For J.H. Williams III, 2013 has been a year of momentous highs and dark lows. In October the first issue of Sandman: Overture hit shelves, a collaboration between him and writer Neil Gaiman. But just one month prior, with heavy heart, he announced his that he and co-writer Haden Blackman were leaving their run on DC’s Batwoman after nearly five years of work on the character going back to his start in Detective Comics.
Despite the sour note it ended on, Batwoman can be regarded as a pinnacle of Williams’ career so far, with him both writing and illustrating the character’s story and expanding his reach from that of a comics artist to a fully formed writer/artist. In the wake of his sudden departure from Batwoman Williams is caught up in the production of Sandman: Overture, but the artist who’s collaborated with names the likes of Moore, Morrison, Ellis, Rucka is already eyeing his next career move: creator-owned.
Newsarama spoke with J.H. Williams III about this liminal period for the writer/artist, discussing Sandman: Overture and its unforeseen delays, along with Williams’ intentions for his career moving forward. In this expansive interview, Williams talks about his ideas for creator-owned comics as well as planned forays into illustration and fine art.
Newsarama: Thanks for doing this, Jim. Let’s ease into the interview --- we’re doing this in the evening hours, so what have you been working on today and what do you have on your plate for tomorrow?
J.H. Williams III: I’m working on Sandman: Overture #2, and I’ll be working on that some more tomorrow. I'm doing some tonal work on one of the pages right now.
Nrama: You’re currently riding high after the release of Sandman: Overture #1 which came out in October, which is quite a shift from the superhero work you’ve been doing for the past few years and into some old school science fiction / fantasy. How’s the experience been so far for you?
Williams: Neil and I were both extremely nervous and trepidatious about working on this project. Neil was more nervous than he really needed to be. He does stellar work, but I understand his position; he’s coming back to something he hadn’t touched in quite some time.
For me, I was nervous and trepidatious because I understand fully well what the legacy of Sandman is. For me, my goal was to visually say something in conjunction with Neil’s story that is relevant, not just to today but in the long term, for Sandman readers. That sort of thing can be a bit nerve-racking, so when the first issue came out and had a relatively positive response overall it felt really gratifying. At the same time however, it made us more nervous because we were thinking about #2. [laughs]
It’ll be that way all the way down the line.
Nrama: You and Neil did a big panel at San Diego earlier this year. Have you found the fanbase for Sandman different than that for Batwoman and your earlier work?
Williams: I don’t really see much of a difference honestly. In the experience I’ve had, the readership that my work gravitates towards, I can’t really see a specific difference between a book’s audience and their enthusiasm; just a general overall excitement for the work.
Nrama: DC announced some unfortunate news recently, that the series will be experiencing some delays due to Neil finishing some scripts late. I was sad to hear that, but impressed Gaiman stepped up and explained it was his doing. Where does that leave you though, in terms of work to do between #1 and #2?
Williams: I kind of just bided my time; I wasn’t sure of how big a gap it was going to be. By the time I was done with issue 1, I took a min-vacation and did some stuff around the house; things like that. I also did some painting work as well.
As far as Neil stepping up to sort of take the blame in a way, I feel like it wasn’t necessarily fair for him to do that; more so it was the way the book had been scheduled. I feel like in some ways if Sandman: Overture hadn’t been solicited for when it was, we would have had more lead-time to avoid this. But at the same time we all wanted the audience to look at it.
At the end of the day, I think Sandman: Overture is a pretty special project, and Neil’s writing it. It shouldn’t matter how long it takes as long as the end result is worth it. Ultimately for me, I think the end result is the most important thing.
Nrama: You recently posted some illustration studies you’ve done for Sandman on your blog, and mentioned talk of an art show at some point. Can you pull the curtain back and tell us about those plans?
Williams: It’s a pretty strong idea, and I’m pretty sure we have a firm way to handle it. There’s no time stamp or venue set up yet, but the idea of exhibiting the comics pages for an entire series is pretty intriguing for us. I don’t know if it’s ever been done. That’s probably what the plan will turn out to be, and I think it’s a relatively new idea.
Nrama: Stepping back a little bit, this latter half of 2013 seems like a major transition period for you. You’re coming off a five year stint working on Batwoman, and you’re doing this high-profile Sandman book with Neil Gaiman… but after that the future is pretty wide open to you. From the way it played out online, it seemed like the decision to leave Batwoman was sudden, so how does it change your plans for yourself for the winter and 2014?
Williams: It changes in some ways, and in some ways it doesn't. Haden Blackman and I always intended to keep working on Batwoman while I illustrated Sandman: Overture, juggling both projects, so with Batwoman not happening anymore some new ideas may take that place. But at the same time, Sandman: Overture has become my primary focus as far as time is concerned. Inadvertently it’s become kind of nice because leaving Batwoman freed me up to give more time and attention toSandman: Overture, but actually before we left Batwoman I was getting ready to stop doing covers because of concerns about doing the art for Sandman: Overture. Doing artwork takes a long time as it is, but Sandman: Overture is exponentially more; I equate it to working on Promethea in terms of intensity.
Nrama: Everyone’s noticed the increased detail.
Williams: It seems like with every project I take on I’m looking for ways to improve the work, and sometimes I guess maybe it ends up being in detail, clarifying detail. I’m always looking for ways to move the artwork forward; to move the quality forward. I just don’t want to stay in the same place. And that perspective may reveal itself in various ways from project to project, or just from issue to issue.
Nrama: And addition to the innovations with your art style, writing is something you’ve also been consciously evolving. In addition to Batwoman, you’ve been doing more writing with the daily prose nuggets on your own website last year. And when I talked with you in 2010 at Robot 6 you said you and Haden had some of your own ideas for creator-owned work. With your schedule opening up, are you considering pursuing that more seriously?
Williams: I certainly hope so. But it's hard to say that the schedule has opened up more, something always needs to be done. It’s funny; even with the Batwoman writing schedule unfortunately out of the picture, I’m still finding difficulty to track down the right amounts of time to focus on extra writing because I want to make sure Sandman: Overture is as strong as I can possibly make it.
I definitely have hopes for future stuff like creator-owned comics and some other things, but I also don’t want to rush any decisions in that area. That way when the project finally materializes, it’s the right project to be doing. But I have been thinking about some ideas to see what the options are for the future.
Nrama: It sounds like you’re holding off on committing yourself to any one thing until after Sandman: Overture is complete.
Williams: Pretty much. I may take on some stuff intermittently as my schedule allows, but I’m not necessarily scheduling any major projects until Sandman: Overture ends; especially for a project in which I’d be doing the artwork, as there’d be no way for me to do both at the same time. But I'm open to the possibilities of doing stuff. Writing, drawing, and possibly doing some prose work and fine art as well.
Nrama: Speaking of showing Sandman: Overture in an art gallery setting, can you talk about your interest in doing more work for the fine art audience, and what the difference is in terms of you doing it?
Williams: I think it's a very different way of expressing things from comics work, or from writing. It's even different than cover illustration as well. For me the fine art stuff is all about the emotional idea rather than the literal idea. Not to say fine art cannot be very literal, of course it can be. But even in that there is an emotional response it is looking for in a much different way than page-by-page storytelling. What intrigues me the most is that sometimes while working on pieces, it is also a search for emotional resonance in one's self. Sometimes it's journey you're on to find that, and sometimes you're not even sure what it is about right away.
Nrama: Getting back to comics, it seems Big Two creators have increasingly began stretching their legs into creator-owned work, especially artists who can’t really do both work-for-hire and creator-owned books simultaneously. I don’t know which comic creators you’re friends with in the industry, but have you talked any of the creators having success in creator-owned , testing the waters?
Williams: Yeah, I’ve had conversations with various people. I see the success stories being reported on creator-owned title launches recently, and it’s great that these books are truly performing well; and the creators seem satisfied from what I can tell. As far as my opinion on creator-owned work in general, I believe that’s where you can carve out a solid future for yourself. Nothing against Marvel or DC or work-for-hire, as it’s a good way for people to get things going. But I think the ultimate goal should be finding ways to move towards working on material you know is yours, and if you can make that work it’s fantastic. It’s a smart way to go, and from the people I’ve talked to it seems like its worked out for lots of folks. I think the audience they’re finding is increasing from what I can see.
Nrama: Let me ask you this – if you could gauge the chances of you doing creator-owned comics after Sandman: Overture, what would it be? A small chance, a big chance, what?
Williams: Chances are extremely high you’ll be seeing me do creator-owned comics after Sandman: Overture. I just think that’s where I need to focus my time. I’ve done a lot of work for DC in general and a little bit for Marvel, but as far as devoting a lot of energy in my future I think creator-owned is probably the answer for me. I have stories I want to tell, and creator-owned looks to be a stronger venue for doing what I want to do.
Nrama: Can you talk at all about ideas you have for creator-owned work? What kind of stories are you wanting to tell?
Williams: That is a tough question. I'm interested in all types of genre for certain. But the main thing I want to see in the work is meaning and dimensionality. That readers felt like they got something relevant, or emotionally connecting for them by the time all is done. Without that, I see no point to doing any of it.
Nrama: And you’re also pushing out to prose and fine art, as you mentioned earlier.
Williams: Right. I’m looking at opening up avenues to do fine art pieces as well, as I want to get a lot more into creating fully painted pieces not necessarily connected to comics. Over the last year or so I’ve managed to expand my horizons in terms of what kind of creativity people expect from me. I have writing things I want to do, both exploring comics as well as prose. I’ve managed to do some artwork for musicians like the Sword and Blondie, and little things here and there.
I’m trying to stretch myself out and explore different avenues and see where that goes. I’m going to continue to try to push into new territories as much as possible. I’ve been talking to various people who feel like they could see me expanding myself into fine art territories.
Nrama: I think people would certainly welcome that, as well as you doing an art book.
Williams: Thanks. It’s just a matter of finding the appropriate material. I’ve talked to a couple publishers about that, and it’s just a matter of me finding time to concentrate and gather the material. It’s all pretty much left in my hands. I’d be particularly interested in doing it if I’m able to show off my art not just in comics but other things I like to do. It’d be pretty cool to show the artwork I’ve done for music projects, as well as fine art, in combination with things from comics.
Nrama: Seeing as you are always pushing to improve your work, how do you look on your older work? Can you look at it and give it a fair shake, or are you dismissive of your earlier work?
Williams: It really depends on the mood I'm in when looking at it I think. Sometimes I can look back and see something I like about it, maybe even things I like more than my current work. Other times I can loathe it. But I even go through that up and down with my current works. I don't think I'm fully capable of being consistently clear on my feelings about my work at any given time.
Nrama: I can’t go without asking you about Batwoman; you’ve had some time since you publicly stepped away from it, and the dust has settled a little bit.
Five years on Batwoman is a big thing; almost as long as your run on Promethea, but unlike that with Batwoman you were both writing and drawing a majority of it. With the good and the bad, how do you feel the experience and the process of doing it all has changed you?
Williams: I think it’s changed me in a very positive way even though unfortunately Batwoman ended on a sour note for Haden and I. It was a positive experience overall, and I don’t think we would have said no in doing it initially even if we knew it might not have ended well. It was a worthwhile journey to take, regardless of what the final outcome became.
One thing though, it made me tired because of the schedule. [laughs] It was pretty daunting, but it was an entertaining and learning experience. Doing what I did flexed different creative muscles, as I was writing scripts and thinking of plot directions; figuring out what the characters were thinking. It was a great learning experience, and one that I hope to continue through other projects in the future. I’ve always kind of felt like I was a storyteller and not just an artist, but working on Batwoman for such an extended time showed me that to be a storyteller you need to be telling stories, and that’s what I hope to do more in the future.
Nrama: Your departure from Batwoman was eye-opening for people, especially fellow creators. What kind of advice would you give for other creators who might be in similar situations?
Williams: I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I think it’s up to each individual and each individual’s personal situation. It’s hard to give solid advice on any of this, but I don’t regret any decisions I've made over the years. It's all a learning experience. The best thing for anyone who is a creative individual trying to carve out something for themselves is to stick to their guns. If it’s something they honestly feel very strongly about, you need to stick to that. Even in my earliest moments of my career, I had that mentality. If I wasn’t being offered what I needed in order to do a given project, then it paid off for me in the long run to pass on it in favor of finding the projects that were right for me. So I think the key thing is for creators to stick to their guns if they feel strongly; not to make choices out of fear of what might happen to their career. Operate with integrity, and it’ll work out.
Nrama: It’s been two months since you stepped away from Batwoman. Do you feel like you’ve been able to put it behind you mentally and move on?
Williams: It still sort of lingers, but I’m not fuming over stuff. I have to be able to set it aside on an emotional level, but I don’t think about it too much. Getting into conversations about it, and discussing my decision to leave and how it ended up being blown out of proportion, it sometimes stings. Batwoman was a project I deeply cared about, and it showed. Parts of it will always stick with me in a way, but I don't want to be wallowing over it. However, it was an important enough event, and the circumstances of how it ended and some of the fallout are going to stick with me for a while. But I’m glad a project like that can affect me in that way; it means I was working on something I felt had value… personal value, and value to others. It would be a sad affair if after two months – or even six months, or any measure of time – that I didn’t care about how events transpired, and I think that would say bad things about me as a creative individual. That’s not the case, and I’m glad that whenever I think about it has some emotional resonance.
Nrama: When we last talked in 2010, I asked you where you saw yourself in five years, so let’s end off with that question again – where do you see yourself in five years, in 2018?
Williams: Hopefully by 2018 I’ll be fully immersed in creating my own stories and original concepts, and I’ve found an audience where I can continue to do that sort of thing. I hope at some point by then I’ve written some significant prose work – either self-published or through a publisher. I think the trajectory I’m on is pretty clear to me; I just hope by 2018 I am still on that path and not derailed somehow. One thing I think that has changed my view is becoming much more interested in exploring the fine art world. I’ve always loosely thought about it in the back of my mind and I've done work on paintings in the past, but I never thought of it as a concrete possibility until recently. Maybe now is the time.