For four decades, Bill Sienkiewicz has been a trend-setting artist and storyteller whose distinctive style smuggled avant garde notions of design, expressionism and fine art sensibility into the pages of comics like New Mutants, Moon Knight, Elektra: Assassin, and graphic novels like Stray Toasters and Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix, permanently expanding the visual vocabulary of American comics. Mainstream media audiences probably know his work best from the FX series Legion (featuring a character he co-created with Chris Claremont in the pages of Marvel’s New Mutants) and for his alarming interpretation of the Daredevil/Spider-Man villain Kingpin, seen in its full, terrifying glory in the recent animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feature film. Those who follow him on social media also know his work doing beautiful memorial portraits of recently-departed celebrities and people of note.
We also know he’s been quite political at times, and takes a rose-colored view of awful leftists like Jimmy Carter, and until some time ago, was hostile to the Comicsgate campaign in a way not all that different from a 9-11 Truther – believed it was inherently evil because he wanted to. Sienkiewicz’s leftism takes away from the better impact of his work whenever he veers into politics.
ROB SALKOWITZ: So you’ve got the new art book out… what can you tell us about it?
BILL SIENKIEWICZ: I’ve been approached over the years to do art books but kept holding off. A retrospective seemed daunting, like something you do when you’ve been around for a while. People wanted me to do a comic art book for a while, but I work in a lot of different arenas – I do stuff for TV, animation, music, and so on – so I wanted a comprehensive book. When Six Foot Press approached me, I felt like I was dealing with people who understand comics and art: they’ve done stuff for MOMA and other institutions, and weren’t looking just for superheroes and punching and stuff.
I mean, there’s a lot of comic art in the book as well. Having grown up loving comics but always hearing about how they’re just for kids, I’ve set my career toward changing people’s mind about that. I wanted the books to reflect that combination of comics, illustration and fine art.
I don’t think he’ll change many minds if they realize comics have been exploited for the worst liberal propaganda over the past 2 decades or so, and he did nothing on his part to tone down the rhetoric.
RS: What’s the through line or big story about your journey as an artist that you want people to come away with from the books?
BS: The through line for me… it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially over the last couple of weeks. People have been running down comics – and now comic-based movies – as something juvenile and basically unserious. I’ve always loved the medium, but I could see that comics as an art form were getting the short end of the stick in every way. As an artist in school, if you drew comics, it limited your possibilities – and certainly your dating options! Maybe kids thought superheroes were cool. But getting anyone over a certain age to appreciate comics as art was a struggle.
For me, I filtered that through my own artistic influences – abstract expressionism, jazz, classical illustration, European and Japanese comics too. I wanted to do work that tells the story and could be respected as art. But I worked up to it. If I had gone into comics with the abstract style first, they wouldn’t have hired me. I “Trojan Horsed” my way in with a traditional style.
I hope people will look at what I’ve done as making a contribution to something bigger. If it’s created something of interest and advanced the medium, the perception into something new, that’s the goal. It puts my work in a context in terms of comics and culture.
Hey, I don’t deny he has made some significant contributions ever since his debut at age 19 in the late 1970s (these days, if I’m correct, you have to be at least 21 to get the jobs his peers like Marv Wolfman and Gerry Conway got when they were in their mid-teens), but again, if and when he’s ever sunk into political rhetoric and run the gauntlet of attacking people who could be his own fans, that’s where he veers into dismay.
RS: The subject of the artistic merit of comic-based movies and TV seems to be big right now. How does that tie in to what you’re saying about the medium?
BS: For me, hearing Scorsese come out and say that stuff, it felt weird. My whole goal as a kid was to get people to respect the medium as much as I did. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time. Hearing the art form denigrated my entire life, I want comics treated as literature, as journalism, as art – and as cinema. I’m not just talking about superhero movies.
With Scorsese and Coppola, I respect their work and opinion. It’s influenced me. Another example… early on in my career, after I started changing my style, I was under the impression that Art Spiegelman [Maus], who I know, we’d talk comics and art – I heard through other people that he “despised my work” and thought it “wasn’t comics.” It was illustration or whatever. That always stuck with me, because that’s the last thing I wanted to be. I thought comics could do anything, and I was disappointed that Art was taking it on himself to define what “comics” were. I later found out that wasn’t exactly what he said.
But the point is, it just feels like, you know, no matter who you are, you don’t get to decide what is or isn’t the art form. It’s not for me to say, even if I don’t like a style, to say that’s not comics, or that’s not cinema. It just feels presumptuous. It’s always been a big tent. Comics can do anything. Film can do anything. When you start judging, maybe it’s fear. It’s awareness of mortality.
Stuff is always changing. It’s about the inclusiveness. It fits in somewhere in the continuity. My work is built on guys who came before me. And if my work has influenced other people – and I’m aware it has – they’ll influence the next generation. Scorsese is still pushing those boundaries.
Honestly, my biggest complaint about the Marvel movies is that they replaced that part at the very beginning, where they used to show comic book pages drawn by Jack Kirby and the old artists, with clips from the movies. Forgetting the source material is worse than anything they’ve done with the movies as movies.
Now here’s someplace where he’s making a certain amount of sense. Marvel threw Kirby – and Joe Simon – under the bus at the turn of the century after they started forcing their co-creation, Captain America, into tales rife with Chomskyism like the Marvel Knights labeled run, which subsequently was discarded, yet hard-left turns still prevailed in what followed, as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run demonstrates. If the Marvel movies don’t contain any direct nods to famous artists and writers in their credits or elsewhere, if at all, that’s certainly not doing much to prove the filmmakers truly respect the medium. I gotta admit though, it’s pretty surprising to learn Spiegelman, who’s very left-leaning himself, may not have been impressed with Sienkiewicz’s work. Maybe his political upbringing had something to do with that?
There was even a recent interview at Comics Beat, where Sienkiewicz said at the end:
Maveal: With all of the things that you have — and continue to — try with your work in mind, what do you have to say about being considered one of the first artists to bring in a distinct fine art influence into the comics world?
Sienkiewicz: Comics are art. There is no difference to me. So in that sense I just feel like I’m another one in line of the tradition of people who have done fine art. I may have brought in some things that art more associated with the traditional sense of fine art, but that’s only because I know the medium can handle it. That’s why I love seeing all of the young talent coming up. They’re defining the terms of what comics and art means now. It’s expanding the language and the medium and I absolutely love that. Anything you throw at comics, it can handle it.
Well if he believes it’s art, he should avoid fighting with anybody taking a position he doesn’t agree with, like Comicsgate supporters; not that he actually has for a while already, after what happened to Billy Tucci. If he believes the medium can handle it, maybe he should consider it’s capability of handling right-wing values too. Or is that too much?
Sienkiewicz was also interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter, whose interviewer said something odd:
Comics is also a more immediate art form, in a way; it’s a populist medium, obviously, but the speed of production. You can create work and it immediately gets to an audience. There’s something to that. I’m curious — how did you choose the work represented in this first volume?
A lot of that was Six Foot, and Ben Davis, who did the essay. I kind of left that up to them and my art rep, Sal [Abbinati, who edited Revolution]. There were certain things that I want, and those things might go in the second or third book, but what I think they trying to do, because of the work that they’ve chosen, is present the work in a way that best exemplified their point of view. In that respect, I deferred to them.
If only it were “populist”, but if that’s supposed to serve as a positive description that makes you think, the sad reality of comicdom now is how it all but serves as a platform for leftist agendas and other insanity, which is hardly what I’d call populist, or obvious.
Is there still a dream project? Is there still a sense of “this is the thing I still need to do”?
There is sort of a nebulous dream project. I’m thinking that, because I’ve worked in so many different styles, I’m almost thinking it might be the time to not necessarily move away from doing stuff for DC or Marvel or corporate gigs, but to dive into what Frank [Miller] did with Sin City, where he took himself back to what he was into as a teenager. I love the idea of doing a three-pager that’s just silly, then a dozen pages that are painted and have a deep, operatic, Wagnerian aspect to them, and then another thing that’s a pop song. Somethings that are narrative, and some things that are not. It’s like waking up in the morning and drawing something and asking, “Is it a horse, is it a cat, is it a cow?” No, it’s blue. It’s like that. It’s jazz.
I think it would be the time to move away from mainstream, so long as you have rotten apples like Quesada/DiDio continuing to run the store. Besides, corporatism, I am now convinced, has brought down the quality of industry and merit considerably.
The LA-ist website also interviewed him, and he said:
Sienkiewicz feels like superhero movies are going through the same growth process that comics did, with critics refusing to accept them as legitimate art.
“Comics are actually quite accepted [now]. Even though they’re usually referred to as ‘the source material,'” Sienkiewicz said. “All of the s—-, and the heat that we got, and the dismissive stuff that comics got when I was growing up — it’s all on the films.”
He said that he understands where Martin Scorsese is coming from in his critiques of superhero movies, but that he isn’t seeing all that those movies — or that comics — can be.
I do think comics are art (at least as long as the products in question don’t go overboard with poltiical rhetoric)…but I don’t think the films are. Certainly not if they’re exploited for the sake of leftist propaganda, as Kevin Feige’s signaled will be the case going forward. And alas, if the difference between sales of comics and movies says anything, it’s that the film adaptations are accepted, but not the source material, because in contrast to movies, they sell only several thousand copies apiece, and goodness knows how many are gathering dust on shelves and in storages, because they could be non-returnable, by far one of the biggest mistakes the industry made in comparison to other mediums.
Sienkiewicz hopes that the new series of art books helps indoctrinate people into his art, introducing them to something different.
Well good luck with that. But if he goes overboard with leftism in any of his future projects, and makes the mistake of commenting on issues like Comicsgate by demonizing the supporters – which could easily include moviegoers who saw the very items Scorsese’s got problems with – then Sienkiewicz won’t be proving it’s a welcome – or different – environment at all.
I wish it could be said Sienkiewicz is doing the industry a favor, but I suspect, in the end, far less than he’s allegedly hoping for will be encouraged to try. If anything, it’s a real shame he’s been so blatantly political these past years, which does carry the risk of alienating customers.
Originally published here.