Nov 16, 2012

Voodoo Child: The Will Eisner/Bill Sienkiewicz Connection

The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye.
The story of love is hello and goodbye.
Until we meet again.
-Jimi Hendrix

I'm not exactly what you'd call a fan of either Jimi Hendrix or Bill Sienkiewicz. I like them, I respect what they did/do and what they mean to music and comics, respectively, and when something of theirs hits me, it really hits me. But still, their work isn't really something I seek out, and as such, I wouldn't really call myself a fan of either.

But in a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, when I found out years ago that Martin I. Green and Bill Sienkiewicz did Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix, I instantly paid attention and went on Amazon and bought a used copy (it was our of print), and read it when it came days later and it blew my mind. There was just something so perfect about that matchup, probably because they were two truly innovative and experimental artists. Sienkiewicz on Hendrix. Wow.

Just over a year after I discovered this book, Will Eisner died. Soon after that, Comic Book Artist #6 came out, and it was a tribute to Eisner, with testimonies and sketches from a lot of writers and artists, including Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Gerry Alanguilan, Rick Veitch, and yes, Bill Sienkiewicz. This is what Sienkiewicz had to say:

In Voodoo Child, the illustrated biography of Jimi Hendrix, Will Eisner is listed as creative consultant, a catch-all title. He had so many facets worth catching: Sensei, guru, inspiration, author, visionary, icon, friend, peer, mentor, consummate professional, comic art evangelist, true artist... and a dozen other worthy descriptions. So "creative consultant" it is.

It may not be common knowledge, but it was Will — not I — who was first approached by Berkshire Studio, the book's packager, to be the artist on Voodoo Child. He had completed page layouts for much of it already. Still, he chose to turn the project down... and he'd recommended me, feeling that my style was better suited to visually convey the passion, energy and emotion of Jimi's music. I can't ever thank him enough for that gesture. He generously gave me a tremendous vote of confidence that instilled gratitude.

I was given Will's layouts to use as page guides on the book but I had the freedom to either use them or not. There were times I did and times I didn't, but regardless, the layouts were always fun to look at, the storytelling sharp, and the characters alive... fluid, expressive, and clear. Will just made it look so easy.

Now my reaction upon reading that was, wow, that must be the greatest ego boost ever, having Will Eisner turn down a project and hand it over to you, saying you're the right man for the job. (And Sienkiewicz absolutely was the right man for the job. His ability to paint realistically really captured Hendrix's likeness without sacrificing expressions and emotions, as often happens with likenesses, and his layouts captured the spirit of Hendrix's music.) But then I wondered if I could spot which pages were laid out by Eisner and which ones were laid out by Sienkiewicz.

Some of Eisner's layouts

Sienkiewicz loves small panels, constrained grids, and polyptychs, and he also loves breaking them and going off the rails to depict motion and the sense of being out of control. There are a lot of them here, so the entire comic is clearly Sienkewicz-steered.

Well, that's just an awesome use of the polyptych.
And that's hard to do, too. A continuous background is one thing.
A continuous foreground element makes it more impressive.
Eisner at this point in his career loved doing "open" panels, often without borders, and putting maybe three or four moments in a page at most. Going by this, I'd assumed that the pages that were more "free" and "open" were Eisner's, but looking at Eisner's layouts, I realized how I'd boxed them both in. My mind was on "constrained = Sienkiewicz; open = Eisner," but that's not the case at all. Check out this scene where Hendrix is arrested for heroin possession. Yes, Eisner's panels are bigger, but the "stat" indicates that he would have repeated the panels, while Sienkiewicz's moves the narrative along at a faster pace.

And then there's this one, where Hendrix learns about soul. Eisner's layouts had this scene take two pages, but Sienkiewicz is able to do the entire scene with even fewer panels. I would have assumed this one was an Eisner page, but it's apparently not.

In fact, this is the only one among Eisner's eight given layouts that I could see coming close to Sienkiewicz's final product.

I really couldn't imagine Eisner's style making this book work, and I think it's a testament to Sienkiewicz's skill that Eisner passed this project on to him, but I think it's even more a testament to his skill that he took layouts given by Will Eisner and either changed them or did away with them altogether. He achieved a perfect Hendrix biocomic. Looking at this makes me feel proud and fortunate to be reading comics in a time when someone like Bill Sienkiewicz is active. Maybe I don't seek out his work all that much, but there's only ever been one Bill Sienkiewicz, just like there's only ever been one Jimi Hendrix. And despite the Dave McKeans and the James Jeans, I'm going to bet it will stay that way.

I kept typing "Hendrix" instead of "Sienkiewicz" throughout this article. I'm sure that says something.

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