Wednesday, November 20, 2013
More Moore part 28: Big Numbers
The 'second period' of Alan Moore's graphic novel career was at its high point in 1990. Done with big publishers and seemingly done with superheroes entirely, Moore began with the historical horror of From Hell before he announced Big Numbers, a work he had every intention of leaving as his masterpiece and legacy. The work was to be incredibly ambitious, even down to its formatting: twelve issues of 40 pages apiece, each cover thick cardstock, each page glossy and gorgeous. The art was to be done in an impressionistic, dreamlike style by master craftsman Bill Sienkiewicz, with figures flowing through the soft-focus backgrounds, only to jump to the fore of the panel in shocking, startling detail, each panel painstakingly drawn from exacting photographs. Chapter one was to be entirely black and white, with color slowly introduced, chapter by chapter, until chapter twelve was full of vivid, sumptuous full-color hues. And the story would be like no other; the story of a small English town disrupted by the opening of an American shopping mall, but based heavily on the theories of chaos theory as postulated by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, to show chaos theory at work in the real word as one small moment sends ripples that ends in the utter destruction of the town. Every panel would be exactingly written within Mandlebrot's theories, every moment, every facial gesture calculated and constructed. Every scene would have layers of meaning, whether it be literal, symbolic, or mathematical. Additionally, it would all be put out independently, with Moore creating the publishing imprint Mad Love made up of his friends and family, totally free from editorial meddling or suits looking at the bottom line. And Moore proved his naysayers wrong when chapter one of Big Numbers was released and sold better than one could imagine for a black and white, non-genre, self-published book. Here was irrefutable proof that a man could shoot for the stars, unburdened by a major company backing him, and could do great things. When Big Numbers was finished, it would be the premier Alan Moore title, discussed in academia. Watchmen's days were numbered.
Big Numbers totally fell apart after chapter two. Nothing has been put out since.
The story of Big Numbers is the story of a comic book tragedy, especially to hear some tell it, but more that that it is a fascinating tale of art imitating life. Everything that could go wrong, did, nearly from the beginning, and certainly after chapter one. Bill Sienkiewicz penciled chapter three and then immediately parted company with Moore, right as Mad Love collapsed under stress both personal and financial, leaving the series without an artist or a financier. Enter Kevin Eastman, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who in 1990 was absolutely flush with new-found cash and ready to save the Greatest Comic Of All Time written by the Greatest Comic Writer Of All Time. Moore and Eastman brought on Al Columbia, one of Sienkiewicz's assistants, to do the art, and the work was back on track. The plan was to tidy up Sienkiewicz's chapter three and put it out with a Columbia-drawn chapter four on Eastman's Tundra publishing. Things were looking up!
Columbia apparently finished chapter four, but he never submitted a page to anybody, and supposedly destroyed his work on it before quitting the business almost for good. Nobody, whether it be Moore or Eastman or any artist, has touched anything from chapter five on, and chapter three was never cleaned up or released. Chapter three WAS finally made available to the public in 2009, when Moore historian Pádraig Ó Méalóid, he who wrote the excellent Miracleman behind-the-scenes Poisoned Chalice, actually found the pages on eBay and scanned and uploaded them with Moore's blessing, but this still leaves us an apparent masterwork with 3/4 of its bulk unfinished, and to hear Moore say it, never to be finished.
With all this telling the story of Big Numbers you may be noticing I have yet to get to the actual work itself. That's because, despite the hushed reverence that Moore aficionados usually give it, in the state we have it in, Big Numbers isn't much worth talking about. The 120 pages that have been made act mostly as an introduction to the enormous cast; the various strange characters who live and love in the small English town of Hampton, and the big business Americans looking to install a mall right in the middle of it. We meet young writer Christine Gathercole, who seems to act as much as the lead character as can be in an ensemble cast like this, back in her hometown after years away and thusly able to see the residents bizarre habits as an outside observer. The rest of the residents of Hampton are a pretty typical group of 'literary small-town weirdos' and as the story is dead after its third installment, they stay that way, no time yet to grow or become rounded. They're often humorous, but with the plot in the state we get it, there's not much to talk about. A lot of people give Big Numbers a lofty reverence, speaking of it in the same breath as Miracleman and Watchmen and The Killing Joke, but as it stands, I don't get it. We could wish for Big Numbers to be finished, or imagine how glorious it would be in the end (and make no mistake, it sounds like it would get very interesting indeed), but right now it's the graphic novel equivalent of watching the first 20 minutes of a movie and declaring it a work of genius (or more like the first 13 minutes, and then a rough workprint cut of the next 7 minutes). Quite literally nothing happens worth discussing, with the exception of work on the mall beginning in the last couple pages of chapter two. The one thing that I can discuss in absolutely glowing terms, however, is Bill Sienkiewicz's art, which is nearly as good as it gets. I don't hear Bill's name tossed about in the same breath as J.H. Williams III or Alex Ross, and it's too bad because his work, here especially, is absolutely stunning. Everything has a heavy, dreamlike quality to it, and Sienkiewicz shows the ability to switch between styles effortlessly, things becoming for exaggerated and cartoony for flashbacks, or violent and bloody for fantasies. Nowhere is Bill's work more accomplished than the opening scene of the first chapter: eight wordless pages juxtaposing a train ride, a nightmare, and delinquent kids throwing a rock at said train. It's a killer opening to the story, back and forth between the cool car and the horrid darkness of the nightmare, and it shows that Moore's ambition wasn't unfounded, and that Sienkiewicz was equal to the task, at least for a little while. If there's anything that people should admire in Big Numbers, it's the art, which is probably some of the absolute best Moore's ever paired with, at least from a technical standpoint. At least until Promethea.
As it stands, the story of Big Numbers the comic is far more interesting than the story within Big Numbers the comic. Pádraig Ó Méalóid actually interviewed Bill Sienkiewicz a couple years ago, and the story Bill gives for his departure, and the behind-the-scenes goings-on at Mad Love, are fascinating for the same reason that Pádraig's Poisoned Chalice are: it's a look into this bizarre work, a bit of an Icarus story where Moore wanted to tell the story to end all stories, and it came crashing down over and over, no matter what he did to right it. What is unfortunate is the repercussions that the Big Numbers fiasco had on jettisoning Moore's 'second period' likely long before it would have naturally ended otherwise. Miracleman and Swamp Thing started Alan's rise to the top of comics stardom; Watchmen and The Killing Joke gave him the impetus to make Big Numbers, a man at the absolute pinnacle of his career doing exactly what he wanted to do. When Big Numbers failed and cost him gobs of his own money, Moore was able to put out one more work that has the same distinct feel of Big Numbers and From Hell, but until possibly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the 2000s, nothing Moore will do will have the same magnificent impact on the medium at large. Moore will never again be as important as he was in 1990. But that doesn't mean his work won't still be just as good.
Best quote: "Apparently, life is a fractal in Hilbert space."
"Ah well./I knew it'd turn out t'be somet'in like dat./I knew dat couldn't be right , about de bowl o'cherries."
Up next: Moore's final second period work, A Small Killing.