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Bill Sienkiewicz: The godfather of the graphic novel

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This article was taken from issue 67 of ImagineFX. If you like it you're bound to like our current ultimate comic art issue, on sale now. Have a look at what's inside, and visit our shop for more print and digital options.

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Bill Sienkiewicz
A descendant of Nobel prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, Bill has made his own impact on literature through numerous comics projects since breaking into the industry. He’s recently relocated from Connecticut to Los Angeles.
www.billsienkiewiczart.com



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Summer 1986. The first instalment of Elektra: Assassin rolled off the presses and the world of comic books was dragged out of its 50-year adolescence. Flat colours and unsubtle inking gave way to tones and textures, from watercolours to oils and on to found objects and scraps of paper. The artist behind this transition was Bill Sienkiewicz: the father of modern graphic novels.

“When it came out there was literally no response for a week or two,” Bill recalls. “People didn’t know what to think of it or what to make of it. So we felt like it was a real misfire. But we shouldn’t have been surprised that a lot of people didn’t get it. We didn’t get it either. All we knew was that we were trying something different.”

He created the artwork for Elektra and the Daredevil story Love & War that year with the legendary Frank Miller, who wrote the stories. The two were in sync and unstoppable, and both have since enjoyed stellar careers beyond comic books.



First Marvel break

However, his first Marvel gig was Moon Knight in 1980, which was pivotal in his formation as an artist. Graduating from Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts in New Jersey, he loved posters and magazines, but chose to pursue a job in comics. A strong start with Moon Knight was followed by criticism that he was too similar to Neal Adams, whose art Bill both admired and studied. Stung by the comments, he used Moon Knight to explore ways of being as un-Adams-like as possible.

“A lot of the time, I would jump away from drawing anything at all similar to Neal, almost like putting my hand on a hot stove. If I felt it looked a little bit too much like Neal, even if I hadn’t been thinking about it, my response would not be unlike two magnets of the same polarity coming into contact. I’d slingshot off into a different solution, a different arena or a different direction. So Moon Knight was a huge turning point for me,” Bill says.



Branching out

Cementing his artistic vibe with the Elektra stories was a precursor to writing and drawing his own graphic novel in 1988, Stray Toasters. Two years later, Bill did a powerful graphic novel version of Moby Dick for Classics Illustrated and also worked on four series of political collectors cards for Eclipse Comics, which commented on issues such as US support for puppet dictatorships. They were all key creative moments for him.

The 90s steered Bill back into illustration for movie posters and covers for magazines including Entertainment Weekly and Spin. He also created the fantastic Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix.

Picking up digital tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, he could work faster and make client amends more efficiently, but he still loves to work with physical materials. “I do a lot more digital now than I did, and for a period I worked in nothing but digital – but I’d base it on a lot of stuff that I’ve learned from actual media,” Bill says. “If I’m working in acrylic and I’ve got gesso or matte medium or any kind of plastic gloop on my hands, and I have to wash it off, it’s a tactile sensation. It isn’t like I’m drawing on a piece of glass.”

Bill has never turned his back on comics, evidenced in his sublime chapter in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Endless Nights, for which he shared an Eisner Award in 2004, and 30 Days of Night and Nightmare Factory Volume 2. Marrying comics and film, he perfectly captured the Joker’s insanity in concept art for The Dark Knight.

Nearly 25 years since the release of Elektra, things have come full circle, with Bill currently helping on Neal Adams’s series Batman: Odyssey.

Back to comics

“I’m inking some of Neal’s stuff because it’s fun. Our styles are so radically different now,” he says. “I understand how he sees form, how physics work in his world and how he renders his choices, because I spent years and years and years dissecting it and absorbing it!”

Exploring other ventures seems to have reinvigorated Bill’s interest in working in comics. “I’ve come back to the point where I love comics as an art form in and of themselves, and I feel that in a lot of respects they’re unique. They needn’t be the sister, brother or relative of theatre, film or anything else. Let comics be comics,” he says.

With typical inventiveness, he’s now working on a Western story with the grit of Sergio Leone’s films and the dreaminess of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s a way off, but the project has him in positive mood. “I’m doing all this other stuff, but man, I’m champing at the bit to do something that I don’t have to worry about whether 200,000 people are going to get it or two million people are going to get it. I’d settle for 20 or 200 people. Having a good conversation with a smaller group of people – that’s more rewarding and you’re all kind of on the same page.”

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Introducing Stray Toasters
Could there be a movie based on Bill’s fantastic graphic novel?
“Everyone wants to make a film out of something, and they seem to think that getting it out there to heads of studios as a comic book is the way to do it. But I sort of feel that if it’s going to be a graphic novel, it’s got to be a graphic novel first, not just in form only, and then perhaps made into a movie,” he says.



“When I did Stray Toasters, even though there’s a lot of interest now in it being a film, I never thought of it as a movie. I didn’t go into it thinking cynically that it’s going to be a precursor to a film. I just did it because I felt like it was the right kind of comic to do. It was something that I needed to say.”

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