In 1967, when I was twelve years old, Nostalgia Press produced a collection of the classic Alex Raymond strip Flash Gordon. When I saw that book, it was like a dream come true. From before the time I could read, I loved this, Raymond's most wonderful strip. My first exposure to the strip was through Big Little Books which collected strip panels in book collections with a page of text alternating with each panel, telling the story which had previously been told by the panel art and caption alone.
That book held what was called Alex Raymond-A biographical Introduction, a two page precis of Raymond's life as it impacted the comic strip field. The precis was written by Al Williamson, someone who signed his name at the bottom with an artistic flair. The acknowledgements for the book stated "Particular thanks are due to Al Williamson for his enthusiam, advice and research. Without his continuous help this book could never have been."
"Who is this Al Williamson guy?" I asked an acquaintence who was a little older than me and who shared my fascination with comics. "You don't know Williamson's art?" this fellow asked. "Williamson is an artist who draws very much in Raymond's style. He was an E.C. artist who, with Frank Frazetta drew that Weird Fantasy #21 cover you like so much. He also recently drew a few Flash Gordon comics."
Over the next little while it was my passion to try and find copies of those Flash Gordon comics and see whether this Al Williamson guy lived up to his reputation. Sure enough, I found that he did, and that of all of his work on the title, the first story in which he successfully brought conclusion to Raymond's last story on Flash, remained my favourite. A passion for Williamson's artwork grew. It never surpassed my first love of Alex Raymond, but as I told anyone who would listen, "Williamson is the best comic artist still living and working in the field." For those of you who know my predispositions, this was no mean compliment. Hal Foster was still alive and drawing Prince Valiant, after all.
Among the first few pieces of original art I ever bought was a pen, ink and watercolour piece that Al did several similar pieces of, known commonly as The Space Pirate. These were done, along with several similar Flash Gordon pieces for sale to people who had always wanted a Williamson original, but couldn't find one, and were sold at New York conventions in the late 1960's.
In 1983 I ordered from Tony Raiola, a soft cover book done in large size, which had been printed by "Club Anni Trenta" of Genova, Italy. It was a marvellous product which reproduced in full colour and at full size the first story (with the exception of the splash page) contained in the King Flash Gordon #1. On the back cover was a strange announcement in both Italian and English:
"Important: This book is not a book for collectors. Not only that at least. This is a catalogue of original art on sale. We keep every page here printed, on sale. Please write which page you are interested in!*"
The asterisk pointed to a Francesco Pozzo, and gave his address. I was tempted, but skeptical, since I knew that if I sent money overseas there would be no way of ever recouping it if the guy was not legitimate. That's how things stayed.
In June, 1981, a fanzine called Third Rail was put out, edited by Ken Feduniewicz and Tom Yeates. I never saw the fanzine until after I'd seen the large Italian art catalogue. It had an interview with Al Williamson which contained this piece of unfortunate news:
Williamson: My first Flash Gordon book was ripped off at King Features... I busted my hump on that damn thing and it was ripped off. Some sonofabitch has got it somewhere, if they haven't burned it or something...I only got paid $35 a page to do that stuff! I didn't do it for the money! And that's what a businessman can't understand. He thinks you're stupid for doing it for the sake of doing it. They don't understand the mind of an artist!
In 1983, James Van Hise's The Art of Al Williamson was published. Inside, Williamson told Van Hise:
"King Features and Western called me to do the Flash Gordon movie adaptaion. I said, yeah, I'll do it for so much and I want my originals back. And they said they'd have to get back to King Features on that, but they went along with the price, although they were hedging on the originals. I insisted that if I don't get the originals back, I don't do it. Forget it. I wouldn't touch it until I had it in black and white that I'd have the originals returned to me. I'd already had one book ripped off from me, and I wasn't going to let it happen again. So I stood my ground, and they sent me a letter stating that the originals would be returned, and if any are lost they'd be insured for such and such a value , which I'd receive."
Van Hise:What book was stolen from you?
Williamson: "All of my originals from Flash Gordon #1 were stolen out of King Features offices years ago, and I still want them back! I've never heard about them being offered for sale, but whoever has them is in possession of stolen property and they belong to me. So if anybody knows where they are, I'd appreciate any help in getting them returned." (Van Hise, p.37)
In July, 1990, I was unable to attend the Chicago ComiCon, one of my best sources for original art. My friend Kim Takeuchi was going, so I gave him a very selective want list for artwork: Alex Raymond, Al Williamson and Dave Stevens, I believe was the sum total, although I also might have mentioned Virgil Finlay. I told Kim that if he saw anything he thought I'd like, to give me a call collect and tell me what it was. Kim did call. There was a Raymond Flash from early 1935, which I couldn't afford, and was actually a little too early for my artistic preferences on the strip. But there was another piece that Kim said I might be interested in. Kim started describing a Williamson Flash Gordon page in rather vague terms, and I started filling in the blanks. Yes, it had Flash being awarded some kind of medal by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yes the top left panel had Flash and Dale waving to a crowd from a balcony. I said to Kim, "Uh-oh, that's one of the stolen pages from Flash #1."
My first Al Williamson Flash Gordon page, and still one of my favourites. Larry Ivie reports that the fans complained when Williamson used Raymond artwork as a basis for some of the panels. Rather than use stats, Williamson light-boxed the Raymond artwork, and drew it right onto the boards.
I was in a dilemma. It was also one of my favourite pages in the whole book! Kim said that he thought he saw Williamson's signature on the page. I asked him to check that out definitely. He called me back a few minutes later and told me that the page was inscribed "Al Williamson after Alex Raymond." That made me think that there was a possibility that the page was a legitimate piece for sale. The pages had not been signed when they appeared in the comic, so it seemed that Williamson must have signed it recently. Kim told me the price, and I told him to haggle if he could, but I'd authorize payment for the amount asked.
When the page was delivered to me in town, I was elated, but I also had a little trepidation. Williamson had been so vociferous about wanting those pages back...!
I called around to some people knowledgeable in the art field and asked them if they knew anything more about this stolen art from Flash Gordon #1. Albert Moy told me that he had heard that somebody had turned up with the pages,and got Williamson to sign them. They were no longer considered stolen property, as he understood it.
I had made friends with fellow Canuck and comic artist Ken Steacy when I bought some of his originals. At one point he made the mistake of offering to put me in contact with any artist in the business, and I now had a lifetime ambition to fulfill. I wanted to get in touch with Al Williamson! Ken came through and after okaying it with Al, gave me his telephone number.
On Friday July 26th, 1991 I dialed up the number and did an interview with Al on our mutual artistic hero, Alex Raymond (which saw print in Up 'n Coming! magazine in June of 1992). During the course of the interview, I also steered Williamson to the topic of the stolen art for Flash Gordon #1. I complemented Al on the work he did on those King Flash Gordons and then came the question:
Ray: I've read several times in interviews with you, that your original art for Flash Gordon #1 was stolen...
Al: "Oh yeah. Finally the whole book surfaced and now it's all over the place. Not much I can do about it. I'm not the only one in this business who has suffered from that. Everyone's been ripped off, so- that's life, you know."
Ray: Somebody told me that an art dealer surfaced with a number of your pages and that he brought them to you to sign or something...
Al: "Well, at the point that I realized I couldn't do anything about it, this particular guy phoned and said, "Listen, I can get 'em, but I don't want to do it unless, you know..." At this point I couldn't bear it, and I said, Well why don't you get 'em, give me a couple, and I'll sign them for you, and that way you won't have any problems. So that was good. He gave me a couple of pages. It worked out okay because I looked at the originals and they're not as good as I remembered them (laughs). But I wanted them for nostalgia, you know. So that's how that worked out."
I was off the hook, even though I felt badly for Al. My inquiries had led me back to Albert Moy, who had a few of the Flash #1 pages with him at the 1992 Chicago ComiCon. He said they were on consignment from someone else. After quite a bit of wheeling and dealing, I left Chicago with page 22 of the book, which is the second page from the second story based in Krenkelium, a city at the centre of the earth. (Guess who drew many of the cityscapes!)
was written by Al himself, although he claims to have plagiarized it as a
condensed version of Stanley Pitt's Silver Starr.
Albert and I did considerable haggling over the years on two more pages he had, still on consigment. Finally in September 1995, we did a deal on both pages,- page 15, the last page of the first story, and page 24 from the second story.
page 15* page 24**
* Flash Gordon #1 page 15, the last page of the first story, bought from Albert Moy. Page 15 was inked by Gray Morrow in order to help Al meet his publishing deadline. Apparently, Williamson had to face a deadline in this story, and Morrow saved his bacon.
**My last Flash Gordon #1 page, bought from Albert Moy at the same time as page 15. It is my last, that is, until somebody else offers me another page. Page 24 has both a glorious Krenkel-type city and a Williamson beauty hiding amongst the stalactites and stalagmites. She's the same woman who is depicted on the front cover. Interesting that Williamson chose the 2nd story for the cover...
Albert told me that he had obtained the cover to Flash Gordon #4 directly from Williamson, but also informed me that he didn't want to sell it. He said he'd wait until someone came along with a trade offer he couldn't resist. Albert said, "It is the best cover, anyway, in my opinion." I told Albert that I had always liked the cover to #3 the best. Albert said, "Well, you'll never get that. Williamson traded it to Gray Morrow for a ray gun Morrow had whittled himself." Now Gray Morrow is another artist whose work I collect, and I just filed that away as something to talk to Gray about if I ever got to meet him. Albert also told me that the cover to #1 was stolen along with the interior pages.
I finally did get to meet Al Williamson in person at the Chicago ComiCons of 1995 and 1996. I spent considerable time visiting with Al, who was sharing his room with Tom Roberts, my good friend and a former member of the CFA-APA (Comic and Fantasy Art Amateur Press Association). One time when Al and I were visiting, we talked some more about the Flash Gordon covers. I told Al that the cover to #3 was my favourite. Al said, "Oh, that one was stolen..." I told Al that I had heard that he had traded the cover to Gray Morrow for a ray gun. Al replied, "No, that was the cover to #1. The #3 cover was stolen from King Features along with the art to #1. Anyway, Gray didn't trade me the ray gun for the cover. He made a gift of the ray gun to me. I made a gift of the cover to him. He had helped me with the inking of the last page of the first story in issue one, too."
In the EC dedication mailing of the CFA-APA , I wrote about Al Williamson, and mentioned there about the story of the stolen artwork. Wally Harrington wrote to me in response to that Williamson contribution. Wally said:
"I thought it kind of interesting reading along in your contribution and reading about 'an art dealer' who found the original art for Flash Gordon #1. Especially since that art dealer was me. That was a very telling story, on many levels, that you might be interested in hearing.
Like most fans of Williamson, I felt that his work on Flash Gordon was his quintessential work... I had asked Al about those originals a long time ago and he told me that story had never been returned to him and he figured that the art was stolen. After several years, and through a number of sources I found that almost all of those originals were in Italy; the splash from the first story has been in the private collection of another artist (who shall remain nameless) since the late seventies. I am not sure if anyone is really clear about how they got out of King Features' office and made their way to Italy. Strangely enough, the man that had them actually printed a catalogue, of sorts, of those originals around 1987; in an attempt to sell them. It was a really nice job, too. Each page of the catalogue (except the splash) was printed the actual size of the original. Apparently, at one point, this man had offered to return the art to Al, but wanted Raymond Flash Gordons as trade. Al insisted that he would not pay a ransom to get his own originals back.
Curiously, it was Harry Lax, through Jack Gilbert that brought the pages to me.... Gilbert told me that Lax could get the art, but he had to buy all of it at $550 per page. He asked if I wanted to be part of the deal.
As your contribution states, I immediately called Al. I told him that now I had access to the art, and asked if he wanted me to move on his behalf. He again said that he wasn't going to pay anyone to get art back that was supposed to be his. I then told him that I wouldn't buy them if it bothered him. I didn't even want to be part of buying stolen art. He told me that I should go ahead if I wanted them, and that if I got them he would sign them to make them "legitimate". I told him that I would give him the pick of the pages I got.
Again, through Gilbert, I sent a check for $6,600, and received 12 pages. They were a mix of later pages in both the first and second stories. Gilbert initially kept, and has since sold... pages 2-4 of the first story.... only the pages I received, and the three Gilbert kept and later mailed to me, were ever signed.
This will tell you what kind of a guy Al really is. John Hitchcock... is a good friend of Al's.... Anyway, Al was one of the guests at the show in Greensboro right after I got the pages. Up in my room, after dinner, I pulled out the pages. He looked at them, while John, Scott Hampton, Mark Schultz, Mark Nelson, Angelo Torres, and I looked at the originals to Savage World and some Star Wars Sundays.
As you reported, Al made some comments about how the pages weren't as good as he remembered, how the drawing was weak, and this figure or that figure was poor; this all to the protests of those looking over his shoulder. He did tell us about the emotions he had when drawing the Krenkel cities in the second story, and how he always layed out the panels on velum paper before he actually penciled them on the board. Still when he complained about the quality of the pages, I honestly felt that Al was rationalizing here, realizing that a number of these pages would soon be scattered across the country. I told him that he could have his pick of three pages. I felt that was only reasonable; after all, they were his anyway!
He told me, "No", that he knew how much I had to pay for them and would take two. He chose the one that John Hitchcock raved the most about, and immediately walked over to John and gave it to him. He chose one other, then, one by one, almost as if he were saying good-bye to them, signing the remaining ten pages. I sold seven of these pages at the San Diego Convention that year. I actually attempted to place them "in good homes" although I have since seen some of them come up for sale." (Wally Harrington, letter April 1995)
I later learned from Mark Schultz that the other page that Williamson got from Wally was presented as a gift to Mark by Williamson. What a generous and kind-hearted guy that Williamson is!
I continued to pick up various Williamson Flash Gordon pieces of artwork. In July 1995, John Kelly supplied me with two panel preliminaries in pencil and ink done on vellum. As Wally's letter mentions, Al's practice has always been to draw preliminaries on vellum and then use a light table to transfer them to the boards. The panels were both from Flash Gordon #1. These preliminaries were originally given to Larry Ivie, who wrote that first Williamson Flash Gordon story, and also wrote Williamson's last Flash story which appeared in Flash Gordon #5.
The very same month, Albert Moy sold me two more panel preliminaries from the King Flash Gordons. One of the two is a pose of Flash which doesn't correspond to anything in any of the stories, so I guess it is a pose that Williamson abandonned. The second is a panel preliminary from Flash Gordon #5, the portrait shot of Flash which I used as a cover to an APA mailing. Williamson used himself as the model for this version of Flash, by the way.
In May of 1996, I made a deal with Dennis Beaulieu for the Williamson Flash Gordon cover to Comic Crusader #11, Martin Greim's fanzine, which came out in 1967, the same time as Williamson's work on the King comics. Dennis was having a moving sale at that time with some prominant pieces of Golden Age and Silver Age artwork available, but this one piece was the "got to have" piece for me. This cover is quite possibly one of the nicest examples of Williamson's artwork, although it probably doesn't hold as high a distinction as say a cover to one of the King Flash Gordon's. This piece is fairly small. It was drawn at the same size as it appeared on the cover of an 8 1/2 x 11" fanzine. However, Flash is very prominent in the drawing, and it may be one of the largest full-figure images of Flash which Williamson drew. Larger images of Flash by Williamson would have been drawn on the Leo record cover, and the cover image to the King Flash Gordon #5, the latter of which is still a part of Williamson's personal collection, and the Third Rail fanzine cover, which done in collaboration with Wally Wood, and sold in one of the big auction house shows a few years ago.
found my most recent interior page from #1 (story one, page 14) at the Chicago
ComiCon in 1997.
Flash Gordon #1 page 14, picked off of a comic dealer's table. This knock-out of a page has the wonderful Williamson depiction of Morrow as the kindly Dr. Davro, who saved the lives of Flash and his friends. Apparently, Flash had to face a deadline in this story, and the Morrow character saved his bacon. It's got three great panels, the top right with it's great portrait of Flash, the bottom left, with its portrait of Morrow, and the bottom right, with Flash and Dale in a clinch.
That same summer, prior to going to Chicago, I had heard from a mutual friend and fellow Edgar Rice Burroughs collector that Gray Morrow was having a hard time finding work, which mystified both of us, who are ardent fans of Gray's artistic talent. I asked this friend for Morrow's address, and he supplied it to me. Over the next several months, I kept sending Gray list after list of pieces of his artwork that I was interested in buying. Gray responded with none of that artwork, but sent me two lists of other pieces of his artwork which held less interest for me. We were unable to find anything to do a deal on. Finally, in desperation to give Gray some financing, and of course to get a piece of artwork I'd always loved, in a letter of September 2nd, 1997, I told Gray the story of my infatuation with the Williamson Flash Gordon artwork, and made him an offer for the cover to Flash Gordon #1. It was a reasonable offer,- much more than I'd paid for any piece of Williamson's work before. Morrow must have thought the offer was generous enough to take. On September 15th, he wrote back, and at the tail end of his next letter he said,
<<As for Gordon #1-tough decision to make. Painfully, yes, if we can arrange it before I change my mind>>
On October 16th, I sent off a money order to Gray for the amount we'd agreed upon. In the news, Canada was gearing up for a postal strike, but negotiations were still ongoing.
About the time I expected the artwork to arrive, I got a letter from Gray, postmarked 4 November, saying:
< <Dear Ray, Got your check. Thanks. I'll get the F.G. piece out of its frame, packed up and shipped out next week>>
Not long after, Canada was in a postal strike. I telephoned Gray and asked him if he'd already sent out the parcel. If he hadn't, I would have couriered him the additional funds for him to FED EX me the piece. Morrow said, "Oh yeah, I sent it out a while ago, I don't remember exactly when, but a week or two ago." I told him the problem with the strike, and that the artwork hadn't arrived. We both stewed. After the strike ended and we gave it some time, neither Canada Post, nor Gray's postmaster were able to track down the piece.
Months passed by. The piece had vanished without a trace. I'd urged Gray to put about $500 insurance on it, enough to give it respect, but not so much as to kill me when the art crossed the border. In Canada, we have to pay a tax on all goods and services. Gray decided not to insure the parcel at all, hoping that I'd have completely avoided the tax.
I told Gray that I didn't hold him to blame, but the piece was gone, and we needed to come to some kind of accommodation.
More letters and lists of artwork went back and forth. We were about to come to an understanding. Then on the afternoon of June 3rd, a parcel came to my door from Gray Morrow. I figured it was the photocopies I'd asked him to supply of some of the artwork he was willing to let me choose between as a consolation in the deal that went so badly wrong, but it was awfully well packaged for photocopies. Had Morrow picked out some artwork himself for me, wanting to get this horrible experience over with, once and for all? Again, there was no insurance on the parcel.
I opened up the parcel, postmarked May 29th, and there was a note from Gray, which said, in part:
< <Flash returned yesterday, neatly wrapped, undamaged. No return address, NYC postmark. How? What? Why? Who knows? One for TV's "unsolved mysteries" I guess. At least, no need for 2nd choice consolation deal now. However, I'll be holding my breath until this reaches you without further ado. Best-Gray>>
I called Gray right away, because in the parcel, eight months after I'd sent the money order, was sitting in front of me Al Williamson's cover to Flash Gordon #1.
The Quest for Al Williamson's Flash Gordon #1 continues on the next page...
About the author:
Canadian collector Ray Cuthbert weaves a fascinating tale of his dedicated search for the "missing" original artwork from Al Williamson's classic comic Flash Gordon #1. Cuthbert's art interests extend beyond Al Williamson to include the work of Alex Raymond, Dave Stevens, Mark Schultz and other illustrative comic artists. Ray also is the exclusive representative of artist Terry Twigg, whose work can be viewed at: