INTERVIEW: Bill Sienkiewicz’s success has nothing to do with “blind luck”

Bill Sienkiewicz
Artist Bill Sienkiewicz (photo: John K. Kirk)

Bill Sienkiewicz strikes an image far from that of the illustrious art legend you’d think he’d sport (and would be justified in doing so) at the world’s biggest comic convention. In casual shorts, a faded t-shirt and a big smile, he welcomes everyone warmly to the Italian-styled art booth at SDCC where he has an unassuming small table set up to receive guests and sign their various offerings.

It’s a clash of opposites. He’s humble, but set against this stylish and opulent backdrop, visitors are pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth Bill is when he greets them.

Waiting for my turn to speak with Bill, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by his mini-gallery, laden with many original works of art and pages from my adolescence. Surrounded by this degree of comic glory, I’m a bit intimidated. This is the man that former Marvel Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter told me was a “trailblazer” and who “blew everyone away” when he hired him at Marvel back in the eighties.

To put a bit of a fan-boy dimension behind my conversation with Bill, one of my favourite comics was The New Mutants. It was built upon the foundation of my love of John Byrne’s and Chris Claremont’s The Uncanny X-Men and Byrne’s character, Kitty Pryde. The concept of a character who was my age made a deep and meaningful impression on me. I could relate to her and a group of teenage mutants who were to be the next generation of X-Men. They experienced my growing pains and it seemed to my adolescent and self-absorbed brain that Bob McCleod and Chris Claremont had put together a completely relatable collection of heroes for me, alone.

My first introduction to Sienkiewicz’s chaotic and eclectic work was The New Mutants #18. It defied tradition and rocked my developing understanding of comic theory… and threw all of my comfort with this title out the proverbial window. I didn’t understand it.

‘The New Mutants’ #18 (Marvel Comics)

I read it again, and again… and again. I read it so many times that I had to replace it with a new copy because I had worn out the staples. It was also the first time that I had ever considered the notion of buying an extra copy of a comic for reading purposes alone. I think I must have repeated the same process with every comic Sienkiewicz ever illustrated, whether it was New Mutants, Moon Knight, or Elektra.

Bill Sienkiewicz’s art puzzled me and I needed to understand it more. It was a real journey for me, to migrate from Bob McLeod to his work. So I described my experience to Bill and about how his work forced me to pay more attention to how it affected the story’s meaning.

“Wow…” he started, “I think that’s the most insightful thing anyone has ever said. If you were like me – and I think you must have been – growing up, if I didn’t understand what a word meant, I had to look it up so I could use it.”

I nodded and asked: “But to me, the effect of your work was that I read the comic more. You created an enduring bond between your work and its audience – in this case, me – and that was an experience shared by millions of fans and has now migrated to television. That’s huge for an artist to have that sort of a legacy. What do you think that has enabled that?”

Bill paused. “That’s a really good question, actually. I’ve always worked from the premise that it’s a variation of the old Sally Field Oscar speech – ‘you like me, you really, really like me’.“

He chuckled and went on: “Except in my case, I’ve always felt that everybody basically tolerates me. I’ve always felt that I’ve been an outsider. I’m not a house style whatsoever, and maybe if I had approached Marvel or DC with the style that I had in New Mutants or Elektra, instead of coming in with my ‘Trojan Horse’ method of kinda being Neal Adams and subverting from within? I don’t think I would have gotten hired – at all. So, I think I had to change the perception of what comics could do by infiltrating from within.”

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From ‘Elektra: Assassin,’ art by Bill Sienkiewicz

Bill’s style is still unmistakably unique. In the last thirty years, it still stands apart from any other comic artist’s work and is, in my opinion, the most distinctive comic art style in the industry. He continued to reflect on the enduring nature of his work.

“I look at it as a kind of a mix of good fortune and that includes timing, and I think there’s no small credit given to the editorial support I’ve received in my career. At the time, I told them what I wanted to do and I think it was both a slow process and a bit of an upheaval. I think it came down to the fact that I’m either going to do what I want or I’m going to get out. So, whatever is enduring, I think it’s partly due to the fact that on an emotional level, I’ve always tried to amass enough craft and discipline for my work to look like something and mean something. What really is different in my work from other people – and there are amazing craftspeople out there – but for me, I like to capture the emotion and the undercurrent of what the characters are feeling. “

There is no hubris in Sienkiewicz’s explanation that one of the underlying reasons for his success is that he knows how to draw emotion. It’s a thoroughly viable explanation that describes his success and understanding of this medium.

“I think comics are, by and large, traditionally illustrative; people like for them to look like something,” he went on. “What I try to do is capture what’s under the surface and I like to invite the reader to take part in the experience – not just to be in the receiving end, but to be an active participant, and acknowledge their intelligence. So, it’s a kind of a give-and-take; it’s a narrative – it’s a dialogue. I mean, this is all conjecture based on conversations I’ve had with people about how they respond to my work. So, this might all just come down to blind luck!”

Luck is a major factor in success, but at the same time, nobody’s that lucky. Earlier that morning, one of Bill’s pieces sold for about a thousand dollars. Last year, I was at a comic art collector’s house where I saw four portrait commissions hanging in his basement. Bill may dismiss his talent as just blind luck, but the commercial value of his work alone is more than enough evidence to testify to his success. However, in our conversation (and to his credit), Bill didn’t bring up this aspect of his success.

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‘Elektra: Assassin’ #8, art and cover by Bill Sienkiewicz (Marvel Comics)

Bill’s nature has a personal sublimity to it. Like I said earlier, he is relaxed, humble, a true gentle soul who is welcoming in nature and it is this feature of his personality, in all its authenticity and sincerity, that people gravitate to and that they can sense in his work that is truly the endearing feature.

Our conversation turned to how much he had affected the comics medium. In this respect, Bill Sienkiewicz was no stranger to how far he could push the envelope. We talked about influences in his career and ultimately turned to his relationship with Jim Shooter.

“It’s interesting… I love Jim; he’s a phenomenal guy. He was my biggest supporter and he and I had an interesting relationship. He and I could give each other no end of shit. He would bust my chops! He knew I was pushing the envelope but he was having me walk that line between something that people would be able to grasp and at the same time, he wanted it to be something that would push the medium, He was always trying to find that sweet spot. He would let me know when I would go too far but at the same time, he never said ‘don’t do it’. He might have busted my chops but we were friends and I knew he was in my corner. He doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves. I think a lot of people felt that when he came in, he was trying to bring comics to the idea that readers could just pick up any issue and not have to be a lifelong fan to understand the story and I respected that. I mean, I didn’t try to break the mold of the medium; I just knew that I wanted to try a bunch of new things with every book I worked on.”

In terms of different approaches to his work, we briefly touched on Moon Knight, New Mutants, and Elektra. I was overjoyed to learn that we shared the same favourite New Mutant.

“Every book I worked on became a different chapter in how my work progressed. Moon Knight was me doing the standard stuff of comics that I had absorbed as a teenager. A lot of the things that I had gotten through in comics were those things that I had gotten through at a very young age. I was ready to simplify and try new things. So, when I got on New Mutants, that was the abstract expressionism, the more European stuff, and when I did the painted covers – I kept wanting to up the ante to what I could do, and that took me to Elektra and collage and photographs and sculpture. To me, comics are a medium that can handle anything.”

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From ‘Moon Knight’ #1 [1980], art by Bill Sienkiewicz (Marvel Comics)
We needed to explore the relationship of transferring his art to the screen and how it managed to survive in that format. The subject of Legion came up. I had to ask that question, because it not only touches on the enduring factor of Bill’s work, but also its endearment through the decades after his initial work on The New Mutants.

“I’ve talked this over with studio execs before and some of the actors. I feel that it’s the intent – the heart and energy of what Chris [Claremont] and I were trying to do, that has been transferred. It wasn’t a literal, one-to-one corollary. They took the subconscious aspect and ran with it and captured the emotional intensity of what we did. Now, when I think of David Haller, I think of Dan Stevens. I mean, Dan is so incredibly talented – he’s a sweetheart and the whole cast is so amazing. Nate Halper – the director, the showrunners – I remember the first season and one of the later episodes with the music and anything and I was stunned and it was so moving. I was blown away absorbing everything and then the credits rolled. My name popped up with Chris’s and it was this weird out-of-body experience – this is based on something I did. I was part of this genesis. I was an audience member and was moved but then to think that there was a connection to something that Chris and I did. I was moved by this sense of pride but it was more that they had taken it and plussed it. It was taken to another level. We build on each other’s art in this world – you know,” the rising tide lifts all boats”? And it wasn’t something that Chris and I did that moved me, it was that they added so much more to this art that we created.”

This is the point when I realized that we had moved past the 15 minutes I was originally allotted to speak with Sienkiewicz. I realized that this had turned into more than just an interview; this was a creator who was exhibiting a just sense of pride in his work – not a sense of overly-endowed hubris, but a genuine enjoyment out of how his work had influenced others to pursue their own craft. This was honesty, as real and as one could get. Bill’s warmth, his excitement and his complete lack of non-propriety; his sense of genuine happiness … let me put it this way: if there was a Church of Sienkiewicz, I’d be lining up to get my pamphlet.

This was a man reveling in inspiration instead of accomplishment.

It is too often when people get wrapped up in the end product of accomplishment instead of enjoying the act of accomplishing. Bill Sienkiewicz is someone who would rather talk about the process than the product. Sure, it’s fun to talk about achievement, but it’s rare to find a creator who wants to describe the absolute joy of being in the moment of making. That’s an enviable, blissful state that not a lot of people are privy to, and it’s a true state of joy.

“People have asked what my involvement is like and it’s based on legacy of comics. I’m all over The New Mutants; I’m all over Legion from a stylistic sense, but when I did the promotional material in the second season [Legion], I wanted to do an illustrative tribute to movie posters as opposed to a ubiquitous Photoshop thing. I’d seen four or five episodes of the second season and Eygon Schiele’s work stood out in my mind. I did a bunch of sketches with Dan and Rachel in this kind of style and did this type of inspirational style, which is not to push it. But that’s what I did. I’m thrilled and honoured to be associated with it, but at the same time, it’s their thing and I am completely respectful of it.”

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Promo art for ‘Legion’ Season 2 by Bill Senkiewicz

I think that Bill’s complete lack of ego was what stood out in our conversation. Bill truly loves his medium, that much was apparent. But at the same time and despite his overwhelming success as a comic artist, the fact that he tried to place himself as someone who contributed albeit in a minor way really shocked me. To my mind, it’s astounding that he felt that he regarded himself as an outsider or a subversive influence on the art when it is plainly obvious to any observer that he is regarded as an industry creator or defining force for many millions of fans. At the time, he was certainly novel, but after all this time, the fact that his demeanour is one of modest contributions surprised me.

But it is his perception of the medium of comics that explains this attitude.

“I walk this careful line of how comics can do anything. They are a powerfully viable medium worthy of great respect but at the same time, there is this sense of ‘hey kids … comics!’ sort of joy and it’s not rocket surgery (to abuse a cliché). There’s a comingling of seriousness and playfulness that even comes out in things like editorial comics or comics with a journalistic purpose – like Charlie Hebdo? Comics and art speak truth to power in the sense that the truth of something to the lie of the abstraction and the extremity of something; they’re saying something that might get someone thrown in a gulag! Artists are dangerous! In a weird kind of way, they’re the bellwether of when something is going wrong. I don’t want to sound lofty or pretentious but people underestimate the power of comics and its visual power. It’s something I have to remember.”

Bill paused to consider further. “They take tropes and they subvert them and I love that. It plays to my own sense of subverting the medium. It involves a new way of appreciating the medium and there’s such a level of joy and love in that process.”

“Which ties into the whole emotional level of enjoyment of the comic medium that you started in,” I pointed out.

Bill smiled. “Exactly.”

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Bill Sienkiewicz with Pop Mythology contributor “Captain” John K. Kirk (photo: courtesy of John K. Kirk)

That’s the sublimity of understanding Bill Sienkiewicz. If he read the praise in this article, he’d probably dismiss it with a modest but polite disavowal. But the truth of the matter is, when you look at his work, it’s not the final destination that’s the secret to enjoying his work, but understanding the journey itself. Bill revels in the emotional energy the project puts out, yet in order to fully appreciate the project, you have to be able to see how he got there.

That explains why I re-read all those comics in my past; it was trying to connect the events to the plot of the story and see how his art reinforced those concepts. Once you saw the relationship between the art and the story, you grasped what Bill was trying to do. In a subliminal way, Sienkiewicz was programming appreciation as well as emotional intensity into my young reader’s mind … and while the idea may be simple to appreciate now, it took reading hundreds of his comics to come to that point.

Let me leave you with this anecdote: when I was in Boston some years ago, I took a bunch of books to see the legendary Joe Sinnott. Joe was surprised that he had worked one particular book. It was Bill Sienkiewicz who was sitting next to him, who took the time to go through my book and show him the credits, to go through the book’s pages and show him what he loved about it.

While I thought Bill was just being really caring and respectful, I now see that he was reliving Joe’s own particular journey on that book with him. In a small way, he does the same thing when he signs a book or a poster for his fans.

I learned something very special about Bill Sienkiewicz this day. Bill’s acclaim didn’t come to him because he wanted it; it was just something he picked up in pursuit of his art. He didn’t design the gallery nor does he sell his own pieces. It’s just something that happens while he’s reliving his own experiences with his fans, talking about his work or even working on a commission.

I hope my own journey, my own pursuits, can be as enlightened as this man’s.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.