Remembering Al Williamson

Remembering Al Williamson

The comic book community has lost one of the industry's greatest illustrators with the death of Al Williamson. Creators have been reacting to the news the last few days today with not only statements on Williamson's artistic influence, but also memories of his years working as an artist and inker.

Newsarama has compiled reactions from a handful of creators in the comics business for their thoughts on the loss of Williamson and what he meant to them.

Bo Hampton

In '83 I worked as Williamson's assistant in his Honesdale home/studio for 3 months and it was one of the best experiences I've ever had as an artist. He was my hero since the EC/Creepy days . On the night of my arrival, Al took me to the guest room in the cellar and pointed to a closet, warning me not to put my bags in there -- "it's full of old artwork and stuff."

3 a.m... It was a daylight cellar and didn't want the lights on for fear of exposure when I mounted my foray but found, oddly, a flashlight on the nightstand by my bed. I grabbed it and quietly opened the closet door. The first thing I saw was a Strathmore sketchbook not unlike the sort my brother Scott and I were always filling up with lame imitations of Williamson and Frazetta. But this was the "source" -- this was Al drawing what he wanted to draw--unencumbered by the albatross of a script or a client's specs. Aliens and cowboys. Dragons. Voluptuous sirens. Some were inked with a gorgeous brush line that rivaled any comic art I've ever seen. Others were rendered in pencil and were to be in awe of. None were from photos. A rustling from upstairs interrupted my reverie and scared me so bad I never went back into the closet again during my too brief stay.

But no one ever came for the flashlight.

Mike Deodato Jr.

It seems as though Al Williamson has always been with us in the comics’ world. Certainly he was out there doing the most amazing work years before I was born, and even then his pages radiated skills and imagination with every pen and brushstroke. A beautiful synthesis of his inspirations (a lot of Alex Raymond, a bit of Hal Foster) and his contemporaries (Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta), Williamson became a touchstone of talent to so many of us in the waves of newcomers that followed. He may have loved Flash Gordon, but he also proved he could draw Star Wars better than any of us who had tried. Every time I see a comic book with an alien landscape or a spotted frog, I knew Al Williamson had been there, at least in spirit. One has only to look at my current work on Secret Avengers to see certain stagings, referencing, and linework that hearken back to the panels and pages of this American original.

Andy Kubert

When I was attending my father’s school many moons ago, Al came down to visit and give a talk. I loved his work, especially his Star Wars stuff that I had collected in reprint form from an old fanzine call “Amazing Heroes.” We met Al, and he graciously invited my brother and myself up to his home in Pennsylvania for a day. It was probably a big surprise to him when we took him up on it! We drove up to his place; probably a few hours away. He was the nicest most honest guy. He had a beautiful in-town location with a converted barn in the back that was his studio. Frazetta, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Caniff originals adorned the walls of his home and studio. It was like a museum! Adam and I had also brought our school work with us to show...I was very hesitant, nervous and really didn’t want to show it...one of the assignments that I had done prior in school was to “ghost” a newspaper strip and I had chosen to do Al's Star Wars. He was nice enough to tell me that some day I could help him with backgrounds on his strip.

For a kid in art school and hearing that from one of my idols was just incredible even if it never happened! Al also had a huge stack of his Star Wars originals sitting on a table in his studio and he told me to take a look through. Just beautiful stuff and even more beautiful looking at the originals.

Al was a great guy and a great and influential artist. He will be sorely missed.

Jimmy Palmiotti

Al Williamson was an artist whose work I hunted down when I first started to draw. I saw in his work something ... unobtainable, and I wanted to learn more. After I found a lot of his work in various books, I studied it, blew it up and tried to copy his technique in pen and brushwork and tried to imitate the realistic rendering of figures , machinery and especially his vast array of textures found in his work.

When I started getting work in comics, he was inking some of Joe [Quesada]'s work and I was in awe. Joe introduced me to Al at some point and we even got to visit his home and spend some time with him. We all became friends and we would see each other at cons and always have a good laugh. I never, ever, got over the hero worship stage of our relationship, even though I tried to always play it cool around him. He was everything I wanted to be and more, and now that he is gone, I look at the legacy of work he left behind and smile. I will always remember this generous, funny and talented man.

J.G. Jones

I only met Mr. Williamson once, and that was at a convention, where I waited in line like everyone else to get one of his books signed. I can't really say anything about the man, but I can say that I greatly admire his work. He combined a great sense of composition, light and dark, with a craftsman's meticulous care when rendering the human form. Everything was perfectly balance between detail and open space, energy and slick illustrating. His storytelling ability is legendary, and I think that most comic artists have studied his work for clues as to how to make their own work sing.

If you don't know Mr. Williamson's Flash Gordon, you are missing out on brilliance.

Mark Bagley

Early in my career, Al inked my pencils for the first two issues of New Warriors...then he quit. In a phone conversation he said I was making him work too bleeping hard, and that I had a lot to learn. He went on to say that he'd love to have me come up and spend a few days with him in his studio, as he could really show mw a thing or two. I always regretted not being able to do that, it would have been great for me. Al was an amazing talent, and a real pro. And he was right about me having a lot to learn.

Tom Brevoort

What I remember most about Al Williamson was his charming and perennial sign-off to any phone conversation we might have been having about one job or another: ”Say hello to the gang for me!” Something in the way he expressed this sentiment made it not just an oft-repeated catch-phrase, but an expression of genuine fondness for all of the people he worked with.

David Campiti

I have Al Williamson to thank for my first writing jobs in the comic business, and he didn't even remember it.

His was just a random act of kindness, I suppose. In late 1982, I'd moved from West Virginia to take a job in Massachusetts as writer for an in-house ad agency. Attending a Con in Boston that first weekend, two days before my first day at my new job, I met Al Williamson and chatted with him a couple of times throughout the day. That evening, I bought him a drink at the bar and told him about a short story I was writing to shop around, an homage to Ray Bradbury. "I like that," he said. "Ever consider writing for comics?" I admitted that I'd tried back in high school to write and sell some comics stories but had no luck.

"I'm working with a new company called Pacific with an editor named David Scroggy," he said, jotting down a phone number for me. "Wait till the middle of next week, call him, tell him the story you told me. I will tell him I'm interested in drawing it." True to his word, he did. When I phoned David Scroggy, he was prepped for my call, had me mail in the 10-page script, and it become the first comic book story I ever sold. (Al's then-assistant/protégé Tom Yeates ended up drawing it when Al got too busy on Bruce Jones's stories.) It lead to several more sales to Pacific, and my comics-writing career was finally in motion. I left Massachusetts in 1986, returned to Wheeling, and have worked in comics pretty much full-time ever since -- as a writer, a packager, a publisher and, for the past 17 years, an agent who has had the joy of discovering art talent all over the world to bring in to the biz. Ed Benes, Joe Bennett, Roger Cruz, Mike Deodato, Fabio Laguna, Al Rio, Luke Ross, Stephen Segovia, Harvey Tolibao, Wilson Tortosa, and a couple of hundred others got their start in the American comic book market in part because of the opportunity that Al gave to me.

Fast-forward a dozen or so years later: I ran into Al at another Con and thanked him again for the kindness he showed me that day, telling him all the wonderful things I got to do, thanks to that first opportunity he gave me -- from writing Superman to being an editor and a publisher, to opening multiple comics art agency offices in Brazil and the Philippines. He shook my hand, appreciated the thanks, but didn't recall the incident. I guess it was just one of many, in a life of kindnesses.

Today I heard the news of Al's passing. How could this happen? Talents like Al Williamson are supposed to live forever. For me, he will.

Thank you again, Al. I'm passing it forward as fast as I can.

Tom DeFalco

Everyone knows that Al Williamson was a great artist. He was an even greater human being. He was also a true gentleman, a total professional and a sharing teacher. He truly loved comics and everyone connected with them.

Gerry Conway

I never had the opportunity to work with Al professionally, and only met him once or twice in the late '60s at Archie Goodwin's apartment (during what were known as First Friday open-door parties for local pros in the New York area). As an artist, he had no peer; as a human being, he struck me then -- when I was an anxious teenager awed by the company I was keeping -- as a very nice man. The world is a smaller place without Al (and Archie) in it.

Jerry Ordway

I was a big fan of Al Williamson's work. I was too young to see the EC stuff when it came out, but I recall seeing Al's Flash Gordon comics in the 1960's, and of course his work in the Warren horror magazines. When Russ Cochrane reprinted the complete EC library, I was exposed to all that great stuff, and marveled at what Al did, as a young man. He had several key periods in his career, each distinct and amazing. His EC period, followed by his time on Secret Agent Corrigan. Then he did some awesome work on Star Wars related stuff, followed by that great stretch as an inker/finisher in comic books. What an inspiration he was, and that work lives on. A great career for a great man.

Jeff Parker

The one I put at the beginning when it comes to meeting an influence was Al Williamson. I know I’ve mentioned the day a thousand times to friends, but I never tire of remembering it.

First, let me back up further and thank John Hitchcock of the comics shop Parts Unknown in Greensboro, NC. At the time he was with ACME Comics over on Lee Street and instrumental in bringing out convention guests whom he was interested in meeting. Talents like George Evans and Harvey Kurtzman, Angelo Torres… there was no reason I should have been able to get an audience with these people, but someone else’s tastes made it happen. And I loved those books. My horrible imitations of Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson could stop a bullet if stacked together. So one weekend in ‘88, I drove down to the Piedmont only 20 miles from where I grew up and nervously took a stack of pages into the Acmecon.

Here, I’ll note that I realize probably 88% of people reading this are thinking “you used to draw?” That’s no loss, what is tragic is that about the same number think only of Al Williamson as a guy who inked a lot of Marvel Comics. What he was, though, was one of the major talents to ever grace the field. Even if you didn’t know his work, you felt his influence elsewhere in pop culture, one of the most apparent being what everyone in Star Wars is running around wearing. Appropriately, they came to him to draw the newspaper strip later. Some of my all time favorite Williamson work is three issues of Flash Gordon he drew in the ’60’s. To look at his work as a young artist is an exercise in frustration; he was such a virtuoso that, in trying to learn from him, you get caught up in a lot of execution beyond the part you need to be focusing on. Those brush lines are enchanting and you want to go right to them, forgetting that Al knew how to do the figure, staging and powerful composition first. I spent many hours wondering why I couldn’t make a Windsor Newton brush do these things. I’m sure I was up late the night before, working on pages I was going to show him.

When you’ve blown up an artistic hero in your head, it’s always an experience to seem them sitting at a table near you, being real people. I got that bumped up yet another level as Al looked over my pages and chuckled at a panel where I’d drawn the alien lizard kid from his old EC story. These pages would be hard for me or anyone to look at now, but the important thing I’d done right without realizing it was to not be the 7000th kid to shove superhero pages under his nose. Most of it was attempts at the kind of adventure strips he’d read since being a kid himself growing up in Columbia (and thus pulling off better jungle vegetation and lizards in his environments than oh, anyone). But here’s where the experience went on to dominate my psychological landscape. After some nodding, he realized that the line was building for him to sign books. Instead of handing back my art, he put it to the side and said “come back around and sit down.”

I don’t know if you ever had Chuck Yeager say “Come on, climb up in the Bell X-1″ or Louie Armstrong tell you to grab a horn and sit in with him, but that would have to be how it feels.

Al never really had much of a break to go over my art with me, but that hardly mattered. He had invited me to come sit on the other side of the table, the first time I’d ever seen the world from that side. With him, I got in a little small talk though, and he gave me his address and said to come by if I managed to get up around Pennsylvania some time. That next summer, I saw to it that I got up around Pennsylvania.

This was essentially a pilgrimage. I planned out a trip through Washington, culminating at Al’s house with my friend Micah Harris who I worked with on comics in school. At some point we confirmed the visit with Al, who mentioned that newcomer Mark Schultz of some Xenozoic Tales book lived nearby in Allentown, he could call him down or we should stop by there too. I still love that Al considered Mark able to drop whatever and run over -- which I’m sure he would have been happy to do had Al asked. So we headed up, and in fact did meet Mark and Denise Schultz by stopping and looking him up in the phone book, as Micah just reminded me at the HeroesCon last week. I clearly was the master of tact, essentially inviting myself to people’s houses if they did comics I liked. That alone was important, as I’m happy to still be friends with the Schultzes after all this time. Before the internet, it actually was a special thing to run into more people who appreciated the same things in art and story, and that was a great evening.

The visit to Al’s the next day was not as happy, no way to revise it otherwise. He was in a very low mood -- his oldest son had died a couple of years back, and that was weighing on him as it must have constantly. We briefly met his then studio-mate Bret Blevins as he was on the way out the door. Our incessant questions about his friends Wally Wood, Roy Krenkel, and anything relating to his EC days actually did seem to give Al a small break from his troubles, at least I hoped it had. His daughter popping in for a few minutes probably did much more for him. I think he had her filling in blacks on pages. The studio was one wonder after another. This was the first time I ever saw an enormous Hal Foster Prince Valiant page on the wall, and really more incredible art than I’ve seen since, only visiting Howard Chaykin has come close. When King Features was just throwing out the original art to their headliners like Flash Gordon, Al had kept his best poker face and offered to get rid of some of those useless, worthless art boards. But he also had a trove of art his peers had given or traded him over the years. We talked about how great Terry and the Pirates was, I remember that. But then when it came time for him to get back to work, the walk through of happier times seemed to make coming back to the present that much more painful.

A few years later I got back to Al’s neck of the woods again and called to see if I could stop by. He had moved to another house and wasn’t working out of a home studio anymore; he had an office in the building where the magazine Highlights was made. The room he rented was stacked with books everywhere but where he sat and drew, not really anywhere for me to hang out. So we walked down to the nearby lunch place where he was clearly The Regular. It was a much happier day for him.

At some point he told a story about going with his mother to see Stewart Granger in a play. Scaramouche was one of Al’s favorite movies, but the connection was mostly from him being told all his life that he looked like Granger, which he very much did. They met briefly afterward in the autograph group, and Granger said something charming that I can’t remember now no matter how hard I try. This may have been where he said that was an exception and imparted the advice: Don’t Go Backstage. I think. I’m not sure I can trust my memory anymore, I’m so geared to putting things where they go in a better story order. If you don’t infer, he was referring to hunting down and meeting your heroes. I don’t know who all he had a bad experience with, though one was obviously Burne Hogarth, an infamous blowhard and Al’s teacher when he was very young.

The one who would have been the worst to go badly was Al’s greatest drawing hero, Alex Raymond. But that day at lunch, he told me about going out on his own pilgrimage to Raymond’s house and it had gone very well. Young Al was met at the door by a servant, which seemed right for going to see such a bigshot- I can’t remember how he got in touch with Raymond for the visit. The Society of Illustrators maybe? But apparently the titan who created Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby let Al stick around and ask questions for a couple of hours, though I think Al remembered being mostly quiet. Raymond invited him to stay in touch, but Al didn’t want to push his luck. Later he ran into one of Raymond’s assistants from that time who translated the experience for the unassuming Al; Raymond had been impressed with the young man and was interested in giving him work, had he followed up.

I can’t describe how wonderful it was to sit there in that cafe and hear Al Williamson talk about his brush with greatness while I was in the middle of mine. Talking about his hero made him wear that Stewart Granger smile, and I think I did correct him on his ‘backstage visit’ advice by mentioning that it worked out very well for me. I was of course waved off, Al was not going to let me put him on a pedestal. Some time later, I got around that humble wall by writing him a letter telling how much that invitation behind the table still meant to me. You can’t wave off my sappy sentiment in a nice one-sided letter, all you can do is sit there and take it.

I don’t know how serious I truly was about working in comics that day of the Greensboro show – I loved them, but that was a point where I could have gone in many directions. It certainly wasn’t my major in school, and my father was not encouraging of something he’d never known anyone to make a living in. But after that meeting I went back and tripled my output of story pages. I stayed up late at night working on comics and always had new material to show at each comics show within driving range. And that range was the continental US, because the next couple of years I drove the 2500 miles to the San Diego Comic-Con. There are a few major road markers on the path of my life, and one of the biggest was put there by Al Williamson, just being himself. There will never be another like him.

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