About Williamson and His Art

In 1998, Al Williamson marked his 50th year in the comic art business. His first published artwork appeared in Heroic Comics in 1948.

One of the things that any artist hates with a passion is for someone to tell them that they love his artwork, but that "your old stuff was better." Williamson has been hounded with this comment throughout his career.

Williamson himself, despite all of what fans claim to see in his artwork, is incredibly modest. Where a fan sees beauty, he sees flaws. Technically, he probably knows the strengths and weaknesses of his own artwork at any given moment better than any fan who has ever lived. But perhaps because of what he knows about the technicalities of his work, he is incapable of seeing what the fan sees. Where the fans see a forest of a beautiful overall creation, Williamson seems to see only the trees, stumps, creepers and decaying leaves of individual mistakes.

When someone is as humble as Williamson is, it is incredibly difficult to get him to give any kind of objective appraisal of his own work. If a fan says that they love his EC work better than anything he has done since, Williamson probably feels two things, a nostalgia for the energy and love he brought to those projects more than forty years ago, and the collaborators (read: friends) he worked on them with; and secondly a sense of anger that the fan cannot see all the progress which has been made in his technique in the forty-plus years since that time. 

           

Williamson has been known to say that earlier in his career, he was a better penciller than an inker, whereas in the eighties (and presumably right through to the present) he is a better inker than a penciller. See his interview with Steve Ringgenberg in The Comics Journal #90, May, 1984, p.65 for this self-appraisal.

It seems to this observer and fan of Williamson's work that Williamson has strengths in certain aspects of his drawing at certain times in his career with concurrent weaknesses, whereas at other points in his career the weaknesses of former years have been replaced with strengths and some of the strengths have been replaced with weakness as well.

To my mind, the most objective and critical appraisal of Williamson's artwork came in an early 1970's review of Flash Gordon artists in general, and Williamson's work in particular.

This review was done by Williamson's sometime classmate, sometime collegue, and knowing Al , life-long friend, Larry Ivie in the fanzine Heritage 1b.

Ivie's review does not measure Williamson's artwork by its being better or worse in one period of his career than another, but merely on how it measures up in suitablilty as a successor to Alex Raymond on Flash Gordon.

Ivie's assessment of Williamson in this regard is that Williamson would have been best suited to draw Flash Gordon in the late 1950's or early 1960's before his association with John Prentice, the artistic successor to Alex Raymond on the Rip Kirby strip. Ivie suggests that Williamson, before his connection with Prentice, had "the unbeatable element of youth, in addition to talent and interest." (Heritage 1b, p.31) Stylistically, Ivie states "the drawing was superb, and the figures all had movement. But the inking reached its peak-being at the same time most tight, most fluid feeling, and most personal during the lates 'fifties." (Heritage 1b, p.31) He goes on to suggest that the Williamson who actually drew those three issues and four covers of Flash Gordon for King Comics had all the stylistic changes in his work influenced by his association with Prentice. He suggests that: "it is the scenes with heavy shadows-seldom used by others-that the Williamson style is most his own." (Heritage 1b, p.31) Ivie's analysis is not an overly negative one, in the end he suggests that "there is only one successful successor to Raymond, in keeping alive the true Flash Gordon feeling-Al Williamson." (Heritage 1b, p.33)

Now Ivie is an artist himself, and his credentials for review of Williamson's work are far superior to mine, but let me offer a somewhat different analysis than Ivie's.

The Williamson of the EC period had trouble with faces. He was magnificent with other aspects of anatomy, design, costumes and drapery, but his faces were problematic. He would hit upon winners often, but at least as frequently he depended on the strengths of a particular inker to get him past his flaws with the face. This particular problem was one that would come back and haunt him a bit at other times in his career, as well.

Ivie strangely seems to have missed the fact that Williamson's artwork matured during the time he worked with Prentice. Williamson has commented that one of the most important things that he learned from Prentice was a professional work ethic. But in addition to this, he learned a great deal about the proper use of reference, and through practice, practice, practice, he learned how to draw some of the most beautiful and expressive faces in the history of comic art.

The other great plus to Williamson's work in the middle 1960's through the seventies was that in my opinion, he achieved his greatest balance as penciller and inker. He was the total artist. His layouts, always lovely, reached a pinnacle that would be difficult to top. His pencils were virtually flawless, and his inking, although lack ing some of the sophistication and techniques that the next twenty-plus years would bring to him, was perfectly suited to his pencils. He knew how and when to use a thick line and when to use a thin one. His cross-hatching during this period was unparalleled amongst comic artists, either his contemporaries, or his artistic idols. One might say that Williamson's inking never achieved the liquid fluidity of Alex Raymond, but it was very much like the inking of another of his artistic heroes, Hal Foster.

                                                                       Flash Gordon #1, pg. 8

I have suggested elsewhere that one of the chief differences between Raymond's and Foster's approach to art is that Raymond attempted to give the ordinary mythic stature, whereas Foster attempted to give myths humanity. Interestingly, Williamson's approach is philosophically akin to Raymond's and this is seen in his pencilling and in what he chooses to draw. But, as I see it, Williamson's inking overall is more like Foster's.

Williamson's abilities continued on this ascending grade of beautiful pencils and complimentary inks throughout his term on Secret Agent Corrigan. But by the time his stint on Star Wars began, I believe that Williamson began a period of growing doubt over his ability to pencil as he would like. Don't get me wrong, Williamson's pencilling on Star Wars was better than anything else that anyone else was doing in adventure syndicated strips, but I begin to notice a certain stiffness to his figures' poses becoming problematic during this period. Although there were many panels and even whole strip continuities where Williamson flew through with confidence and excitement, there were times when a lack of assurance seemed to be evidencing itself, particularly around his figures, which had always been his strong point up until this point in his career. What carried Williamson through all of this was that his inking prowess had achieved unparalleled sophistication. By this point in his career, Williamson had more inking technique in his head then seemingly anyone else in the business. What seems to me to be a weakness in his pencilling was covered up by his wonderful sense of design (which has never deserted him) and his virtuosity as an inker. As early as The Comics Journal #90 interview in 1984, Williamson was already admitting to a slowing down of his pace as a penciller. He was at a loss to explain this slowing down to Ringgenberg, but I believe that Al was beginning a period of critical self-doubt which had been known to paralyze him at other points in his career:

Williamson:" Y'know, one time I was deathly afraid of losing my job (with Prentice). I realized that there were others out there who could do the "civilian" stuff in Rip Kirby much better and quicker than I could. And then one day I got very sick...asthma...the works.

...All these people that I was afraid would take my job came in and took my job. But then I said to myself, "OK, it's done. Forget it. I'm glad they took my job. Let's see what happens now!" Bang! I got well... and started working again. Got my job right back. You don't have to be afraid. You don't have to be jealous. You don't have to worry about someone else. Just do your job to the best of your abilities, take your responsibilities, meet your deadlinesand that's all that matters. That's it. That's it right there. because you are YOU and nobody else... and what YOU do they can't take away from you. It's yours."

Williamson understood his own problem in a historic perspective, and perhaps he realizes it today. His lack of pencilling speed or prowess over the past ten years or so has little to do with the talent which lies within, and everything to do with an attitude of self-doubt. This slowing of his pencilling speed led almost directly, in a very short time, into Al's period as an inker, only, over other people's pencils. At first this was for DC, and predominantly for Marvel. Williamson fell out of the syndicated market with the collapse of the Star Wars strip. This was the second strip which had failed him, thanks to the syndicates themselves. In neither Corrigan nor Star Wars did Williamson fail the strips he was working on, despite whatever minor flaws I have mentioned in some of the Star Wars pencilling. The syndicates failed the strips by not promoting them. This must have had some effect on Williamson, because after a brief but triumphant period doing a few comic book stories, principally for Bruce Jones Associates, Williamson decided that his pencilling had slowed down to such a crawl that it was easier to make a living wage inking someone else's pencils.

Williamson has only made three significant pencilling forays since his embarking on his career as an inker of other folks pencils: his Star Wars covers, his two issue Flash Gordon revival for Marvel, and a beautiful story for Dark Horse Presents, ominously entitled "One Last Job." With the exception of the last story, and a few other flashes of genius, Williamson's pencilling jobs appear to be too infrequent to allow him to hit his artistic stride once again. I hope it will still happen. The magic is still there, just waiting to be reawakened....

 

The Boards Themselves

There are some unique aspects of the physical artwork which Williamson created for Flash Gordon which may be of interest to those in our hobby. Although the artwork was drafted in 1966, the originals were not drawn "twice up" or what is increasingly being described in our hobby as "large art." The boards for the Flash Gordon pages were drawn at today's standard 11" x 17" size. Reed Crandall followed Williamson as the regular artist for the series after Williamson left for the syndicate job on Secret Agent X-9 (later Secret Agent Corrigan). Crandall's originals for the same series were drawn at the "twice up" ratio.

The cover to number one is even more unique, measuring still smaller at about 11" x 14" or so. The cover to #4, which is in Albert Moy's collection, was done at the same size.

You will note from the cover copy attached to this contribution that the art actually extends beyond the borders which were printed on the published version of the comic. There were red-penned border lines drawn into the art which have since been covered by white-out by either Williamson or Morrow, since they are the only two previous owners of the work.


cover Flash Gordon #4

Another element which is unique to the cover of the Flash Gordon #1 cover is that the cover logo was drawn right onto the board by Williamson. Presumably that beautiful logo, with its distinctive "top-tail" for the "A" in Flash, which was the standard Flash Gordon logo for years afterwards, was created by Williamson himself, and the stats for future issues were made from the #1 logo. I hope to confirm my assumption about this with Williamson the next time I get to talk with him. If it is true, this puts Williamson in the same category with another of his artistic heroes, J. Allen St. John, who created the later and most distinctive logo for Weird Tales, "the unique magazine" amongst the pulps.