Drawing the Bat: J.H. Williams Talks Batwoman

J.H. Williams Talks Batwoman

cover to Detective Comics #857 by Williams

It’s a character that’s literally been waiting years for her own chance in the spotlight, and in June, Batwoman will get her opportunity to shine.

As part of the shakeup of the Batman titles at DC Comics brought about by the “dead” Bruce Wayne, and a new Batman taking up the role, Detective Comics will become the stomping grounds of Batwoman, a character introduced in 52. Written by Greg Rucka, with art by J.H. Williams, June’s Detective #854 will kick off the solo adventures of Kate Kane, and we spoke with the artist for more on his view of this new hero.

Newsarama: Let’s start off with the old chestnut - this has been in the works for a while, so when did you first start work on Batwoman, and what got you hooked on the project in the first place?

J.H. Williams: I guess my part of the project started over a year ago but Greg had been setting things up almost two years ago. I've had some delays in work progress due to outside things that needed to be handled, along with a couple bouts of illness in there as well. I also did an issue of Jonah Hex during this time too.

What got me involved with the project was wanting to do something substantial in the DCU but had breathing room on the time frame for the launch date. I certainly wanted to return to Batman but with my speed combined with Batman's already rough schedule I just couldn't pull that off. So then-editor Pete Tomasi offered me the Batwoman project and considering it was with Greg I knew this would be really cool. It then went into the capable hands of editor Mike Siglain as Pete went into the writing side of things. The main concept appealed to me and being able to work on something from the ground up was nice too. The fact that nothing was heavily established with this character, a character that has great potential, was just the right thing because it allows me to have a lot more command of the visual direction and attitudes of the series. I wasn't really having to follow anybody in terms of visual ideas other than the basic look of the character. But even with that, I was given the freedom to enhance things about her costume that Greg and I felt needed some tweaking. The project felt like a good fit.

Williams' designs for Batwoman

NRAMA: Looking at the character design sheets that have come out, you're tweaking Batwoman's costume somewhat - was this something that you wanted to do for her to make sense for you to draw her, or was it something that came from Greg or DC?

JHW: I definitely felt she needed to make more sense visually. The overall look is still there but we removed aspects that now let's you take the character more seriously. There was a bit of hokiness (is that a word?) to her before. She needed to be tough as nails. Greg also had certain things he wanted altered too, such as her skin tone, which I completely agreed on. He had been trying to get her skin redhead pale/white ever since her first appearance. It's a brilliant choice when concerning her visual palette; it gives her a more graphic appearance. He and I had some good conversations early on to get where we both wanted to come from with her. The first result was actually the cover to the first issue - that was the first time I drew her at all. Then DC wanted a rough construction drawing of the different elements and that is where the character sheet came from, so that was secondary to the first cover. Kinda backwards, but that is usually what happens with me since most of my designing is done on the actual pages, things like that tend to be filed away in my head rather than on paper.

NRAMA: While we're mentioning Greg, what's the working relationship between you two like? You've got a very distinctive and unique approach to layout and design, so does Greg write his scripts with that in mind and try to envision how you'd draw a spread, or does he just write a fairly straight script, and let you go to town on it?

pencils to Detective Comics #857 cover

JHW: I'd say our relationship is very similar in process to the way I worked Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, in that we would have phone conversations about whatever needs to be on the page, or what the issue needs, or what a certain sequence needs. We would basically hammer out visual ideas on the phone. Greg would have a scene in mind and want my take on it and pick my brain on how it could be conveyed in visual terms. This always leads us to interesting and spontaneous ideas that work themselves into the story. Then Greg would write the script as detailed as he likes and sometimes says things like this scene is this and base it on what we discussed on the phone. I'd say 80% of the time it all goes according to the original idea but on occasion the idea isn't working as we thought it would and then he just trusts me to change it as needed. It is highly collaborative and yet I have a lot of freedom. What is really nice is how much Greg listens to my ideas for the visual presentation. He really is interested in how much I want to push the boundaries and that is all coming out in the story. I think we make a great team.

NRAMA: In that vein, can you walk us through how you approach a page? Again, going back to that whole distinctive approach thing - how do you translate a script into something that has a flow that is all yours?

JHW: Hmmm, I hope I can explain this clearly. There are a few things that I basically do with every project or script. First and foremost I do my best to absorb what the story is telling me, not just the surface value of it, but what is the heart of it, to find it's deeper meaning. I then figure out ways to bring out that stuff that is in between the lines, to get it to bubble up to the surface, through layout design, style manipulation, color ideas. Things like this can be very obvious when reading and other things are a more abstract value that impacts the reader in ways they may not realize right away. All this leads to my form of thinking when working on projects and that is to keep myself completely open minded to all possibilities in terms of what can be done visually to get the notions I mentioned onto the page. Not to limit the ideas unless that is the right thing to do. The most interesting thing about this to me is this all happens from my gut, I trust my instincts with this and not over think it. This is one of the reasons why I do very little design work outside of the work on the page itself. I avoid thumbnails as much as possible. I feel that keeping an open mind to the process has really given me the freedom to be very expressive in my work on many layers.

Detective Comics #854, due in June

NRAMA: Back to Batwoman's costume - as many folks have noticed - you took her heels away. While female readers are certainly thanking you, where did this decision come in at?

JHW: This falls into what I mentioned above about the "hokiness" factor. Heels are fine and all in the right context but that didn't fit the context that Greg and I wanted for this character. It was also important to us to present a character that would appeal to both men and women. I don't think the previous aspect of her really did that. It weakened her in terms of how much you could believe in her. It was not changed to dampen her sexiness in way, but rather for her to have a different kind of sexiness. A tough as nails attitude that anyone could believe in, but no one in their right mind is going to jump from rooftops with agility wearing high heels.

NRAMA: Are there any other costume tweaks, changes of additions that you're really proud of, or just makes her "work" better, in your view?

JHW: I really like the arm bracers. I also like the cape fastening to the front shoulder/chest area. Before, the cape just sort hung off the back of her neck and made things look kinda awkward and goofy, that, combined with the heels did her no justice. I also like how much we changed the mask to cover the nose, and being more protective looking with more angular lines. The mask changes definitely make her much more expressively intimidating.

Williams' design for Kate Kane

NRAMA: Let's move over to perhaps the more radical design change - Kate Kane. As you mention in your notes, she's clearly very different than we've seen her before. How did those changes come about? Obviously, there's a story element to them that will be explained, but her whole "look" - was it something that Greg had in mind, or did he hand it off to you, completely?

JHW: When Greg and I had conversations about who she is we knew we wanted something more than what was already there. We knew that she has a military background and money and is lesbian. But what else is she? What are her personality traits? What are the little things that make up the whole? Interests and hobbies, who are her friends? All of this plays into her appearance in her "civilian" life. I've read some criticisms that the look presented in the character sheet doesn't quite match up to the sources I mention on that sheet. However, all of the clothing is researched. The main thing is that I've made her look and attitude a mash up of many different things and this will reflect in her sense of style. I really wanted to avoid stereotypes in terms of cultural influences on her appearance, to take away the cartoonish aspects of stereotypes. She is more based on real people in that her look is a culmination of all the experiences and interests she has had in life up to this point. This is something we all do in real life in many ways. It's too easy to make a character fit into one category or another visually with what influences them. But that isn't good enough, people are more complex than that and that is what we want for her, to be a fully rounded individual with many different inspirations in her life, like the rest of us.

NRAMA: You're inking yourself on this, correct? Does that change how you approach the art in any way?

JHW: I've been inking my own work since the end of Promethea a few years ago. The main thing this does for me is give me the freedom to be as fluid with creative boundaries as possible within my means. There are certain stylistic things that are just near impossible to convey in pencil and expect and inker to translate it. This falls into the open mindedness I mentioned above.

NRAMA: Color is a very important part of your page construction - can you describe your working relationship with Dave Stewart?

Detective Comics #856 cover pencils

JHW: Dave is just an incredible working partner. He and I have been teamed up since before 7 Soldiers of Victory. Our first work together was a short story for Humanoids and then numerous covers for Marvel. He is amazing. Don't get me wrong, I've worked with some amazingly talented colorists and enjoyed their work immensely. But I just feel that Dave and I are on the same wave length, we get each other. We have a very fluid working process. After I complete an issue I send him the files with notes on what I was thinking about for the color when drawing, I do this because I can imagine the final result in my head as I work. Dave also knows how I like to experiment and seems to enjoy my thought process in this regard. A lot of times we will talk on the phone after he reads over the notes to see if another idea he may have might work better. His feedback is vital. Our conversations inform the work that we do. Knowing things he likes to try affects some of my decisions just as my drawing and design can affect his. I think we are a good creative match.

NRAMA: What kind of tone or feel are you looking to give to Detective Comics with your run? Is there a certain movie or...well, anything that you look to and think, "That’s what I'm aiming for on this"?

JHW: Nah, I really don't try to pigeonhole the work. Sure, I'm influenced by things all of the time. But nothing specifically geared to this project. The main goal is to present something that is invigorating and unique when compared to other books of a similar theme, to try my best to give something unexpected, thought provoking, and thoroughly entertaining. Hopefully it succeeds at this.

NRAMA: The character of Batwoman has been something of a lightning rod to those who want to see, or use her as that. What's your view on having a lesbian character headlining one of DC's and comics' longest-running series? Is it even an issue to you?

JHW: In some ways that is too be expected when considering that detail. But really, it is a non-issue. There is no logical reason for a lesbian character to not be a lead in a heroic role. The characters we read and create and enjoy as a culture are meant to be reflections of who we are as people, and people are very diverse. This subject should not matter whether or not her character has merit. I think it's great that we are doing this in the face of societal expectations. I find the "controversy" thing is silly really. There have always been gay people and there always will be. Of course there should be gay heroes, just as there should be black, Hispanic, Asian, short, tall, fat, skinny, all creeds. I feel that there is a bit of a childish attitude when it comes down to who people are sexually, that "Oh, did you know so and so are gay?" attitude. In the big scheme of the world it doesn't matter. The only thing that does is how we treat each other.

Detective Comics #855

NRAMA: As we've mentioned, you've had a good deal of time to get going on this - where are you in regards to issue numbers? Is that enough of a buffer built in for your comfort?

JHW: I think we are doing pretty good. I'm working on issue 6 and the first issue hasn't come out yet. My speed is the real issue here. I spend a lot of time with the pages to do the best looking innovative thing I can do. Hopefully it won't get tight at the tail end of my run. But we'll have close to 6 issues in the can by launch date, so I'm feeling pretty comfortable right now.

NRAMA: Just to end with a hint of a tease, can you mention a few things that you've drawn since you've been working on the series?

JHW: I'm going to do this as series of words...cool edge bold family colorful gothic electric experiment monsters drug heartbreak sexy magic gunfight rockn'roll planes toxic creepy tough fun adventurous kickass style emotion violent red watercolor dance hard graphic heroic...

How's that for a tease?!

J.H. Williams' website is at: WWW.JHWILLIAMS3.COM

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