So, I became an on-again off-again jack-of-all-trades assistant to Al Williamson. Sometimes I lettered, sometimes I colored, sometimes I did breakdowns, sometimes I penciled backgrounds and other times Cindy and I just visited and I brought my own stuff to work on. Early on, Al and Cori would put me up in the spare bedroom downstairs where I found complete collections of Hal Foster’s PRINCE VALIANT and TARZAN and Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDAN clipped from newspapers and bound in spiral notebooks. Over my many working visits, I got to read them all. Talk about an education!
Al had a regular group of local creative types who met with for lunch at the local diner. The tone of these gatherings was often hilarious with everyone razzing everyone else in a good natured way. Al’s ongoing banter with the waitresses, who gave as good as they got, was most memorable. Everyone knew that if Al was razzing you it meant he loved you.
But the best part of working with Al was watching him ink. His hands moved in the most incredible way; rotating the pen or brush from the wrist which is how he got those elegant swooping lines. By the 1980’s, when I was lucky enough to work with him, he’d become so much more than an Alex Raymond clone; having absorbed every great inking style of the last 100 years and made it his own.
I was penciling the ABRAXAS piece above when Al walked by my desk and said “Tell you what, sport– when you finish with that, why don’t you let me ink it?.” Although my figure work wasn’t up to his standards, Al seemed naturally attracted to the organic shapes I used in my pencils. He would ink them in a very relaxed manner; just for the damn fun of it. And the gorgeous textures that flowed from his pen are the indelible record of an authentic master’s performance art. Click on the image to see a larger version and check out what I mean.
Al Williamson was a people person. He loved having them around and his studio often had multiple assistants and visiting friends beavering away on comics pages. I got a seat because I knew how to letter. Al had taken on the comics adaption of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and was finding the Marvel method of shipping the pencils to the letterer taking too much time considering the tight deadlines. He needed someone who could stay at his house and spend a week or so lettering each issue. He’d seen my lettering, so he knew I was not exactly in the same league with Ben Oda, but he asked me to come up to Honesdale and pitch in. He and Carlos Garzon were starting the second issue.
Carlos was a master at getting the tech details of the Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyers to perfection. But both he and Al were having trouble envisioning the Imperial Walkers that showed up in the script. Lucas Film had only sent two grainy polaroids of the model used to create the scenes in the movie. Al was fretting so I offered to try and make sense of it with some sketches. I’d worked as a mechanic in my early years and had a reasonable familiarity with how machinery worked. I spent an hour or two figuring out how the thing would have to function and what the parts we couldn’t see in the photos might look like. Al was so delighted he put me to work penciling the Walkers throughout the whole sequence. When the film came out we were delighted to see we’d somehow caught the whole flavor of the Walker attack as staged by director, Irving Kirshner.
In terms of the lettering, this was my first hands-on work with Archie Goodwin’s scripts. Al had a highly evolved sense of how he wanted the lettering to integrate with the graphics which was more elegant than standard Marvel Comics fare and Archie knew exactly how to write for it. I began to absorb Archie’s style like I had Bob Kanigher’s while working on Sgt. Rock backup stories at Kubert School. I very much wanted to write my own stuff and Archie (who I’d read as a kid in CREEPY) became even more of an influence as I scratched out his words and phrasing with an FB-6.
As the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK adaption moved relentlessly forward, Al had me doing other background bits, like the trash dumping out of the Star Destroyer, the rocks in the asteroid belt and the tech in that final laser swordfight between Luke and Vader. Al seemed to like how I imagined and penciled organic shapes. His pen flew over them like magic leaving the most incredible ink lines and textures. More about that in the next installment.
I have Tom Yeates to thank for introducing me to Al Williamson. Al was one of Tom’s personal heroes and he’d tracked him down while we were still at Kubert School. It was after we graduated and Tom and I were sharing an art/crash pad with Steve Bissette and John Totleben that one day the phone rang. I picked it up and it was Al. We spoke briefly although I was a little tongue-tied since Al was one of my personal heroes too. Al quickly dispelled such pedestal placing and invited me to join Tom for the next visit.
Accompanied by my new girlfriend, Cindy, we drove up to Al’s place in Calicoon PA. It was a great old rambling farmhouse overlooking the river. Al introduced us to his wife Cori and she and Cindy immediately began a bonding process that lasts to this day. Al invited us up to his studio on the third floor and we went gaga over the EC original art he kept pulling out of the closet.
Al was completing disarming; funny and self deprecating while obviously a fan at heart. He wasn’t like the other adult cartoonists we’d met. He was more like us; very young in spirit, not cynical in the least. Having lived in Columbia and Mexico and traveled extensively to Europe he had an international flair and a deep perspective on what comics really were. More importantly he possessed a strong grasp of the historical roots of our art form as it had been handed down to him by Roy Krenkel. He looked at all our feeble samples and had many encouraging and constructive things to say.
We spent part of the afternoon helping him split wood (which allowed this Vermont boy to show off to Cindy who I was trying mightily to impress). Cori put on a huge meal after which Al set up his projector and showed us a technicolor print of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. Our little group headed back to New Jersey that night completely dazzled. As kids, this was how we had imagined the life of a cartoonist to be!
A few months later we heard Al and Cori were moving household a few towns over and Tom , I and fellow Kubie Kim Demulder offered to help. We spent a weekend packing boxes, lugging furniture and loading trucks. And we moved original art; lots of it. It slowly dawned on me that these ornate frames I was carrying contained some of the most beautiful examples of comic art ever created. More soon.
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.
We received word this morning that my friend and mentor Al Williamson passed away over the weekend. I’m sitting here feeling a lot of different emotions. Loss, of course, because I’ll never get to see Al again. But also amazement at his long and productive life; the kind of wonderful person he was, the astounding talent he had and the generous way he encouraged young artists like myself to pursue our dreams of doing comics.
This blog has been mostly a visual one for the last three years, but I think I’m going to spend the next few days writing about the Al I knew and how his work affected me. I’ll spice things up with some scans of pieces of his I have or things he and I collaborated on. Here’s a page from the Alan Moore SWAMP THING/SUPERMAN crossover Al inked over my pencils in the mid 1980’s. It’s scanned from one of many foreign language versions.