The “Synchronicity” Triptych
On my last visit to Toronto in December (to have one last “Seth and Chester and Joe” lunch, one last “new comics day at the Beguiling/‘Sushi on Bloor’” event before Joe moves back to the States), Chester Brown mentioned, in passing, that he hopes I will try autobiography after Cerebus is done.
It’s not as if I haven’t considered it. I remember—vividly—episodes in my life back to the age of two, pretty much in an unbroken sequence. That is, there are no lengthy periods in my life which I have “blanked out” or otherwise forgotten. But my memories do tend to be episodic, “snapshot” moments of whose veracity I’m certain, but without the least awareness of what came before or after.
As an example, I remember sitting rather disconsolately, one evening, outside the ballroom at the 1981 San Diego Comicon where that year’s costume competition was being held, waiting to go out for dinner with Richard and Wendy Pini (disconsolate because if it was any later than 7 p.m. the only restaurant open for miles around the convention hotel, the El Cortez—or the El Grotesque as I would think of it forever after—was a Denny’s which set new lows for the already abysmal standards of that restaurant chain). That was the year that two bands of adolescents had chosen to dress up—en masse—as the Pinis’ Wolfrider characters, competing against each other in the Best Group costume category. I was—and am—definitely from another area of the comic-book field from that strata which possesses a fondness (or barely more than a tolerance) for costume contests (which is why I was sitting outside)…
[Telling a tale out of school: Wendy told me sometime later that the costume contest had provoked one of the biggest arguments she and Richard ever had. With both Elfquest bands swarming about the stage, Gary Owens (dinosaur fossils like myself will remember him as the announcer from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) who used to host the San Diego costume contest had (in a moment of perfect showmanship) called Wendy up to the stage, provoking in the audience (which was, of course, huge) a tumultuous ovation. Wendy, sitting with Richard, got up and said, “Come on, Richard.” To which Richard replied, “He didn’t invite me” and gave every indication that he intended to remain seated in the audience. Picture the scene: here are Wendy and Richard staring each other down in one of “those moments” familiar to anyone who is (or has been) married—Wendy’s “if you ruin this for me out of some stupid male pride” irresistible force meeting Richard’s “if you force me to ‘tag along’ with you onto a stage where I wasn’t invited” immoveable object—while the entire San Diego Comicon is on their feet applauding wildly, anticipating a Kodak moment di tutti Kodak moment with Comics’ Greatest Sweetheart (and there was no rival for that sobriquet within a country mile of Wendy Pini in 1981). Richard capitulated—which was gracious of him—and you couldn’t tell from the myriad photos taken of them on stage with the “elves assortis” that they’d be “dancing this mess around” for hours afterward in their hotel room (if they seemed somewhat edgy when we got to dinner later, I chalked it up to the flour-and-coloured-paste food we were served at Denny’s). It took me years to figure out what I thought would’ve been the right thing to do under the circumstances (my ethical sense has an alarming tendency to gravitate to and ponder—at undue length—other people’s hypotheticals). The conclusion that I came to was that Wendy should’ve gone up alone, waited for the ovation to die down and when Owens asked her, “So, Wendy, what do you think of all this?” (or whatever fatuous m.c./bingo caller variation on the question he chose to use)—Wendy would’ve said, “I think you forgot half of the Elfquest team, Gary. I think you forgot” (pointing out into the audience) “Richard Pini.” Which would’ve compelled Owens (showman that he was) to say, “You’re right. Richard, come on up here.” And Richard would’ve gotten the invitation (which—he was quite right—you need to have before you can justifiably go up on a stage anywhere under any circumstances) and his own ovation—albeit a lesser ovation than that which was and would’ve been accorded to Comics’ Greatest Sweetheart. But, as I say, it took me years to figure out what I thought the correct protocol should’ve been and Richard and Wendy had only seconds to come to a decision between them.]
…and I was reading the latest Comics Journal, when I became aware of someone standing in front of me, who said, “Excuse me?” What I hoped (of course) was that it was a Cerebus fan wanting an autograph so that I could look like a famous comic-book creator instead of just some guy sitting outside the costume contest ballroom reading the Comics Journal. Or, better still, fifty autographs (so some passersby might be moved to ask, “Say, who’s that famous guy signing all those autographs over there?”). If he was a comic-book fan, he was one of the good ones—intelligent looking, well-groomed, clean clothes that fit properly, no discernible body odour. “I don’t mean to bother you, if you’re busy, but I wanted to introduce myself. I’m Bill Sienkiewicz.”
At this point, the snapshot ends with me saying, “I’m just reading the Comics Journal. It’ll keep,” closing the magazine and inviting him to sit down. How long did we talk for? I have no idea. What did we talk about? I would’ve enthused to him about his work on Moon Knight, which was then taking the comics world—if not “by storm” then was (at least) attracting favourable notice. I have to qualify my assessment of the comics’ world reaction to Bill doing Moon Knight because I suspect my own reaction was either a bit or a great deal more favourable than most because of my high opinion of Neal Adams’ work. There was no question that Sienkiewicz was seen as an “Adams clone”. But, to me, even at that time that was like calling Michelangelo a da Vinci clone. In one sense he was, but in another sense, he was so good at it, putting all of the other Adams clones to shame (not only could Bill “do” Neal’s mannerisms—cross-hatched cheeks, foreshortened limbs—which all of the clones could do, he had also mastered the far more difficult elements of composition, under-drawing, persuasive-but-not-accurate anatomy, the relationship of the individual panels to each other and to the whole page, the widths and textures of the minimalist brush-lines to the minimalist pen lines—a superstructure both gossamer-fine and sinuous—and the interaction of those brush-lines and the pen lines to the sharply defined and equally minimalist spotting of blacks. Mastered. I knew because I was a part-time Adams clone and Bill knew, easily, self-evidently, twice as much about Neal’s work as I did) to such an extent that “Adams clone” would soon become an endangered species in the comic-book profession. Over a period of a few months Adams clones and wannabe Adams clones took one look at Bill’s work and retreated en masse into commercial illustration. However long it took me to express all of that to Bill, it was long enough that I could tell that he was a genuinely modest guy (squirming before instead of basking in my enthusiasm and admiration). Certainly far more modest than I would’ve been if I had been able to “do” Neal Adams pages as “bang on” as Bill could.
From Bill’s side of the snapshot? I have no idea—to this day—why Bill Sienkiewicz would have wanted to meet Dave Sim. My recollection is that he did. He wasn’t just walking up to anyone he found sitting around the 1981 San Diego Comicon reading the Comics Journal. He knew that I was Dave Sim and he wanted to meet Dave Sim. This seems as unlikely to me today as it did twenty years ago.
[sudden insight—he was flattered by the Moon Roach parody. Digging through the studio set of Cerebus, I check the last page and Aardvark Comment of issue 30. Nope, I talk about meeting Bill there. So that can’t be it.]
What was even more interesting was how attentive he was to what I was saying and the extent to which he was conveying the impression that I might have something useful to say to him. It might have had something to do with my age. I was twenty-five and a—couple of years? several years?—older than Bill at a time when I was, myself, the youngest person I knew of making a living in the comic book field (or “in” the comic-book field: Cerebus, like Elfquest, was seen by most people, then and possibly now, to exist in some limbo between the comic-book mainstream and fanzines). He was certainly a prodigy. I remember Jim Shooter (then Marvel editor-in-chief) telling me that Bill was the only guy who had ever walked into the Marvel offices—cold—from off the street with his portfolio where Jim had said to (whoever it was: an editor, I think) “This guy doesn’t leave here without a comic book to draw.”
As I consider it now, it might have just been that Bill was feeling isolated—I have no idea what the New York comic-book scene is like now, but I know that (just from what I heard as a better-informed-than-most fan) that irrefutable talent and modesty were a good way to find yourself the odd man out in any of the multiple social permutations which existed at the time. Everyone loved and was loved by Archie Goodwin but outside of that it was pretty dark and pretty cold. Clique versus clique versus clique.
Bill Sienkiewicz was a young husband that night I met him, married for all of (whatever it was. Two? Three?) years to his wife, Frankie, to whom he was devoted. So, we had that much in common. Devoted young husbands in a time period which was just starting to show how turbulent an existence could be that of the devoted young husband. In both our cases our marriages came first (we assured each other). Our work was important (we avowed) but it would always have to take second place to our marriages. Later, at the Inkpot Banquet, Bill and I both turned out to be in the “Class of ‘81”—Inkpot Award recipients. The San Diego Con’s Inkpot Awards are not exactly rare, but they did—and do—connote a certain “I have arrived” quality in the comic-book field. Someone had told me I was getting one, or I had intuited that I was “above the salt” Inkpot-wise, because I remember sitting there thinking what I was going to say when (or if) I was called up. It seemed to me appropriate to center my brief remarks on the “devoted young husband” theme—that, as important as the work was, the work itself must never be allowed to displace the infinitely more important etc. and so on. Of course, “Sienkiewicz” comes just before “Sim” alphabetically, so you can imagine my horror when Bill launched into his own “devoted young husband” acceptance speech using all of the phrases from our little discussion the night before that I had thought particularly pithy and relevant and (consequently) crowd-pleasing. Which they proved to be. Bill got a very nice round of applause as he went back and sat down. And then my name was called, and I went up to the front with all of five seconds to come up with what I was going to say (having dismissed the possibility of just repeating everything Bill had just said and substituting “Deni” for “Frankie” in the punch-line). Someone handed me my award and I turned to face this banquet hall full of people and (unfortunately, as it turned out) my eyes lit on Comics’ Greatest Sweetheart who was just beaming at me with pleasure and approval from about twenty feet away, nodding happily at the fact that I had won an award (she and Richard were Inkpot “Class of ‘79” if I’m not mistaken). And, without really thinking about it, I said, “And just think, Wendy. I did it all without elves.”
I have been the recipient of standing ovations (I am told) and I have been the recipient of deafening laughter (I am told) and I have been the recipient of a smattering of applause, polite applause, polite laughter. I couldn’t tell you what the audience reaction was because I have to be told. Something in my brain screens out audience reaction. I do what I do and then I’m done, whether it’s a panel or a speech or an introduction or a presentation or whatever—when I’m done the relief at being done supersedes everything else and my hearing shuts down. I was at the San Diego Comicon alone that year, so there was no one to tell me what the reaction was. So, I have no idea whether the reaction to what I said was mild amusement (as it was intended to be), appreciation that I was acknowledging Elfquest’s preeminence over Cerebus in what was (at that time) a two-person field for the most part (which was also what I intended), or a deafening silence broken only by Bill Sienkiewicz clapping politely (one devoted young husband supporting another in his time of need, as it were). The only thing that I know for certain was that I had grievously hurt and offended Comics’ Greatest Sweetheart. I know that because she told me later that I had grievously hurt and offended Comics’ Greatest Sweetheart. It was one of my first experiences—but it would certainly not be my last—with grievously hurting and offending people in the comic-book field. My own conclusion has been that comic-book people are entirely too “thin-skinned,” and spend a disproportionate amount of time looking for things to be grievously hurt and offended about. And, given that there are virtually no opinions of mine that I have in common with the comic-book field, it is not altogether unexpected that I am pretty universally viewed as offensive, evil and wrong. In my experience, the nature of the “thin-skinned”—liberals and feminists foremost among them—is that they are, invariably, intolerant and bigoted while perceiving themselves as tolerant and inclusive and it is this that causes them to spend much of their lives in a “victim” state of being grievously hurt and offended about any number of things. Insofar as stating that (to me) self-evident fact will grievously hurt and offend thin-skinned liberals and feminists, to me, only confirms the validity of my opinion.
Bill Sienkiewicz became, if not a friend, then at least someone that I knew in the comic-book field, someone I looked forward to seeing and someone I talked to on the phone at least semi-regularly for a period of time. I remember getting together with him in New York on several occasions, going out for dinner at conventions (we were both “regulars” on the convention circuit). I remember having very earnest conversations with Bill that went on for hours. We were both very earnest individuals, trying to do “the right thing,” seeing something potentially larger in our own work (if we could just learn to do it properly) than just writing and drawing comic books. At the time (and perhaps now) you could really divide comic-book creators into two camps: those who hoped that comic-books could somehow manage to “break out” into a real mainstream success and those who compulsively obsessed about how that mainstream success could be brought about. Perhaps because we were so young, Bill was the only other guy I knew of who thought in those terms to the same nearly pathological degree that I did. Ultimately I would decide that the complete anonymity (apart from conventions and signings) afforded by the comic-book field is one of the greatest things about it and I have, for some time, genuinely dreaded rather than longed for mainstream success (which, fortunately—contrary to the illusion perpetrated by the “star-maker machinery” is not something that just happens: one doesn’t accidentally change from “Jenny from the Block” into JLo) but at the time I was mad keen to be the “break out success” and so (I suspect) was Bill.
The Police’s Synchronicity album which came out in 1983 had a big impact on both of us.
[another snapshot recollection: my “solo” Canadian tour of comic-book stores in the summer of 1983. Deni and I had purchased one of the first “Walkman’s” that year and I had absconded with both it and the Synchronicity cassette as my only auditory entertainment. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Halifax the night after the store signing listening to “I have stood here before/beside the pouring rain/with the world turning circles/running ‘round my brain” as I carefully streamed marijuana smoke out my window—whose pane was being lightly spattered by rain drops—and recalling having done the same thing on the other side of the country in Victoria, B.C. as raindrops spattered the window pane there. “King of Pane”? Of just such “moon, June, spoon” banalities are the skewed priorities of the habitual marijuana smoker/music fan composed]
Jung’s notions of “synchronistic” events—what the world calls “coincidences”—were very much a part of the early 80s zeitgeist and a big part of Bill’s and my conversations. Should you follow the “synchronistic” events in your own life, or should you avoid them? We were pretty much in agreement that you shouldn’t just ignore them, but what position outside of ignoring them made the greatest sense? Should you take a series of coincidences as signs? As signs from what…or whom? So, for all of us who were coming to an irrefutable awareness that there was more to our lives than met the eye—and Bill and I were both in that category—the arrival of an album entitled Synchronicity seemed to be a large signpost on the road to…something. Thinking back on it, I recall the early 80s as really being the last time that my generation—the late Baby Boom—sincerely believed that some musical and cultural phenomenon was imminent: that we were going to get our own Elvis, our own Beatles, who would transform society as we know it while also entertaining everyone. It hadn’t happened in the 70s but there was a real sense that “three peroxide blonde musicians” might be the long-awaited logic-of-the-next-step successors to “four brunette musicians” (just as a peroxide blonde singer grafted onto four brunette musicians—Blondie—had seemed to momentarily offer the same promise five years earlier). Which seems silly twenty years later on when the success of the Police can be seen for what it was and is: just another fragmentation among the nearly infinite number of fragmentations into smaller and smaller and more and more individualized musical cults. That is, on the Elvis/Beatles Scale, the Police would prove to be no more significant relative to society-as-a-whole than Bruce Springsteen or the Bay City Rollers or U2 or Elton John or the Clash or Blondie. Whatever watershed moment Elvis and the Beatles had represented (or, from my viewpoint, appeared to represent—the onset of society-wide androgyny) had now passed and music was returning to its perennially valuable (but far from socially apocalyptic) purpose: it gets pretty young girls to get up and wiggle their bodies in a very attractive way. I came to this conclusion when I realized that my interest in music had switched from R&B and rock ‘n’ roll to Dance and Hip-hop. It had nothing to do with the merits of the respective genres (music is music is music, which is to say dull-witted) but centered, instead, on the Pavlovian facts of life: that the former excites body-wiggling mostly in wrinkled-up, fat or wrinkled- up skeletally-anorexic middle-aged women and the latter excites body-wiggling in those who are (as Beyoncé Knowles so astutely puts it) “bootylicious”. The choice is, to me, in the very largest sense of the term, a “no-brainer”. Of course girls, women, gays and weak-minded men of my generation still cling to the notion that there are some larger doings afoot in the realm of “moon, June, spoon,” that their faith will one day be rewarded and some practitioner(s) of “tinkle tinkle plink,” and “twang, twang, twang” will light our collective way to the secular-humanist promised land.
There is, in retrospect, an endearing quality to how earnest Bill and I were (as Gene Day and I had been) about the comic-book medium. In music, then as now, the stakes were huge. If you did “win the lottery” and became, however briefly, THE music act—however marginal your influence on society—even as a consolation prize, you still got millions and millions of dollars. Whatever way you sliced a “comic-book career” it was (and—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spawn aside—is) optimistic in the extreme to envision a “payoff” of tens of thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands of dollars, let alone millions of dollars and there was, and is, as a practical fact-of-life, no discernible chance of having even an influence upon your own readership (of whatever size), let alone (on the Elvis/Beatles Scale) upon society at large. And creating comic books is one of the most labour intensive occupations relative to its financial return.
At a specific level, Bill and I knew all that. Knew the insurmountable odds. Still, we didn’t care. There wasn’t a lot of common ground between Bill and myself in the approaches that we chose. Over the two or three years of our closest association, I was working to finish High Society. My ultimate goal was to produce a 6,000 page comic-book story. Either it was going to work, or it wasn’t. I had visions (delusions as it turned out) that a 500-page graphic novel under one cover was the thing that was going to set the world on fire. Bill, on the other hand, was in the “career move” category. What book should he draw next? I remember when he finished “Hit It”, either the last issue or one of the last issues of his run on Moon Knight which told, in parallel, a conventional super-hero story juxtaposed with a jazz band playing. I remember seeing the originals while Bill was working on it. They were exhilarating to look at, almost as exhilarating as listening to Bill trying to describe where the story was bringing him, in his view, in his evolution as an artist. I say “try” because words wouldn’t and didn’t do justice to the exponential leap he had made. I could see where he was. In the same way that Neal Adams had kicked everything up a hundred notches in the 60s and early 70s, inside of that same illustrative frame of reference, Bill had accomplished the same thing. Because I came from that tradition, because I saw that tradition as the “toppermost of the poppermost” in comics both stylistically and in terms of content, what Bill was doing was without peer, to me. He was going looser in his inking. Some time before that he had told me that he was trying to make his finished pages look more like his sketchbooks and his sketchbooks more like his finished pages. The result was some mind-bogglingly amazing sketchbooks and mind-bogglingly amazing finished pages. Too loose at times to maintain his status as a “fan favourite,” but the demands of the course of evolution he was following made that a moot point. Too loose, as well, for my preferences. The only guy who was capable of “doing” the primo Neal Adams “look” was walking away from it in a lot of ways. I couldn’t fault him for that, but there existed in me the entirely selfish hope that he would evolve more slowly. That he would produce a few hundred pages in the “Hit It” style—sticking closer to an illustratively precise inking line while “blowing out his speakers” in the layout and penciling. But, it was Bill’s decision to make and it was a decision he had already made. As likewise was (as an example) his decision to do the comic book adaptation of the movie adaptation of Dune. As one of the top two or three artists in the field, Bill had his choice of these sorts of projects, a temptation (for ultimately, that’s what I would judge it to be) to which I wasn’t subject out in the wilderness hinterlands between mainstream comic books and fanzines…
[A comic-book adaptation of a movie adapted from a book is about as structurally unsound as you can get, constituting a further distillation of that which has already been drastically diluted and transmogrified: rather like devoting months of your life to finding a way to make a glass of club soda as close to absolutely flat and absolutely lukewarm as you can get it. I remember thinking when the From Hell movie was coming out, I wonder who they’ll get to do the comic-book adaptation? Unfortunately for those of us who perversely delight in just such traffic accidents of structural implication, either Alan and Eddie didn’t authorize it or it never occurred to the Hollywood muck-a-mucks to make it part of their scaffolding. Spoilsports.]
The fact that Sting had a small role in Dune, I suspect, played no small part in Bill’s decision to devote a chunk of his creative life to the project.
Anyway, somewhere in there, (before “Hit It,” probably, and a few months after I had completed the last installment of High Society) both our marriages came to an end within (as I recall) weeks of each other in the summer of ’83, the Synchronicity summer. The two young husbands deeply committed to their marriages were suddenly two young husbands newly separated from their wives coping with our respective personal lives having been turned upside down. The…synchronicity…of it drew us closer together for a time. We talked more often on the phone, as a kind of life-line to each other while maintaining a masculine reserve I’m sure neither of us really felt. We reassured each other that we were fine on a regular basis (Are you doing fine? I think I’m doing fine. Do I sound fine to you? I feel like I sound fine. I really, really think that I’m finally becoming as fine as I thought I was a month ago when I really wasn’t nearly as fine as I thought I was). We had the shared humiliation common to newly separated husbands that their wives are instantly able to find alternative lovers—and do so. Lovers who were (make that humiliation a double, bartender) comic-book artists as it turned out in both our cases (a peculiarity of philandering and ex-wives in our incestuous little business, probably having something to do with the dearth of female competition—at least at that time—and the irresistible appeal for women of lighting a “soap opera” match in the smallest possible “soap opera” firecracker storage shed).
[Another tale out of school: I had dinner one night years later in New York with Bill, Denys Cowan and Jim Starlin. At one point, the subject came up of Bill’s and my synchronistic marriage break-ups and Bill told a story from the more immediate aftermath of his break-up with Frankie, how he had gone to Upstarts (the studio which consisted of Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller and Walt Simonson), told Howard what happened to him (Bill acted this out with much theatrical trembling and weeping, which I’m sure was an exaggeration, but which was very funny in the context of the story). Howard, evidently, asked the other guys to take any phone messages, ushered Bill down the stairs and into a nearby restaurant, where they both ordered lunch. Bill proceeded to spill his heart and soul out for the next forty minutes or so (again, much trembling and weeping) while Howard ate his lunch. Finally, Howard finished his lunch, looked at Bill and said, “You screwed up. I don’t envy you. Waiter! Check, please.” Paid his check and went back to the studio.
After everyone was done laughing, I admitted that I had done the same thing. Phoned Howard and had gotten a not dissimilar sort of response. Jim Starlin looked thoughtfully at Bill and me and said, “What I don’t get is why would anyone go to Howard Chaykin with an emotional problem?” Bill and I looked at each other and then one of us said (I don’t remember which one it was, and it doesn’t matter because the other guy agreed right away), “I had talked to a lot of people and I had gotten a lot of sympathy and compassion and ‘time heals all wounds’ homilies. And I decided that what I actually needed was some hard, unvarnished truth, and I knew that that was what I would get from Howard Chaykin.”]
Bill and I lost track of each other. Don’t really know how it happened. I suspect it was when he got a “for real” girlfriend—as opposed to a sex partner or a one night stand which we had both managed to find without too much difficulty (although with a degree of difficulty not experienced by our ex-wives) in the “casual sex” era which would (unbeknownst to any of us at that time) draw to a close inside of a year or two with the arrival of AIDS on the scene (and the universally misapprehended notion that it was soon to begin sweeping through the heterosexual community). I remember a visit to New York and Bill showing me a picture of his “for real” girlfriend, Mary Wilshire (perhaps best known today for her design of the Friends of Lulu mascot) a candid shot he had taken of her as she was putting her make-up on in the bathroom of his apartment (which I thought was a really strange picture to take until I had a girlfriend of my own and realized that it is those most “female” of moments—like putting on their make-up—that you most want to preserve for posterity in the delirious onset of endorphin overdose). The synchronicity of our near-simultaneous marriage break-ups hadn’t extended to the “rebound” romance. Bill’s was an actual romance and mine—with Karen McKiel—was an on-again, off-again nightmare, a one-night stands that I was perversely trying to make into…something else. By the time Bill’s rebound romance had run its course and he got back in touch, Karen and were actually pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend (enough to convince me, if not her) and, for obvious reasons, Bill and I didn’t have nearly as much to talk about as we had in our previous “synchronistic” period.
So it was, when I was a little less than two years into Church & State (maybe a 1200 page graphic novel is what the world is waiting for) and a little over a year distant from the end of my marriage and only months after Deni had actually left Aardvark-Vanaheim and Canada that it was time to break up Cerebus’ marriage in the pages of issue 73. I played it strictly for laughs, unlike Jaka’s “return” in the next issue where I genuinely attempted to revisit the “relationship roller-coaster”. The “relationship roller-coaster” which (my best assessment at the time, as I was metaphorically telling the story of my marriage) I would have summed up as “sometimes things just…don’t work out.” Today, of course, for me, I have arrived, through many trials and many errors, at the simple conclusion that the “relationship roller-coaster” is a fundamentally bad idea. Fun. And for a while it feels good, as only endorphins can. But it is fundamentally a bad idea. And bad ideas are best avoided.
But, revisiting the break-up of my marriage just before the second anniversary of same, there was no question that Bill Sienkiewicz and Synchronicity figured prominently, Synchronicity with its stark, simple design in primary colours: red, yellow and blue (which had carried over into the videos—a very new phenomenon at the time—as I recall: “Every Breath You Take” was shot primarily in shades of blue. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” in yellows. I forget which one was in red. The title track?). Despite the temptation to ink the covers in my usual mix of illustrative and cartoon technique, I went with the style that Bill was using at the time. Very sharp, very angular. Horizontal hatch lines with the emphasis on the shape of the figures. It proved seductive and something of a mistake (you have to be able to draw better than I can, you have to have Bill’s level of talent to bring it off). Still, I stuck with it through the entire sequence and on into issue 79 when I finally realized it was time to go back to being Dave.
Bill Sienkiewicz, Synchronicity, “sometimes things just…don’t work out”.
The covers of issues 74, 75 and 76—the Synchronicity covers—was the first time that I realized the extent to which Gerhard’s backgrounds really “ground” the book, giving it a solidity and a “look” all its own and keeping my (infrequent at these extremes, anyway) experimentation less jarring, less “over the top” looking. The three covers get progressively more stylized and experimental as they go along. The picture of Jaka in the background of the yellow cover is flat, a series of geometric shapes (the bottom of her skirt is virtually horizontal). I thought that was as far out to the “design” edge from the “illustrative” school as I could go without falling off. Once Gerhard had put in the background, his solid room, done with accurate perspective (except for the arm of the sofa, where he’s trying to get the perspective to compensate for the horizontal bottom of Jaka’s skirt: I drive him nuts with things like that) and put the flat yellow over top, highlighting the darker areas with a sepia tone and adding white highlights with paint, it just looks like a traditional illustrative Cerebus cover. Since I was trying to be very “cutting edge,” I bore that in mind when it came time to do the next cover. The picture of President Weisshaupt on the cover of issue 76 is, consequently, the most “un” illustrative picture I’ve ever done in or on Cerebus, where I really allowed myself to go completely over the edge, not giving a moment’s thought to anatomy, but instead going for a completely dessicated, virtually inhuman picture which was all emotional content. All feel and no think. “Here” I was (in effect) saying to Ger: “Try making this one look normal.” At which point even Gerhard got into the “out on the edge, Bill Sienkiewicz” spirit of the thing, not even trying to create the illusion of curvature on the spines of the books on the bookshelf, just drawing and colouring them as a stack of rectangles. Although the door is done with his usual exacting precision. As soon as the cover to issue 76 was separated, I had the three covers matted and framed together as a triptych, which is how I had conceived of them in the first place, even using Bill’s distinctive “initials signature” (modifying the “B” into a “D”).
The last time I really spent any time with Bill was in 1985 at the UK Comic Art Convention, since we were both American guests (Canadians are Americans to Brits).
[Another snapshot, Bill and I and whatshername from DC’s marketing department hurtling through Piccadilly Circus in the back of a London cab] I ended up meeting and hanging out with Steve Bissette and his wife Nancy (whom I accused of smuggling basketballs into the UK—she was pregnant, at the time, either with Danny or Maia) and John Totelben and his wife (Karen?) and (strange to think of, but true) walking all over downtown London with Marv Wolfman while he explained all of the plans that he and John Byrne had for revamping Superman.
Anyway, there was this point in the convention when we—Steve, John, Marv and whoever else—were sitting in the lobby of the hotel where they had lodged all us “American guests” and Bill walked up and asked if anyone wanted to see some pages from the new project which he was working on with Frank Miller. And, of course, we all said “sure”. What ensued was the most “jaw-dropping” moment I have ever experienced in getting an advance look at a project in my life (smoking dope in a hotel room at Mid-Ohio Con while Frank Miller acted out a lot of The Dark Knight Returns comes a close second, though). The project, of course, was Elektra Assassin and what Bill had were original pages from (I believe) the first two issues. No word balloons, but fully rendered colour. Fully rendered colour but rendered in every imaginable way. Crayon, acrylic, charcoal pencil, pencil crayon, crayon, oil pastel. And collage. This was years before Dave McKean would define the extremes of collage with his Sandman covers, but—before Bill did it—it was completely unthinkable in a comic-book. Unthinkable. We, all of us, stammered out our enthusiasm and Bill, as always, was genuinely modest. I mean, genuinely modest. “Gee, thanks,” kind of modest. Page after page. Every new page seemed to have something on it that no one had ever done before, no one had ever thought of doing before. Great ideas, beautifully executed. Inked pages with flat colour dropped on them and white areas painted out, retaining some of the original colour while conveying the white. White paint side-by-side with white pencil crayon.
Whatever delusion I was labouring under that the “Synchronicity” Triptych would—for any length of time—stand alongside the work that Bill was capable of way out on the cutting edge of the comic-book avant garde in 1985 died in that hotel lobby somewhere in downtown London.
The last time I saw Bill was in Northampton, Ma. at Kevin Eastman’s late (and much lamented for its demise) Words & Pictures Museum at a mass signing to mark the 25th anniversary of Kevin’s Heavy Metal magazine. We went out for dinner: me, my girlfriend at the time, Susan Alston, Bernie Wrightson and his girlfriend. And Bill. Bill walked back up to Main Street with Susan and I and I invited him to come back to her house with us, so we could reminisce—already knowing what his answer would be. The same answer I would’ve given had I been in a strange town, walking back from a restaurant with Bill and his girlfriend and he had invited me to come back to her house.
Maybe some other time.
Yes, I thought. Not without regret. Maybe some other time.
Copyright Dave Sim 2003