Your Roots: J.H. Williams III Looks Back on "Chase"

Tue, November 28th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Zack Smith, Contributing Writer

"Chase" #4, Page 10
J.H. Williams III has worked on a variety of acclaimed comics, including "Promethea" with Alan Moore, "Desolation Jones" with Warren Ellis and most recently "Seven Soldiers" with Grant Morrison. As part of an exclusive deal with DC, he'll be working on more high-profile projects in the future.

But he'd still love the opportunity to return to one of his first books at DC - the acclaimed-but-canceled "Chase."

Chase, which CBR recently discussed with writer/co-creator Dan Curtis Johnson, was Williams' second ongoing effort after an aborted run on DC's "Judge Dredd" series. It was the first ongoing series that he worked on from the inception.

As Johnson discussed, "Chase" came about when Williams was asked to pitch an idea for a series, and brought in Johnson to collaborate on an idea. What they came up with was something decidedly offbeat for a superhero character.

"The editor at the time was looking for a female character with a cape," Williams said. "At the time, Dan and I really weren't that into what they were looking for, so we stretched those parameters quite a bit and came up with a female detective/agent in a long trench coat, the coat being our hero's cape.

"Chase" #6
"The ironic thing about creating 'Chase' was it was done really only to get Dan and I a writing job. Little did we know how quickly this would turn into something we would care greatly about. But as we worked on the concept details, we realized that we had stumbled onto something very unique and thought provoking for fans of superheroes and the DC Universe."

The book represented a chance for Williams to not only draw, but collaborate on the plot. "'Chase' was really the first opportunity I had to show more than I could just draw well," Williams said. "It allowed me to show that I really could create interesting things and that I put a lot of thought into what I want to do.

"Working with Dan is always a pleasure and certainly I hope we have the chance to do it again. We both definitely see things in similar ways. We both really enjoy stories that are boundary pushing and genre blending.

"I think the distinctiveness of 'Chase' is a testament to that. Dan and I would sort of feed off each other. We would get together for a day or so and hammer out plots. In a weekend, we could easily plan out half a year's worth of material. We work really quickly that way.

"After our plotting session Dan would write a first draft script and I would look at it and make suggestions. Then it would go to editorial and they would make suggestions. We never treated the working scripts as final. I would draw from a draft, and then final dialogue would be done by Dan after the art was finished. This made sense to do it this way for us because I may have needed to alter something a little visually, or adjust pacing. This also allowed for us to have the chance to improve upon an idea at more of a spontaneous working speed."

"Chase" #6, Page 16
This collaborative process proved creatively rewarding for both Johnson and Williams. "We sort of would push each other into new ideas and play off each other's strengths, mine being the emotional side and Dan's being the technical side," Williams said. "But we both really love things to be weird and strange and somewhat surreal mixed with a bit of grounding reality."

This combination was key to "Chase's" theme of real people in a fantastic world. "We really wanted the characters and their situations to be something that you could believe in," Williams says. "That was one of the reasons for the series to have been in the perspective of the character's point of view when looking at the DC Universe. What does it look like from the person on the street, the ordinary people living in this world?"

Williams explored this contrast between the real and the fantastic with the character designs, pitting the everywoman Chase against a variety of surreal comic-book archetypes.

"[Designing] Chase herself was rather easy," Williams said. "Her character's personality and story sort of dictated her look, other than the coat being her 'cape.' The rest (of the characters) developed from the premise and the fact that we wanted her to be believable in a real sense. I'd have to say that I don't have a particular favorite, but I am fond of most of the odd characters that we only got glimpses of such as, Q-ball, Ivan, Doctor Trap, Acro-Bat, and the Rocket Reds were fun. Oh, and the supervillain team from the Titans issue was a blast.

"Those characters were such a blast to draw and think about what their story was," Williams said. "I really wanted something offbeat and that sort of comments on the whole notion of the superhero supervillain reality and on the psychology and mentality behind that concept. We wanted to poke at it and have fun with it, but not in an insulting way. We really wanted to approach the concept of this kind of reality, with a sense of respect. After all, we were bred on this stuff.

"Chase" #7, Page 12
"But we also wanted to give it a tongue in cheek humor as well, poke fun at ourselves. We wanted something that was definitely playful in nature but had this sense of wonder and a feeling of nostalgia as well. The Acro-Bat is a good example of a skewed nostalgic look back at 'old school' comics. We wanted the character to feel like he was designed by and for a young adolescent audience, but now is being looked at from more mature point of view. Chase herself kind of represents that mature viewpoint from us, the writers, looking back on ourselves as comic fans and how odd those old characters now seem from our adult perspective."

Williams' favorite issues of "Chase" include the Teen Titans guest appearance, the "Justice Experience" flashback story, Chase's interactions with Batman and the "1,000,000" issue that wound up being the series' last. "This one was a real treat, primarily because it was taking place in the far far future and therefore anything was game," Williams said.

"The main goal was to tell a complete story in a single issue, but also give you a small piece of a bigger world view. We also wanted it to have the same themes as the main story lines of the other issues, but told with bigger grander brush strokes. From a visual aspect we also wanted it to feel different than a typical comic. So the layouts were very key to giving it an unusual feel. I didn't want the art to come across as a generic concept of what a futuristic comic book page might look like.

"So this led me to thinking in retro terms, but applying that to forward-thinking ideas. That is why I went with a lot of nouveau designs in the layouts, with the panel shapes themselves being very strange. I think this gave our sci-fi story a sort of forward-thinking looking-backward nostalgic classical sensibility creating a fresh feeling, and sort of futuristically retro appeal giving us our year 'one million' comic experience, but keep ourselves independent of the crossover, and at the same time do something different conceptually with the story and art."

Williams did limited art on two issues of the series (#5 and #9) chronicling flashbacks to Chase's days as a P.I. The idea was to give him time to catch up on the artwork, and to use some of his and Johnson's original ideas for the book. "We didn't (want) them to be just throwaway stories," Williams says. "So we decided to set them in the past to give more backstory for Chase, to lead the readers into knowing why and how she would be recruited and the right person for the D.E.O.

"Chase" #1,000,000
"From a structure perspective this proved to be very useful. It allowed readers to get more backstory and show something about the character not seen in the present-day storyline. I think that if the series had survived longer, the readership would have really gotten into that aspect of the series. These little breathing spaces between storylines and nice single-issue stories serve as good stop gaps bridging the bigger current day events."

Sadly, these stories never got a chance to be told when "Chase" was canceled. "We were pretty devastated, primarily because we had grown to really care about these characters and where the story was headed," Williams says.

"We were upset not being allowed to at least wrap things up. We actually had the next four issues planned and the first script was done and I had drawn seven pages of it when we got the news. When we got canceled, there was a buzz starting to happen among the readership, and we could see a possible turnaround sales wise for us. But the decision was already made.

"I honestly think if we had been allowed for the next four-issue arc to be completed, it would have saved the series. From a story standpoint, we were about to culminate a lot of different things together from the main plot and subplots into a really big story that actually could have had a lot of play throughout the DCU. I really feel that it would have grabbed attention enough to get people onto the series."

Williams feels that the book wasn't properly promoted and that its continued cult following stands as proof of this. "It is an example, along with others over the years I've been interviewed, that 'Chase' always comes up, and every year at conventions fans, new and old, tell me how much they wish 'Chase' would have lasted, or have a come back.or [make] 'when are you going bring it back?' type of statements," Williams said.

"I think that is proof positive that we were on to something, but the publisher was too short-sighted to see that. This series was canceled eight or nine years ago and it makes me proud that it was good enough, even though unfinished, that the readers still remember it, and that new readers find it in the back-issues wondering how they missed this one. Not bad at all for a series that lasted only 10 issues, and then was chopped before properly getting a conclusion of some kind."

"Chase" #1,000,000, Pages 3 & 4
What would have happened to Cameron Chase? Williams isn't telling, because he hopes to tell that story in comics one day. "All I will say is that the story and series was headed in a direction that would have had very, very large ramifications in the DCU that could have even been affecting other series and writers' ideas today," Williams says. "The next four issues that were planned really had a lot of potential to have shaken things up in a dramatic enough way that we could have had ripple effects continuing even now."

Williams credits his work on "Chase" for helping him become the artist on "Promethea," an award-winning run that brought him critical and popular acclaim. "From what I understand, 'Chase' was shown to Alan and he liked what he saw," William says. "So, I guess you could say that 'Chase' did have a large affect on my career, it being an unfinished, unique, challenging, groundbreaking work leading me to another challenging, groundbreaking work.

"I honestly feel that I would not have been prepared to handle 'Promethea' in the manner I did if it wasn't for the work on 'Chase.' It showed me that I could push myself into presenting things from different perspective successfully from a creative view. Because of 'Chase,' I feel I was able to bring a perspective to 'Promethea' that otherwise would have been missing from that series. 'Promethea' would have been a completely different animal, and probably not as visually challenging or as good visually."

While "Chase" was short-lived, Williams remains grateful for the experience and for the series' continued popularity among fans. "I am continuously gratified that the series has resonance," Williams says. "Amazingly enough, it has done this without ever being collected into a book. I feel fortunate to have worked on something that others have found noteworthy enough to want more than we could give.

"I really cherish the series myself, and feel protective over those characters. Maybe we will be able to bring her back in a proper manner that she deserves. Everyone interested in a actual collected bookshelf version of the series should physically write in to DC, and demand that this is done.

"Ultimately, I would love to do a new series and have the original collected containing its entirety and including all of the 'Chase' and related D.E.O. short stories into a single volume. It would also be nice to have her first appearance from 'Batman' in that book as well. That would make me very happy indeed."

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