Do you know who Bill Sienkiewicz is? If you’re reading this, you probably do. But, for the sake of asking, what do you think he thought about when he was starting his career drawing Moon Knight for Marvel Comics? What did he think about during this period of his life? Could you look at his artwork and infer? In some ways, I feel like I almost can. Like, somewhere around issues #21, #22, and #23 of the original Moon Knight series (published throughout the early 1980s), Sienkiewicz starts to draw more like himself. He starts to draw in his recognizable style, and he starts to flex that storytelling muscle. He takes this leap that’s artistic and personal. He’s worked hard for it, and it connects with the readers he’s talking to. He’s found an effective way to be creative.
On the other hand — I have no idea what Sienkiewicz was thinking about. No one does. He probably doesn’t even really remember himself. Maybe he has a pretty good idea. Maybe he can sense something familiar. But even then, it’s probably all impressions or pretty faded memories. I don’t know that thoughts, the way they happen, can exist once they’ve moved on. You tend to fill in the gaps to make the whole thing coherent, and that isn’t actually what went on. Either way, Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight comic books, the later, last few ones that he drew right before taking on his next Marvel assignment, feel real to me. They feel immediate and like something is happening. They are totally made by a person.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Just take 10 seconds and look at that image. Whether you think it’s ugly, goofy, or not worth your time. Just realize that’s a real drawing in the world, and someone spent a lot of time on it. They’ve spent a lot of time throughout their lives trying to draw that image that way. It required their sustained progress, month-to-month, year-to-year. They’ve had to really want to do this. And most likely, the motivation or idea to do so, to want to draw something like this, came from another human being. It came from someone who drew their own odd, colorful image in a comic book about a superhero, or a gangster, or an adventurer, and that oddity got into the reader’s blood. Then sometime in the early 1980s, Bill Sienkiewicz drew this picture because at some time in the past Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, or whoever-it-was did the same thing, and Bill Sienkiewicz was affected by it.
That, as far as I can tell, is a conversation. That is finding something shared in a specific thought and wanting to respond with an interpretation all your own. This is happening in superhero comic books, a corporate place of nonsense, or at least it was at one point in time. Today’s superhero comic books are in a different conversation. It’s a broader one, more directed at the issues of our world, and the editors and writers are trying to throw these pop-cultural versions of heroism at problems we real people cannot address, to comfort us. To make us feel less alone in our overwhelming concerns and some of our fears. To, at times, offer a bit of blind hope or a simple remedy. And that’s fine; I can’t get mad at that because the superheroes have always responded to what ails their time, whether it’s Hitler or drug addiction, or the AIDS crisis. They’re there for that. They make good bandaids. And even though bandaids fall off, they still serve a purpose. They make us at least consider a solution, or recognize that something is wrong. Otherwise, why would there be a bandaid there? That’s what superheroes are. They are their own way to write about and see the real world, as any sort of fiction is.
Moon Knight #26, where the following image (shown again) was published, is a story about violence and child abuse. It’s called “Hit It.” It’s about something Bill Sienkiewicz had direct experience with, unknowingly to the story’s writer, Doug Moench, as he typed the script in push to meet a tight deadline. Moench says so in an interview he did in 2006 with the then-Moon Knight writer, Charlie Huston.
MOENCH: The reason he told me he went so crazy on the book. He said to me, “I, first of all, drove a dagger in his heart and then exorcised his demons by writing that story.”
MOENCH: Because he had been abused as a child.
MOENCH: And that’s why he went nuts and turned a seven-page thing and blew it up. It was his way of working out these demons. He said he felt so much better by the time he was done, and he was more proud of that than anything else in his career.
I mean, maybe Doug Moench is livening up this account of what happened, but the basic fact that Bill Sienkiewicz took a seven-page script and turned it into 20-some pages of full artwork, a full issue, all because the story about child abuse hit a personal nerve. That he cared so much for an assignment for a comic book called Moon Knight — That’s interesting. That’s what people can do. They can find something real and purposeful in the things that are trivial or even products. And maybe, yes, placing such a focus on this corporate intellectual property, SuperHeros™, is a brain drain. Maybe it is, and I can’t disagree, completely. But maybe it’s also our small way and chance as participants in the world to turn things around? I mean, we can write and draw the superheroes and actually do something with them that is artistic and thoughtful. Is that perverse or pathetic to believe or even want to try? It could be. But would you rather someone attempt that interesting thing, like making one of these comic books into something worth seeing, or would you just want to roll with the script and continue to publish and see something subpar and hollow?
When Bill Sienkiewicz felt heavy and found trauma he’d rather not have, he made a comic book that showcased the talent and ability of people, their potential for good. It isn’t a story meant to teach a lesson, so much as it offers perspective and nuance, which hits harder. And not only that! It’s also interesting to look at, has style, has energy. It’s something you want to read.
Again, this image:
The text captions, written by Doug Moench, are rhythmic. They connect the character, Moon Knight, to the liveliness of the world around him. “Cats in windows … Money itching to change hands.” The character is a part of this scene. Another element of the city. Bill Sienkiewicz draws this sweeping, graceful presence connected to a cape, high above a night-time mess. “Always, always blood to be spilled” down below in those streets. And Moon Knight looks light as a feather.
That visual characterization tells you who this guy is. He’s a lunatic at ease in the debris. Comfortable with extremes. Bill Sienkiewicz presents him with style and composition. From a perspective anchored at a point that extends beyond the character. It encompasses what the image really is. It’s about those two buildings in the background, their yellow-lit windows. The people inside, having dinner and TV. They see what we see. They look at this image of a costumed man gliding through the sky, and recognize something. They see that the world is crazy.
Bill Sienkiewicz decided to show this part of the story in this way. It’s his conceptualization and guiding hand that portrays it. He is communicating to a reader. And the communication of this idea, visually — that the world is kind of wild, and beautiful, and what the fuck — when that image is complemented by thoughtfully written prose … It is an example of people saying something through an art form often doubted. In a genre that’s super nerdy, corporate, and Disney-fied. But doing it, nonetheless.
There were real people who created, wrote, and drew these products to make a middle-class living, on insane deadlines. Competing with each other. Making stuff up! These creative types evolved from a single point of origin. A guy who did it first — A central, defining artist, who laid the ground rules and instigated copycats, and then summoned new, working artists. People who grew up reading as fans. They took over the business, slowly. But first, they had to learn the ropes via the standards of their time. Or steal from the best, their tricks and flourishes. All for a paycheck. To keep the machine revving and running. Because comic books are a business, and it’s run by people.
In the interview I referenced earlier, Doug Moench doesn’t describe an orderly, kind work environment or job. Instead, he says this about how Moon Knight #26 was published:
MOENCH: Eh … let me tell you how that thing got written. Bill had blown it up. The editors had screwed up on the deadlines. We can name names – Mr. Dennis O’Neil – had screwed up so badly he’d forgotten to send a whole issue out to the other penciler who was going to do a fill-in issue or something. He discovered that my plot was buried on his desk. Meanwhile, Bill was going nuts on “Hit It.” And Bill brought it in and it went from a potential reaction of “Oh my god! What do you think you’re doing taking this seven-page backup and blowing it up to a full issue” to “Thank god there’s a full issue here.”
HUSTON: So at that point they didn’t care about content. It was something they could run.
MOENCH: That’s right. And so he called me up and said, “I’m going to ask the biggest favor I’ve ever asked any freelancer in my life. Can you get on a bus and come to New York right now to script here so we can get it out by 7 tonight by special courier.
HUSTON: Oh my god.
MOENCH: I said you gotta be kidding me. I’m in Pennsylvania. “Oh, please, please, please. My job’s on the line …” So I wound up scripting that whole thing in this tin closet. It was the only room they had open at Marvel. They had me crammed into this tiny little room with a typewriter. I did it on the fly right there, right out of the typewriter. Thankfully it was a stream of consciousness style. I’d never written anything faster. And they were literally ripping pages out of the typewriter and taking them over to the bullpen to have it lettered right on the spot. You asked me what the reaction was, and I don’t think there was any reaction other than, “Get this out by special delivery.”
Doug Moench describes making Moon Knight #26 as a gig. A fun one, in ways, I’m sure. But a job, and jobs suck. And you totally cheat at your job sometimes. Why wouldn’t you? You’re not a machine. You can outsmart the apparatus — The company you work for and what’s expected. You can find cracks in the cement, if only by luck. That’s how Bill Sienkiewicz got a chance at something superb. He had it in him to give luck something back.