Saturday, January 30, 2010

Out of the Vault - Big Numbers

Once again, a comic too big to fit in my scanner. Just imagine, if you will, that the names Alan Moore and Bill Sienkeiwicz are underneath the illustration there. Thanks.

By 1990, it seemed to me that Alan Moore could do no wrong. He seemed to have an almost effortless command of anything he touched. He had written some of the most amazing comics I had ever read, from Swamp Thing to Miracleman to Watchmen. Even his one-offs, like Batman: The Killing Joke, or the Superman issues he wrote in the mid-80's, "For the Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?," were amazing, bringing a new vision and clarity of character while remaining true to the histories of the heroes portrayed.

So when I saw that there was a new Moore comic out, especially one with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, I grabbed it up immediately.

Big Numbers, published by Moore's Mad Love imprint, tells the story of Hampton, a small town in northern England where an American company plans to build a shopping mall. Christine Gathercole, an author who moved out of Hampton years ago, is coming back to visit her family and work on her next book. But she is haunted by her past.

But Christine's story is just one among what seems like dozens that weave in and out of the pages. That cab driver? He's a recurring character. Virtually everyone in the town is a recurring character. And they're not what you'd call normal.

Or perhaps I should say that in this town, crazy is normal. Christine's family are all eccentric, from her mother's complete cluelessness, to her father's angry ignorance, to her sister's refusal to act as if her husband is, in fact, dead. They're all using their quirks to deal with tragedy and loss; in this environment, Christine's being haunted by the ghost of her aborted child makes her fit right in.

And as the characters are dealing with the losses and upheavals in their own lives, the town is dealing with losses and upheavals on a large scale, in the economic stagnation that has afflicted the town and in the coming American development. And Moore plays with this idea, of the large reflected in the small and vice versa, by referring to fractals and chaos theory.

And here you can see a glimpse of Sienkiewicz's graphic style, alternating between almost photo-realistic images and then reverting to sketchier or cartoonier styles when the story calls for it. Sienkiewicz was a guy whose art I hated when he was first starting out (his Moon Knight stories for Marvel in the early 80's being nothing more than really clumsy Neal Adams swipes). But by the time Big Numbers came out, he had developed a unique style that took influences from Adams and Disney animation and Ralph Steadman and somehow fused into his own unique thing. Sienkiewicz's comics were not only technically brilliant, they didn't look like anything that anyone else was doing. And I loved that.

Big Numbers wasn't perfect. The cast was very large, and it was hard to keep track of who everyone was. Especially when some pages were so dense with dialogue that there was barely any room for art to show you who was speaking. So humorous as it was, by the end of the second issue, it was hovering dangerously close to dull, which resulted in Sienkiewicz tossing in more and more stylistic tricks with the art, making it almost incomprehensible.

Still, I would have read the entire 12 issues if 12 issues had been published. Alas, Big Numbers stopped after two, so we never got to see what would have happened to Hampton.

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