Shiny Shelf

Big Numbers hits a big number

By Eddie Robson on 19 April 2010

I lately dumped a pile of weak ‘Catwoman’ comics (everything post-Brubaker – and I was tempted to get shot of the ones with the terrible Paul Gulacy art, too) at the Notting Hill music/DVD/book/comic/clothing exchange. I love that place for two reasons: one, they promise to take anything off your hands, even if it’s just for a penny, so you know you’ll never have to lug it home again; and two, they offer cash or double the amount in exchange vouchers, so you end up with a fistful of not-real money which can’t be spent on sensible things like food or the gas bill, so it’s an opportunity to really indulge yourself and buy something you usually wouldn’t.

This was how I found myself spending £20 on two 40-page comics, the first two parts of a twelve-part series which never made it to part three and never will. Twenty quid for one-sixth of a story that I’ll never read the end of is exactly the kind of indulgence I wouldn’t normally grant myself. In fact, I wouldn’t normally spend £20 of exchange vouchers on that sort of thing. But this wasn’t any old unfinished comic: it was Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s ‘Big Numbers’, and it’s not every day you walk into the exchange and see that sitting on the shelf above the counter.

Upon cleaning my hands very thoroughly and opening the first issue, I discovered that the date inside is April 1990. ‘Big Numbers’ is twenty years old. It heralded a new decade in the career of a writer who had defined the 1980s comics boom. At the top of his game, still riding high off the success of ‘Watchmen’ and having just completed ‘V For Vendetta’ and published ‘The Killing Joke’, he could have placed almost any project with almost anyone. What he chose to do was retreat from American comics and the genres which had made him famous, and self-published a comic set in a very, very thinly-disguised analogue of his hometown of Northampton (renamed ‘Hampton’ – CRYPTIC! – and located in exactly the same place on a detailed map). The reactionary impulse finds its way into the plot, which concerns the construction of a vast American mall in the town.

As it turns out, the issues were well worth the twenty quid and certainly worth more than forty-odd issues of ‘Catwoman’ written by Will Pfeifer. Even in its truncated form, ‘Big Numbers’ is an absorbing and rewarding read. Even by Moore’s standards, the pace is glacial but the whole is brilliantly textured. What’s fascinating is seeing Moore take the world-building techniques which created the fantasy milieus of ‘Watchmen’, ‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’ and ‘Marvelman’ and apply them to a real-world community. Moore has spoken of how spending his entire life in Northampton has given him the advantage of knowing one place in great depth, and here he makes that advantage pay off. As in ‘Watchmen’, various minor characters drift in and out of the story, but where there they added depth and colour, here you feel they’re the whole point. They’re no more or less important than Christine Gathercole, the viewpoint character – we just happen to see less of them.

Yes, it’s consciously uncommercial in comics terms: no fantasy, an unglamorous English setting (with characters talking in shared references which, if you’re willing to go with them, create a similar ‘lean in’ effect to ‘The Wire’). It opens with a long wordless sequence before we even know who any of the characters are. It’s black-and-white – at least to begin with (the plan was to bleed the colour in gradually and finish in full colour) – and Sienkiewicz’s artwork shifts between unsettling photorealism and indistinct grey blurs. Yet in its way, it is visually remarkable.

There’s a page in issue two of twelve interlocking panels which make up a view of a family kitchen. Without being showy, Moore finds a sequence that makes it work narratively and Sienkiewicz finds a perspective that makes it work visually, and the result is that the page opens out the space of the scene without resorting to a splash panel – which would be dramatically inappropriate and slow down the narrative. It’s one of those moments in Moore’s comics which casually blow your tiny little mind with the possibilities of what comics can do: in a piece of kitchen-sink cinema, elaborate visual technique would risk compromising the realist aesthetic. But comics don’t have a realist aesthetic anyway, so Sienkiewicz is free to select an aesthetic that balances the technique. It’s a moment that shows comics could be tackling a much wider range of subjects than they usually do.

Yet the style was the comic’s downfall. Sienkiewicz struggled with the intense workload and bailed, and the book vanished in a mess of financial problems and undelivered art. ‘Big Numbers’ ironically never made it past the very small number of issue two (although the completed and lettered art for issue three has surfaced online, with Moore’s blessing). It’s not alone among Moore’s projects in having suffered delays – his next project, ‘From Hell’, took seven years and hopped from publisher to publisher – yet he never went back to it, viewing it as unviable to complete in its established style. This is a shame, but it’s a greater shame that Moore never did anything else like it either – and that nobody else has really picked up the baton in the intervening twenty years. It’s quite different from most other non-fantasy indie comics: Daniel Clowes’ ‘Ice Haven’ and some of Los Bros Hernandez’s work has made a similar attempt at depicting an entire community, but ‘Big Numbers’ feels like it’s reaching towards a more ambitious statement.

Even in its incomplete form, ‘Big Numbers’ would be worth republishing. Of course, the value of the issues I’ve just bought would go down, but if it inspired some new comics that were half as good, that would be a small price to pay.

Line Break

By Eddie Robson

2 Responses

  1. Nice find. I remember reading about this years ago but was bummed it was never completed.

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mal Franks, Eddie Robson and topsy_top20k, Shiny Shelf. Shiny Shelf said: Big Numbers hits a big number: I lately dumped a pile of weak ‘Catwoman’ comics (everything post-Brubaker – and I … [...]