The day indie rock defeated Alan Moore: Al Columbia reveals what happened to Big Numbers #4
It’s one of comics’ greatest mysteries, and Inkstuds interviewer extraordinaire Robin McConnell just solved it. And the answer involves…’90s indie-rock icons Sebadoh?
McConnell covers a lot of incredibly fascinating ground in his astonishingly candid and in-depth interview with cartoonist Al Columbia — do not say “tl;dl” to the two-hour podcast — but he also cuts right to the chase, asking the mercurial artist what, exactly, happened to the artwork he created for Watchmen demigod Alan Moore’s great lost comic Big Numbers #4. As you might recall from our post on Columbia’s one-time mentor Bill Sienkiewicz’s recent words on the subject, Big Numbers was intended to be Moore’s magnum opus.
As I put it then:
Big Numbers was a Joycean look at life in a small English town as a big-box retailer prepared to set up shop. But this grand fiction-as-fractal-geometry experiment only managed to produce two published issues in 1990 before hitting a massive delay during work on issue #3, losing Sienkiewicz, moving from Moore’s Mad Love publishing imprint to [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator] Kevin Eastman’s Tundra, tapping Sienkiewicz’s then-teenaged assistant (and current reclusive Pim & Francie creator and alt-horror superstar) Al Columbia to take over, losing Columbia and all the pages he’d completed, and finally shuddering to a halt….[N]othing has been seen of the all-Columbia fourth issue, long rumored to have been destroyed in its entirety by the perfectionist artist.
In his fascinating conversation with McConnell, Columbia first tells the story of how he landed a gig as Sienkiewicz’s assistant (a portfolio full of Sienkiewicz knockoffs apparently helped) and then how he was tapped to take over the struggling Big Numbers series (by Eastman’s request, some time after Columbia’s relationship with Sienkiewicz had ended on unpleasant terms). But the difficulty of working out the arrangements between all the parties involved led to lengthy delays even after Columbia agreed to take over, which in turn gave him ample time to realize he really hated working in the photorealistic style he’d been asked to use to mimic what Sienkiewicz had done in the two published issues (the third, unpublished one was done in Sienkiewicz’s trademark scratchy style) — not to mention sour on the contract he’d signed with Tundra. He also grew skeptical of the quality of the script, with which, he says, he felt Moore was setting himself up for failure by telling people it was his magnum opus: “I know that I got real bored with it quick, and whatever cleverness [it had], it might have been too clever.”
Then, one fateful day:
I was roommates with all the guys in this band called Sebadoh, which were particularly large back in the day — Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Loewenstein, they were all hanging out. And Eric Gaffney was gonna put out this single, this little split single with somebody, and he wanted artwork for it and he wanted me to do something. He was big into collages and stuff like that, and we got the idea that I would chop up all this Big Numbers artwork and make a collage out of it for his album cover. I don’t know how I got the idea, but I just hated [Big Numbers] — I didn’t want anything to do with it, I had already quit it or I was going to, I knew I wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. So we put every page on a chopping block, one of those big slicers, and I just chopped it up madly for about a half hour — just sliced the whole thing up with a chopper. And Marc Arsenault, who’s the Wow Cool guy — I don’t know if anyone knows who he is, the minizine guy — he was a good friend of mine, he came over and just looked horrified. He stood in the doorway and watched me chopping up all the artwork and just went “Oh my God!” I think he must have told somebody I’d done it, and that’s how that [story] got started. But I think even before that, there was something [going around] to that effect. That might have been what influenced me to do it: “Well, they’re saying I did this, I might as well.” I can’t remember, though. But it wasn’t like “Oh my God, I’m gonna flip out, I can’t stand this!” It wasn’t this breakdown. It was just like, “Oh, this’ll make a cool record cover.” That’s it. That’s all it was.
So there you have it, folks. Big Numbers #4 was finished and Al Columbia chopped it into bits, not due to his notorious perfectionism and self-editing, but because his roommates Sebadoh needed a record cover. As best I can tell, the record he’s talking about was 1991’s Sebadoh/Azalia Snail split single; that’s the cover for the Sebadoh side above. It’s creepy, and creepiness is obviously a Columbia trademark, but at the same time it doesn’t exactly look like a collage assembled from sliced-and-diced photorealistic art from an Alan Moore comic about an English village. Is it the final resting place of Big Numbers, hidden in plain sight (well, plain sight if you’re an indie cratediver) all these years? Or did the band end up going in a different direction, one slightly less horrifying to Alan Moore fans? I’ll leave that to Columbia/Sebadoh experts to determine.
Again, your really want to listen to McConnell’s whole interview with Columbia; I’m about an hour deep and I already know more about Columbia’s childhood than I do about some of my best friends’. Huge round of applause to Inkstuds for a hugely revealing interview with one of comics’ most legend-shrouded talents.