Mark Schultz: Celebrating Al Williamson's Flash Gordon

The title Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifetime Vision of the Heroic should tell you what you need to know, but just in case it doesn’t:

Legendary comics artist Al Williamson is revered by professionals and fans for many works: his Weird Science stories for EC Comics in the 50s, a long stint illustrating the strip Secret Agent Corrigan, a run of tales with Warren Publishing in the early 70s, George Lucas’s hand-picked artist on the Star Wars newspaper strip, and a lengthy tenure as an inker at Marvel Comics from the mid 1980s until his retirement a few years ago.

Williamson’s favorite work of his own were always his fleeting opportunities to illustrate the adventures of his own childhood hero, Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon, created in 1934 (three years after Williamson was born) by cartoonist Alex Raymond, remains the prototype for romantic, swashbuckling adventure fiction, and Raymond himself was a clear influence on Williamson’s dynamic and detailed illustrations.

In August, Flesk Publications will collect virtually all of Al Williamson’s published (and several unpublished) Flash Gordon pages and stories in Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifetime Vision of the Heroic. Occasional collaborator and family friend of Williamson, cartoonist Mark Schultz is heavily involved in assembling the book, and we spoke with him about the project’s birth, Williamson’ attraction to Flash Gordon, and what fans can look forward to within its pages.

Newsarama: First of all, Mark, which of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon work will appear in this book?

Mark Schultz: Everything we can get into 250 pages. It has all his comics pages and the covers that he did, and that includes the classic King Comics Flash Gordon from the mid-60s; the Flash Gordon adaptation for the 1980 film that starred Sam Jones as Flash Gordon, including a few pages that were rejected and redrawn; and the final comics story is the Marvel miniseries from 1994. Interspersed with all that are other Flash Gordon projects, like a series of advertisements he did for the chemical company Union Carbide. He produced five Flash Gordon strips for the ad campaign, full page advertisements featuring the characters in comic strip adventures shilling Union Carbide products. He also has the original artwork for a record album cover he drew that featured Flash Gordon. And the book has various pieces published in fanzines and a lot of work that he just did for his own enjoyment, a whole raft of that stuff. And Al did extensive preliminary drawings preparing for the panels that he eventually committed to the page. Unfortunately, there’s just so much of that material that we couldn’t fit everything in. There’s a lot.

NRAMA: Pretty comprehensive. Now, the Flash Gordon stories from the 60s, that was a comic book, not the comic strip originated by Alex Raymond, correct?

MS: That’s right. Now, there was also a Flash Gordon daily comic strip that Dan Barry was drawing. Al actually assisted on that for a few weeks back in the 1950s. We have an example of that in there as well.

NRAMA: So there is an example of his brief work on the strip too, then. That’s great.

MS: Al also worked on a couple of Flash Gordon Sunday strips with Jim Keefe toward the end of his career, but the comics from the 60s that I referred to were comic books.

NRAMA: How did Al get involved with those comic books in the 60s? Do we know who was writing that, or why the syndicate expanded from the strip into comic books?

MS: Well, yeah, actually that was part of the fun, researching this. Al had always wanted to do the strip; that was his childhood dream. Flash Gordon was the strip that made him want to become a comics professional. Flash Gordon was always his favorite character and property, so every opportunity he could find to work on that, he’d take it. In the 60s, he’d caught wind that there was going to be a new Flash Gordon comic book, so he actively sought out the chance to draw it. Essentially, he was told by the editor that, yeah, they liked his work and knew it. For a few years, he’d been working with John Prentice on Rip Kirby, another Alex Raymond creation. So they were familiar with his work and knew he could do it. Al was given the chance, and he kind of produced the issues in which he was involved. He brought Archie Goodwin and Larry Ivie on board as writers. What Al wanted was to return the strip to Alex Raymond’s original vision of Flash Gordon as a romantic, swashbuckling character on the planet Mongo. And he did that. It became a landmark work, with Al taking the character back to Raymond’s original intent. To this day, those King Comics’ Flash Gordons are very fondly remembered by anyone of my age who was reading comics in the 60s. Those were memorable books, because we’d never seen anything like them. Comics were in the middle of the Marvel revolution, with expressionistic guys like Kirby and Ditko dominating at Marvel. But the stuff that Al did was a return to this very romanticized adventure style with roots in the 30s and 40s.

NRAMA: If I can touch quickly on what you said about Al’s favorite strips when he was a young boy, I remember when Dark Horse collected the Will Eisner Hawks of the Seas strip, they were able to do that because Al had collected all the original artwork.

MS: He started collecting proofs from publishers and even original pages themselves years before they were recognized for their value. His mother worked – they moved around quite a bit – but when he was a teenager in New York, his mother worked for a company in Brooklyn, in an office right next to a company that specialized in taking American comic strips and repackaging them for publication overseas. It was a really great coincidence, and Al buddied up with a sympathetic guy who worked for that repackaging agency. When the repackager was done with the proofs that they received from the syndicates, basically, they would just throw them out. This guy offered Al, if he was interested, the proofs for Hawks of the Seas, which Al had grown up reading in South America. I think he was able to get almost – I don’t think a complete run, but nearly a complete set of Hawks of the Seas. And he kept them all his life, which became the core of the Hawks of the Seas book that Kitchen Sink put out in the late 80s.

NRAMA: Dark Horse also did a hardcover in, I believe, the late 90s, and that edition was missing maybe five strips. But I was going to ask, as Al was known for collecting that artwork, for this Flash Gordon book, were you able to find many of the original pages or proofs to work from?

MS: That was kind of our goal with this. When I presented the idea of doing this book to John Fleskes, my publisher, I said that the great thing we have here is that I’m friends with Al and his family, and having already discussed this with Al and his wife Cory, I knew that we could have access to their archives to do scans right from the original art. Al has retained at least 90% of his Flash Gordon material, so the majority of it was there waiting for us. It was just a matter of putting in the time, of going up to Al’s and scanning it all. We did a massive scanning session over a weekend and got most of the content for the book done scanned in right then. But were still some key images that Al didn’t have, and we did our best to find as many of the originals as we could among art collectors. We did pretty good with that; there’s still, I’d say, about 3-5% that we had to reproduce from proofs and prints. If we’re lucky enough to do a future edition, hopefully we’ll be able to track down those missing originals.

The short answer is that we have excellent images.

NRAMA: One of the things that I found while researching this was that Al cut back to only inking a section of the Flash Gordon movie adaptation, and he was once quoted, “It was the hardest job I ever had to do in my life.” What made that particular project such a chore for him?

MS: Al actually inked most of it, but he did have assistance. He had trouble with the job for a number of reasons. He was super enthusiastic when he heard that the movie was going to be made and when he was asked to do the comics adaptation, but then it turned out that the movie would be very different from Al’s vision of the property. I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but it’s very campy and tongue in cheek.

NRAMA: I saw it maybe once when I was four or five. Barely remember anything.

MS: It has a cult following, some people really like it. But it’s not my cup of tea, and it certainly wasn’t Al’s. He was sent stills from the movie and from these could see how they were handling things, and he became less and less enthused. On top of that – and this is a common problem with adaptations that are done at the same time as the film is being made – the film is going through script revisions and reshootings, so pages that Al had completed from the script that Bruce Jones had written had to be revised. At the same time, he and Archie Goodwin were in the process of switching over from doing the Secret Agent Corrigan comic strip to the Star Wars strip, so it was a rough time to be making that transition. So there were a number of factors that made it challenging for him.

NRAMA: You wrote the 1994 Flash Gordon miniseries for Al, right? How did that project come about?

MS: Yeah, I did. Al had been inking for years at Marvel, and Tom DeFalco, the editor-in-chief at the time, was another big fan of Al’s. Tom had been working on Al for several years, trying to get him to draw something. Al had told Tom that the only thing he’d really be interested in doing would be Flash Gordon, so Tom went about working on a deal with King Features syndicate, who own the property. And he got a deal for Marvel to do a Flash Gordon miniseries. So basically, he worked it so Al couldn’t turn him down!

Al was enthusiastic about it. He worried about the amount of work that would be involved, and about not having drawn a great deal for a while. But he had some cool story ideas. He threw out all these various ideas, and my job was just to string them together in some semblance of a plot. The plot was a collaborative effort on Al’s and my part.

NRAMA: Knowing Tom DeFalco’s a big fan of Al’s certainly boosts my esteem for him!

MS: Tom was great. I think that there weren’t a lot of other people at Marvel who really appreciated Al. People there knew Al as an inker over John Romita, Jr., and Rick Leonardi. Not a lot of people working in editorial at the time knew Al’s history, but Tom absolutely went to bat for Al and gave him lots of time to work on this. There was no deadline pressure. Unfortunately, Tom left the editorship just as the book was finishing up, and there was no push for it after he left. The book was just dropped on the market, with no promotion.

NRAMA: That makes some sense. That was right around when I started reading comics, and I was loving Al’s work in Dark Horse’s Classic Star Wars, but I don’t remember seeing this series at all at the time.

MS: Unless you knew to look for it, you wouldn’t. Tom had gotten the rights to the Flash Gordon property, the Prince Valiant property and The Phantom, and put out miniseries for all of them, but most people didn’t know about them.

NRAMA: In addition to the three main stories, there are still other bits of Al’s Flash Gordon artwork. Is any of the artwork new to audiences?

MS: There will be stuff that’s never seen print before – examples of his extensive preliminary work. Also, we have good examples of his juvenilia, stuff he did as a kid before he turned professional, and pages he did as a young professional in the 50s that he generated for himself. Some examples of Flash Gordon strips in the Sunday format that he made up for himself, when he was thinking in terms of portfolio pieces to maybe get work from King or perhaps take over the strip himself some day. But, yeah, there’s plenty of stuff that’s never been published before.

NRAMA: You kind of answered this already, but how did this project come about?

MS: Well, people have wanted to collect Al’s Flash Gordon work for a long time, especially since there is real affection for the King Comics stuff from the 60s. Dark Horse talked about collecting it fifteen years ago, and on and off, a number of publishers have shown interest, but it just never happened. Finally, I just said to John Fleskes, my publisher, why don’t we do this ourselves? Al really deserves a top of the line book, and quality is what John focuses on. Al and Cory were happy to know there would be a collection and have given their complete cooperation.

NRAMA: And you had no problems getting King Features on board with everything?

MS: They’ve been very enthusiastic, very supportive.

NRAMA: Last question about the book, yourself and Sergio Aragones are contributing to this book. Can you just briefly let us know what you’ll both be offering?

MS: Sergio is writing the introduction. We thought he’d be appropriate because not only are he and Al good friends, but they both grew up in Latin America and they both have very similar interests in the type of fiction and type of comics they’d grown up reading. While they grew up to do very different work as professionals, they drew from a common source.

I’ve written the text for the book, which is pretty minimal. I wrote, I guess I’d call it, a conceptual essay, addressing the importance of Al’s work. I want this book to reach out beyond people that already know Al’s work and Flash Gordon, so I tried to set down my thoughts of why I think that Al’s work and Al’s work on this particular character has survived and is still remembered, and why it’s important pop culture, why it’s more than just fun comics. And I’ve given background information and some historical perspective.

NRAMA: You have a notable Williamson influence in your own artwork, and you’ve collaborated with Al several times. What is it, to you, that makes his art so enduring and timeless?

MS: Boy…

Well, there’re a number of factors. It think the thing that makes Williamson’s artwork unique and special, that keeps you coming back to it - and I talk about this a little bit in the essay – was that Al more than any other comic artist I know, he went beyond the traditional illustrative roots of adventure comic art. Even though he incorporates traditional illustration, as his inspiration Raymond did, Al was a big fan of motion pictures, especially the old movie serials from the 1940s. He would endlessly watch these films and their choreographed fight scenes, and he just has a genius for taking the choreography from these movies and interpreting it on the page. He creates the illusion of movement on the page, and he’s better than anyone I know at creating a sense of elegance and movement. That I think sets his work apart from just about anybody else I can think of, he does it better than anyone.

Beyond that sense of movement and action, there’s a feeling of elegance to his work, his figures and his compositions. Though he mostly works in fantasy and science fiction, there’s a wonderful feeling of elegance and dignity and mystery to everything that he does. That’s just part of it.

Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic is expected to arrive in stores in August from Flesk Publications.

Twitter activity