Big Numbers is one of the great unfinished works in the comic book world. In 1990, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz set out to make a 10-issue series about the effects of an American-built mall on an English town. The first two issues are great reading, full of Moore at his quirky, most observant best, sympathetically portraying people in a wide sweeping range of present states and prospects, and full of Sienkiewicz’s fascinating pen and pencil work, evoking mood and mental conditions with flights of fancy and exaggeration, then swooping back to meticulously detailed realism.
Then things went wrong.
The workload proved too much for Sienkiewicz, and the collaboration less than entirely satisfactory to either. Sienkiewicz bowed out. Moore then asked Sienkiewicz’s assistant, Al Columbia, to take over. Columbia worked on the next two issues, then also bowed out, for reasons that have never been fully aired publicly and about which there’s all the usual tedious gossip. What matters for this purpose is that he did stop and the artwork was destroyed, under circumstances and with motives that remain the confidences of those involved. (Artist Eddie Campbell, who illustrated Moore’s massive story of Jack the Ripper, the doom of individual perspective, and more, From Hell, has some comments about it at his blog.) Ten pages of issue #3, photocopied with the lettering overlaid, were published in a short-lived media magazine in 1999, and that’s all for the artwork. Readers have had to content themselves with the script for the issue.
LiveJournal blogger Glycon (Pádraig Ó Méalóid) recently took a gamble on an eBay sale listing copies of issues #1 and 2 and a complete set of photocopies of issue #3. It turns out they were there and are authentic, with a plausible provenance described in the post in which he publishes the complete set of images, with Alan Moore’s permission, with higher-resolution scans in a Flickr set. The story involves the CompuServe comics forum, which was (like GEnie and some others) a place where a lot of pros gathered in pre-Internet days and which fell into decline in the second half of the 1990s. Back in the day, it was easy for a fan to mingle in a moderated environment with pros along with fellow fans, and to make social connections that could and did develop into solid acquaintances and friendships. In that context, yes, it makes sense that second- and third-generation photocopies of interesting art would circulate from person to person, until the forum weakened and the volume of sharing shrank.
This isn’t quite like one of the series that go downhill, that Jo Walton just wrote about; there’s no disappointing continuation, just no continuation at all. But what’s here is very interesting, with prime Sienkiewicz and up-and-coming Columbia art and some really good storytelling around.