Artist and graphic designer Bill Sienkiewicz hosted a spotlight panel Saturday morning at WonderCon. Best known for runs on “Elektra: Assassin” and a host of other big-line and independent titles including his creator-owned Epic series “Stray Toasters,” Sienkiewicz is an industry veteran with nearly 30 years of experience in comics and film. Indeed, the artist had plenty of fodder for his one-hour panel and so much respect from the audience that he received a round of applause before even sitting down.
“I did learn the alphabet really quickly,” said Sienkiewicz when discussing his youth and Polish-American roots. A descendant of Polish migrants who came to the United States in 1912, bringing with them strict Catholicism and a taste for liquor, Sienkiewicz grew up near Scranton, Pennsylvania. He described his neighbors as coming right out of “central casting.” Racial and ethnic tension abounded, yet the “melting pot” came together over sparse similarities. “The one thing we shared were potatoes. Except the Irish ate theirs and we drank ours,” he said.
By the time he was seven years old, his youthful experiences led Sienkiewicz to drawing. “I knew in kindergarten that I could draw,” he said. Indeed, it was strange to him that others could not. Comics quickly became his creative outlet. “I took out a lot of my aggression by creating worlds that I could draw,” he said. His father, a hard-drinking man, did not approve of the young Sienkiewicz’s decision, though that didn’t dissuade the budding artist from his work. “I was already going to hell anyway,” said Sienkiewicz. So, he pushed on. “Anything that saves your life, I think you end up respecting.”
Sienkiewicz grew up not far from the Jersey Shore, where he knew people that made “The Sopranos” look mild. His younger years gave him a strong sense of “the fucked up.” At just four-years old, he watched his father mistakenly shoot his younger sister by ricocheting a round off a brick wall and back into the house. “My father did pull the trigger and my sister screamed,” he said. “This is the kind of stuff that people go ‘Now, how did you get into comics?'”
Breaking into comics at a relatively young age, the artist was influenced by Neal Adams at first, though he later looked toward other sources for inspiration. As he came into his own as an artist, Sienkiewicz borrowed creative elements from disparate sources, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Rockwell and Gustav Klimt, among others, powerful creators he found with little outside help. When describing the bubble in which he and his family lived in while growing up, the said, “[My neighbors] knew John Deere made tractors and they probably thought that Norman Rockwell was a competitor.”
As he developed his style, Sienkiewicz flew under the collective radar of comics fandom and professionals for a time. “It wasn’t until the works got some notoriety that the higher echelon came in and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” he recalled, stating his belief that art should be polarizing. Apathy, he continued, is always the enemy. “Polarity is better than ennui.”
Coming of creative age in the same generation that saw Frank Miller and Alan Moore rise to prominence, Sienkiewicz was able call some of his shots, artistically. He passed on “X-Men,” but had a number of noteworthy runs including work on “The New Mutants.” This was an era of unbridled creativity. His, Miller’s and Moore’s collective brilliance came under few auspices. “You don’t sit down to be innovative,” he said. “Bob Dylan did not call himself the voice of a generation. Everyone thought that comics were gonna be the adult medium,” Sienkiewicz said. But, it turned out that adults had to spend their money on mortgages and not comics.
Sienkiewicz has recevied attention from Hollywood, both as a comics creator and as a graphics designer. Penning inspirations for film plots as well as posters and campaign materials for blockbuster movies, he insists the recent fad of turning graphic novels into movies can be dangerous if the quality of the graphic novel is not the first consideration. “Everyone’s trying to have a movie deal now,” he said. “It’s all blue sky.”
By the end of the panel, Sienkiewicz had unspooled his life story a little like the string on a kite. He went on more than a few tangents, but went straight upwards. At one point, he mentioned the possibility of doing an autobiographical comic, and the crowd cheered. A fan of Harvey Pekar, Sienkiewicz said a self-reflective graphic novel could be done well as long as it would adhere to his lifelong “responsibility to do the unexpected.”