Artist's Alley 8: J.H. WILLIAMS III W/ Excl. BATWOMAN Art!
They used to tell J.H. Williams III to draw like somebody else.
Somehow, we doubt the artist of Batwoman is getting that response today.
But the Eisner-winning DC artist didn't always have the confidence of the comics industry, as he used his long professional climb as a learning experience to work with pencils, inks and even color. Soon Williams will be working behind the keyboard as well, on the upcoming Batwoman series, starring the character he helped revolutionize with writer Greg Rucka.
Now one of the most innovative artists of mainstream superheroes, Williams joined us for the eighth edition of Artist's Alley, where he talked about persistence, finding the subtext of a scene, and how the visual components of the comics industry have changed with digital technology.
We also have an exclusive first look at the interior art of Batwoman #0, featuring art from both Amy Reeder and Williams on the same 2-page spread.
Newsarama: Jim, just to start off with, how did you decide that you wanted to become an artist professionally? What challenges did you have before you felt ready to go for prime-time, and how did you overcome them?
J.H. Williams III: It's kind of a long story, but basically I always to be in comics, ever since I was a little kid. I got enamored with certain titles and artists back then that kind of led me down the path that I chose. I really decided I was going to be a comic artist, or set my hopes at being a comic artist, when I was 10 or 12. I just kept honing my skills and stuff and eventually started doing the conventions and showing my portfolio and stuff like that. That was a real struggle because it was so highly competitive, and there's a lot of politics involved in terms of how many people can the publishers take on versus the amount of work available. So even if your work was really really good -- and there was guys who were trying to get attention that were certainly, by far, better than I was, and even they couldn't break those barriers. So it kind of became a matter of being extremely diligent and persistent.
And for a long time I kept dealing with editors who did portfolio reviews, so one year they'd say, 'oh, you know what you're doing isn't what we're looking for -- it's not that bad, but there's just this problem or that problem. We're really looking for styles that look like so-and-so, who were the most popular at the time. So I would go back and work on samples based on those notes, come back the next year and by that point they were no longer with that style, something they were preferring then wasn't quite as popular in the industry now, or whatever. I went through that process for a few years, and it was a bit daunting -- I could never get my stuff to be what they wanted.
On the upside of it, being forced to examine what other artists were doing and trying to fit into those parameters taught me some lessons in terms of just how much can that be in analyzing your own thing. But it kind of got to a point, I got tired of fitting into the mold, and I'm just going to draw the way I want to draw. Of course the things I learned along the way kind of crept their way into the work, just concentrating on drawing what I thought looked good at the time. I ended up doing that and took on some independent work and doing some independent publishing sort of stuff. Some of it got seen, some of it didn't.
But what the big game changer for me was, one of the projects that I worked on that did get published, the writer got to meet Howard Chaykin one year, at a convention not too far from here. I wasn't there that day, but I was coming the next day, and he was showing him some of the work that we had done together. And I got there the next day, and I got to meet Howard Chaykin and he asked what we were doing, so I was like, "okay!" I thought that was pretty cool, I thought maybe that was the way to go, to get portfolio critiques from creators that I admired, because I had always gone the editorial route, you know? So I went over to talk to Howard and I had other samples with me that were not of that same project, they were from a completely different project that never got published. The subject matter was completely different, the style was completely different than the project that my friend had showed him. So that kind of intrigued him, I think. So I asked him for a solid critique and at first he was really hesitant about giving me a solid critique, because Howard -- he's a real sweetheart, but he can be known to be a bit gruff. (Chuckles) And so I was like, 'no, I really want a critique from you.'
So he went through every page, but I think by me being so insistent on getting his real opinion, forced him to slow down and look at the work more. And so he basically went through, 'oh this panel here is great... but this panel is shit.' He just kind of went through it and picked it apart. There were some things that I was doing back then, they were a bit unorthodox for storytelling purposes. But the trick to it, when he looked at it, and said 'this was very weird here, why are you doing that?' And I actually had a reason. (Chuckles) So it wasn't just an arbitrary thing, and he saw that I was actually thinking about the work. He saw that I could work in various styles and pay attention to storytelling and so forth, and he said that, after really examining, that I should really be working. He said, 'why aren't you working?' And I said, 'I can't get anyone to pay attention.' So he said, I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do. He got up from his table and walked over to the DC booth, and started to tell people, as loudly as possible, for someone to give me a job, even if it that meant him writing something for me, he would do that. And that changed a lot of things.
Nrama: I'll bet...
Williams: Yeah, I immediately got business cards and stuff like that. Most prominently, at Milestone. That was when they were kicking off and stuff. One of the things I was very particular about was if I got someone's business card, I had no qualms about hounding them. (Laughs) I think that plays into the persistance and the deligence factor of being able to get your first shot. And this is how competitive it was back then, and I can only imagine it being more so now, was even after getting that business card, it took me 80 phone calls before someone called me back. And this was real, someone that Howard Chaykin was saying 'give this person a job.' So it was pretty demanding, but the fact that I had made so many phone calls, the first thing they offered me, of course, was a fill-in gig to train me out, or whatever. But I think the key to it was when they needed that job to be filled, I was the first person they thought of because I had left them 80 messages. You know what I mean? So they knew how serious I was. I ended up getting that job, and that led to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, so it's been a long story, but at the same time, this was a period of over a few years, really, furiously pursuing it. It was tough -- I could only imagine what it was like for other up-and-comers today. And it's not only knowing them, you really have to be willing to hound that editor.
Nrama: That's really interesting, especially the idea that everyone told you, "draw like this, draw like that." As far as adopting your own personal style, what went into that? Let's talk influences here -- what teachers, artists, and media did you draw upon to find your own particular artistic voice?
Williams: Hmm... I don't know. There's probably a good variety of things. I was fortunate enough to get exposed to some really good comics, really young, or at least good for the time -- I don't know how well that stuff holds up today. But some of the classic, highly-regarded material, like Micronauts, Uncanny X-Men when Byrne was on it, stuff like that. But then I quickly discovered from there, quickly backtracked and then sidestepped a little bit. The backtracking, I got really into Jack Kirby, particularly the Eternals and Kamandi -- I just thought those were fantastic.
And then going from that, I was very early on exposed to artists like Moebius and P. Craig Russell, Jim Steranko, Jim Starlin, back in the height of the most creative stuff back then. These are the guys, they're all very distinct in what they do, they definitely have their own particular vision, they weren't trying to fit in with a "house style," or whatever. But they were all different from each other as well, even though they were artists who were pushing boundaries and doing things that you're not going to see typically. So I think a lot of that had a big impact on me and being exposed to such diverse tastes. I think that shows in the work I do now, and some of the experimentation I do is definitely an Eisner or a Steranko influence, even Jim Starlin influence in there from some of his trippier stuff.
With style manipulation, what kind of got me thinking about that was early early Frank Miller -- he jumped from Daredevil to Dark Knight to then Ronin before pursuing Sin City, and when you look at that stuff stylistically, the way he drew all those things was dramatically different. They still had certain key signature things that he always does, but there were so widely diverse from each other, it really clicked in my brain, I'm like, "wow, that's one artist and he's able to kind of draw what is more suited to the story that is being told." And that kind of stuck with me too, I think.
Nrama: Since you were talking about how Miller's style changed over the years, how do you feel that your style has evolved? It seems like things have been getting a bit more... maybe theatrical is the word I'd use to describe it? What about you, what words would you use to describe it? What would you say the trend was for your work, and how did you get to that point?
Williams: Yeah, I don't know -- that's kind of a tough question. I never really thought of it in terms of it being theatrical -- it was just wanting the storytelling and the movement and pacing to be as dramatic as possible without feeling overly jarring. I'm sure it gets jarring at some places for some people, for fans of more traditionalism, but as far as the evolution of that, it's really hard to say where that started. Other than I just really wanted to do, to see what could be done on the page, rather than the traditional page layout. Not that there's anything wrong with the traditional page layout -- there's something to be said about knowing the basics and understanding the farm. You can't really manipulate it successfully unless you know that. But I just kind of, as I was coming along, I found myself more and more interesting in seeing just how a story can be told in different ways. I think some of that is that Steranko influence coming through a lot and some of the trippier things Starlin could do -- those guys were really pushing the form well before I ever came along.
And then I think also the theatricalness and the quality of the storytelling as far as how the figures move within the scene or the character acting, I think that's just an evolution of learning and growing as an artist and trying to be better skilled. This kind of goes back to what we were talking about when I broke in, the stuff I was doing when I got in, I'm shocked that I got a job. (Laughs) Especially when I look at it in comparison with stuff that I was definitely excited over that other professionals in comics that I had read, I don't think it holds a candle to any of that stuff. I'm still surprised I got that shot, so I guess it was a long growing, learning process. But in some ways I think that's how it should be. I think of an artist that ends up being the same, they end up losing something if they're not trying to explore new things.
Nrama: I was going to ask you about innovation here, but I think you touched upon something a little bit earlier, talking about risk, and trying to stretch yourself a bit. Maybe the two concepts go hand-in-hand: I wanted to ask, as you were sort of going up in your career and trying to stretch yourself more, can you tell me about a risk that you took in your storytelling, it could be a particular issue, something that really stood out to you as a concept that you said, I don't know if this is going to work, but I'm going to try this?
Williams: There was a couple of things, and those things led into being seriously considered for Promethea. This was back when I was doing Chase -- there was a couple of things that we did structurally in spots that were kind of interesting. We broke the page into panels, like you normally would, but instead of using traditional dialogue, we actually broke that mold and put a strip down the middle of the panels down to one side so there's art on either side of the strip and showed it as if it was script. So Character A saying whatever, and Character B, and so on and so forth thoughout the page. We did that a few times, and I don't think that would have been normally seen in a mainstream DC comic, particularly at the time. I thought that was pretty interesting.
And then when we did Chase One Million, back when DC did their big DC One Million event, we approached that issue as, okay, what would a printed stapled comic book might be like in the far future, as far as what it might look like? And this was, we still had the limitations of what could be done with colors and style techniques and all that stuff back then, but when I looked at that, there's some really unusual things going on back there as far as panel shapes and things like that that I think was pretty risky to do, particularly an artist like myself back then that wasn't as well-known.
And that little bit of outside thinking definitely influenced Alan being willing to take me on for Promethea. And that kind of emboldened me in some ways, some of the things that I did there in that Chase material that I'm talking about, because I thought when I did this, this can be done successfully, and it kind of jazzed me up as far as being creative. When I got the Promethea gig, I kind of took that to the next level right away, and one of the risky things about that, was that I did that sort of thing in Promethea without really discussing it with Alan first. (Chuckles) I just kind of did my thing, he really seemed to like it, and started to start writing towards it. I'd say that was pretty risky back then, but I don't think necessarily back then that I thought it was a risk. I was just kind of, "this is what I want to do." (Laughs)
Nrama: Since we've been talking about how much the artist brings to the overall story, I wanted to ask, when you're reading a script, what's the thing you're looking for in order to get a really evocative image? Is it a matter of character, of action -- as the "layers" of a script, what do you think most influences you as far as getting the image down?
Williams: I'd say really trying to understand the subtext of the scene. There are certain writers like Alan and Grant and Warren Ellis that I've had the luxury to work with that really understand what they're writing. They're not just writing a story, they're writing a story that has an underlying scene or underlying message, or something like that, the subtext. For me, it was going beyond the surface of what is already apparent in the story, in terms of character walks through a door, says such-and-such to so-and-so, to go beyond just the surface actions that is taking place and look at what the actual subtext is. Kind of reading between the lines of what is being said. A lot of that stuff doesn't find its way into the scripts themselves, I think the writers are really hoping that the art will convey enough of what they want, and people when they read it will get enough out of the captions and dialogue, to get the subtext. But for me I would examine that stuff and feel like I had a grasp of that, and would find ways to bring the subtext more to the forefront, so it doesn't get missed, you know what I mean?
Nrama: Going back a little bit to when you were talking about Miller, and it made me wonder how you approach panel composition. In this age of widescreen, you come off as something else, so I wanted to ask you about panels and pacing and design. What springs to mind when you're trying to attack a page like this?
Williams: Part of it is the subtext, part of it is presentation of the action, too. The way a page is laid out is the way the action comes across, all the way going down to not just the construction of the page itself, but thinking about what colors are going to be there. And how those colors play across the page, going beyond just that particular scene and seeing what is being done there, how it can relate to something that came several pages before, or several pages, or even into the next issue, so you get these thematic sensibilities going on. A lot of it is very, it's not that it's strange, it's very instinctual, almost by my gut. I don't overanalyze stuff, my brain sort of -- because of all those years as a kid seeing those really creative comics have instilled in me this trigger to try to find those kind of visual queues, and ways to bring different elements to enhance what needs to be there on the page too, to an interesting perspective.
This goes a little bit to my art training -- I'm pretty much a self-taught artist, which is probably why when I see a lot of my earlier work, I'm pretty critical about it. I've always kind of been the type of person that people can tell me how to do something, but I'd rather learn how to do it on my own. But I had two years of school, advertising and art design. What was interesting about the class was that the teacher was less about the quality of the drawing -- of course, he wanted to see quality work, but he was more interested in how you thought, and more interested in the idea behind the drawing itself. So it was all about enhancing that mode of thinking and his students, and that had a huge impression on me that immediately found its way into my work right away. I think that, coupled with very thoughtful artists, being influenced by very thoughtful artists, maybe made me see how those kinds of things can be applied to comics.
Nrama: Since we're talking about ideas, and how they're being presented visually, I'd be curious to ask -- what do you think the smartest idea you've ever had was?
Williams: (Laughs) Oh boy. I don't know if it's the smartest -- I think what we did on Promethea was pretty smart. As far as recently, one of the most interesting things I think I've come up with -- I don't know how smart is it -- was an intuitive sort of thing, it kind of brought this kind of edge to the Batwoman stuff, was this kind of very sharp angular shapes with the panels, creating these lightning bolt, zigzag shapes and pointed edges. It did two things: Whenever it was a black shape, whenever it was a black pointed shape, it made people think of bats, but then the lightning bolt shapes made it have this kind of rock-and-roll, kind of electric thing going on. Which has nothing to do with a Bat-character, when you think about it, but it kind of made the story have, from a visual point, more of an edge to it. I think that's one of the happier things I've come up with, and that was just pure intuition, there was no thought about it at all. It was one of those things when I started thinking about the character and drawing the book, these jagged, lightning-bolt shapes and angular shapes just kind of emerged in my brain, and I said, "OK, that's what I'm going to pursue."
Nrama: You know, speaking of Batwoman, you really got to tweak the character design for her, coming up with villains for her and the like, so I wanted to ask, when you're coming up with the character design and fashion and the like, how are you researching and tweaking things to make character come across visually?
Williams: Two things I think about is, one is I try to think about functionality, even if it's not realistically functional, I need to create the illusion of functionality. So it's putting in seams and zippers and everything like that -- it needs to look like something somebody is wearing. So having things like creases and wrinkles when the character moves is something like that, making sure things are attached does that. Redesigning Batwoman, the original design, I have no idea who came up with the original design for the new Kate Kane Batwoman, but a couple things when I first saw it bothered me with the characters. This goes into other things that I see with some of the things they do with the other Bat-characters that is a little bit of a pet peeve of mine -- they wanted Batwoman to come off as very serious and very intimidating to the same level that Batman was intimidating. But what they did with her design didn't really convey that, the way the mask was designed, the mask came up well over the bridge of the nose, and things like that, and it weakened the expression of the character in terms of making her look predatory. So that was one of the things that bothered me that kind of added to her... "genericness," I would say? ... is like the cape just kind of hung off the back of the neck, you know, it didn't really have much of a prescence, it just kind of dangled there. And I thought that was pretty awkward looking. The high heels were definitely terrible. One of the other things that was very annoying was that her belt buckle was in the shape of a bat, but she already has a bat on her chest. It looked a little bit goofy, and I've seen that happen with a few of the other Bat-characters as well.
Nrama: Shhh, don't tell Dick Grayson that! He loves that belt!
Williams: (Laughs) Yeah. The other thing is the other thing they did with the belt is that it kind of dangled. It was kind of like if she moved the wrong way it was up against, some objects are going to get caught on something. It kind of looked flimsy and stuff. So I took all those elements and made them more serious and more thoughtful. By bringing the cape up over her shoulders and fastening it on the upper parts of her chest, it immediately made the cape more forward, and allowed you to do more interesting things with the way it moved. Getting rid of the heels and giving her more of a military-style heel and sole for the boot -- I changed the tops of the boots too, before they had these points and stuff. We wrote the character as really being into music, so some of her music tastes leaned to rockabilly or psychobilly, things like that, so I thought it would be kind of cool if the top of the boots were slightly reminiscent to the shape of a cowboy boot. You know, they zip up the side and have a military-style heel. I thought that was this kind of weird juxtaposition of two different ideas.
Then we added the arm bracers so she has a little bit more of a weight to her arms and looks like she could either protect herself as a defensive, or as an offensive manuever. And then changing the mask to bring the tip of the nosepiece on the mask and bringing it well down to the point of her nose, like Batman's y'know? That immediately made her more predatory looking. And then I emphasized the shapes around the eyes, too, which gives her more intensity, again that predatory, almost hawk-like structure, from certain angles. That adds to that vampiric quality as well.
That leads to her skin tone. One of the things that didn't work well with the character as well was one of the things we were dealing with an extreme color palette of red and black, which were two bold choices that oppose each other, really. But then they gave her this skin tone that was a traditional fleshy tone. It seemed like it was fighting with the powerfulness of that palette, when she's in costume. So one of the things was my first thought was that her skin should be really pale, like a real redhead's skin. I've seen redhead skin from friends, they're practically like porcelain. So we removed a lot of the color out of the skin and punched up the lips, and that immediately solidified her palette in a way -- it made the red and the black really stand out in a really subliminal, subtle way and I think that kind of immediately gave the character a much more iconic color structure. That combination, along with the physical changes, I think was pretty effective.
Nrama: As far as looking at characters when they're not necessarily in costume -- for example, I know Kate had a pretty dramatic change for her civilian outfits as well. When you're not dealing with people who are running on rooftops, how are you approaching sort of character design, fashion and that sort of thing when the utility isn't quite as pronounced?
Williams: With Kate Kane, one of the things that Greg wanted to change right away, her first appearances, when she didn't have her mask on, her hair was the same when she did have her mask on. So one of the htings that really annoyed him, someone who was an ex-military background isn't really going to use longish hair in a combat situation. So he made it short. But DC, of course, was like, "you know, we've already established the look of this character. We need her to have long hair." So we came up with a compromise: When she's in uniform, she wears a wig, much in the same way that Clark Kent uses glasses. It's a simple switch, even though her in her civilian life she's got red hair, in her civilian life its cut short. But I didn't want it to be a traditional short haircut, either -- her being a lesbian, I didn't want to do something that was stereotypical of what people might think when they think of a lesbian woman having short hair. I wanted to have something that would be graphic and have very clean, angular lines to the cut, which has an influence on how her clothing comes across, actually.
So her clothing is actually a mish-mash of things -- I kind of picture her as we all live our lives, she's supposed to be 29, 30, so she's been around awhile, and as we all do at that point... we're all kind of the combination of all the things we've experienced in our life. And that effects everything down to what we wear. Some people tend to kind of make, it's kind of like their modern self is a presentation of a combination all these things they've experienced and been interested in, in a lot of ways. So I say, how can we do this to an extreme? This is a person who has money, she's into counterculture, she's into rock-and-roll, and that sort of thing.
And when you look at the fashion statements that, say, rock musicians have -- somebody like Gwen Stefani is a great example. She's a pop star, and a rock star, she's all over the place fashion-wise. A lot of times, she'll have this mix-mash of all these different things going on, all in one outfit. And so I thought that it would be kind of appropriate to have Kate Kane have this person who now has money, but has varied experiences in her life, varied tastes and sensibilities coming together now. And in a sort of way, her sensibilities are the sorts of things I think about the way I draw, or there will be different influences coming into the way I draw, sometimes, things like that. I think what that did was give her civilian life, on a different visual level, more of a personality. Anything that you can do to give a character a distinct personality, but at the same time keep them grounded enough that you think they're someone you could run into, it's just going to strengthen that character, you know what I mean?
Nrama: As far as the architecture of your art, how are you approaching things? I'm not sure how you feel as far as reference photos or research materials go, but what are you using to get enough information to start up with your art?
Williams: The basics of it is trying to try to understand what the character is, and then going along from there. So you know, with Kate, I first said, okay, she's rich, but she comes from a varied background, she's into music, she's a creative person, she's open-minded, she's Jewish and has a passing interest in Jewish mysticism because of it, those kinds of things. Once you create that list, you can say, OK, what can we use to try to represent those kinds of things in visual terms? As far as the visual research for the characters themselves, as far as how they're drawn, I don't do any reference photos, I don't take any photos, I don't use any reference photos while working. The only time I'll use something is if I need to draw a particular gun, or a particular car, or some sort of object that I'm not going to automatically know those details inside my head. I'll get reference for that, but I'll purposefully try to draw the object at angles I can't necessarily see in the reference. So it becomes more of an imagination of the reference material, for that gun, or whatever, or car. Once I have a grasp of how I really want to handle that particular object, then the reference goes away.
Nrama: How about as far as tools go? What are you using when you're working on a page? Are you using pen and ink, digital -- what are you using as far as hand tools, and why?
Williams: I kind of like very early on trying to draw using the tools that you were supposed to use -- but I found, and I don't know what it is about me, I tend to find things for the average artist and average person out there, the "official" thing to use, I've found very problematic to use, for reasons I really can't provide or put a finger on. I kind of had to adapt over time. I pretty much use whatever it takes to get the end result. Barring very heavy digital work -- on occasion, I'll use very heavy digital work, or a combination of hand-drawn stuff because I'm trying to get some sort of effect that there's no other way to do it. Once people see the cover to Absolute Promethea Vol. 3, there was no other way to do it other than digital composites. But for the most part, I try to keep things as much true on the boards as possible -- of course, what that means is things take longer than people would like. (Chuckles)
I would rather practice and keep the practice of doing things by hand. I use ink, brushes, I use washes, I use copic markers, I use pencils, sometimes I'll actually use actual paint in different spots because I want a different look than if it was digitally colored. Stuff like that. So I just kind of, it's a whole gamut of things. It's all based on, ultimately the reasons are to get something different, a different look out of things than what we typically see, and it kind of keeps a feeling of creativity there, because it becomes the exploration at that point, because you're never quite sure how it's going to work. If things don't work out the way I would have hoped, and I'm using tools that aren't normal, or if I'm doing a painted portion or whatever, I keep working at it until I get it to an approximation of what I would hope it would be. It's almost a fine art sort of approach to it, and kind of seeing what the end results can turn into.
Nrama: You were mentioning earlier about the limitations of color, particularly with Chase and Chase One Million. On your perspective, how has color changed over the years? I know you've worked a lot with Dave Stewart... how do you feel color plays a role in what you do?
Williams: Essentially, when designing stuff, drawing, even in the earliest days, I couldn't help but think about things in color. It's not because I like something that's a great black and white piece, but if I know it's going to be published in color, I can't help but think about how that color might be applied. And as far as how color has changed and had a huge impact on my work, earlier in my career when the limitations of color and how it was used on a technical level it definitely made a difference. Back then it was all about how this scene, the mood that I'm trying to create is a certain mood, so as an example, so maybe this scene needs to be all in blue, or to have a blue hue to all the colors that are in there.
It was a very simplistic style of thinking, but it was all about the color, what the scene is, and so now, it's kind of that same idea, taken much further, because the growth in technology in color for comics is just exponential from what it used to be. There aren't many limits now, and that's opened up a lot of horizons for what can be done on the page stylistically, which can influence the design to some degree as well. That became a big part of as we worked on Promethea, we were able to push more things further and further -- that became more evident on Desolation Jones, and then stepping onto Seven Soldiers and eventually Batwoman, the realization of what we could do kept growing, which immediately informed the design of the style interplay and how the color can affect the style interplay.
When you balance the Batwoman scenes versus the Kate Kane scenes, the Kate Kane scenes I knew, I said, "okay, let's draw this so it's all open, clean lines." Because on a subliminal level, I wanted to see that there were no shadows in Kate Kane's civilian life, for who she is as a person. She knows who she is, she has no qualms or quibbles or second-guessing who she is, particularly being a lesbian, so I wanted to make that subliminally clear to the audience. So we drew in this open, clean line, and the color played a role in that by using this very bold graphic flat color choices. And to balance it out, where color has been able to bring to the table, with the Batwoman scenes, I was able to use washes, full rendering tonal pieces and stuff like that, that could be in turn colored to have this very kind of painterly sort of feel to it. I don't think that sort of thing could have been done very well 10 years ago without it being a full-on color painting done on a board.
And so the way that it informs design, it allows us to have this balance, it allows us to have this completely otherworldly feel in comparison to Kate Kane's life, and to have this murkiness and this bit of a richness to it. It's her Batwoman life where she's still trying to find her way, because it's an abnormal life in comparison to just being who she is. That's a really good way to show how the changes in technology with color have been able to inform the style and design of a book. Even taking those two styles, taking the page construction out of it, just those two styles alone become design sets because of the colors we can put on top of that.
Nrama: Now, I know you've been inking your stuff for awhile now. What are the sorts of gears you have to shift as far as moving from "pencil mode" to "ink mode," if at all?
Williams: I don't really pencil anymore -- I kind of do layouts right on the board... I have this idea of what I want to do, and I just construct it right on the board using non-photo blue pencils. It's a very, very loose, almost like a layout kind of drawing, and then I tighten everything else up with ink. Comparing it from when I did full-on pencilling, I wanted the work to look like "me" as much as possible, so when I was pencilling, it was extremely tight pencils. It kind of got to the point where, I'm doing all this work in pencil, and some of those pencils, if all the blacks were filled in in pencil, and if you did a photocopy of it, it would look inked already. So I was just thinking, I might as well just switch tools, essentially. What that brought to the table for me was it brought me more freedom of being able to switch styles more rapidly and confidently, instead of, in one panel, trying to do something really clean and move to the next panel that I wanted really scratchy, that would have been impossible to do in just pure pencil and have someone ink it, to translate it.
So it's kind of making my own work now, rather than being just a penciller, has really kind of given me a freedom of creative transformation on the page, where I can see where I can just randomly change styles at will and not have to think about how it's going to be picked up. The tricky part for me is how to switch tools, I'm not nearly as good of an inker in terms of doing clean linework as the inker I used to work with -- I've kind of come to terms with that, and so there's little things here and there that bother me, so I have to be aware and keep an eye out there. And the fact that I don't fully pencil everything, mistakes can be made, and making a mistake in ink means, it's there. So I basically have to go in and figure out how to get rid of the mistake, or make the mistake not a mistake anymore by altering the drawing somehow. So it's a little bit of a stressful situation in that regard, but I'd rather deal with that and keep that sense of being able to deal with that freedom to just change techniques at will, such as using the rendered tones and things like that, I wouldn't be able to do that nearly as much working with an inker as much as I can now.
Nrama: With that in mind, I know Batwoman was one of the more recent examples of switching up styles -- how did you end up turning that on and off, mentally?
Williams: It's pretty easy, actually, because it's all based on scene construction. Knowing the parameters of the scene and knowing the rules that I've set up, I can easily go from a Batwoman scene to a Kate Kane scene, and actually find ways, if it's at all possible, to have the scene transition on the same page from one character to the other, I can find ways to make that seem like it's changing in front of your eyes in a way. I find that to be pretty easy. Essentially it's one of those things, you can kind of take the style and apply them to different sequences with confidence that it's going to work. Using those styles evokes something different out of the scene.
Nrama: While you're drawing now, what do you think are the big challenges, the big difficulties are for you now, and how do you beat them?
Williams: I'd say my biggest difficulty is not being fast enough. But at this point, there's just no way for me to beat that. (Laughs) I'd just say that the other difficulty is one of those things I don't know if I'm beating it or not until I see the end results and see if it works, but it has to do with the experimentation part, the switching up of styles, and making sure that's working as it should. It's one of those things you don't know how effective it is until you finish reading the finished product. That's one of the biggest challenges I think is walking that line of experimentation. But at the same time, experimentation isn't always going to work -- I liken it to the frame of mind of constantly learning stuff. If it doesn't work, then I'm like, well it was worth a try, and hopefully I'll do it better next time I come across that idea.
Nrama: I know you're going behind the keyboard with Batwoman coming up, and I wanted to ask what kinds of lessons you've taken from wielding a pen versus writing the script itself? Has there been anything that's transitioned for this new role for you?
Williams: I've written a little bit in the past, like on Chase, small things here and there, so it's not that new of a role to me. But I guess the big thing is I'm hoping I've learned a lot since then, from working with the writers I've had the luxury of working with. Some of the best in the business, and so one of the biggest challenging things of that is making sure -- well, I don't want to be one of those artists who ends up taking over, writing for themselves, and it ends up turning into one splash page after another, that sort of thing.
I stay focused on making sure that it is a good story first, before trying to come up with the most visual impact. I'd rather just put my hat on as a writer and storyteller while working on the script and the plot material and not worry too much about the visuals, unless the visuals come to me while I'm writing, and then I can put them into the script. That way, the end result is a solid story and solid script that I would expect to get from an A-list writer myself to draw. That's kind of interesting -- switching back and forth can be kind of tough, because it's definitely added work, and time constraints -- some days I have to put the drawing tools down and focus on working on half of a script, or working on a second draft or third draft, things like that.
Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to break into the industry as an artist, what don't they know that you think they should?
Williams: I think this goes back to the diligence and persistence thing. I think it's actually two things: First the persistence thing. I think a lot of them don't understand that they have to be willing to harass those editors. And there's ways to do it that you don't come across as a jackass, you're cordial and very businesslike, but you're constantly pinging them. If you send a portfolio to an editor at a con or elsewhere, and they say they like what they see, the first thing you need to do is get a business card.
If they're willing to give you a business card, then it's likely that they're serious, and not just blowing smoke. If you get that business card, then you have to harass them. When I first broke in, those 80 phone calls, I basically did this top-down scenario, where I called, didn't hear anything for two weeks. I said, OK, that's a long time. So I call again. I don't hear anything for a week. And then I call again. And then I just whittle it down, so the last phone calls I'm calling pretty much every other day. (Chuckles) Basically saying, "hey, remember me!" If you have email, you can drop them an email, but it's better if you can drop them a phone call then just an email, although I would recommend doing both if you have both their contacts. But the thing about email is that it is constantly ignored, where a message machine isn't quite as ignored. They're hearing a human voice on the machine waiting for them, so they have to listen to it. Most likely. It's really kind of diligence thing.
A lot of things I see with artists today -- and this doesn't apply to everyone -- there's so many artists today that draw from comics. If they want to do comics, they should know comics, certainly, they should have influences from comics that they like better than others, certain artists and writers they like better than others or have an influence on them, but that shouldn't be the end-all, be-all. There will be artists out there who ask me to look at their portfolio, and I'll ask them this question: Where are you learning your art skills from? I hate to say this, about 85 percent of them say, "I read comics, and I draw from the comics, and stuff like that." And I'm like, "no." That's great that you're able to draw from comics, but you need to be able to draw real things, draw real life objects, and understand what things look like before you can apply that to any stylized kind of drawing. So I say there's a good number of artists out there, or at least artists that are trying to break into comics -- they're focused on wanting to draw comics, so they're going to draw like these comic book artists. It's better taking life drawing classes and learning proper anatomy and learning how objects move and what shadows look like and all that stuff.
Batwoman #0 is scheduled to ship November 24, 2010 from DC Comics.