BILL SIENKIEWICZ IS A TRUE INNOVATOR IN THE WORLD OF COMICS AND ILLUSTRATION. HIS WORK HAS CONSISTENTLY PUSHED THE BOUNDARIES, AND INSPIRED MANY OF THE GREATEST NAMES WORKING IN THE FIELD TODAY. HE EXPANDED THE LIMITS OF WHAT COMICS CAN BE. THE NIGHT WATCHMAN GOT TO CHAT WITH HIM ABOUT HIS WORK: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE.
Night Watchman: I just wanted to start off by saying that all of us here at the paper are really big fans of yours. Especially the artists on the staff: J-Mil, Debbie, and myself just huge fans of yours, so this is really an honor to be interviewing you.
Bill: Well, give them my best and thank them for me.
NW: What is it about comics that keeps bringing you back? You go away and do other illustration work for a while, but you always come back to comics.
B: Comics are really my life blood in a lot of respects. They were my first love, and I can't ever see leaving them. There were times when I've done advertising and different avenues, but comics, in a lot of respects, the level of integrity and personal point of view that you can bring to it, is much more at play than it is anywhere else in any other capacity; any other field of illustration. You're telling the story, creating the sets, doing the lighting, the designing, and establishing the pace. And if you're an artist/writer, it's as close to being a pure auteur. Nothing is really media driven or committee driven, so you can actually just produce something. Things have changed quite a bit since the early '90s, you know with Image comics and comics becoming so popular for movies. But there's still an avenue for smaller comics and personal expression. And that, to me, is the main attraction to comics. It's an avenue to say what you want to say. I saw a forum that was being filmed on a number of different writers and artists. Well, it was really more about writers from Texas. There's a comic book artist who writes about the history of Texas and the Alamo. I think his name is Steve Jackson. He was talking about the fact that there is a distillation with comics; you're telling a story in terms of words, and you're also getting it pictorially or giving a counter-point to it, and you're doing really what no other medium does. Even when you watch a movie, unless you're watching a movie that's subtitled, you're not doing the left/right brain thing. But with comics you're reading and assimilating an image simultaneously, instead of just reading or watching the tube. So I love it, there is nothing else like it. It's not like film, theater, TV, or novels, yet it's like all of them. I really wish it was more respected of a medium than simply just spandex.
NW: Yeah. There's a lot of stuff in there that is really generic, so you really have to dig to get to the good stuff. The same thing is true in comics; you have to dig through mediocre superhero stuff to get to some really good storytelling.
B: Right. I want to say 90% of stuff out there is just crap that got made. The main point is that it got produced. And I'm not denigrating everything, but you do have to dig. There is stuff that skims the surface in terms of what you can listen to that doesn't really have a reader or listener respond on a very kinesthetic gut level. We've all had experiences with either a movie, book, or music, where it really just resonates. Where you kind of go, "Yeah. I get this." Where as with something else there'd be no response to it whatsoever.
NW: How do you feel about being such a big influence to a lot of guys that are really pushing what can be done in comics now? How does that feel to know that your work was inspirational in pushing them to try new things outside of the traditional approach to comic book art? People like Dave McKean (Cages/Sandman) and Ashley Wood (Pop Bot/Automatic Kafka) that really just used your influence and style as a springboard.
B: I think the world of Dave. He's so phenomenally talented. He's absolutely amazing. I know Ash, but he's gone in another direction with some of his stuff. I know that Dave has certainly been very generous in acknowledging that I've influenced him. And what's nice is that I was able to say thanks. If I can inspire somebody, that's great. If somebody can inspire me, it feels really special. I think at the very beginning there may have been a sense of awkwardness; that there were other guys doing it. I enjoyed being able to try a lot of different things. For a while I felt very alone; sort of out there in the world of comics, especially here in the States. When I would go to Europe I felt like the ex-patriot, being more readily understood and in sync with European sensibility than with American sensibility. It's like what I was saying about resonating. It felt like they "got" what I was doing. And I understood their sensibility more than the American approach. So certainly Dave being British, we talk about American sensibilities vs. British sensibility vs. Ash's Australian sensibilities, and even Simon Bisley to an extent. What's nice is the fraternity aspect of it. It's just like, "You go, you crazy bastard! Just go-- kick out the jams!" I really love it when I see these guys pushing the stuff, because it's another way to produce comics and push them out there, hopefully to another level of respect. Certainly writers are doing that; from Neil Gaiman (Sandman) to Frank Miller (Elektra: Assassin) to Alan Moore (Watchman), they've got it. It's nice because in some respects the more generic the stuff gets, there's also some of the stuff that gets much more personal and out there. So there's kind of a simultaneous aspect to pushing the boundaries, and being very safe. It's interesting, because in the corporate stuff there's a dichotomy there, depending on the creator. Even what, in essence, may be a very safe corporate approach, there is some stuff that is allowed to be pushed. I've found even with myself that some of the directions, and my own innate sense of how I want to approach things has been, I don't want to say stymied. But I'm aware of the fact that I'm working in a commercial venue where I'm producing something that I wouldn't normally be approaching the way I'm doing it. It's actually more of an assignment for the client. And I've never viewed comics as assignments for the client. Those are advertising jobs, like the other types of things I've done. I just do what I want, because it's a medium for expression. When the jobs in comics become "illustrations for the client", where there has to be a certain kind of approach and a clarity to help sales, that's just simply reality. That's just the way things are. But if I really want to produce my own work and tell stories, then I will. Especially with Elektra, because I'm doing a lot of the covers for the new version of Elektra. They're a lot more poster-oriented; they've gone away from things having to be an aspect of the stories inside, which is what the covers used to be.
NW: Was there ever pressure from editors when you were first starting to really push things in comics? Like towards the end of your run on Moon Knight or the New Mutants, did they ever try to tell you to tone it down?
B: Oh yeah. It was interesting for me, in terms of how it all managed to work out. I was lucky enough to be given books that weren't top sellers; books that were kind of under the radar. So there was really a chance to make them my own and play with them. After Moon Knight I was offered the X-Men, but I turned it down because it was just too high profile. I didn't want to feel constrained, so I took on the Mutants. The story that Chris (Claremont) did with the demon bear, I was only going to be doing two or three issues of that. But it turned into quite a few. It was a lot of fun to push it like that. At the end of Moon Knight, Jim Shooter (former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics) had an idea of how he wanted to see things, and what should and shouldn't be pushed in terms of consistency within the Marvel Universe. So Jim would say, "I want to talk to you about doing what you're doing." But I would be on something else already. By the time New Mutants got their attention, I was off that book. So they were trying to "catch me" and reign me in to do certain things. And the books were also gaining and losing people, as far as readership. There were a whole slew of readers of Moon Knight. Some people just vanished because of stylistic differences. That was a real learning element for me, because I realized that the more true you are to yourself, the more you will lose people. There will be a level of attrition, but there will also be some new people coming on board. So it was great incentive just to do it.
NW: Your work on New Mutants was really the stuff that got me hooked on comics again. I had reached a point where I was getting older and thought comics were for kids, so I stopped reading them. Then one day I was walking through a newsstand, and the cover to New Mutants #18 jumped off the rack at me. I had never seen comics look like that before. Here was this beautiful, fully-painted close-up of this Native American woman in a snow storm. That image is like the Holy Grail of images for me-- a piece that just opens up a whole other world.
B: That's great! That was actually one of my favorite covers. I saw it a couple years ago on Chris Claremont's wall. I'm glad it has a good home. But that was when anything was possible in terms of approach; literally making it up as you went along.
NW: There really weren't a lot of people doing painted covers at that time, were there?
B: I don't think so. I think I was the first one, or the only one at that time. I think Jon J. Muth was doing some.
NW: Yeah. But I think that was a little bit later.
B: A little later, yeah. So there was that sense of making it up as I went along. I really felt alone, which was a mixed blessing. There was a sense of feeling isolated, but at the same time there was really no way to do anything wrong because nothing had been established yet.
NW: But later when you were doing Elektra: Assassin, Epic (an adult division of Marvel) started pushing more painted stuff. Kent Williams was doing Blood, and Jon J. Muth was doing Moonshadow a short time after Elektra started. Did you feel at that point that you weren't all alone out there?
B: Yeah. Again, I feel really fortunate to have so many guys who really are an inspiration. What's also great is that Dave (McKean) may have been influenced by me, but he's also got other influences. Plus, he's really just become himself. He's assimilated all of his various references and made them uniquely his own. Whereas with Kent and Jon, they were already of a whole different school, so they were doing things in a different way. There was a whole different flavor in what they were doing. It was all painted stuff, but it was really a whole different temperature; a different palette. You know, some of the stuff I did was really hot; it was very vaudevillian in some of the approaches. Like the hot pinks with Elektra especially. Whereas Blood really had a sense of earthiness to it. The palette in Elektra suited it. It was imperative to have fun with it, because of what Frank (Miller) was writing. The bigger the gun, the more gravity defying, like on the first cover. Now I look at that cover and it's just quaint. The gun looks dinky, you know?
NW: Well, Simon Bisley does a gun fifty times that size in every panel.
B: Exactly! Simon will just push it, and, of course, he's got the vascularity of somebody holding the gun with this incredibly muscled arm, so he takes it to a level of absurdity. I think even Frank Frazetta has said that Bisley's stuff is just out there. Whereas when you look at Frank's stuff when it first came out, I think nobody had ever seen anything like it before; that power. And that, I think, is what's part and parcel of the genesis and the progression of a medium. Each generation builds on the stuff. So I look at a lot of stuff now that I did and some of it looks tame to me, but my interest in terms of what I want to say with it is a little different. It's not just experimentation for it's own sake. It's more like trying to be invisible. Do the story in the way it really demands to be done, which may mean using several different styles or only one style; but it's still about respecting the story.
NW: It seems like with Williams and Muth they had their own set of influences that they stuck with, while you seemed to be influenced a lot by '70s illustrators like Bob Peak, Bernie Fuchs, Barron Storey, and Ralph Steadman.
B: Yeah, I jumped around a lot, partly because I had just sort of focused on one influence, Neal Adams, when I was growing up. After that I jumped, especially being in art school, to the illustrators. I wanted to learn how to paint rather than just doing black-and-white work. I wanted to be complete, because I figured that, visually, there was an avenue to explore with painted stuff. It was a different set of influences. I think Barron definitely influenced Kent and Jon. He influenced me, but it's interesting what we each chose to get from it. There were other illustrators that really didn't do much with what they said, but the technique they used was Barron's technique. To me, the technique was almost irrelevant; it was what was coming across. I think Kent was into Egon Schiele, as I was, as well as Gustav Klimt. But I would cartoon it. To me it was like the ultimate, the high point, the epitome of approaching something. Cartooning is an honorable thing. Italian painters would actually punch holes in their drawings, hold them up to a frescoed ceiling, and then they would hit the holes to help transfer their drawing with charcoal. That would make a series of dots on the ceiling. They could actually use it to connect, and that was called the cartoon. So cartooning, for me, is an honorable thing. It's pushing the envelope. It's the truth of something through exaggeration. Or what I call "the truth through the lie."
NW: It also seems that by cartooning things you weren't really copying an influence. You were really making it your own.
B: Yeah. I guess that's really true. I hadn't really thought about it in that way, but that's absolutely right on in terms of what I was trying to do. That was a part of me that wanted to take it and run with it.
NW: Who's been influencing you recently?
B: I still love a lot of the guys who just paint. I find that a lot of the stuff that's really pushing the envelope in terms of the distortions, I find myself less interested in some respects. Maybe because I feel like I've been there and done that. I find that I'm interested in seeing in a way like a David Lynch aspect of it, where you take things that are presented in a very straightforward manner, in terms of realism and the lighting and everything else, but there's still a response that tends to be very creepy. Whereas if you take a film technique that's really just out there, it almost affects it negatively. It takes you out of the experience because you're caught up in the technique. It's like looking at Lord of the Rings as opposed to any of the recent Star Wars movies. Where you get into the characters and you don't say, "Wow! That's a great special effect," or, "I wonder how they did that?". Star Wars is more about the surface or how things are put together and constructed, as opposed to the story which drives it. Then you think back to Fellowship of the Ring: little bits and pieces of character. Like when Sam stops and says, "If I take the next step it will be the farthest from home I've ever been." That's very telling. It's handled in such a way that I can't see it having been in a movie that's all about special effects. So, when the special effects are at the service of the story and draw you into it, that is really the magic. In terms of what's influencing me, it's people that can do that. People who can pull you in and take you on a journey, as opposed to simply adding flash. Again, that feels very clinical, and I don't respond to that the way I used to. There's a slew of them who are doing that kind of thing. I love what Frank (Miller) and Kyle Baker do. Kyle Baker's work is really funny, but it's also got a very clear vision.
NW: Kyle was another one of those guys that initially seemed to use your style when he first started out, but then pushed it into a more humorous direction.
B: Yeah. He's also a really funny writer and tries anything; he'll really just go for it.
NW: Speaking of movies, the Daredevil movie was recently released. Have you had a chance to see it yet?
B: No, I haven't. I've heard about it. Frank Miller sent me some photos. I guess he plays somebody who's killed by Bullseye. I haven't seen it yet, so I don't know whether he made it in the movie or whether he's on the cutting room floor. But I've heard from various sources that it's not Spider-Man. That's all I've heard.
NW: I was just curious with you having been involved with some of these characters in Daredevil: Love and War and Elektra: Assassin, is it weird to see these characters brought to life by actors?
B: Well, when I saw Elektra I wasn't sure. I mean, I thought Jennifer Garner was an interesting choice. I don't think she's a bad choice at all; from what I've heard she's actually spectacular. If the movie doesn't work, it's for other reasons, not her. But then again I'm really in no position, I'm just reporting what I've heard. In fairness I should just see it and respond to it then. But just based on what I've seen of the photos of Elektra, they went in a whole different direction with the visuals. Of course, that's their prerogative. It's not really my character up there. I feel very connected and fond of the Elektra character, very protective in some respects. It's odd because I don't really think that people that work in comics really feel like they're actually proprietors of the characters, but I do admit to having that sense with her.
NW: It would be interesting to hear what you think of the film once you have seen it.
B: You have seen it?
B: And what was your take on it?
NW: I was very disappointed in it actually. I don't know if it was just the big plot holes in it, or--
B: That's what I had heard as well.
NW: I wasn't really impressed with Jennifer Garner as Elektra. I always pictured this dark-skinned, mysterious Greek girl. I wanted it to be an actress I had never seen before.
B: It's interesting that you say that, because I felt it would be best to have her played by an unknown. And I think it would have been great for them to go with someone who was Greek, who was darker, as opposed to Garner who feels very American. To me, I always felt that Elektra was much more of a character that men would put their fantasies into. I felt there was a level of mystery to her. Anybody who can become an assassin has to be kind of aloof. There has to be a level that is unknowable, and by not showing her eyes, you can't really read her, so she becomes a mysterious blank slate. Guys can project anything they want on her in terms of what they think she is. Of course, she's completely alien to whatever concept the guys are putting on her. If she's too knowable, if she's too defined, she looses her allure or her mystery. I mean, she could be Sally Struthers, (laughs) you know? With the clarity with which she's defined she should be undefinable or ambiguous. There's something much more ferocious and unknowable in that, and that makes her more of a force. We don't want to think of her as human, and I think they've approached her as all too human.
NW: That's one of those things that you always lose when you turn a comic into a movie. An artist and writer are completely in charge of what you see, and how close you can get to the characters. But as soon as someone turns them into a three-dimensional person in a movie, they loose that sense of reality. Suddenly, it's Ben Affleck and not Daredevil.
B: Well, I think that why Spider-Man worked as a movie. Sam Raimi basically did the Kirby/Ditko comic. He was really faithful to the source material. And, in a way, it was out of respect to the source material, but he also brought something to it as opposed to being overly faithful. It would be nice to see more of that kind of approach, where there is a level of mystery to the characters. With Kingpin I can understand their choice, but it would have been very interesting to see them do somebody who really was five times larger than that. To basically make it into a cartoon. You can't take characters like that and mess with the physics. If you're going to establish a certain level of unreality than you have to deal with it. And within the world that you've created, the physics of that world have to remain constant; they can't be amorphous and changing. Doing that is mucking with the reader or viewer; you're changing their perception-- down becomes up, and up becomes down. It just feels like there's nothing grounding it at all. One of the problems I have with a lot of movies these days is that everything is too well lit. In the world of digital creations there is a tendency to show too much. In trailers they give you the whole story without having to even see the movie. What's the point? You see the trailer, it looks like a happy ending, so you're not going to bother going.
NW: I think that is one of the things that Peter Jackson did really well with the Lord of the Rings movies. The Balrog wasn't over-lit; you just got the feeling of this huge creature, and it didn't give away too much.
B: Right. And he was also not well defined. Since he was flame, there wasn't clarity to it. There was a quality that really felt like swirling, shifting flames. What's interesting about Fellowship of the Rings is that so much of what was going on, like moving from one sequence to another when they were attacked by the cave troll, that gigantic creature was just amazing to me. Any one of those sequences in any other movie would have been the big finale. But it was just one more thing that they had to deal with. The finale had more to do with bringing Frodo and Sam back together; it was about the characters. Like Godfather, you look at a movie like that, or something that James Gray has directed, a film with minimal or pin lighting as opposed to everything being lit bright and flat, where everything is evident. Even like the fourth installment of the Alien movies, with the digital alien. That's a way of destroying all sense of mystery. I thought (director Jean-Pierre) Jeunet made some amazing movies, but I felt in one scene in particular there is a character who's in the foreground off to the right, and there's a large empty space to the left. It wasn't consistent with the rest of the film, so it wasn't an off-center designed image. There was a hole there that something was going to fill in the next couple of seconds. And what that did was made you anticipate it, even subconsciously, and it really destroyed the sense of mystery. Everything was too well seen. You saw too much of the alien. It's like looking at the difference between Deep Blue Sea with digital sharks, and Jaws. So much of Jaws was amazing because the mind filled in what was missing. Everything's handed to us on a silver platter. Unfortunately, I think that is what's happening. There is a whole generation of people who are going to see movies or watch TV who don't want to work. I'm not necessarily saying it has to be work, but people are not involved in the same way. They are really just having things thrown at them that are completely the same, and they don't have any real lasting power. When you walk out of a movie, it's really easy to say, "Did we even see something?"
NW: Did you see The Mothman Prophecies?
B: No, I have not. I've heard about it though.
NW: That was a movie that didn't give you everything. As a result, it got bad reviews and a lot of people didn't like it. You had to come up with your own conclusions, and it wasn't just handed to you on a silver platter.
B: See, I like that a lot. I feel the same kind of thing with some of the Coen Brother's work. Barton Fink, to me, was really intriguing. Some people thought it was one of their weaker movies, and I don't think it was one of their best, but it was provocative in the sense that it made you think. But Mothman Prophecies is definitely one I want to see. I know it's out now on DVD.
NW: Yeah, you should check it out. You have been doing some movie work recently. I know you did some storyboards for The Grinch and The Green Mile. How did that stuff come about, and will we ever get a chance to see much of it?
B: Well, I worked with Harvey, who was my rep. And he was actually Bob Peak's rep as well. I was doing a lot of other movie stuff. More European stuff that I did for England; a lot of the domestic stuff was all turned into photographs, which is the way things are done here. You know, I did a series of images for Unforgiven, and they did end up going with photographs again on that. So a lot of what I've done has either been behind the scenes, hasn't been seen, or was used as a finish. It's one of those things where you're being paid fairly decently, and yet the chance of the work actually getting seen is questionable. So it's one of those things where you are doing it to get the work seen, but also because I enjoy doing that kind of work. Bob Peak was one of my major influences as well, so it's always nice to kind of feel like I'm at least dabbling in that arena. That has changed so much as well. Those days are gone.
NW: Right. Everything has turned to photographs.
B: Doing the work for Unforgiven, or the storyboard stuff for The Grinch or American Pimp, it's a wide variety. Doing something like Thomas the Train the same day I'm working on American Pimp; one's for a very young audience, and one's for an audience that maybe young only because they're emotionally stunted, even thought they're 45 or 50 years old. It's a pretty diverse arena for approaches.
NW: Isn't there a book of your collected work that's supposed to be coming out?
B: Yeah. Actually, there is a new book called Faraggo: The Eclectic Work Of Bill Sienkiewicz. It's a big book of most everything I've done in all different arenas. Movies, TV, some theatre stuff, a lot of comic stuff that may not be seen, personal work, and illustrations for magazines and CDs, so it's all across the board of different areas that I've played in. To me, that's one of the things that I love about doing this stuff. One day I can work on this piece in watercolor, and then work on something else on the computer, or work on something else that's a completely different approach. So it's a nice way to keep things fresh.
NW: Do you have any idea when Faraggo will be released?
B: Well, it will certainly be out next summer if it doesn't come out sooner. I've got a couple other book projects I'm working on: Delirium for (Neil) Gaiman, which I've really been enjoying. Neil and I have been wanting to work together for a long time, and he's really challenging me. He's thrown down a really interesting gauntlet. I definitely want to rise to the level of Neil. I'm also doing another Batman project, a Two-Face story which I think is one of the most interesting stories I've read in a long time. There's going to be a lot more comic stuff coming out. I'm also making notes and working on different things for my next personal book. And I'm still in discussions with Frank Miller. Frank and I are supposed to be working on something. We've talked about it, but we're just waiting for our schedules to open up. They may actually in this lifetime. We don't know.
NW: Will that be a creator-owned project?
B: Yeah. We've talked about a number of different ways of approaching it. Frank's got his obligations to do certain things, and I've got mine. But hopefully it will happen sometime soon. We're pretty much going to strike when the iron is hot. I don't know when that will be though.
NW: That will be great to see. I'm always interested in what you're going to do next. As far as personal work, you did Stray Toasters, which was the first big project you both wrote and illustrated. Why wasn't this the beginning of a writer/artist career for you?
B: Toasters was a really interesting experience for me because it did take a lot out of me. It was wonderful, certainly very liberating, and I loved it. I had intended to continue on in that vein, but there were other things that came across that I was interested in doing. I wasn't quite sure what I had to say that was different. I think if I had allowed it to simply happen, it probably could have. I probably could have carved a whole direction. But I feel that everything happens in its own time. I have a feeling that the direction I'm heading is to start a series where I'm going to be doing a lot more of my own personal stuff. But I feel that it's only as a result of having worked in all these other arenas that I'm coming back to it now with a certain approach. It's nice to have the influence of having done all of these other things, and knowing that I still have the freedom to go back to comics. Is it possible to have it all? I think it is. You can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time.
NW: Absolutely. Kind of going along with that, it seems like when you are writing, or even in some of the projects you pick to do with others, there seems to be a real interest in children and their point of view. I was thinking about the "Hit It" storyline from Moon Knight, Todd from Stray Toasters, and even the story from Batman: Black And White; a lot of it seems to be about children being observers while their parents are doing terrible things. Is that a theme that interests you?
B: Yeah. I find it interesting. Since we're all products of what we've grown up with, I find that there's a level of creativity based on our experiences. How we choose to go through those experiences really has a lot to do with who we are. I find that it's rampant, especially even more so these days, where people who are ostensibly adults, there's just a level of lunacy. They're far more like irresponsible children than the kid, and that is constantly a source of amazement. There's a level of absurdity in that. I like the idea of somebody overcoming a really perverse, corrupting environment. Even in older characters there may be a level of innocence. It's not even to say that there are bad or good characters. I think everybody is flawed in their own ways. There is a level of ambiguity in terms of who's a good guy or who's a bad guy, or what makes these people tick. There are people who are vile; but a lot of times the worst things are done simply out of ignorance. Even in the government, like going after Clinton with his right wing conspiracy. I mean, I do think there were a group of right wing guys who definitely had an agenda. They were going to find something wrong, pronounce him guilty, and then try to find a crime to throw on him. But a conspiracy implies that far more thought and involvement had to go into it. I think it's mostly based on passing the buck; sloppiness, stupidity, and just meanspiritedness seems to be much more the reason. I think they're just vile and sloppy, and that's what I feel kids deal with.
NW: Have you ever thought about doing a children's book?
B: I did Santa My Life & Times, but I hardly feel that that's an actual children's book. There have been a couple of things that I've been thinking about doing. But, let's face it, with a lot of the images and things I think about, in terms of comic stuff, there is the idea of putting kids in a scary environment, like a haunted house scenario. And then there's another really frightening scenario that is based on kids not knowing what they can count on. And it's not just simply the cliche of "dad is an alcoholic and mom is on the couch eating bon-bons at 300 pounds worried about having a heart attack" or something. There's something far more at play. Also, if I were to do a kid's book I'd want it to be an uplifting thing. One of the stories that I'm working on is somewhat autobiographical; my father was one of those guys who used to hunt with a rifle. He used to shoot dogs and cats. So there's a level of pathology that kids can assimilate and become like that. I remember what happened to me, and I'm actually probably going to do a semi-autobiographical aspect of it. I was going out into the woods at 7:00AM in the morning with my father and a rifle, and there was a bird that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he shot it out of the sky-- just killed it. I was very young, and we just walked up to it and he just looked at me and said, "That's how you do it." It was just this blithe, matter of fact disregard that was just like, "This is how you kill something." Now, you can become like that, or say you're not going to be like that. I guess what makes me really get intrigued are all the ways in which people lie to themselves. The prime example is Fight Club, where the guy splits, literally fragments himself. I think that's a really heartbreaking thing to have happen. Obviously, that wouldn't necessarily be a book for kids. But the stories are really not about kids in that way. The stories are really about the universality.
NW: That sounds really interesting. It would be great to see you tackle some of that kind of storytelling. Have you been influenced by autobiographical work by people like Daniel Clowes (Ghost World)?
B: Oh yeah, I love his stuff. I would have to approach it from a sense of trying to be unvarnished, if I did a Harvey Peckar (American Splendor) approach, where this character is essentially going to be me. There's somebody I grew up with in Pennsylvania who was the same age and had a similar father. His father was a guard at a prison, but he switched to being a cook. He was a nutcase. This guy was a really good friend, but he exhibited really severe cases of something being seriously wrong. He eventually committed several very horrible crimes right after I'd lost touch with him. And if I hadn't had my art, if I didn't have that as a goal, that could have easily been me. And I was no angel by any means. I did some pretty disgusting things myself, but it's about standing up and trying to make choices; about personal responsibility. So that would be the ultimate theme of it; that you can take two people who are essentially for all intents and purposes under very similar circumstances, but different people are going to have different responses. He made choices and so did I. That's what I want to explore.
NW: Because of that similarity, it must be very easy to put yourself in that situation and imagine what it was that made him go in that direction.
B: Yeah. And that's what is interesting. Some people are lost very early on, and there is something heartbreaking about that. But you realize that they could have made different choices. And I'm not patting myself on the back. In comparison, I can't take credit for certain things I was born with. But this guy definitely could have done other things. He certainly had the ability.
NW: The stuff that you're doing now, like Marvel Team-up or Batgirl/Joker, do you use much photo reference for that?
B: Some. I still use quite a bit, but I enjoy pushing even when I have reference. It's not exactly a safety net, but a jumping off point. Where I can get a sense of the image I want, it just helps hold things together a bit more. I love being able to push and twirl things in a more distorted fashion.
NW: Do you work pretty quickly? Start with very loose pencils, then tighten everything up in the inking stage?
B: Sometimes. I work in all different forms. I like to work on large images, large panels, and then scan them in and shoot them down. I do a lot of compositing, as opposed to having to worry about messing up a page. It allows for more freedom. If a panel doesn't work out, it's not like I have to cut the paper apart; I can just do another image. So there's a real level of fluidity and freedom.
NW: Actually, you're the second person I've talked to who works that way. Greg Ruth, who does a lot of stuff on the Matrix website, does it that way too. It seems like it's a really good way to work.
B: Yeah. I think even Chester Brown from Yummy Fur would do one panel at a time. I like that degree of flexibility. I don't see the necessity of having rules in the sense of what defines comics. Because comics can be anything. In Japan, comics are used for everything; not just porn or Manga. Comics there are certainly viewed as a societal adjunct; they're completely integrated into peoples lives. Whereas here, there is still that stigma. I'm still surprised at the societal stigma. It's diminishing, but most people still respond to comics not so much as a legit medium, but more like, "Is there going to be a movie?"
NW: Do you think respectability will come to comics, and it won't be seen as such a "kid" medium, because of things like video games taking kids away from reading comics? If the only people who are buying them are adults, maybe then they will come into their own.
B: Well, kid's money goes into things that move,.. you know, like video games. Now, comic books, in essence, are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done. So I think comics are becoming more intimate, and the writing is so much better than what you see in a lot of films. They may not have the same degree of spectacle, but many of them are damn better stories. I think that that is an avenue that's going to be much more widely explored. I think the writing will always attract new readers. It's weird; kids may just decide after they're done playing their game that they just want to check out a comic book. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. The thing about comics is that you do really need to bring people in, because the audience grows up and moves on to other things. If you're not weening a new audience into comics, then you're going to lose people.
NW: Has the computer become a very important part in your work, or is it just another tool, like a paintbrush?
B: It's like anything else that's been created electronically. Certainly being able to work up a number of different approaches and try a lot of different things out without getting my hands dirty is a plus. But there are other times I really miss having my hands up to my elbows in matte medium. Everything pretty much gets passed through a scan or a final tweak in the computer.
NW: I think it's too easy when you start using the computer to lose your style and human touch.
B: I certainly did, and it took me a while to come back. But I came back to it because I realized how much I enjoyed the actual process of drawing: making a mess, cleaning it up, fighting with a piece. Working on a computer, there is a real coldness to it. That's not bad, but there's a clinical quality to it.
NW: How do you find a balance between work and real life? Are you chained to a desk all the time?
B: Lately the balance is literally between the job in my left hand and the job in my right. There's a lot of things I want to work on right now. Like my website, which isn't up right now.
NW: Are you going to be doing the website stuff yourself?
B: I'm working getting more stuff to them. I've been talking to Alex Ross's agent, and I'm going to be working with him in terms of getting a link to my site so there is an artist's community of guys who approach things in different ways. I'll be doing all the elements of the site, but I won't be putting the elements up. Someone else will be doing that, because I'm pretty busy with other stuff.
NW: My friend Jason and I have come up with a name for when we see someone else doing work that reminds us of yours. We call it "Big Willie Style". We've always had a debate as to whether or not you'd kick our asses if you heard us refer to you that way.
B: Big Willie? (laughs)
NW: Yeah. "Big Willie Style".
B: That's great. I love that! No, I'm not going to kick any ass over that. It's nice to have a style named that. Are you talking about people who do that kind of approach?
NW: Yeah. But also, if I'm working on something and it's getting stale, I'll ask for advice, and Jason will say, "Why don't you kick it into 'Big Willie Style' and push it?" It's become our code for pushing it.
B: (laughing) That's great I had my version of that with Jasper Johns.
B: Yeah. Jasper Johns had a premise that when you're doing a piece of artwork you do something to it, you mess with it and mess with it and mess with it; so you're putting a subconscious layering effect on it that has an impact. There is a unity to it; but it's also gone through changes and grown. That's something that people just sense. Something may not working, so you tear the piece in half, glue the two halves to separate boards, and finish each piece that's missing-- things like that, just to keep it fresh.
NW: Of all the work you've done, what projects are you most proud of, and what stuff would you destroy all the copies of if you could?
B: The stuff I'd destroy I think is already destroyed. The stuff I'm most proud of is a toss up between Stray Toasters and Elektra. Stray Toasters because it's mine. I'm actually proud of the fact that it got done. It's certainly not superhero stuff; it's a much more bizarre story. I'd love to see on the big screen: a huge machine walking with a toaster for a head. I think it could be a really scary, Terry Gilliam moment. Working on projects like Brought to Light, which is politically important, and Moby Dick is one of my favorites as well. It was just so much fun to work on that with Dan Chichester.
NW: Do you ever find yourself over-thinking things?
B: Of course. That's the classic joke. I've learned to just leave a piece alone. I like working in watercolor, which is a medium that tests you in terms of how clear you can put down the information and not mess with it. You don't fuck with it! You let it be. Part of the charm of watercolor is that it's like a chess game: you're thinking many steps ahead. Whereas with acrylic you're thinking in the moment; you're acting and reacting. I like working in both mediums because they use different aspects of my head and hands.
NW: And now a question that we like to ask all the people we interview. I know you're more of a cat person than a dog person, right?
B: Both. My best friend is a kid with a dog. I love both.
NW: Okay. We always ask the people we interview if they believe that dogs have lips.
B: Do I think dogs have lips?
B: Well, they certainly have masses of muscles that they can contract and pull back. Um,.. yeah. They're not lips like monkeys, but,.. yeah, I guess so. That's a very bizarre question. Why do you ask? I'm curious. (laughs)
NW: It started as a debate at tastes like chicken, so we started asking everybody and keep a running tally.
B: Interesting. I wonder what they would do if they had them like we do? Yeah,.. it's an interesting thought. (laughs)
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