DRAWING DETECTIVE - A Talk with JH Willams III
Beginning in June 2009’s Detective Comics #854, writer Greg Rucka and artist JH Williams III took the title in a new direction – with the newly minted Batwoman character. Originally introduced in the 52 miniseries, the character herself hadn’t had room to stretch her wings until this new series. Rucka’s deft storytelling mixes with Williams’ genre-defying artwork that has fans and critics alike buzzing, with comics' critic Douglas Wolk calling it “my favorite thing happening in superhero comics”.
We talked with both series creators at length about the series – today’s feature is with artist JH Williams III.
Newsarama: Jim, let’s start off with an easy one – what are you working on today?
JH Williams 3: I just put the finishing touches on the 6th issue of my Batwoman Detective Comics run.
Nrama: You jumped on to Detective Comics with June 2009’s #854, joining writer Greg Rucka to tell the first real formulative stories of an all-new Batwoman. Two issues have been released, and you’re far along in the series – how do you think it's turning out?
Williams: As for how far along on the work, I'm not far enough ahead as I would nearly like, but doing alright for the moment. I think the work is turning out okay. This is never an easy question to answer for me, because I'm a pretty harsh critic of my own work. I have a hard time being objective about it. But I am pleased with the response it has received.
Nrama: With Batwoman, you’re drawing a character that has some built-in familiarity by having the Bat insignia, but on another side she’s completely different and strange. How is it for you to draw a character like this, and establish her as a legitimate character and not just “a female version of Batman”?
Williams: I'm thoroughly enjoying myself even though the work is challenging. I think we are very quickly showing that she is not a female Batman. Getting to work on a character that has had very little prior build up is always gratifying because you get to define that character. The fact that she exists in an already known and popular reality is an interesting challenge, in that you have to represent those previously known notions in a fresh perspective, creating a template and foundation for others to follow, as they inevitably will.
Nrama: As you’re drawing the first real stories of Batwoman, you have a chance here to really define the character, both story-wise but also visually in terms of poses, depiction and how she carries herself. Is this freeing or more daunting for you?
Williams: This is freeing and daunting at the same time. It's freeing in terms of showing a portrayal that hasn't been seen before since she is so new, so there is no adhering to preconceptions from other sources, because we're the ones creating the sources. On the other hand, it is daunting because we're the ones creating these sources, so you have pressure to make sure it works. It can be tough, but very satisfying when it does work. It's not like drawing Batman or Superman, or any other well known character. In some ways dealing with those characters are easier than creating new ones because someone else long ago has already done the hard defining of them for you. The only real challenge to them is living up to those definitions, a lot different than creating them for sure.
Nrama: Poring over the two issues that have come out so far, I’m really amazed by your layouts and thinking in terms of the whole page – and even the double-page spreads, and the pacing page to page. I’ve read somewhere that you don’t do thumbnails much, but work straight to the page. How much thought goes into what you’re doing before you start an issue?
Williams: Yes, you are correct, I do very little preliminary work, most of the time there is none. It is all in the thought processes, but even this very organic and non-regimented. I just try to keep my mind open to any ideas that may want to take root there. Most of these come, in some loose form, from conversations I have with Mister Rucka before he writes the scripts. The trick to it is relying on my gut, as to what feels right at the moment I start drawing a page. Some ideas come very quickly and others need to mull around in my head for a bit. What slows my process down whence I have an idea I'm satisfied with is seeing how it works as I lay it out on the page. Things tend to look a little different in my head than they might on the physical page, so I then will need to make adjustments to get things as approximately close as I can to what I see with my mind's eye.
Nrama: A lot of people have noticed that in your portrayal of Batwoman, you haven’t over-sexualized her the way that some might – and some fans might expect. Not that she isn’t sexy, but I don’t see you doing any cheesecakey-badgirl kind of things. Why’d you decide to do this?
Williams: It's simple really, it's because she is a person. Characters should be treated the same as if they were physical people. Otherwise you cheapen them and weaken them and then you can no longer believe in them and then they eventually disappear. All good characters need to have a relative form of believability to them, otherwise you will destroy them and the story you are trying to tell. This also applies when you are being your most fantastical with your characters, in terms of what they are, where they are, what they are doing. I'm not interested in characters that are stereotypes, particularly in the manner in which you are referring, because they are no longer characters. They just become pop images easily digestible for the masses.
Nrama: When Newsarama talked to you previously, you brought up the subtle change of Kate Kane’s skin color to a pale white as opposed to the traditional skin color. But I loved this, as I’ve known more than a few redheads and none of them had the typical skin color we might see in other redheads in comics like Jean Grey. What led you to go this route, and was there any resistance editorially?
Nrama: You really take the words secret identity to a new level, as visually Batwoman and Kate Kane are far different – more than just the hair. How do you balance the two, without making them two different people all together?
Williams: I'm not quite sure. I just do what feels right. The main goal is to show how the two aspects of her life are just different facets of the same personality, even though quite distinct from each other. Part of it also is never forgetting that it is Kate's face beneath that mask. That happens quite often with other characters. I see it all of the time. As an example, a lot times Bruce Wayne's facial features will be handled differently than when he is masked as the Batman. It's real easy to get caught up in the iconography of a character like Batman and forget the fact it still should look like Bruce is wearing that mask. I hope this makes sense.
Nrama: You and Greg introduced a new villain named Alice recently. What were the conversations like between you and Greg when you were building up what she’d be?
Williams: We just wanted to make her presence extremely memorable and just as iconic as Batwoman herself. It was clear that she was a villain that was psychologically screwed up. But it was clear to us that she couldn't be just another insane villain, there are plenty of those running around Gotham already, she had to have a real sense of purpose. It's difficult for me to talk about her in any real detail without giving away things to soon. Let's just say she plays a VERY important role and leave it at that.
Nrama: In the just released issue #855, you have Batwoman get under the influence of some bad hallucinogens – giving you a chance to really do some interesting art techniques to display that. I won’t claim you’re the first, but you really take this to the next level. Can you tell us what you were thinking when you were laying these out, and did you have any ideas that didn’t end up on the page?
Williams: I just wanted to have fun and be creative with it. the interesting thing about that sequence is that a decent chunk of it takes place without Alice in those scenes, but since Alice is the big bad of the story I wanted it feel like, even though she is not there, her presence was everywhere, That is one of the reasons why I chose to use those warped curly art nouveau design elements for that sequence, bits of a subliminal reminder to Alice's clothing and curly hair. Admittedly it is a loose reference but an effective one. As for ideas that didn't make into that sequence, there are always ideas that don't get used due to space. I honestly wish we could've had a lot more time to focus on all of the psycho-trip stuff, to immerse the reader so deeply in it until they couldn't stand it anymore. It would really hit home just what that would be like for the character's experience, but you have to work within the limitations of the room you have. Also I have a lot of fun doing that sort of imagery, so I'm a bit biased. Overall the effect we wanted was achieved and it served to hint and tease about her origins.
Nrama: Following up on that, looking at your work I notice that as opposed to most comic artists, you’re not just a penciller. You pencil, ink, do washes, watercolor, digital effects, coloring and a few other things I can’t even put my finger on. For awhile comics has been a fairly regimented business – penciller, inker, colorist, letter, etc. – so I applaud you for doing it creatively, but also being able to get the freedom to do this. Was it hard for you, to break out of the traditional “penciller” mold?
Williams: It wasn't hard on a political level, mainly due to by the time I had made that decision, people had faith in my abilities. What made it difficult for me were the emotions involved, breaking up the wonderful partnership I had with inker Mick Gray that I had for nearly a decade. I had a lot of emotional turmoil over that decision. I also had a lot of trepidation facing my own level of abilities, just how and what could I do with them. But ultimately it was something I HAD to do if I was going to grow and expand my horizons, to gain more knowledge about myself by facing those kinds of challenges. It was extremely freeing, even though a bit scary. It has allowed my work to be transformative and at my whims than ever before.
Nrama: If you can, can you give us a picture of what your drawing board/studio looks like?
Williams: Hmmm, There is a little bit of fantasy, sex, rock'n'roll, with art tools and books laying about, and 2 computers and other accompanying equipment. Images of Betty Page, Adriana Lima, Dita Von Teese, Steranko, Jose Gonzalez, Michael Golden (My totem piece), Seth Fisher, Debbie Harry, and The Sisters of Mercy. A Promethea statue, a semi-robotic painting, a six-pack of Elvira's night brew, some plants, numerous awards, and some portfolios. An image of Ganesh on the front door. It's eclectic and a bit too messy.
Nrama: Put us in your studio – do you listen to music while working, have the TV on in the background, how’s it work?
Williams: Well my drawing table, custom made with a nice cherry wood finish, faces the door along the front wall. To the right of me when facing my table is where I have an additional table with shelves of books and a glass surface for cutting boards. This also has pull out drawers for storage and an extending tool drawer for brushes, pens and inks, this sits along the side wall. Along the back wall is where I have my power G5 Mac, 11x17 flat bed scanner (which the cats love to sleep upon), on a table with more storage holding shipping supplies and such.
Nrama: I’ve read that you were at work on this series for some time before the first issue came out. Where are you at now in terms of production, and how many issues are you currently scheduled to do?
Williams: I'm starting issue 7 as I respond to these questions. Work started quite awhile ago, but I'm not very fast considering that I ink my own work and color my own covers. As mentioned at the beginning of the interview I'm not as far along as I'd like. I had a lot of things get in the way of work, illnesses, wisdom teeth surgery, a death in the family, among some other unavoidable commitments, such as Absolute Promethea, (due out in October), and I have Volume 2 materials of that to start worrying about in the next month or so. This, in combination with my speed, is why we are bringing in Jock, who is just amazing, for a few issues. So while he is working on his issues I'll be working on my next five. So my total commitment is for twelve issues. Though I may do a back up feature in one of the gap issues, we'll see.For more on Williams’ work, visit his website at www.jhwilliams3.com.