Like most people I first met Al Williamson through his artwork. It was the mid 1960’s and I was already convinced that my purpose on this earth was to be a cartoonist. I was continually making my own comics and reading/studying/copying any sort of comics I could get my hands on. Jack Kirby’s style was my favorite at the time and I was convinced, in the way only a fourteen year old could be, that Jack’s was the only right way to do comics. Then I read CREEPY #1.
Every story in that comic blew my mind but one in particular fascinated me beyond all the others. It was titled A SUCCESS STORY ; written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Al Williamson. It was one of those perfectly realized short stories stories you might run into a few times in your life; like the Spirit one of the guy playing pinball. Archie’s script was slyly humorous and understated in his patented not-too-much, not-too-little but just-right scripting style. He’d structured the tale like a little jewel box. And Al’s artwork was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
Compared to the Marvel comics I was hooked on, Al’s images for A SUCCESS STORY offered a startlingly sophisticated modern quality. These weren’t the brute force graphics of Kirby but deliciously subtle slices of an idealized life. The blacks were liquid and the tone work seemed to flow like a summer breeze down the east slope of heaven. Except when the living dead arrived to take their vengeance; then the brush lines became manic as if the person laying them down was a psychopath himself. I was hooked! I was also fascinated because the story was about a cartoonist and his work space was shown in a number of panels. For the first time in my life I could see the tools I’d need to really learn my trade!
Around the same time (1966 I think because it was the summer the Beatles released HELP!) I found the first issue of the Gold Key King Comics FLASH GORDON comic. Normally I didn’t buy many Gold Keys King Comics but when I saw the Williamson art I snapped it up. It was recognizably Al but he was working in a different tone here. Everything was lighter, more fantastic and sexier. To me it was like a deliciously cooked meal after a lifetime of eating hamburgers. I began to appreciate how the lettering was more integrated into the design than most comics. I wondered how he got those halftone effects (I didn’t know about zipatone yet). I read that comic and copied panels from it until it fell apart.
There was no fandom in those days so I didn’t know the roots of Al’s style. The first books ABOUT comics began to be published late in the 1960’s and bit by bit I learned of Alex Raymond. I saw my first samples of John Prentice’s work and marveled at how much it mirrored Al’s technique on A SUCCESS STORY. I began to understand that styles were things that passed on from artist to artist, generation to generation.
What I could never imagine in my wildest dreams (and I had some wild ones) was that one day I would meet Al Williamson. I’ll tell that story next time.
Above is a panel from one of Al’s X-9 strips. I’ve scanned it from the framed original that hangs on my wall.