Remembering Al Williamson

Fri, September 24th, 2010 at 10:58am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

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Cover for the first volume of Flesk Publications' "Al Williamson Archives"

In June of 2010, Al Williamson passed away at the age of 79 after suffering in recent years from Alzheimer's disease. Over the course of his long and storied career, Williamson developed two great reputations in the comics industry. First, for being one of the nicest, sweetest guys in the business, something he had in common with one of his longtime collaborators, the late Archie Goodwin, considered one of the most significant writers and editors in modern comics. Generations of pros and fans have spoken of Williamson and his kindness and helpfulness towards not just his contemporaries but younger artists as well. The outpouring of thoughts and tributes across the internet and laudatory obituaries in "The New York Times," "The Guardian" of London and others made it clear just how respected he was.

Williamson's second reputation was that of being one of the great comic book artists, though for many younger readers and fans, his name is much more familiar than his work. Part of this is because his work over much of the past couple decades had been as an inker and so much of his earlier work was no longer readily available. Very recently, and over the next few years, different projects will put much of Williamson's work back into print and demonstrate to a new generation just why Williamson is considered a master in a way that his many awards can never really convey.

This year, the Library of American Comics imprint of IDW will publish "X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan," a daily comic strip originally created by Alex Raymond, drawn by Williamson and written by Archie Goodwin between 1967 and 1980. In addition to that, Flesk Publications, which last year released "Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic," has begun a multiyear, multivolume look at Williamson's sketchbooks and uncollected stories with the "Al Williamson Archives."

This is in addition to his "Star Wars" work which can be found in multiple volumes published by Dark Horse as well as his contributions to the classic anthologies "Creepy," "Eerie" and "Blazing Combat." Dark Horse is also the publisher of "Al Williamson: Hidden Lands" and "Flash Gordon" archives to which Williamson contributed.

Many professionals have shared their experiences working with and meeting Williamson, but we wanted to provide look at the man and a career that spanned more than five decades, many genres and dozens of companies. His work harkened back to the classic illustrators, among them Alex Raymond, but Williamson was always looking ahead and pushing in new directions. He embraced fandom and comic conventions and encouraged young artists. He was a key figure in both "Star Wars" and "Flash Gordon," comic books and comic strips, EC Comics in the fifties and Marvel Comics in the eighties and nineties.

Williamson was one of the early students at Burne Hogarth's Cartoonists and Illustrators School, which later became The School of Visual Arts in New York City. It was here that Williamson met many of his contemporaries including another legendary cartoonist, Wally Wood. Williamson began his career while still a teenager in 1948, but it wasn't until a few years later when he began working for EC Comics on "Weird Science," "Weird Fantasy" and other titles that Williamson really made his mark. He was the youngest of the major EC Comics artists and though he worked in many different genres, it was his science fiction and fantasy comics and illustrations that made a real impact. It was at this time that Williamson became one of a group of artists affectionately referred to as "The Fleagle Gang," a group that included Roy Krenkel, Angelo Torres, George Woodbridge and the recently deceased Frank Frazetta. Among Williamson's significant work at the time are the stories "50 Girls 50" and "I, Robot."

Over the next nineteen years, Williamson was more or less a journeyman artist. He worked on comic books and comic strips. He did illustration and covers and advertising work. He worked for Atlas Comics, Harvey, Dell, Timely, Charlton and Classic Illustrated. He drew horror, crime, western and science fiction stories. He spent time assisting Dan Barry on the Flash Gordon comic strip and spent years working with John Prentice on another comic strip creation of Raymond's, Rip Kirby. Mark Schultz, in the text for "Al Williamson's Flash Gordon," cited Williamson's time with Prentice as a key influence in the development of the artist's mature style.

John Romita Jr. made the observation that in many ways, Williamson was very much a member of that generation of cartoonists, a group that Romita includes his father in, as people who were dedicated craftsmen whose passion may have been cartooning, but worked in illustration, advertising, and whatever else could pay the bills. "They were a little bit more modest about their talents because it was more of a business to them. The job was not so much a glory job, it was a job to make ends meet. They didn't think they were that spectacular. They were great artists. They should have been as cocky as anybody and they weren't. That's the kind of guy Al was."

WARREN PUBLICATIONS

Williamson's art graces the cover of Fantagraphics' "Blazing Combat" collection

In the nineteen-sixties, Williamson briefly found a home at Warren Publications, the publisher of classic horror comics "Creepy" and "Eerie" and the war comic "Blazing Combat." Williamson did not contribute many stories to Warren publications, but his early work helped to establish the books and their tone. Additionally, he played an instrumental role in helping to recruit many of the people he worked with at EC Comics.

Shawna Gore, the editor at Dark Horse Comics who is overseeing the archival collections of "Creepy" and "Eerie," cited a conversation that she had with Angelo Torres about Williamson. "Angelo credits Al with having a great influence over his entire career. As I understand the story, Jim Warren actively cultivated the same group of guys who'd been doing such great work at EC, and Al was one of the keystone members of that group. Al was a really smart guy with a big heart and a lot of love for his friends. I think comics artists also looked out for each other a lot at that time, since as individuals they didn't have much power within the industry. The guys who had all done such great work for Bill Gaines at EC formed a pretty tight bond with each other."

Gore, who admitted that he "knew from about age seven on that Al Williamson was one of the best artists in comics because my brother told me so," said that Williamson's contributions to the Warren line of comics may have been few, but they were key. "Al is definitely one of the artists who helped set the bar for what the early Warren horror books would look like. One of the most legendary stories from the early run of Creepy is "Success Story," which was a collaboration between Al and Archie Goodwin. That's one of the stories that will stop you in your tracks, it's so beautifully and cleverly drawn."

Williamson was known as a great artist, though not as a horror artist and Gore cites that very factor as one of the artist's great strengths. "Al was particularly effective at horror because you didn't expect horror when you saw his art. But his ability to build the story from panel to panel and page to page really drew in readers, and once you have a grip on someone's imagination and attention like that, you can achieve a lot with a story - horror, suspense, humor. Al was good with all of those things."

FLASH GORDON

Williamson will be forever remembered for his work with Flash Gordon

Williamson worked on a number of stories for King Comics' "Flash Gordon" in the nineteen sixties. Mark Schultz wrote at length about Williamson's love of the character, both the Buster Crabbe serials and the original Alex Raymond comics in the book "Al Williamson's Flash Gordon" which reprints in black and white all of Williamson's work on the character, including the King Comics issues, the 1980 movie adaptation written by Bruce Jones and the 1995 Marvel miniseries that Schultz wrote.

Williamson only drew six stories starring the iconic sci-fi hero, but his work on the character led to him receiving the Best Comic book Cartoonist Award from the National Cartoonists Society. The Flesk book reprints the stories in black and white, but the upcoming Dark Horse book "Flash Gordon Comic Book Archives Volume 2" will reprint them in color. Williamson himself oversaw the coloring for these issues which was done by his late wife Arlene, and they are widely regarded to be exceptional examples of four color coloring, something all the more impressive considering so little of Williamson's oeuvre was created with color in mind.

Dark Horse editor Jemiah Jefferson, who notes that the upcoming volume will be dedicated to Williamson's memory, cites him as one of the most important Flash Gordon artists. "He wasn't the only artist, certainly, but the fact that he and Archie Goodwin collaborated on some really great tales of Mongo is one of the things that makes that run exceptional. Flash Gordon always had the advantage of having some real visionaries creating the strips and stories, and Williamson and Goodwin were a great combo. Visually, Williamson refreshed Flash's physical appearance without radically changing the original idea of the blond, lantern-jawed hero established by Alex Raymond back in the newspaper strips, giving him a different kind of muscular dynamism and a touch of brooding intensity that's genuinely modern. More than anything, Al Williamson succeeded in bringing Flash and his stories (and style) firmly into the 1960s."

X-9

Pages from Dark Horse's reprint of "Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery"

Secret Agent X-9 was created by writer Dashiell Hammett and artist Alex Raymond and premiered in 1933. Raymond, who was also drawing the Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim strips at the same time, was one of Williamson's heroes. After Raymond and Hammett left "X-9", it fell to numerous writers and artists over the years to continue the character's adventures until 1967 when Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson took it over.

The two worked on the strip for thirteen years, renaming it "Secret Agent Corrigan" upon taking over the creative reins. IDW's Library of American Comics imprint is publishing the first volume of the Goodwin-Williamson run on the series with plans to collect the duo's entire run, which lasted until 1980 when they left to take over the Star Wars daily comic strip.

Schultz, who contributed an introduction to the IDW volume, is of the opinion that part of the strip's importance is the sheer amount of time that Williamson spent on the strip. "[Typically,] Al would do stand-alone stories or two or three issues of something and then move onto something else. This is thirteen years. The neat thing is, you can see such a clear evolution of his style. In the beginning, he was clearly pulling a lot of his visual references from looking back at his hero Alex Raymond. Then you can see him getting more confident and developing his own style and stylizations, the characters beginning to look like his own interpretations of them.

"I think X-9 may be Al's greatest achievement," Schultz said. "Just because it is such a sustained body of work over such a long period of time. The nature of the daily comic strip limits what you can do with layout and composition because it's broken up into such small units every day. It's not like having an entire comics page to work with, or an entire Sunday page. But within those limitations, Al did just brilliant work. A large part of that too was working in concert with Archie [Goodwin]. I think they knew how to work to each other's strengths. I think they produced the best work that both of them did when they were working together."

STAR WARS

Cover to one of Dark Horse's "Star Wars Omnibus" editions, featuring the work Williamson will be best remembered for by thousands of fans

In the eighties, Williamson illustrated the adaptations of two films, "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Flash Gordon," which would solidify his reputation as one of comic's great draftsmen and one of the great science fiction artists of the time. "Flash Gordon" may have been more personal for Williamson, having been such a fan of Raymond's original strip and of the movie serials, but the movie was neither an artistic nor financial success. The adaptation, however, is not just beautiful - that should go without saying - but it is impressive how Williamson was able to take the script and the designs and, instead of the campy tone of the film, utilize those elements in a way that shifts the tone and makes it clear that while it may not have been great, the material deserved better than the film.

His work on the six issue adaptation of "The Empire Strikes Back," written by his frequent collaborator Goodwin, stands as one of Williamson's major projects and led to his discovery by a new generation of fans. Williamson and Goodwin re-teamed to work on the daily Star Wars comic strip from 1981-1984. During this time period, while illustrating the Star Wars daily comic, Williamson also completed the "Return of the Jedi" and "Blade Runner" comics adaptations.

Like Williamson, Lucas was a great admirer of Flash Gordon, and gave us a short statement about his own thoughts towards Williamson and his work.

"Al Williamson's figures were heroic and larger than life - and yet he was also able to ground them with a real-world sense of scale and proportion. They weren't just comic book caricatures; they looked and felt human, giving his stories a weight that belied their far-out settings. Though his images existed solely on the page, they always read like storyboards - a promise and a hint of live-action fantasy and adventure. His work with Flash Gordon is iconic, and I was thrilled to be able to have Al depicting those early extended Star Wars adventures for the comic books and newspapers. In capturing the actors who portrayed the characters, he brought the feeling of the films to the page as few other artists have been able to do."

RETIRING FROM PENCILING

A page of sketches from the "Al Williamson Archives"

After the Star Wars strip ended, there were a few more stories in the mid-eighties penciled by Williamson, including a story in "Superman" #400 and contributions to Marvel's "Epic Illustrated Magazine" written by Goodwin, but for the most part, Williamson retired from penciling.

Former Marvel Editor in Chief Tom DeFalco admitted that doesn't know why Williamson or other artists have given up penciling over the course of their careers. "I can tell you what they have told me. Basically that there are two people who have to face the horror of the blank page. That's the writer and the penciler. A number of artists have told me that they prefer inking because they don't have to go through the agony of figuring out layout and everything else. They say it's because they don't have to 'think.' They are full of it. Inking is not tracing. It is essentially redrawing in ink and you're constantly making decisions, but they are different types of decisions than you make as a penciler. Any inker who tells you it's easier is, I don't want to call him a flat out liar," DeFalco laughed, "but I think that they're trying to downplay their contribution.

"I am often flabbergasted when great artists in conversation will turn to me and tell me, 'Oh yeah, I don't know how to draw anymore,'" DeFalco continued. "You're thinking, 'You forgot all the things you've learned over the last forty years? That must have been some hit on the head.' Al would, on the one hand, tell me he couldn't draw. On the other hand I would say, 'I really need a cover for "Wild Thing" #2.' 'Oh no, I don't know how to draw anymore.' 'I'm really stuck Al. I need one in two days.' 'There's no way, I can't draw.' Two days later, this beautiful penciled cover comes in and it's like, 'Oh yeah, he forgot how to draw.'"

DeFalco laughed again before turning serious. "I'm poking fun at him, but not making fun of him. Al was a master, and maybe to his eye something was off, but to the rest of the world, we just gasp and go, 'Wow.'"

Schultz cited the exhaustion of almost two decades of daily strips, plus the four movie adaptations and other side projects that consumed Williamson's time during the late seventies and early eighties. "He did an awful lot, even without those adaptations. The pressure of doing a daily strip is backbreaking. There's no let up in that relentless schedule. Because of the diminishing presence of comic strips in newspapers, it was becoming harder and harder. His financial compensation for doing those strips was degrading."

"I think it was Julie Schwartz at DC," Schultz said. "He was editing the Superman books at the time and offered Al some inking work. Al took to that and he really enjoyed it. He could get the pages done at a rate that allowed him to make a very good living. It was a combination of frustration with what was being offered to him and his inability to work quickly enough to turn out enough product to make a living. Doing those newspaper strips had taken a toll where he needed a break. He was happy to be able to ink other people's work and make a good living at that instead of having to go through the whole process of creating it yourself. He continued to do his own drawing, but he did it at his own speed and he wasn't under a deadline pressure."

INKING

More samples of Williamson's sketches

While Williamson did some inking work at DC, notably over Curt Swan, much of his output was for Marvel Comics where he worked with John Buscema, Mike Mignola, Gene Colan, Rick Leonardi and others. Perhaps his best known and most successful collaboration during this period was with a young artist named John Romita Jr., with whom Williamson was first partnered on "Daredevil" and then the Frank Miller-written miniseries, "Daredevil: Man Without Fear."

"I remember the conversation with Ralph Macchio," Romita said as if it were last year and not almost a quarter century ago. "He asked me who I'd rather have ink me, out of anybody. I joked and said, 'How about Al Williamson? Since he'll never work with me, let's try so and so.' Three days later he calls me up and said, 'I put in a request to Al Williamson and he agreed.' I still don't understand why."

As far what Williamson added to his work, Romita made the point that the most successful inkers that he's worked with "are artists before they're inkers. Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer are great artists to begin with. Of course we know that about Al.

"Al was a linear artist and I think we combined similar styles," Romita said before quickly adding, "not quality, but similar styles, at that point, and it worked really well. Having a great artist ink over you is brilliant, because if and when I was mangling a figure or a face, I'm sure there were repairs done. That's what good inkers, and good artists that are inkers, do."

"Working on 'Man without Fear,' probably the best story I'd done overall to that point, maybe even in my career, because of what a great story it was, and then working with Al, was just a blast," Romita said, his enthusiasm undiminished by time.

RETURNING TO PENCILING, RETURNING TO FLASH GORDON

Despite the large majority of his later years being taken up by inking over other artists' pencils, there are a handful of short stories that Williamson himself penciled, including a Sub-Mariner story that was scripted by Schultz and saw print in last year's "Sub-Mariner Comics 70th Anniversary #1" and "One Last Job," also scripted by Schultz, which appeared in a 1997 issue of "Dark Horse Presents." Williamson also worked with Dark Horse on the "Star Wars Classics" reprints, but his last major project as an artist was the two issue 1995 "Flash Gordon" miniseries from Marvel Comics, which can read in its entirety in Flesk Publication's Flash Gordon book.

"I kept trying to con him into doing some artwork here and there," DeFalco remembered. "At one point, he told me that the only thing he'd come out of 'retirement' for, because he was a full time inker at that stage, would be something like 'Flash Gordon.' I don't remember if [Marvel] approached King Features or King Features approached us, but we spoke about adapting some of their characters to comics. The one character I knew that I wanted was Flash Gordon and I knew who I wanted on it," DeFalco said. "Al jumped at the chance to do Flash Gordon and he even got Mark Schultz to write it. Talk about a double-barreled shotgun of talent."

As far as his role in the project, DeFalco said it was largely hands off. "When you have talent of a certain level and a certain craft, you might have to make some changes because of the license, but you're not sitting over them complaining about structural details or stuff like that. Al Williamson knew more about Flash Gordon than most of us will ever know, no matter how hard we study it. We weren't trying to push him to make Flash Gordon do this or that. To be honest, I was the Editor in Chief at the time. I don't remember who the actual editor was, but it was a smooth process. Other than Al, because he wanted it to be perfection, took forever to draw it. It was I think it was a gorgeous job, but it was very painful for him to have to actually do it."

"It did take a while," Schultz agreed, "but Al was an old school professional who grew up under that system, where you had deadlines, and you had to hit them. He still got it done in what I thought was pretty good time even though for him it was going on longer than he wanted it to. I could never have accomplished it in that time frame," Schultz joked. "I wish I kept better notes on when he actually began and when he finished. I didn't. It seemed to go on for quite a while, but it wasn't. It was really done in a comfortable amount of time."

REPRINTS

For John Flesk, the Williamson Archive books, on which he worked extensively with Al's wife Cori, are a recent project that arose out of last year Flash Gordon book. "The idea behind this series was to do a book of Al's personal work that is mostly unpublished, while providing the viewer of the book to have an intimate experience with Al's art. What I mean by that is to reproduce the artwork in its original form as if you were actually flipping through the originals. Al was a generous host and friend. This book serves as an extension of his enjoyment in sharing his art collection with his guests. We want to mimic a personal experience as best we can so there is a feeling of the artwork actually being in your hands."

"I'd like to think of these as something more than sketchbooks," Flesk explained. "I'm always thinking of how we can push the quality and design of the book to make them stand out and better represent an artists' work. Al's artwork fell easily into different categories, and we then grouped the art together based on what felt natural. The first two volumes show a range of preliminary works spanning 50 years, from the late forties to the late nineties. So you get bits of early work from his pre-EC days all the way to his later personal drawings. There are fantasy and sci-fi pieces, fifties western and unfinished strip art, dinosaurs, female renderings - just a broad array of the various genres that have made Al's work memorable and different enough to stand out from the pack. Even though they can be classified as such, personally I find them to be more than sketches. They serve as the evolution and thought process behind a master storyteller. "

WILLIAMSON'S LEGACY

John Romita, Jr. recalls a 1979 convention when he met Williamson before they worked together. "We hung out at the after party, a crew of people just sat around until three, four in the morning. We drank and talked. I was told by a million people not to meet your heroes, because you'll be disappointed. This was not the case."

John Flesk ,who has published career retrospectives of many great illustrators including James Bama, Franklin Booth and Joseph Clement Coll, admits that he he's unsure about Williamson's legacy and how it compares with the other artists he publishes. "Each of the artists I have published had a personal impact on me in some form.

"To me, these artists represent those who I feel have made an impact in their chosen field. Who I publish is based mostly on my gut. I like a broad range of art and genres, so I try not to limit myself in the artists I publish," Flesk said. "I don't think I would try to put Al into a certain category outside of the field he worked in, comics and strips. The only comparison I can think of, in regards to the others artists I have published books on, is my feeling they are all exceptional."

"I just can't emphasize enough what a great guy Al was, as a human being as well as an artist," Schultz said. "He was a typical artist, in that he was very self-effacing about what he did, yet he had a great deal of pride in what he did. That really had an effect on me. The way he conveyed himself to other people made an impression on me. I consider myself very lucky that, by a coincidence of living geographically pretty close to him, I had a chance to get to know the guy and to become good friends with him and work with him professionally."

It's a theme that everyone we spoke with kept returning to. Not just how they regarded Williamson as a professional and an artist, but how they thought of him as a person. His friend and colleague Mark Schultz summed up Williamson artistic legacy very simply, "He's one of the guys who's going to be remembered one hundred years from now."

TAGS:  al williamson, mark schultz, george lucas, tom defalco, john flesk

 
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