Lines Through the Abstract: Celebrating Bill Sienkiewicz
In the early 1980s, mainstream comics art basically looked like one thing. Certainly there was no shortage of brilliant artists, and each had their own recognizable style — it's no challenge to tell Neal Adams from John Byrne from Jim Starlin — but everything fit into a relatively narrow framework of representational depictions and traditionally heroic figures.
And that's what Bill Sienkiewicz was doing when he got his big break as the artist of Marvel's Moon Knight in 1980. He was a promising young artist whose style was recognizably inspired by Neal Adams, but he was drawing the way these comics were usually drawn.
As that series went on, however, he began experimenting. It's first noticeable in the covers, and sometimes the splash pages. In these spaces where traditional storytelling is deemphasized in favor of imagery, Sienkiewicz began playing with that imagery, stretching it out of its usual shape and molding it into something new and exciting.
In Sienkiewicz's vision, Moon Knight and Scarlet could be depicted as a stained glass window, shattered by a bullet apparently fired by Scarlet even though she's a part of the window --- and there was no fear that readers would think some in-universe magic had caused this scene to literally occur. Comics were departing from the literal and into the fully metaphorical, and Sienkiewicz played a role in shepherding that transition.
Sienkiewicz also experimented with minimalism. Moon Knight, a character in a silver/white costume who was at home in the darkness, lent himself easily to the use of negative space, which led to some very striking covers.
In 1984, after a short fun on Fantastic Four, Sienkiewicz took over art duties on The New Mutants, and it was there that his style really exploded into what he's remembered for today. He started with "The Demon Bear Saga," a memorable storyline about a monster that attacks Dani Moonstar from the psychic realm. This non-physical creature and its equally non-objective world enabled Sienkiewicz to abandon all concerns about realism and let his imagination run wild.
Actually that's not true. If he'd abandoned all realism, his art would be much less interesting. It's the way that he mixes realistic elements with the abstract that makes his work so fascinating. In the depiction of the Demon Bear above, notices how its recognizably bearlike face feels three-dimensional, but its claws are just threatening scribbles and its lower body is less the shape of an animal than it is a great black curtain threatening to engulf the New Mutants.
In this panel, we see how adept Sienkiewicz is at depicting emotions through realistic facial expressions. In fact, his faces are some of the best in comics. But there's usually more than one thing going on in a Sienkiewicz panel. Look at Illyana on the far right. Even as she declares herself to be magic, and reminds her teammates that they have no choice but to confront the Demon Bear, she appears as a figure almost entirely made of shadow, with a black and blue nimbus surrounding her.
At the time of this story, Illyana had only recently become a demon sorceress, and it's no accident that she seems alienated from her teammates, even as darkness seems to pour out of her.
Sienkiewicz's New Mutants run also introduced the character Warlock, a techno-organic alien whose physical appearance is so much an extension of Sienkiewicz's style that later artists often struggled with his line-heavy formlessness.
But it's not just in the design of specific characters that Bill Sienkiewicz's legacy is felt. Far from it. Sienkiewicz brought personal style to superhero comics at a level few had before him. In the late 1980s, he worked with another comics visionary, Frank Miller, on the Elektra: Assassin miniseries, which took his art to yet another level.
A lot of the artistic experimentation that swept through comics in the next decade, whether in early Image or Vertigo, is hard to imagine without Sienkiewicz coming first. Even artists a generation beyond, like Michel Fiffe, are recognizably influenced directly by his style, and those who aren't still owe Sienkiewciz a debt for making style itself so important to the superhero genre, and to comics as a whole.
Check out some more extraordinary work by Bill Sienkiewicz below: