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.