Abstract Expressionism Gave '80s X-Men Comics Their Superpowers — And This LA Artist Was The Mastermind
People used to know what they were getting when they opened up a comic book. But in the 1980s, Bill Sienkiewicz changed that.
By injecting abstract expressionism into the artwork of X-Men comics, Sienkiewicz redefined what readers thought was possible.
We spoke with the artist about his career while touring his studio in Central Los Angeles.
"It's between unkempt, and bordering on unhealthy. I'm about this far away from being a hoarder," Sienkiewicz said.
He'd been bicoastal for the past decade, creating art for movies and developing his own work in Hollywood, before moving to L.A. full-time three years ago. Now the first of a three-book set looking at his work in comics, movie storyboards, album art, and elsewhere is out — Bill Sienkiewicz: Revolution.
MAKING HIMSELF USELESS FOR "REAL" JOBS
Sienkiewicz told his dad that he was going to make comics for a living when he was 7 years old. As he got into his awkward teen years, he dove in, making his own comics — complete with fake letter columns in the back.
"As my physical appearance slowly changed, I started to get more introverted. And so it really focused the attention into working on creating worlds that I was in control of," Sienkiewicz said.
His dad tried teaching him electrical wiring, so that he'd have a real job to fall back on. But Sienkiewicz wasn't having it.
"I thought, if I have a real job to fall back on, I'll fall back. So I just said, 'I'm going to make myself completely useless for any kind of cubicle job,'" Sienkiewicz said.
When he went to art school, he found out about fine art, illustration, and all the other options for visual creation that he never knew about.
"It was like the whole world had opened up," Sienkiewicz said.
Two years into a three-year program, he made his own portfolio and took a four-hours bus trip from Jersey to DC Comics' Manhattan offices — uninvited. He got to talk with an editor who loved his work, but he didn't have any work for him.
So he called the famed Batman artist whose work Sienkiewicz reminded him of: Neal Adams. He met Adams, who called up the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, which led to him working in comics when he was just 19 years old.
PUTTING ART SCHOOL INTO X-MEN COMICS
He started to get a lot of attention — but it was for how much his work reminded everyone of Neal Adams.
"I started to feel really kind of invisible — and I felt angry, and unseen, and hurt. Because I didn't know that being a clone is not OK — I was just a kid," Sienkiewicz said.
He had sketchbooks full of fine art, paintings, and design work — all the stuff that he'd absorbed in art school. He showed them to his wife, and colleagues at Marvel.
"I remember pulling out my sketchbooks and going, 'why can't this be in comics?' And they said, 'that's not what comics are,'" Sienkiewicz said.
So he decided that he was going to get what was in his sketchbooks published — or he was going to quit.
"I can still remember what the weather was like, I can still remember what music was playing, I can still remember what the mood felt like in my home studio when I was working on some of the issues of Moon Knight when I made a conscious effort to pull in some of the other influences," Sienkiewicz said.
He evolved his style over several issues of Moon Knight, then started putting it into comic book covers. Marvel offered him the chance to be the artist on X-Men — but he turned it down.
"Because, I told them, I want to do some experimentation. I want to just push and see what's possible. So I don't want to take Marvel's flagship characters and drive them into the ditch," Sienkiewicz said.
But he found a way in sideways. X-Men writer Chris Claremont came to him and asked if he wanted to work on X-Men spinoff New Mutants, and with more free range, he took the assignment as part of his quest to help change the perception of what comics are.
He used abstract expressionism, doing art that was more about the feeling than about being exactly true to reality. He describes his own work as being drawn well enough to look like what it's supposed to, but that he's more interested in what the people and the story feel like.
"You'll see a lot of people using photo reference now, and they'll have somebody yelling, and it's a little bit restrained — stiff — as opposed to the jaw's dislocated, and just the emotion of someone yelling," Sienkiewicz said.
NOW SUPERHERO MOVIES ARE THE MARGINALIZED MEDIUM
Sienkiewicz feels like superhero movies are going through the same growth process that comics did, with critics refusing to accept them as legitimate art.
"Comics are actually quite accepted [now]. Even though they're usually referred to as 'the source material,'" Sienkiewicz said. "All of the s—-, and the heat that we got, and the dismissive stuff that comics got when I was growing up — it's all on the films."
He said that he understands where Martin Scorsese is coming from in his critiques of superhero movies, but that he isn't seeing all that those movies — or that comics — can be.
BECOMING AN ANGELENO
Sienkiewicz spent a long time flying coast to coast as his career in Hollywood, developing his own projects and doing storyboards for others, started to grow.
"When people asked where I lived, I would say seat 26C of JetBlue. And [then] it stopped being a joke," Sienkiewicz said.
That's why he decided to move here three years ago. He was getting away from memories of an ex, along with having enough of shoveling snow and East Coast humidity.
"I do miss the rain, occasionally," Sienkiewicz said. "It'll be raining at 3 o'clock in the morning and I'll be outside doing the Shawshank Redemption."
Still, he said, he appreciates knowing the weather's going to be nice and that his watercolors will dry.
GOING BACK TO THE NEW MUTANTS
He had the opportunity recently to do a one-off special, revisiting the New Mutants world that his dynamic art was at the heart of. But despite fan acclaim, he felt like he "s—- the bed."
"I feel that way all the time," Sienkiewicz said. "I feel like I'm the quintessential perpetual student — I just want to get better."
When he was first asked to do the revival, he'd initially wanted to turn it down.
"I didn't want it to be a cash grab — revisiting and not living up to the memory," Sienkiewicz said.
He found that he'd gotten so used to doing still images rather than month-to-month comics that his mind had "plasticized." But as he got into it, he said, he remembered how to do comics again.
WINNING OVER NEW FANS
Sienkiewicz hopes that the new series of art books helps indoctrinate people into his art, introducing them to something different.
He's found himself doing commissions recently for some big-name celebrities — he showed us some pieces in his studio that he couldn't yet talk about. He's been surprised to learn how much love there is for his work among the people he admires himself, some of whom he's getting to be friends with.
"I think I'm in this tiny little room in my head, and then I'll see Jon Hamm talk about loving comics, and he'll pronounce my name perfectly," Sienkiewicz said.
BTW, that's "sin-KEV-itch."
Whether it be in comics or elsewhere, he plans to keep creating art for the rest of his life.
"I think I'll probably go out with a paintbrush in my hand. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands," Sienkiewicz said.
You can see work from throughout his career in Bill Sienkiewicz: Revolution, available now.