It’s Pronounced [sin-KEV-ich]

For years I called him Bill “See-EN-key-a-wix.”  That is, until somebody told me it was “SINK-a-vich.”  Of course that was wrong too, but in a way, that’s as it should be.  Most of us don’t “get” Bill Sienkiewicz’s art on the first try either.  He’s one of those artists who always stays a little ahead of you, forcing you to try to play catch up.

Some of you know his work well, some not at all.  But what Jack Kirby was for the ‘60s, Neal Adams for the ‘70s, and Alex Ross for the ‘90s, Bill Sienkiewicz was for the ‘80s.  In fact, from 1982 to 1990, Bill Sienkiewicz may have been the most innovative mainstream artist in the history of comics.

At age 20 he managed to win a ringing endorsement from Neal Adams and a job at Marvel, primarily working with writer Doug Moench on Moon Knight.   Sienkiewicz was impressive, though some dismissed him as merely an Adams clone.  Yet despite their similar styles, there was always more to Sienkiewicz’s art.  As Adams later wrote, when he reviewed the young artist’s portfolio he also saw the stamp of Bob Peak, a commercial illustrator and creator of some of the most legendary movie posters of the ‘60s and ‘70s.[1] Looking back on Peak’s poster art for My Fair Lady, The Spy Who Loved Me, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Apocalypse Now, it’s easy to see the influence Adams is talking about.  Sienkiewicz had an exceptional commercial design sense that not only enhanced his interior comics art but also made him one of the best cover artists in the medium.

But a funny thing happened during Sienkiewicz’s run on Moon Knight.  Shortly into the series, he had begun experimenting with his style, inching away from the Adams influence towards something more personal and expressive.  It was a startling transformation—the monthly comic book equivalent of watching Picasso as he drew literally hundreds of sketches in preparation for painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  By the time Picasso was done, he had taken his first major steps towards Cubism and was dragging the rest of the world into the era of Modern Art.

Sienkiewicz’s transformation was no less electric.  He appeared to be throwing out all the rules, abandoning the conventions of mainstream adventure strip art in favor of his new, expressionistic style.  By the time Sienkiewicz was done, he had made the notion of a “House style” obsolete.

Sienkiewicz was still a bit of a secret at the time, with Moon Knight occupying the margins of the Marvel Universe, but that all changed in 1984 when Sienkiewicz took over the art on Chris Claremont’s popular X-Men spinoff, The New Mutants. The collaboration wasn’t ideal—Claremont’s verbosity didn’t match well with Sienkiewicz’s frenetic art, so their stories sometimes read a little like Bob Dylan trying to sing over a John Coltrane solo.  But the art was unlike anything in the industry.  It was the same year Alan Moore was making waves at DC on Saga of the Swamp Thing and both he and Sienkiewicz were doing much the same thing—revolutionizing what was possible for the writing and the art of mainstream comic books.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Batman #400—a jam issue written by Moench that featured several artists, most of whom employed relatively conventional styles.  Thus, when Sienkiewicz suddenly took over for seven pages, it was as if David Lynch had stepped in and directed three consecutive episodes of some routine detective show like Castle. It’s hard to describe the break in tone and style that Sienkiewicz’s chapter had on that book, but speaking as a young reader, once I saw those seven pages, it ruined me for anything else.

The next four years featured some of Sienkiewicz’s best work, including Elektra: Assassin, The Shadow, a Classics Illustrated adaptation of Moby-Dick, Stray Toasters, a Jimi Hendrix biography, and the first two issues of his epic collaboration with Alan Moore—Big Numbers.  The two creators had seemed destined to work together, and Big Numbers was the most mature and ambitious project either of them had attempted.  Unfortunately, it got derailed after the second issue and remains the greatest “lost” comic of all time.[2]

Any of those works would be worth a series of articles, but for today’s column I thought we could simply look at the first few pages of one of Sienkiewicz’s books from 1986—an original graphic novel written by Frank Miller.  The book was called Daredevil: Love and War, and story-wise it makes a nice lead-in to Miller and Dave Mazzuchelli’s Born Again.  It featured fully painted art at a time when that was still quite new and rare, and it provided a more complex portrait of the Kingpin than had been seen before.

Part of what makes a Sienkiewicz book like Love and War so exciting is that he’s able to get away with almost anything, but that sense of energy and liberation wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t anchored by his masterful sense of design and his command over the fundamentals of anatomy and realism.  He’s one of the best examples of the old adage that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

The book begins with a splash page that features the New York skyline, all shimmering rectangles of different proportions, with the Kingpin’s skyscraper towering above all the others.  It could almost be a promotional image for a souvenir T-shirt or a set of coasters if not for the streaks of smoke rising from the bottom of the page, making the whole image look like a poster hung over an ashtray with several still-smoldering cigarettes.

The splash page also doubles as the title page, so we see our first reference anywhere to the specific title of the book—Love and War.  As the title suggests, it’s a story of opposites, male and female, wealth and poverty, power and weakness, sanity and madness, compassion and vengeance.

These thematic binaries are then reinforced by Sienkiewicz’s layout.  The opening splash page is elongated from top to bottom by the vertical skyscrapers, but the next page redirects our focus with four page-wide, horizontal panels.  It’s almost like he’s turned the book on its side.

But the contrast isn’t simply between the orientation of the pages, as on that second page, he also juxtaposes two strikingly different visual styles.  The top panel features a close-up of the face of the Kingpin’s sleeping wife, Vanessa.  The horizontal panel directly below gives us the same image of Vanessa, only the perspective has moved so we now see her face on the far right side of the page.  Taking up first two-thirds of the panel is an unidentified material pattern that could be a curtain, a bedspread, or … something else.

It’s something else.  In the third panel, we finally see a full shot of the room, with Vanessa sleeping on the bed in the background.  The foreground is dominated by that unidentified pattern which turns out to be an enormous vest, for on a chair by the bed, slumped over and viewed from behind, sits the Kingpin.  His shape is more geometric than natural, made of sharp lines and angles, and his size dwarfs everything else around him, including the bed.

The final panel on the page reverses the perspective so that we can finally see the Kingpin from the front.  It’s a close-up of his face—really just his eyes, nose, and ears—and there is no pretense at maintaining proper proportion.  The sides of his face take up virtually the entire width of the page.  What is striking is the difference in style.  Vanessa’s close-up at the top of the page is painted realistically, but the Kingpin’s face is an abstraction—a cartoon.  He could almost be a middle-aged Charlie Brown, scarred by a lifetime of corruption, violence, and tragedy.

Over the next two pages, Sienkiewicz continues to play with the enormity of the Kingpin’s size.  Rather than drawing him as an overly large man—Andre the Giant in a business suit—Sienkiewicz’s Kingpin might as well be ten feet tall and a thousand pounds.  He reinforces that sense of size by consistently painting the Kingpin’s head in the middle of his body rather than on top.  It’s as if the Kingpin’s upper torso has swollen both out and up, expanding much like his criminal empire until it surrounds what used to be the human in the center.

Sienkiewicz follows up this cartoonish abstraction that dominates the opening sequence with a change of scene and a dramatic close-up of a woman who will play a key role in the story.  She is blind and wears dark sunglasses, though in the picture they are pushed down to the tip of her nose.  It’s a stunning image, more like something out of a magazine ad for designer sunglasses than a panel of a Daredevil comic book.  And yet, before the reader can get comfortable with the realistic illustration, Sienkiewicz reminds us that there are no rules and he reverts to some of the most primitive of cartoonist techniques, providing us with a very flat, boxy-looking silhouette of a professional criminal and using arrows and labels to identify the figure as the “Professional” and the bottle in his hand as “Chloroform.”  It’s as if the set decorator from the old Adam West Batman show had come along and started slapping signs on everything.

At which point Sienkiewicz has established that he is willing to use every visual technique at his command to tell this particular story.  After all, it is a story about opposite extremes … about both love and war.

The end result is a tightly focused, often forgotten mini-masterpiece and a wonderful showpiece for Sienkiewicz.  If Elektra: Assassin is his and Miller’s chaotic symphony, Love and War is their chamber music.   It’s also as good and accessible an introduction to Sienkiewicz as you’re likely to find.

And who knows … it might even inspire us to learn how to pronounce his name.

[1] Tales from the Edge #15.  June 1999.  Introduction by Neal Adams.  Print.

[2] The collapse of the project is a long and sometimes contradictory tale, but Sienkiewicz has written his own account of what happened here.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. I’ll never be able to pronounce it correctly (it’s okay, he can’t pronounce my name either), but I love his work since New Mutants. What amazes me about him is his how clear his storytelling is. Not sure if it’s Adams’ influence, or maybe even Shooter’s, but he gets that a comic should be more than just a collection of pretty pictures; it should present a clear narrative. He can throw whatever he wants and I always know what the hell is going on. Which unfortunately is not always the case with others.

  2. Always Loved his work…
    From the clear, narratively driven style of Adams to his own unique style that was always interesting but never distracted from the story…
    I’ve always thought that Klimt must have been a big influence.

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