Monday, June 14, 2010

Al Williamson - One of the greats

The comics industry lost one of its greatest artists today with the passing of Al Williamson. His earliest work dates back a bit before my time, as he got his start during the 1950s. Assuming his Wikipedia biography is correct, he did a lot of work on EC's horror comics, and he eventually went on to work on the newspaper adventure strip Secret Agent X-9. He also did some work with the character Flash Gordon, drawing a few issues of an ongoing series, the movie adaptation, and a two-issue series for Marvel Comics. (Both Flash and X-9 were created by his artistic mentor, Alex Raymond.) Toward the end of his career, he mostly inked, often over artists like Pat Oliffe and Rick Leonardi. (I had to consult my collection to confirm the last one.)

While most of my collection probably features his inking, rather than his penciling, work, I definitely have to say that I've been a fan of his pencils long before I even paid any attention to just who worked on these comics that I love so much. My first encounter with his work was on the comic book adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back. He would also go on to do the adaptation for Return of the Jedi. As a kid, comics adaptations were a big deal. This was before I had the movies on video, and I would have to relive the stories through various books and comics. No doubt many of my earliest visual impressions from the Star Wars trilogy were filtered through the work of Al Williamson.

When I was in college, Dark Horse Comics began a Star Wars series that reprinted the old newspaper strips. The longest-running one was drawn by Williamson. I was buying pretty much all the Star Wars comics at the time, but even if I was being more selective, the artwork alone would have been enough to sell me on the series. What was great was that they didn't simply reprint the strips exactly. They reformatted them to fit a comic book, and they'd delete various redundant panels. That made for a better reading experience, and it was made even better by the fact that they got Williamson to do some new artwork for the series - including some really fantastic full-page (and double-page too, if I remember correctly) spreads.

By the time the series was done, I was an unabashed Al Williamson fan. I even picked up the two-issue Flash Gordon series from Marvel, even though I really didn't have all that much interest in the character. It didn't matter though because the artwork was more than enough to keep me interested, but I have to admit that the story by Archie Goodwin (his collaborator on the Star Wars newspaper strips as well) was pretty engaging as well.

Aside from that, the only stuff of his that I was getting was the aforementioned inking jobs. For those who don't know comics, and the only thing you know about inkers is from the bit about they're just "tracers" in Kevin Smith's movies, let me assure you that's not the case. A good inker can make a real difference in the finished product. Personally, I think that Williamson's fine lines made the best compliment for Rick Leonardi on Spider-Man 2099, but you could always count on a nice looking finished product no matter who the penciller was.

Not long ago, I picked up Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic. I'm still not that big of a fan of the character, but after flipping through this rather hefty volume, I just had to have it. It reprints all the work Williamson did for the character in black and white. As great as his stuff looks in color, the black and white treatment (especially in a large, coffee table sized edition) really looks gorgeous. I'm thinking that I'm going to have to spend some time flipping through it again tonight.
I'm sure that there are some old-timers out there who are probably writing better and more thorough tributes than I am, and with those you can no doubt read about his early days and his comic strip work. I thought I'd just give a little shout-out to an artist whose work has been filling my imagination since I was in elementary school. Rest in peace, Mr. Williamson; see you on the planet Mongo.


H. M. Stuart said...

Lance, we'd like to invite you to become one of our Authors in Alexandria.

You may mirror your existing posts from here or elsewhere or produce original posts there, on anything you wish, as you desire. For your contributions and participation we will blogroll you with no reciprocation required. See our Guidelines for Authors for full details.

Come contribute your perspectives and opinions to the ongoing conversations there. Contact us through the site for full invitations and instructions.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Hey, that's really cool. Thanks. I'll spend a little more time later checking everything out, but I've visited Alexandria enough to know that I'm interested.

Bob Andelman said...

Learn more about legendary comics artist Al Williamson in this Mr. Media interview with his friend and artist Mark Schultz, in which he discusses the book Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Thanks for the link!