He had Jedi robes and a Force FX lightsaber, and he wanted to be cremated with both of those,” laughs Vanessa Walilko as she recalls her late boyfriend, artist Ed Siemienkowicz. “If he could have been on a funeral pyre, that’s what he would have done.”
But, ultimately, Siemienkowicz is getting a Return of the Jedi treatment, as the spirit of his comics practice continues after his 2017 death from pancreatic cancer. More than 130 different artists have gathered to finish Siemienkowicz’s last graphic novel, (Fucking) Forty, an account of 2014, the worst year of his life. A Kickstarter to fund the project’s production will launch on April 26.
Walilko provides a brief summary: “He broke up with his long-term girlfriend, he was fired, he tried to get a new relationship started with somebody he really liked, and every creative project that he invested in didn’t come to fruition.” And, at the end of that year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
A freelance illustrator and independent comic artist without insurance, Siemienkowicz was slammed with medical bills—just one hit after another.
“But the artist community in Chicago is incredibly generous,” says Walilko. “They rallied around him and did a whole bunch of fund-raisers for him to cover the medical expenses.” Siemienkowicz underwent chemo and radiation, and the cancer went into remission in 2015. After this successful treatment, he started working on Forty. In 2016, he met and fell in love with Walilko.
But in early 2017, doctors diagnosed him with stage-four pancreatic cancer. Though he fought back and underwent surgery in hopes of hitting the cancer’s brakes, Siemienkowicz died on July 30, 2017, at the age of 43. After his passing, his loved ones discovered the 246-page manuscript for Forty. Siemienkowicz had inked the very first page. Stories about the unfinished work began to swirl at a vigil in his friend and fellow artist Darick Maasen’s backyard.
After Maasen posted an ad on Facebook asking for help completing the novel, more than 100 artists committed to illustrating a portion of the manuscript. Walilko and Maasen were overjoyed, but they set some rules.
“There needs to be a cohesiveness,” says Maasen. “So no matter how the rest of the scene is drawn or who is drawing it, we’ll all draw Ed the way he drew himself. This way we feel his presence.” Walilko says that Ed’s brother, Bob, and sister, Renee, were also instrumental in gathering photos to help fill in background information and provide context for the artists.
Forty has a busy calendar ahead of it. Siemienkowicz’s loved ones will showcase his work at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) this weekend: they’ll tell his story, raise money for the book’s production, take preorders, and show previews of the artwork. You can follow the project’s progress on Instagram @fckingforty. v