Interview With Bill Sienkiewicz
(January 2000)

Bill Sienkiewicz is known for his work on New Mutants, Moon Knight, Stray Toasters and many more titles. Here he talks about his work with Frank Miller on the Daredevil graphic novel, Love and War, and the Elektra Assassin series. He also talks about other non-comics related work he is doing.

Kuljit Mithra: Whose idea was it to bring you and Frank Miller together for the DD graphic novel?

Bill Sienkiewicz: Frank and I had wanted to work together for a while before that came about. I think it may have been Ralph Macchio, the editor of DD at the time, who suggested it. I know Frank also came to me about working on a few issues in continuity. We thought it would be a great avenue to explore pushing some of the boundaries of storytelling, in terms of design and shape, etc. I was really starting to get more and more extreme in terms of playing with shapes and sizes of characters - really leaving the level of realism I had gotten from Neal Adams, behind. Frank's writing was thrilling. It had precisely the emotional and gut wrenching impact that spoke to me. Other writers I worked with up to that point were all great writers, but they seemed to write more "cerebrally" and I felt that there was a level of true collaboration missing. So except for "Hit It!" (Issue 26 of Moon Knight) - which was my story line, plot etc. with Doug [Moench]'s dialoging my story (the credits didn't reflect this accurately because of deadline problems) I was basically a set of hands.

Mithra: Did you think your differing storytelling styles would mesh before you started the project? Miller's style of art is more sequential while yours primarily is full page images.

Sienkiewicz: We didn't really know what to expect, and that was part of what made it such a fun idea. The prospect of learning from each other was also a factor.

Mithra: What did you think of DD before you started work on the graphic novel? I assume you'd read Miller's issues?

Sienkiewicz: I had read Frank's issues, certainly. I loved them. Before then I was a huge fan of the Colan/Palmer issues.

Mithra: Originally the story was going to be a 2 parter for the regular series... at what point did everyone involved know you needed to use the graphic novel format?

Sienkiewicz: When I began drawing the first issue, I was working twice up, not one and a half times up, size-wise. I wanted to treat the Kingpin as this huge monolith, immoveable object - and regular comic size pages seemed too small. Frank, Ralph Macchio and myself were trying to keep the whole job under wraps, because we were all pretty aware that it was pretty radical although Frank and I agreed that the approach simply felt right. My treatment of the Kingpin became a rather well known secret around the office - everyone who heard about them wanted to see the pages - it seems like everyone knew about them but [former editor-in-chief] Jim Shooter. When Jim did find out about the job, he was adamant. No way was this going to see print in the regular comic. It was too radical and it veered too far afield of the established continuity. Jim called me in his office and said that he wanted to give us a chance to do the job - his solution was to turn it into a graphic novel. I was a bit disappointed in this option. I wanted to do it as a regular issue - or two - to me THAT was the arena for change. Graphic novels were outside the world of the actual comics and Frank and I wanted to see how far we could push things in REGULAR comics.

Jim's call was the right one, in retrospect, though at the time I disagreed.

Mithra: Did Miller use a full script technique? Did he write how many panels the page should be, or did he give a general idea of what should be on the page? Did you ever stray from his script? Did he have to rewrite sequences?

Sienkiewicz: It worked like this: I would get the script from Frank, read it, laugh out loud through the whole thing, and make notes. Unlike other writers, who give every nuance and shade of every element in every frame, Frank would give a panel description along the lines of:" Panel 6: Garrett's reconstruction." and off I would run. After I did my twisted take on it, Frank would occasionally rewrite to incorporate my slant on things, or he would get inspired to go in a different direction altogether. It was like jazz. Frank and I riffed off each other. For example, the character of Garrett in Elektra: Assassin was supposed to be killed at the end of the second issue. When Frank saw what I came up with, he decided Garrett was too good visually to die just yet. Thing is, Frank's writing really inspired me to play and to take chances, so if he felt he got anything decent from me, it was as a result of getting gold from him. Frank's keen on letting creative collaborations breathe. That's part of his brilliance. I can't say enough good things about the guy himself, and his work. He's like a brother.

Mithra: Miller has said in the past that he was impressed with the way you represented 'psychodrama' in your art. Was the Victor character introduced by Miller because he knew you were on the project?

Sienkiewicz: Victor was always in the mix. Frank wrote him a certain way, which sparked me visually. I worked him out over the period of several weeks. Originally he was very normal looking, because I felt normalcy and banality were perfect covers for psychopathia-"the banality of evil" but the more I drew him the more he began to assume some baboon-like traits. Baboons to me look intelligent and fiercely mercurial simultaneously. So that was Victor's "eureka" moment. Frank used those drawings to help refine and define Victor more for himself as well - hence, more fully fleshed out characters that we both really loved drawing and writing and breathing life into.

Mithra: Were there any specific references for all the characters in the graphic novel? Vanessa, Cheryl Mondat, Paul Mondat, DD, Turk? One of the more stronger representations is the enormous Kingpin with his hunched back... I think you said in interviews back in '86 that you were basing Kingpin on Tex Avery and a number of other people.

Sienkiewicz: Not really. The Kingpin was just "big". The bigger the better. Tex Avery was certainly an influence, Ralph Steadman, as was Baron Harkonnen from Dune. Herbert's character was huge, but when I worked on the movie adaptation of Dune, I had to make Baron Harkonnen look like the actor playing him: Kenneth MacMillan rather than THE CHARACTER HIMSELF. To me, this is like doing an adaptation of the Superman movie in comic book form and when drawing him flying, being required to draw the wires holding him aloft. My response is "WHY?" --- it's a waste of the truest, most wonderful essence of cartooning.

Mithra: You could say the DD graphic novel was really a character study about the Kingpin. What do you think the DD graphic novel showed about the human side to him and how well do you think you pulled that off?

Sienkiewicz: I hope we showed that an immoveable object could be reduced to rubble emotionally, internally by that from which his size affords no protection. Pretty classic resonance in terms of his jealousy and rage - all things readers can identify with in terms of universal emotional buttons. It's what's lacking in a lot of books and Hollywood fare. Character-driven action-people that you may not like, but who impact you. Not simply the latest "asteroid" movie with cardboard cutouts as characters. When I think of "cartoon characters," oddly, I think of characters you can identify with (I still care about the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, I couldn't care less about Bruce Willis in Armageddon). So why that term is considered a derrogation is unfair.

Mithra: One of the Kingpin's hired goons looks an awful lot like Garrett. Is this just a coincidence?

Sienkiewicz: Coincidence, I think. Though I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Mithra: How soon after the DD graphic novel did work begin on the Elektra series?

Sienkiewicz: Simulataneously. DD was going to be our "minor" magnum opus. Elektra was just something we were going to do in the meantime "to put food on the table". It turned out to be quite a different scenario altogether. Funny how things work out, eh? As a matter of fact, Frank and I were just laughing about that just today - who knew?

Mithra: The Elektra Assassin comics feature many differing styles and it gave you more room to experiment than the DD graphic novel could. Did the both of you use the same technique, script-wise, or did you try some other approach? What were the different types of art styles you used?

Sienkiewicz: Elektra Assassin employed a somewhat wider array of techniques because it tended to be a wilder ride. The DD graphic novel was actually much more restrained because, once the look for each character was established, it was fairly straightforward in its execution. Elektra was all over the place: "realistically" drawn characters interacting with caricatures interacting with cartoons interacting with photocopies interacting with "children's drawings". There were quite a few styles employed, but the determining factor for the choice of style was what the scene demanded. In essence, the scene dictated the style of artwork used, not vice versa.

Mithra: Whose idea was it to use the photo of 'Ken Wind'? Whose photo is that?

Sienkiewicz: Mine, and Ken Wind doesn't exist except in pieces. It weirded me out, when years later George Bush chose Dan Quayle as his V.P. I thought, "Ken Wind has come to life." Turns out it was not too far from the truth.

Mithra: When the series came out, some comics stores wouldn't sell me an issue of Elektra because I was under 18. Was there any concern at Epic about the comics getting into the 'wrong hands'? Were you or Miller concerned?

Sienkiewicz: Not one bit. We weren't doing it for young kids. Matter of fact, when it came out the Dallas/Fort Worth newspaper did an article on Elektra stating "We've got to protect our kids from this". We used that quote in the ads for the trade paperback.

Mithra: I noted earlier that you tend to use full images for your art, and in Elektra, every issue has a last page that is a full image.

Sienkiewicz: That was decided upon after the first issue. We wanted each to be an image that stayed with the reader for a while, and since they had no image following it, it could take a bit more "cognition time" and resonate longer - hopefully.

Mithra: There are also many pages that have a 'grid' that Miller is famous for in Dark Knight. What do you think the two of you learned from each other about storytelling in comics when you worked together?

Sienkiewicz: I love that grid. It's incredibly effective because it becomes invisible, allowing the reader to really get into the story itself, which is the whole point. Frank told me that one of the things he got from me was to allow full pages to get a point across in a very specific way. For example, the page in Dark Knight where Batman holds the dead general's body that is shrouded in the American flag is a direct result of my influence. Frank's influence was all over Stray Toasters, and in nearly every other job I've pencilled or written. If I'm writing something, I try to imagine the most direct way of scripting it with regard to words and pictures. I try not to overwrite, and the times that I have, are when I didn't pull back and ask myself how Frank might have approached it - in essence - less is more.

Mithra: Which project was more fulfilling for you artistically of the two and why?

Sienkiewicz: Elektra is probably the most fulfilling for inumerable reasons, but I do feel that the DD graphic novel is like the unfortunate sibling of the most beautiful and popular girl in school: deserved or not, Elektra got the lion's share of the attention. I'm proud of them both for very different reasons. In DD - for thematic and artistic continuity, in Elektra, for pulling things in as many different directions as possible and seeing it still all manage to stay together. It made me marvel at the malleability, the flexibility of the artform of comix. Actually, to me, the differences between both projects said more to me about that than anything.

Mithra: Onto some other projects that are DD related... you and former DD writer Dan Chichester collaborated on a Classics Illustrated adaptation of Moby Dick a few years ago. How were you able to compress such a giant book into a small comic and still make it work? How challenging was this?

Sienkiewicz: We were able to compress the book with any success at all by really treating it as more of a tone poem, rather than attempting to tell it in a full on sequential moment by moment manner. We truly skimmed the surface. My goal with the images was to try and do three things:

  • play counterpoint to the text, when necessary
  • get to the subconcious, emotional level through certain still images that capture the psychological mood, rather than strictly illustrating the events on a surface level
  • tell the story on a surface level. as well, when needed-i.e., the money shots that root the events in a pictorial reality, the reality which allows the other avenues of ecpression to be explored.

    Pretty challenging. The real success for the adapation was due to the fact that Dan Chichester really nailed the flavor, the essence of Melville - allowing the perfect opportunity and environment for my excursions visually. If Dan's adaptation weren't so superb - and believe me - what he did was by no means an easy thing to do - there were opportunities upon opportunities in his choices (and mine) to go completely off track, and a lesser writer would have - but he was unflagging in his perfectly tuned sense of the right choices to make. We talked nearly every day or every other day - took it in six page chunks - and decided what would be the appropriate visual choices and what needed to be nailed down story wise - to fit it into the page count - and off we went. It actually was one of the fastest jobs I've ever done from start to finish - it just flowed.

    Mithra: I found out recently that RZA, from the Wu-Tang Clan, asked you to make some art for him for his 'movie' about his character Bobby Digital. I believe he approached you because he saw your work on DD. How was it to work with him?

    Sienkiewicz: Actually, RZA and I never spoke directly - it was always either through agents or record execs - my main dealings were with the fine folks at G Street Records, who were a dream to work with. I had heard that RZA was a fan of my comics work - and a fan of comics in general - so that was a factor in choosing me as the cover artist. Plus the fact that they felt I could pull of the "blaxploitation" film poster look. A fun job.

    Mithra: Which of the many differing styles and media that you use in your art is still a challenge for you... that you still feel you need to work harder at it to get it right? Pencils, inks, painting, etc.?

    Sienkiewicz: Not facetiously, but every *%$#@ one of them in my estimation. Certain things get easier, while others get more difficult, as with any growth process. I love working in all media, and different techniques, just to stay fresh - watercolor especially kicks ass. More than any other medium, watercolor is 90 percent about planning and preparation - the execution can't look excessively fussed over or the charm of the medium is lost. Unfortunately the commom perception is that it's a lightweight medium - perfectly suited only for paintings of floral arrangements, beach scenes, and rather victorian fin de sicle subject matter, which couldn't be further from the truth. I've seen really kick-ass watercolors - J.S. Sergeant comes to mind as one.

    Oils and acrylics and computer are all very malleable, plastic media, but watercolor, though forgiving to a degree, is a real litmus test as to knowledge and ability -- at least for me. Although many successful illustrators I've spoken to absolutely dread trying watercolors, or tried them, and gave up, switching to another medium.

    It's a high wire act, and to me that's irresistable.

    Also, the need to just do it supercedes everything - and when pieces fall into place, and an image comes through that I actually think captures something I was going for, or better still, decides for me which direction it's going to go - because there most definitely is a dialog between myself and the painting, then it makes it worthwhile. There's an expression I heard about painting, drawing, etc., that states: "for the first 15 minutes you're working on a painting, you're creating art. The rest of the time is spent just trying to save it." How true.

    Mithra: Finally, you've been recently working on some comics, like Batman, Flinch, and others... what kind of projects will we see from you in the future? More comics, or other artwork for magazines or special things like the Bobby Digital project?

    Sienkiewicz: Future projects include more work for The Matrix, more album cover artwork (Thor-El, a rap artist for Warner Bros.), more movie poster work, gaming work, comic work, getting my site up, with animation and stories on line. Other work too numerous to mention right now. I will be sure to give you appropriate updates, if that's cool with you.

    ----------------------------------------------
    (c) Kuljit Mithra 2000
    Daredevil:The Man Without Fear
    http://www.manwithoutfear.com
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