Meeting Al Williamson

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.

  1. James Van Hise June 16th, 2010 7:18 pm

    Actually it was King Comics that published Al’s Flash Gordon. And there definitely was a comics Fandom in 1966 because I’d been in it since 1963 and Al won Fandom’s Alley Award in 1966 for Flash Gordon. The RBCC was very active since 1962 (and advertised in Marvel Comics) and comic cons were already going on in New York City.

  2. Rick June 17th, 2010 6:40 am

    Your right, James. I should have written that there was no comics fandom “where I grew up”. Vermont was pretty isolated in those days. If you loved comics the only way to get them was on the newsstand.

  3. Nigel (UK) February 14th, 2013 12:53 pm

    I know what you mean about that magical moment when you discover something quite unique. One of mine was seeing the Spirit story – Mrs Paraffin reprinted in Steranko’s History of Comics. Never heard of Will Eisner before, but suddenly I could see where so many artists drew their influence from. I spent years after searching for reprints of his stuff.

    My first sight of Corben’s Den equally made my jaw drop as it was so completely off on an artistic plane of its own. As for Al Williamson, I got to him a bit late too. I had heard of his EC reputation but it took his Cliffhanger work to make me really appreciate him.

    I would like to add too that your Swamp Thing run still contains some of my all time favorite comics!