The Analog Elements of a Post-Digital Project: Bill Sienkiewicz Discusses H8 Society and Artistic Process
Bill Sienkiewicz is one of the unquestioned greats of the comic medium, a creator who, over his long and stories career, has constantly pushed the limits of sequential art, blending media, blurring boundaries between seemingly disparate techniques, and creating work that's endlessly innovative and instantly identifiable. And his work hasn't been limited to comics – he's painted cover art for best-selling albums, created animation design, illustrated trading cards, and co-created picture books.
Now he's contributed to a multi-media "post-digital" project entitled H8 Society: How An Atomic Fart Saved The World that combines his visuals with an original sci-fi/comedy ebook by the postmodern duo known as 2Dans. The project also includes a collection of 26 original songs from independent musical artists. It's an ambitiously unorthodox enterprise, and on the eve of its release, we got the chance to sit with Bill and discuss his contribution to the project, his stylistic choices, the balance of artistry and reality, and all manner of other things.
ComicsAlliance: This is a pretty complex, multi-tiered affair that Bundle and 2Dans have created here. How did you end up as part of it?
Bill Sienkiewicz: I got involved through my friend Danny Socolof. He and I had met when we were working on a multi-media project with Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics, a project that was going to be a similar mix of music, visuals, and story, done in a way that would allow the use of electronic media. And while the project we were working on with Dave didn't pan out, he and I became friends and vowed we would work together on something again. So we've sort of been in similar orbits, and when he came to me about this, it was a chance to jump in and play and use all those tools – the language of media right now is expanding, and I found that a really exciting opportunity, to expand the sandbox.
CA: How did the creative process work, and what form did it take? Were you presented with a finished novel, or were you creating your work at the same time they were writing, and going back and forth as it developed?
BS: It was a bit of both. I would get chapters as the 2Dans were working on it, and then they would also bounce their ideas off me and ask if I had any input. And as it progressed, I would start taking what they'd written and translate it into visual storytelling, into actual comic pages. So I actually didn't see the entire story at once, because it wouldn't have worked with our time frame, but for my portion of the project, enough of it was there for me to get the visual feel that it wanted, that we were looking for. It was back and forth, pushing things around a lot, very fluid. And that's one of the things that I really liked about the project, that fluidity.
CA: What was that total time frame? How long were you working on this, from the first moment you set pen to paper?
BS: It was actually quite an extended period of time… well, lots of pockets of time over about a six month period to go through all the iterations. And the 2Dans had to try things, get their chops down, figure things out. Because not everybody comes from a comic book environment. I mean, I've worked with people in film who want to write comics, and it's a very different discipline than a lot of people are used to, so there's a learning curve involved. And [2Dans] were learning that, learning to hit that, and sometimes they'd come to me with questions, other times they would just run with it, and they ended up finding their own way. And that's part of what's so cool about it.
CA: Was it always envisioned as this kind of all-encompassing multimedia project, with all these elements, or did it grow and evolve as things came together?
BS: Well again, it was both. In terms of the possibilities of what could be… I mean, I'm working with Madefire, and their motion comics, and I think what they're doing is fascinating. I'm liking what we're doing now with the comic storytelling medium – it's a bit like the Wild West. And I said this several years ago, but I feel it even more strongly now: we're in the process of defining the Wild West, and there's a lot of gold in them thar hills!
And I'm not talking about financial stuff, I'm talking about creative gold. The idea of what we're doing now, mixing all the different transmedia or multimedia or all those other terms that you hear a lot – I liken it to building a bridge at the same time as we're crossing the chasm. But it's also that we're driving, and changing the tires on the car as we're driving across this bridge that we're in the process of building. At some point, there's going to be hindsight, and we'll be able to say, "Okay, I see what this meant", and see how we got here from there.
But when you're pushing the envelope, and not even intentionally doing so, and you're finding out what you don't know, you might be too ignorant to know what you can't do. And certainly, that's been the case in a lot of creative environments and arenas. Forge ahead, see what happens, and then you can look back and say "I wasn't supposed to be able to do that, according to X, Y, and Z, but somehow we found a way."
And then when 2Dans came to me with the simple idea of the nuclear fart, I thought that it was so out of left field. Y'know, on the one hand, you have the higher aspirations of art, and music, and the mixing of the various media – and then you had something that was just so hysterical from a very young point of view, that it was like, "Oh, this is going to confuse so many people, this is great, let's just run with this and see what's possible!"
So to me, this project has got the whole gamut of highbrow to lowbrow, and that's the perfect embodiment of what I think we can try for in the medium. Because comics, to me, have always been a viable medium for anything. Even thought they were thought of as kids-only, now we're cutting through swaths of ages and interests and levels of seriousness and humor. And this is sort of the full experience. Or that's what we're aiming for, anyway!
CA: So then, given that one of your trademarks has always been blurring the lines between media, and combining a number of different techniques in your work, how do you go about determining what materials and styles you'll use when you're approaching a project?
BS: Well, it's going to sound – I don't want to say "new age", because it's been this way for thirty years or so, so it's really more "old age" at this point – but to me, I've always sort of let the project or story dictate how it wants to be done. And there are plenty of times I've worked on something that started out as a painting and realized that it actually would work better in black-and-white.
So part of the reason I've wanted to play with so many different styles is to sort of expand the vocabulary of what is possible – I feel like the more tools you have in your arsenal, the better you're able to convey a specific sort of idea, or meet the reader or the viewer in a way that isn't standard cookie-cutter, taking them by the hand. I love to, and I do, presume a certain level of intelligence and involvement on the part of the reader. The idea of doing something that gives them enough information that they can fill in the rest, and bring their own personal experiences to it as a dialogue, that, to me, is of interest.
So working in any particular style or media, there's that in the mix, and then there's what the actual story has dictated to me, how it wants to be told. And I find that whenever I've tried to impose my will on a piece, it invariably sort of smacks me upside the head – it gets its way, ultimately. It's not even a conversation at that point, it's like: "Stop giving me Coca-Cola when I asked for water. I need water. Not milk, not beer, not scotch, water." That's the way the story tells me what it needs.
CA: You mentioned how exciting it is to "do things you don't know you can't do", and I've always been fascinated by the art that happens when someone makes a mistake, but instead of going back and whiting it out or deleting in, runs with it and builds on it… And as you've been working in comics for decades now, are you still able to find new ways to break your tools in new ways, and create that space where you can create those happy accidents?
BS: Well, there's always that sense of play, but sometimes the breaking your tools comes out of anger and frustration! [laughs]
Yes, certain things get easier, but I find at the same time, that's a double-edged sword, because the easier certain things get, the easier it is to fall into a repetition and coast at a certain point. There's that whole expression, "being out of your comfort zone", and comfort is fine, but I find that artistically, being comfortable with being uncomfortable is what makes it work for me. I'll be working on something, and I'll start to feel a sense of boredom, and I think that that's been kind of a saving element for me, the boredom, because I like to shake things up and try different things.
Plus, there's this thing in the mix: you never stop learning. So, I'm constantly frustrated and feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing – and at the same time, there's a duality of knowing exactly what I know, knowing my limitations, and trying to push past them.
CA: So how do you stay fresh and open to those things, and keep expanding your palate and vocabulary? Do you consciously seek things out…?
BS: Well, in a way, I almost can't take any credit for that, because I think that's just something I was born with. I just love art, and love drawing, and love communicating, so it's not just something I do, it's kind of the core essence of how I do things and how I need to do things. I can't walk into a Home Depot without going into the paint section or the polymer section or even lighting or appliances, and finding something, some way, some vehicle that I can turn into something to do with storytelling or art. It's like one big box to play with, and I'm having so much fun that even on the worst day, when I feel like I don't know what I'm doing or I'm really struggling, it still can't be beat.
And you meet people who say. "It must be so much fun to be able to draw every day". And it is, but there are the times when deadlines are in place, where there is a strict drop dead "we need this now", where you need to call on professionalism, the ability to work on something and not have it be about art. There are experiences I've had where I work on something and I don't feel that what I'm doing is actually art – I literally feel like it's mathematics, like I'm problem-solving. Like, I'll walk into a situation and I'll go, "Okay, I don't have time to make mistakes". And it sounds kind of weird, it's like I'll just plug in and go into this zone of just getting the piece finished, relying on muscle memory, and trusting that the answer is out there in the ether. There's no "artistry" involved, it's simply solving the problem.
I think the art is a mixture of fluidity and creativity, and also the functionality of the purpose of what you're doing – needing to tell a story, and get ideas across. So it's not all about nailing your hand to your forehead and waiting for inspiration to strike. That old saying about "90% perspiration": it's absolutely true. You walk between those two extremes.
CA: You and I have talked about that mix before, in the context of pop music – how so much innovation happened when something went wrong, and people either liked it, or simply didn't have a chance to fix it.
BS: I was just thinking about that, it's like they say John Lennon saved 'Twist And Shout' for the last song that they recorded at the end of an all-day session – and his voice was shredded at that point, and it was perfect.
CA: So that actually brings this back around toward H8 Society – you've done a lot of work over the years that's tied to music in one way or another, and this a project where music is an integral component – was that part of the appeal to working on this? And were you able to listen to any of the music for the project as you were creating the visuals, or did it all come in after the book portion was done?
BS: It came in during, because, as I said, the project was ongoing over a longer period. So the 2Dans, the writers/creators, were actually listening to and seeking out a lot of demos while it was being created. As I said, I initially met Dan S. through a musical project, and music is something I've always loved, so it was sort of a link between us all. They would send me some of the music they were listening to, and it all moved fluidly – it was like the tide rushing in.
And part of the excitement was having it be that sort of ongoing experience, where everything was sort of building on what had come before. It was all organic, and that to me, at the end of the day, with all the digital media, there was still the blessed analog aspect of everything coming in, in a chaotic way. At the end of the day, we can't remove our humanity from it, and that includes all of the wonderful synchronicity and serendipity, and also the clusterf--- aspect of seeing it and saying, "My god, what did we do, it actually all came together!"