If all you’re interested in is comic books, turn back now. I don’t want you reading this interview with Bill Sienkiewicz with anything but an open mind.
I mean that in the most non-bitchy, anti-elitist way.
Bill evokes a sense of wonder when you start talking to him. From the beginning, Bill lives, breathes, eats and is art. He thinks about the choices he makes therein, whether subconscious or conscious.
Make the distinction right there. I said “art,” not comic books.
Sure, Bill cut his teeth on Moon Knight in the early 80s, at the same time coming from out of the shadow of an obvious influence, Neal Adams.
He made the step easily with his next big project, The New Mutants, showing us that – with issue 18 — these gawky teenagers that had been drawn by certainly capable artists like Bob McLeod, Sal Buscema and Tom Mandrake would now be taken down a different path. Something a lot less conventional and lot more interesting.
And the work that probably’s associated with him more than most: Elektra: Assassin. It stood up and said, “Comics can be more. We can be medium. Pencil and ink were only the beginning.”
And it’s not like he’s fallen off the face of the earth. He did his own series, Stray Toasters, which has received many kudos from press and fans alike. He inks some of the most random books here and there. He’s done commercial art that you’ve seen in places you might have noticed (Olympic posters, advertising storyboards, movie posters). He’s doing covers for everyone these days, most notably the latest “X” book, The Brotherhood, and the compilation of the Foot Soldiers for AiT/Planet Lar.
But Bill is much more than a “comc book artist.” To paraphrase the Mercedes commercial, just as you don’t really try to compare a Pacer and a Benz, you don’t put J. Scott Campbell in the same category as Bill. There is no comparison to make. The label isn’t big enough to stick.
From the following discussion, you will see that Bill is a thinking man’s artist. He’s articulate, he’s inteliigent and he mixes just as well talking about Hindu mysticism and he does about how to approach a New Mutants story.
Join us as we found out what makes Bill tick, why he’s not doing a monthly corporate book and why comic book fan message boards all have a bit of the Hindu Devil in them.
Michael David Thomas: How many ways have people mangled your name?
Bill Sienkiewicz: How many pages is the issue? I’ve heard it so many ways. At one point, I was keeping a list. Some of them were just too far out there. Most of the ones I’ve had as an adult have been good intentioned.
If I were a kid now, considering the state of school shootings… Some of those kids had said that they had been abused and picked on…I’m not saying I would have been one of the ones with a gun, but I certainly would have had cause in terms of the name bashing.
Aside from just the butchering of the name intentionally there was the whole stupid Pollack thing. I grew up in a pretty rural area. I was the only one with a name longer than nine letters. Anything longer than nine letters was Van something, because it was a Dutch settlement area. That’s a long way of saying that it’s been butchered.
MDT: Has there been a time when someone hasn’t butchered your name?
BS: Yeah, there have been a couple of times when someone will pronounce it dead on. It turns out that they have spoken Polish or worked with somebody with a similar last name or have watched enough ball games to know that Mankiewicz or Stankiewicz are players with foreign sounding names. Or they just seem to luck out. I’ve gotten a couple of times when I call FedEx or been on a help line for tech support line and when I give my name, the person will say “Sienkiewicz? There’s an artist who does comic books with the same name.” I say, “Really? That’s interesting…”
MDT: What’s the easiest way to tell people how to pronounce your name?
BS: The rudest way is by saying, “Bill.” [laughs] But to be honest, I understand. Some people get really nervous about asking. At this point, I just say it. It’s pronounced SIN-KEV-ITCH. After a while, all the jokes have completely depleted out of it…The first thing that people see on my web site is just my name printed with my signature. Behind it is the phonetical pronunciation.
MDT: I think that was perfect. I had butchered it also for years before I learned the correct way.
BS: Culturally, it means something like “Son of the son” in Polish. In Poland, it’s as ubiquitous as “Smith.” I wanted to know what the actual pronunciation was.
Very early on, when I first started, I did what one of my uncles had done, which was to spell it as it was pronounced. S-I-N- K-W-I-C-H. [Later] I decided no. Whereas my mother and my sister pronounced it SINK-O-WITZ. Whatever way somebody would approach it, as long as they got within the general ballpark, they’d respond. It sounds like splitting hairs. “Mr. Sinkowitz…” No, it SIN-KEV-ITCH.
Dave Sim and I used to have… at signings, a signature writing contest to see who could sign our name the fastest. I would have to pick Dave Sim to go up against.
I just want to go back one thing. I don’t want to make light of the school shootings. I want to be clear. I think those are absolutely horror. My point was that times have changed. It’s like Nietzche: that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. It acutely made me aware of ethnic intolerance.
It also helped develop a sense of humor. Having a long ridiculous last name in terms of how it looked, being full of consonants, and being overweight with glasses. That’s part of the reason I developed the artwork and became a class clown as part of a survival mechanism. I think if more kids tried to cope that way instead of going for Daddy’s gun. Of course it sounds so simplistic to say that, but I think that teasing has been with us forever in schools and it will always be that way.
MDT: As long as we’re talking about this, after the school shooting they were saying, “Video games are evil.” My first thought was, “Oh, God, the next thing they’re going to go say that comic books are the problem, too.” I was wondering if you could see a censorship drive against comic books coming up again.
BS: Another one? When Elektra: Assassin first came out, there was a newspaper article that came out in a Dallas-Fort Worth paper with a full-color image of the first issue of the cover [for issue 1]. The article was written by Clara Tuman. I remember the name because I was engrossed in the O.J. trial. She was one of the reporters on the air. She started doing cultural commentary. She wrote about what comics are doing to our kids. Elektra got ripped pretty badly by her to the point where she was saying we must protect our children from this. We ended up using that quote on the back of the book to help sell it.
I also find that having the article on the first page of the weekend leisure section and having the image almost be full page with this long-legged babe, ninja-bitch goddess toting this ridiculously large gun is like Oliver Stone’s film, Natural Born Killers. Which is sort of decrying the media’s involvement and saying how horrible it is.
They can’t have it both ways. If they don’t want to sell it, don’t show it. They might say, “This might actually sell more papers. Look at this, isn’t this horrible? Can you see this? This is horrible. How many papers did we sell as a result of putting this image in there?”
I think there was a time when comics were attacked and that was the start of it. I think Frank [Miller] even mentioned it in his foreword to the collection. “Thanks to the religious right and the televangelists for not keeping their own homes clean. So that they ended up taking the attention away from us.”
It’s all specious. I don’t think that comics deserve that kind of rap. I feel that comics, like any other… public medium, is open for any kind of range.
We had rock ‘n’ roll, [the French] made Moebius and Druillet their comic gods. In Japan, they made them deities practically. Comics are so ubiquitous and revered there and so cross generational and cross-purpose. You can have everything from the anime style — incredible S&M and bondage stuff — to cute little animated funny little characters — like Pokemon or Pikachu or that kind of stuff — to how to do a corporate takeover. …[I]t’s done in a comic book illustrated style.
There was a big to-do over Joe Sacco’s comic page in Time Magazine on the Arab-Israeli situation. People wrote in and said it was not appropriate; it was making light of the situation. I disagree completely. I think it’s a perfect example… [especially] in light of something so huge as the multi-millennial war between the Arabs and the Israelis.
[U]se comics as sort of a soapbox. They are something that should be taken seriously. It’s kind of insulting and a minor thing to say that, but I do feel that it is a viable medium for exploration and for weighty issues. It seems that we’re always trying to prove that, from one level to the next. What we did bring to light, I felt like we were making real inroads.
The comic style had changed, sort of became the Image look, which became the antithesis of that direction. It wasn’t necessarily geared for adults. Although some of the subject matter may have been, it was cast in the superhero stuff. That’s not a criticism; it’s just the way things turned out. There’s a sense of frustration that comics are always struggling to be taken seriously. Like anything else, some will and some won’t.
We’re never going to get the blanket acceptance that people in the medium are striving for, in terms of it being an adult medium. I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least [not] in our lifetime. That’s not sour grapes or negativity. It’s just a realism. There will always be pockets of acceptance and there will always be pcoket5s of those extreme conservatives that will be bashing us. That’s really a culture war. You’ll find that I digress like crazy… [laughs]
MDT: I wanted to go back through your work. I remember hearing about comparisons of you to Neal Adams when you started on Moon Knight. Some complimentary, some not so much. Did you hear a lot of the same criticisms?
BS: Oh, sure. That was quite a rude awakening for me.
Being influenced is one thing… and I’m searching for the right way to say this… When I grew up, because I was kind of a loner. I had friends… but in terms of comics, there weren’t a lot of kids around who read comics and not many drew, so comics were always a way of creating and controlling and writing stories in which I was control of a world… real family situations or real world situations. I think most kids tend to feel that they don’t have any power so… playing out the comic fantasy was the way to get that.
Studying Neal’s work, I hated it. I became obsessed however… and became fixated on it. It was like my intention was to be Neal. Not so much [to] be him. Not so much like the All About Eve Scenario. But I wanted to be as good as because his work looked correct.
Even though I studied anatomy like crazy — Bridgeman, Perard — I would just draw sketchbooks filled with bent knees and elbows. I would draw the skeletons and try to name all the muscles attached. It was like I was going to medical school and this is back when I was in grammar school. I really tried to learn all that I could.
There was no one at this point saying don’t do that, you’ve got to be your own person. At that point, I think I wanted to be anybody but me. When I finally got started, what got me hired was the fact that I drew like Neal. Neal in fact called up Shooter and said, “I’ve got this kid fresh off the street and he draws like me. Is that a problem?”
I had an appointment to just get looked at and walked out with the Moon Knight book, the series. That’s when the criticism started. And that was a rude awakening. [E]verything I had set my sights on for a survival mechanism and as a laudable goal [was dismissed]… [I]t upset me to the point of making me angry and making me feel invisible.
Neal has been nothing but wonderful and supportive from then till now. I don’t think he sees me as a clone anymore. I think he sees — and I see myself – as having broke away from that. As far as training and learning, I don’t think I could have picked anyone better.
I was also at art school before I did comics. I was starting to get into a lot of different painters. It was a school of many painters and artists and designers. I was a home. When I tried to get into comics, I pulled out the Neal mindset. I could kind of wax on the techniques pretty easily.
I found out many painters — not so much illustrators — the real abstract painting was something I really loved. That was part of the reason my style changed after the Neal Adams influence. I felt like I had to mind myself. I found myself open to any other influence, which is probably appropriate in a way. It’s like people dating to find the right mate to find [himself or herself].
You’re not defined by what you cut yourself away from. If I slice myself from everything that’s around me, then what’s left is the core will be essentially who I am. I think that’s a diminiutive way of finding yourself. By finding yourself by cutting yourself off.
I’ve seen that in comics. I’ve seen that in a lot of art forms. The real test is to see who you are in the greater context of society and community. That’s really what spurred the change. It took a while.
It came to a head about the time of Elektra, but was in the process of moving…[f]rom that painful experience of feeling dismissed and invisible. Neal was still as important to me. [B]ut it became as important to be… not like Neal. [T]he thing is, it’s still in the picture.
…I look back at that time and firmly and totally acknowledge the influence and emphasis still in my work that will never go away because of that. It’s totally OK. That period of time in the middle there — my first couple of years — was really hard. I know there are lots of people whom I’ve influenced that are going through the same thing. It’s sort of a standard mechanism.
MDT: Whom did you pick up as an influence after Neal?
BS: Some of them were obvious to those who know some of the illustrations. There were a lot of guys like Bob Peak… Ralph Steadman… just for his disregard for convention and would throw it up against the wall and see what stuck. I really admired that. I think that by using Neal as a drawing tool, as something to latch onto, I learned to run or walk before I learned to crawl. I had to — not quite unlearn — but learn how to pull things in by osmosis and let things touch me and influence me that had nothing to do with comics or Neal. Just something moved me, Bill Sienkiewicz.
I found that there was a whole world of things that inspired me and moved me, from Tenielle wood cuts to the paintings by Richard Diebenkorn to Tex Avery, who I really admired. I love Diebenkorn’s whole ocean park series, based on the place he lived, the way he broke up shapes so geometrically, diagonally, abstractly and still we got the sense of light and atmosphere.
And filmic influences, like David Lynch, who I also dig. At that point, it coalesced. Hopefully, we never stop learning. Teachers in school are supposed to teach you how to keep learning. They’re not supposed to give you anything dogmatically and let you coast for the rest of your life.
MDT: A lot of that makes sense now that I see those books in hindsight. It coalesces for me. By the time you left Moon Knight your style had really started to evolve. New Mutants seemed like a real leap with a lot less panel restrictions. It was a paradox of realistic images and real fantastic images. Was that yet another natural evolution?
BS: Yeah, the theme for that was breaking constraints. Asking myself the questions, “Why not do this? Why do these things X, Y or Z way?”
I think I started to feel more in touch with the parts of the bear. I never felt I could have done a real bear. It was something that felt bigger than life. It was not bound by the conventions of light or shadow… or physics. It was an emotional element. I think that it was really liberating.
MDT: Great way to describe it. You started directly after the book had Sal Buscema drawing and Tom Mandrake inking. And then people had to get used to you. Was that something Chris Claremont was open to, especially in terms of mood?
BS: Yeah, he’s the one that came to me. He asked me if I wanted to do the Demon Bear story. He said he thought I’d be great for that. I was offered the X-Men after I left Moon Knight. I turned it down because I felt like it was too high profile of a book. Today people kill to be able to do that book. But I felt that I didn’t want to do another group. Moon Knight to me — even though it was one character — was a group, dealing with all of his multiple personalities.
When Chris gave me the plot outline I felt like I was going to play with it. Somewhere along the line, he asked if I’d like to do this on a little more regular basis. I said, “Yeah, I’m having fun.” So I felt like while I was deciding what I was going to do next, I would do the New Mutants. The main thing is, I felt I could play around a lot.
And that was a plus. We got letters. We probably lost as many people as we gained. We had some people writing in saying, “This is amazing, this wonderful, it’s really changed” to “Stop him, Jim, before he kills again.” Flip the coin and you’d get as many responses [for as against]. [T]he thing I liked about it, it wasn’t apathetic. It was polarizing. I tended to appreciate that.
MDT: Do you take as a sign that you did a good job because you started a discussion?
BS: Yeah, I think so. My big bugaboo is not so much work that’s half-bad as much as work that’s half-good, which to me is …in playing it safe. In society it’s just rampant. It’s endemic to who we are now.
Look at Pearl Harbor. They’re rewriting the ending to it in order not to offend and to make more money. It’s the way things are, [but] it doesn’t make it OK.
MDT: You were talking about how Claremont asked you to stay on and you were having fun with it. You seemed to leave the book right at a time when you seemed like you were starting to run with it. Why did you leave the book?
BS: I really felt at that time it was time to go. I had felt like I had run it as far I could. I just didn’t have it for them anymore. I was itching to get to another avenue. [Perhaps to] try writing and working with Frank and trying other things. .
..I loved working with Chris and Doug Moench and other writers. I was itching to have a lot more latitude still. …[I]ssue 26, with the drummer, the music issue in Moon Knight. That was essentially my story. Doug’s pretty much the dialogue, but that was my whole concept and execution. I wanted to get more of that in my work. That’s what I needed to do.
As much latitude as Chris was allowing me, there were constraints in terms of telling his story. So with Frank, there was really a sense of working on an image… Garrett was supposed to die at the end of issue 2. We ended up keeping him. So there was a nice way of the work having an impact. I felt like I was not just a set of hands, but I actually creating something as well.
MDT: That segues nicely. New Mutants was different from what you did on Moon Knight. Elektra was so different from what you had done on New Mutants. It really seemed to open up an artistic palette for you. It also seems to hold up after all these years. I was wondering what the limits were you could do to a page in the script Frank was writing for you?
BS: There were no limits. I really felt sure that no matter what I threw at Frank, he’d field it. We laughed and got to know each other really well. We bonded. We had similar sensibilities about things. We just said, “Let’s let it just be organic.” We went as far away from the corporate mindset of an assembly line that comics had become.
…I used to write, draw, paint comics before this. It wasn’t until I started that they said, you’re a penciller, it took me a while to say, I want to ink my own stuff. …I think it was Al Milgrom that said, “Well, let him. He has as much right to screw it up as anybody else,” which I really appreciated.
With Frank on [Elektra], there was nothing [I couldn’t do]… “OK, I’m going to try cut paper.” It was that extension of pushing down boundaries.
This was back when I was married. I showed my wife my sketchbook. There was a sense of liberation in my sketchbook. I said, “I want this in comics.” It was met with, “Well, you can’t do that in comics.” That was a red flag, hearing that from someone who was supposed to be supportive… “Ok, I’m going to find an avenue in which I can do that.”
I wanted to paint Elektra: Assassin at all costs. I wanted to do it so badly, that the rate for the coloring was like $40 a page. They didn’t have a painted page rate at the time. So I was doing all that work for essentially nothing because I needed to do it, I wanted to do it. From working with Frank’s scripts to laughing my head off to being inspired and excited and knowing that whatever he was going to throw back at me was going to inspire me further. It really helped to make it about the work… because it all got turned back into the storyline. It was a very creative environment
MDT: Is that kind of freedom too much for most artists?
BS: I think freedom is something that too much for people in general. I don’t mean that derogatorily, we all want it. I think that people have to realize that they’re responsible to whatever level of entrapment they’re in. “Not able to do something.”
I think society, by-and-large, is indifferent to it. There are other choices. I mentioned “Pearl Harbor” earlier. That’s the way things are done. That’s the general rule. If you want to do something else in a film role, there are other ways of doing it. Financing, ways it’s going to be shot.
People, as much as they hate working like people in Dilbert cubicles… but.[they do].. They’ve done animal tests. They have a “T” shaped hallway. Food at one end of the “T” and food at the other end of the bar of the “T.” They let a dog run down the spine of the “T” and he comes to the center and he sees food on both sides. They’re different but they both smell good. Sits down in the middle, can’t make up its mind. When people have a lot of freedom, they realize that there are no limitations, they feel… untethered and really alone. Also, a real sense of excitement and exhilaration.
… Only way to describe it is that you feel alive. It puts you really in touch with so many things. The beauty of the world. It also puts you in touch with [your] mortality. The fact that we’re… really all alone. The fact that it’s a solo journey. No matter who we are, who we’ve bonded with. So, everybody’s makes their own choices towards moving towards freedom. You can let an animal out of its cage, but if it’s been cooped up, they’ll hang around the cage. I’m using a lot of animal analogies, but I’ve seen that with people, too.
People want a level of structure in their lives. I’m sure you’ve seen people in a situation that they do nothing but complain about, they hate it, they hate it, but they don’t leave. It’s because obviously they get more out of staying than casting themselves into an environment where they’re unknown to themselves. And they have to find out who they are. I think that’s why there’s a level of people being bitter.
My biggest fear was that I would be on my deathbed — hopefully that won’t be for a long time yet — that I was too afraid to do X, Y, or Z. I think that’s why if I felt a sense of anxiety or fear that was the way I had to go. It was like it was telling me something, something to be challenged.
MDT: Was Stray Toasters kind of that natural extension of finding your own voice in your creation?
BS: Yeah… This story did mean something to me. There were elements of the story that were autobiographical to me… or at least semi-autobiographical… I wanted to tell the story my way. I gave myself the freedom to do that.
MDT: I wanted to talk about your non-comic work. About six years ago, I was reading a guitar magazine ad and it was for guitar strings…
BS: … for Addario.
MDT: I think so. It had a painting of Dave Mustaine by you. I remember saying, “Hey, that’s where he went.”
MDT: I just wondered when you decided to lessen your comic book load for different artistic projects like that?
BS: It was around the time when… [o]ther guys that I had influenced that were coming in and doing painted stuff… A part of me felt like the painted stuff was in really good hands. I felt like I had done a lot.
At the time, I think everything was going in the direction of Image Comics and I didn’t feel it was something that was going to resonate for me. I thought it was the time to try another avenue in what I loved in art school, which was movie posters and magazine illustration. Times had changed. During the 70s, that was the heyday of magazine and cover illustration and movie posters. Now because of likeness clauses, movie posters are nothing but large photographs of heads. My choice to go into illustration at the time that I did [made me think], “I’d like to do some movie posters and some magazine work.”
And I did. And I enjoyed it a lot.
For every positive experience, there was also finding out that there was a lot of freedom in comics. At the time, it may feel like very sculpted and blocked, but there’s a lot of freedom there. At the time it was also true. Marvel was doing every book as an “X” book, trying to appease all of their shareholders. They just stopped taking any chances. That was not the kind of place I wanted to be regardless of who it was or where it was.
I still stayed in comics as far as inking, but as far as making a statement in my own work, [it] was not the time. My goals or interests were not in synch with the business or the medium. It was like, “Why not? Now’s the perfect time to do that.”
MDT: Was there any kind of stigma attached to you when you went out to do commercial artwork?
BS: Quite the opposite, actually. I think that a lot of art directors were into comics, so that actually helped me. Plus the fact that having done all the stuff I had done in comics was a great portfolio. I could send them books, so they could see the range of approaches to a certain problem. That’s kind of what got me some other jobs for books I had done.
It was kind of misleading for some of the responses I got. For example, people that knew I did thins stylistically all over the place., but once they hired me to do the job that approach was not what they wanted. They wanted this portion of what I did. “We don’t want the alphabet. We want ‘M,’ ‘O,’ and ‘R’ and that’s it.”
Wait a minute, you’re going to get what you’re going to get. There was quite a period of adjustment. It wasn’t a case of the grass is greener. It certainly was as real and flawed and open to negotiation as any other avenue.
MDT: On your site, you have a lot of your storyboard work from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the Green Mile. What other movie storyboards did you do?
BS: I did some more stuff or Thomas and the Magic Train. But those storyboards were painted. They came to me to do that, that’s specifically what they wanted. I wasn’t doing any storyboard line art, which is the majority of what they were doing.
That was really for one advertising agency. I think I did some stuff for some cartoon stuff. They were some very specific movie trailer stuff and not for the movies themselves. They were basically part of the advertising campaign.
MDT: Was it easy to move to storyboard work from your comic book artwork background?
BS: Yes. This is where the comic training comes in handy. In comics, you really have to draw anything, from trucks to horses to people sitting in suite clothes as opposed to spandex. More real life approaches. It was actually a confidence builder knowing that I could tackle whatever they threw at me.
MDT: What’s your relationship to the Matrix movies and the Wachowski brothers?
BS: They certainly know my work, but I’ve never spoken to them directly. I’ve dealt with Spencer Lamb, who does the Matrix site. He’s actually a great guy and I’ve enjoyed working with him on those projects. Obviously the Wachowskis know their comics and respect them in a way you don’t really see. The Matrix was really the newest combination of all kinds of films. It was certainly one of the most successful comic style treatments that actually worked in a movie.
MDT: The book you did on Jimi Hendrix… First, let me preface this. This Hendrix tribute artist working in the Seattle area was shut down by the Hendrix family. They seem to be very restrictive about the use of Jimi’s likeness and his music. I wondered if you got a reaction from them to you work.
BS: I did. Before the rights reverted back to Jimi’s father and Jane Hendrix, Allan Douglas from Belladonna Music had all the rights. He’s brilliant. He’s an incredible packager and businessman. He was the one responsible for making Jimi’s work alive.
For making it the viable phenomenon that it was. I don’t think that the family had kept the same sort of business acumen, but they certainly wanted to have all the control. We had worked out all the contracts before the changeover was about to come about. We were going to do this book. We were not going to get caught up in all the litigation and what was being allowed and what was not being allowed.
As a result, I think because they didn’t have any say over it, they hated it. They really hated it. They hated my artwork, they hated the whole story. This is the information I received. I take that with as many grains as salt as necessary. I’m sorry they didn’t like it, but at the same time, I can’t place much stock in it. They have their reasons.
MDT: What were the reactions from fans of Hendrix?
BS: I think they were more responsive to the art. I think that the book was more of a platypus. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do and I wanted to push things more — this is Hendrix. People would say, this is Sienkiewicz and Hendrix. Let’s put the two together and see what would happen. I felt like there were things I would try and were shut down at every point along the way in terms of pushing things through. It got to the point where it was that or the book would never come out.
I really had to pick my battles as to what I wanted to push through. I was really going to try a whole bunch of technical aspects. Collages and 3d constructions and things like that. I felt like that captured his essence and I think…artistically, it sort of stayed OK. I think the story didn’t get much good response. But usually the art did. The book was reviewed by Gene Shallit on the Today show. It was on a couple of holiday book lists. I don’t know what’s happened to it since. I think it’s selling in Japan, but it’s not one of those books that I can see perennially on the shelves.
MDT: A lot of the work on your site seems to a lot of mixed media (paint, collage, pastel, etc.) Is the computer in high use on those pieces?
BS: Absolutely. Everything at one point or another goes through the computer anymore because I don’t send my originals out. I send disks. So if I work on a painting or an illustration, I can work on several versions of it. It’s an expedient tool. I don’t see it as something doing all the work. It’s making me able to implement my different ideas much more rapidly. It opens up many more options. For example, I did a cover for Bruce Coburn’s “Charity of Night” album and I have literally 200 different versions form the very beginning — the gestation of the idea — to all along. Where I’d try different elements and moving things around, different color schemes and different typefaces and what not to get that to come across.
That’s something that really works with the computer. I can always tweak things. I can tweak thins by painting them, but if the deadline’s tight, I can add a little more darkness or lighten it up or blur a certain area a little more or crop it more. Hey, it’s so much easier. Especially when an art director says, can you move everything to the left?
MDT: When did you start using it?
BS: Quite a few years ago. It’s [must] be at least 10 years. I started using it when Macs were really introduced. My first big tower was an 850. I still have the 8100. I have a 540c Powerbook that I’ve used 6 times. I used the new 300 now. I’ve got a 540c that is sitting there perfect. I’ve thought of selling it, but I don’t know what you could get for it.
I remember starting work in Photoshop having to get used to the Mac command for Undo. There was not what Photoshop has now which is multiple undos. If I made a slip and I couldn’t undo something, it was, “Oh, God, I have to go back in and fix something.” Or go back to a previously saved version.
And most of the filters took forever. So I would start something and — what would take maybe 30 seconds now — would take 7 minutes. I would make a cup of coffee, check my faxes and come back. Of course, if it wasn’t what I wanted, I’d have to undo it…
MDT: What’s a typical day like for you?
BS: It’s different all the time. I can do snowboard layouts for the women’s snowboarding team, so each one… five different snowboards and let’s see, some designs for … an album cover that had to… in addition to other comic jobs. And getting pieces done of a… revised cover in London.
I still try to do some of my own stuff sitting there. I tend to have a lot of things in a lot of different arenas at one time. One thing tends to not happen — one thing tends to not open up big … I don’t really believe in sitting back and waiting for certain things. I just believe you go forward.
MDT: You’ve been doing a lot of cover art for comic book art. You seem to have an affinity for that part of the book, being able to do multi-media, mixed media covers. Is it something you’re drawn to doing?
BS: Yeah, I really enjoy it, mostly because of… maybe because of my interesting illustration. The constraints of what is involved in a cover tends to be very specific as opposed to a comc book story…
So I had a chance to come up with an image that conveyed — come up with THE image or an image — that really got the point across. That’s the kind of challenge I like to have. It’s more of an opportunity to experiment and try something and then set aside, move onto something else. It may take a while for the piece to be finished, but other times, it can be turned out rather quickly. I just did several covers for this new series, the Brotherhood, which I really enjoyed doing.
MDT: Those seem really up your alley. The whole style and everything…
BS: Right. … I like to think of approaches to…. a style where people might not expect me to do things in a certain way. Part of the reason of getting out was that “Bill Sienkiewicz was the innovator.” It was sort of, “Give X, Y or Z to Bill.” It was the old “Mikey likes it” commercial [for Life cereal]. “Bill makes it interesting.” “Innovate, innovate, innovate!” I really felt that that was a double-edged sword. I was very flattered, but at the same time, I never said, “Well, I’m going to be innovative today.” It was not the tail wagging the dog.
After a while, I felt like I just want to do the work. And not have it be pre-prescribed or pre-destined or people should know to not know what to expect. That’s kind of how I want to approach it.
I want it to be where I let the job or the characters decide what the medium is going to be or how it’s going to be portrayed. Just be with the work, just me and the subject matter and getting all of the noise out of the way.
MDT: Do you see a difference between what you do on those covers and what some consider “fine art?”
BS: I used to get into the conversation about the difference between fine art and illustration.
I guess to me if it’s illustration… Y’know what, the answer is so subjective, it’s literally more [related] to a person’s art. That’s what makes a horse race.
The idea that for years Norman Rockwell was maligned as just an illustrator.
… J.C. Lyendecker used to go over to his studio and step all over [Rockwell’s] photographs because [Lyendecker] liked to work from life.
What Lyendecker deigned to be something less than noble under the banner of “illustration as art” was work that was done with the two dimensional, and-to him- stagnant artifice of photography. That work is now commanding absolutely astonishing prices. You can’t get a Rockwell for under… a miniscule sketch for under $40,000.
One needs to have the financial resources of a Spielberg or Lucas- as well as a love of “pop culture”– for lack of a better term. That is, these things were meant to be disposable at the time they appeared — like Rockwell’s post covers (and Lyendecker’s) — and yet these things have had a greater impact on an entire generation’s collective psyche and emotional frames of reference much more so than work hanging in museums have, because it was in our lives on a daily basis. Hmm, disposable… Yet had more of an impact than one might suspect — sound like comics?
I think time determines what’s art. I’ve seen illustrators whose work I really love, but because they’re painters, they’ve been doing things in illustration they’re being paid for it. Like somehow, everything’s being decided that it’s making it less so. There’s still this idea about Van Gogh as a starving artist. He himself was all about the work. He was upset that nothing sold, but at the same time, he felt compelled to paint.
I think that the exterior demarcation between illustration and fine art really has more to do with the actual work itself than what goes into the production of it in terms of what the artist feels. [Look at] Bob Peaks’ movie poster work art. Things that you don’t see anymore. The execution. Then you see this illustration style of poster art that’s being done that’s very competent but it’s missing something. It’s really good stuff draftsmanship wise, but it feels …
BS: Yeah, or there’s an element [missing]…. Not all the facilities because Peaks was facile, too… Maybe it’s too slick or [something]… That’s why it’s an ineffable thing. It’s that x factor.
… It’s just whatever pushes your buttons in terms of what really gets you. I can be moved by both of them, but something keeps bringing me back to a piece by Peak as opposed to a piece by someone else who does posters. Although I admire it, it’s not [the same]… it’s all about being commercial and selling something. Which is their job to do. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to be able to sell something and tap something [in you], there has to be a little bit more than the other… It’s going beyond solving the problem or just selling something. It’s like there’s something that’s above and beyond, then I feel like it’s got the qualifications to be art. The answer’s not really clear because it’s not a concrete line.
That will, too, be a litmus test to be held for art. Is computer art, art or is it just a machine? I don’t particularly know what those questions are about. I don’t know if they’re smoke and mirrors for us to keep us all occupied by asking those questions.
I’m not denigrating you by asking that question. But I’m saying that I’ve certainly done that. What I’m saying is it maybe all about connections. Maybe it’s all about having all of our choices about what we like be OK and validated and having them be… Not apologizing for liking Rockwell because his stuff is considered overly sentimental. I think time is the major element of what becomes art and illustration.
Illustration is something I think considered illustration when it’s current. It’s considered art after several decades have gone by. Now, if you were to have bought Rockwell’s illustration pieces for so little, these illustration pieces are going for thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. And prices for those are typically a factor in either.
MDT: I think that the comic book industry is at this crossroads where they want to be taken seriously, but they’re not covered like every other medium. I remember years ago seeing a New York Art museum showing the full pages of Walt Simonson’s Thor he was doing at the time and saying, “This is art! this is craftsmanship!” I guess that’s why I ask the questions. Sounds like you’ve been asked it before and one of those things to continue the discussion.
BS: Again, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have asked the question. I’m saying that I have asked myself that. I’ve found that what happens is, as an artist’s desire for respectability rises — especially in a medium like comics — I would keep myself awake at night figuring out how to do something that was viable or valuable or that was ‘art.’ …I felt like I was putting all of the control out of myself and it was going to be changed or viewed however it was once I did it, it was going to be out of my hands anyway.
It’s like if I have to go across a parking lot covered in glass, I can either choose to wear my shoes and walk across or go down on my hands and knees and crawl across. How do you want to get there? The journey’s going to be the same. The mode of transportation can be different.
[R]eally it’s not for me to decide what art or illustration is. If it moves somebody [is a good test]… The response from Stray Toasters [was great]… There were people who told me they were crying. I was blown away. I didn’t know if it would connect with anybody. Does that make it art and something that is only superheroic not art? I don’t know.
MDT: It’s a strange distinction…
BS: Yeah, that’s why it begs the question. I think that they are one and the one. I feel that are a lot of fine art that’s considered that’s questionable… and vice versa.
Look for example, like post-modernist painters who could go in and take Bernie Wrightson’s werewolf image and set it down on their canvas and paint it and add it to their image. And then tweak around it and add other sort of societal elements. And it’s viewed as some sort of groundbreaking art.
Whereas, if Bernie Wrightson himself would got into the gallery or museum with that same werewolf image — with the source material basically — somehow that’s not viewed as valid. I find that a crime.
MDT: Hopefully, there’s a day when I don’t have to ask that.
BS: I concur. I totally would hope the same. And to me, my bottom line is that if something moves me and stirs something, to me that’s art. Art can be something that’s created or exists in nature. It doesn’t have to bring me to tears. It can be a technical brilliance. A fine piece of furniture.
I can look at current guys who do comics now. I can look at their work, I can see their mistakes and I see the human doing it and somehow to me it’s art. Then I’ll see something that’s really well drawn and well painted and by all rights should be considered art, it leaves me cold. There’s a clinical quality to it that I find is … missing something. That may be different for everybody.
MDT: It sounds a lot like the Supreme Court back in the 70s when they were ruling on the standards of pornography, to paraphrase, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
BS: And that’s why it can’t be defined. There are too many people. It’s mutating all the time. Different people, you take the religious right and their definition of pornography are different than someone who’s much more liberal. There may be some absolutes that are totally viewed as obscene and criminal that nobody would questions. But as far as other aspects of pornography like anything else, that becomes a matter of taste or preference.
The idea that there are as many people who feel Rockwell — because there was so much of an outcry and condemnation of his work — it was cheap schmaltz and an America that never existed. Now you see reviewers talk about it. It was overly sentimental but the world never existed to create something and had as much as a societal impact.
He wasn’t just responding, he was creating something as well.
There’s this overview that comes with time that doesn’t become clear until an amount of time goes by. When you can look back at… when we’re in the 80s and everybody’s dressing in parachute pants, and dancing to Flock of Seagulls. Now they look at that stuff and we shake our heads. What were we thinking? [laughs]
MDT: At the time, they were really cool.
BS: I had a lunch box when I was a kid that I still have. I bought for something like a buck. Now, it’s worth $200. Is that art because now it’s a collectible? It’s a lunch box! I held onto it. I think I put dimes into it, I think. These kinds of things, when I talk about things that take up our time, we could have this conversation or — what I mean in the sense of the Hindu or the divinity, the Paramanhansa Yogananda sense of Maya, which is delusion, which is basically something that keeps us busy so we do not see what is beyond that veil.
Paramanhansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi)- or simply yogi, or teacher, or sensei, or lama — in the eastern religion of meditation and reincarnation, the yogic term for what Christians call “the devil” is called Maya, which is ‘delusion’, that force which keeps us busy and preoccupied — like a magician’s use of misdirection — so we do not see the reality of what is beyond that skrim of (usually) our own making.
The term Satan, or Devil, as a force of “evil” is a very Catholic one — very guilt and punishment based, and dogmatically rigid. It’s a conservative’s ideal of religion as a corporate entity — keeping the people in line with fear and guilt — which for me is too unworkable. It’s a concept i rejected as a child.
I appreciate the concept of Maya. Lord knows we delude ourselves continually. we keep ourselves so obsessed with insignificance and minutiae and trivia — or with discussions that are actually rhetorical in nature (art or illustration?, for example) — that we miss the bigger picture.
MDT: After that, this is going to be anti-climactic. What’s the next goal you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet, either artistically or creatively?
BS: The next thing I’ll probably tackle on my own will be something that’s been kicking around in my cerebral attic, and which most everyone I speak to about, people respond by saying –“you’ve got to do this story”– is something much more autobiographical. And hey, it has guns and sex and rock and roll– and one or two polkas — for those culture mavens out there.
I leave the very last question open, mostly because there’s a sense of renewed vibrancy and interest I have in every facet of what I do, that I really am open to let my subconscious tell me where it wants to go, as opposed to making decisions based solely on an agenda (though that approach is important as well)…
How’s that for vague?
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