping out of their sockets like they would in a funny cartoon. He had a lot on his shoulders. He was a hard worker. Indeed, Paul’s tireless efforts on his own behalf should certainly be applauded.

    However, my opinion that Paul may be a snake in the grass is beside the point and inconsequential to what happened. He actually treated me like a little brother. A very lovable English chap was he.

    Okay, don’t tell anybody, but the truth be told, I didn’t even finish the issue–but was paid for it anyway. The reason I tore up the pages was so that I wouldn’t have to admit that I had only completed about half the issue when I quit despite having cashed all those checks. I loved Kevin’s money, I really did.

    You see, I never had any intention of staying with the project but merely attatched myself to it in order to gain (through Eastman’s money) a certain prominence, at which time I would quit in the manner that we have all heard about. This way, with no visible proof of the artwork, it would always shine as a masterpiece in people’s minds and imagination. I would be reviled by some and made a sort of hero by others who can understand or sympathize with ‘artistic integrity’ and all that punk rock bullshit.

    Yes, I am a boy with horns. There is not a single thing I say or do that is not designed with a specific outcome in mind. Any and all rumors about myself were generated and manufactured by me and me alone. Please allow me to introduce myself…”

  23. Anonymous says:

    You know, I seem to remember that this was a weird joke Al had made on the tcj boards a long time ago. He posted more than this one statement as I recall. Does anyone still have those?

    Mark Neuman

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