Wednesday, June 16, 2010

R.I.P. AL WILLIAMSON

Al Williamson has died.
He'd worked in comics since the 1940s. He became part of the legendary EC comics stable. His longevity has meant that he has had an impact on many generations. I became aware of him when he did the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980:
Back then I could instinctively tell that this artwork was superior to other stuff being published. It’s classical style clicked with me, and coupled with the excitement about a new Star Wars, it was irresistible.

Williamson drew some of the spin-off Star Wars comics Marvel published too. This is from 1981, issue 50:

He’d been well known for his work on Flash Gordon in the 1960s, taking over the character drawn by Alex Raymond – himself a big influence on the young Williamson. The Flash Gordon movie of 1980 certainly had a different tone than the comics, but the adaptation was handed over to Williamson to draw, a choice which delighted fans:

I first saw Blade Runner on video in 1983 and was excited about a new film with Han Solo in it. However I quickly grew tired of it and went off to play with my cousins instead. A couple of years later Return of the Jedi Weekly in the UK began running Williamson’s Blade Runner adaptation as a back up strip. Wow – what artwork once again by this guy. I had to see the film again to re-evaluate it. The comic is beautiful:

By 1983 Return of the Jedi was ready to come out. The comic was advertised showing parts of Williamson’s artwork. It’s dynamite:

So he’d done Empire and Jedi, but not the first movie. If only he could have a go at adapting the original Star Wars, I thought to myself. There was another Star Wars comic by Williamson in Star Wars issue 98 in 1985. Bonus greatness:

I got my first taste of Williamson’s original Flash Gordon work in one of the Alan Class UK black and white collections. These were little treasure troves with plenty of prime Ditko, Kirby and other great little stories from the 50s and 60s. But what did I spot in the newsagent one day in the mid 80s? An Amazing Stories of Suspense cover featuring Flash Gordon which was unmistakably by Williamson:

An Art of Al Williamson book was released in 1983. I finally got a hold of it years later. It contained something I didn’t know had existed. Previously unpublished Star Wars strips drawn in 1978 chronicling the first movie:

After the Empire adaptation, Williamson got the job of doing the Star Wars newspaper strips. I cut a bunch of them out of a huge pile of Sunday Express magazines that were sat in the back on my biology classroom in the late 80s. They really are beautiful:










In the early 90s, Dark Horse Comics re-jigged and reprinted the strips, editing them so as to fit a standard comic book format, with Williamson expanding on his artwork and sometimes drawing entirely new pictures. So, for instance, the preceding Sunday strip became a two pager:















Another reprint came in 1992. Excellent EC work by Williamson - The Sound of Thunder from 1954:

















Beginning in the late 80s Williamson put more time into inking comics. He made everybody he inked look better. Williamson’s work with John Romita JR. on Daredevil is generally regarded to be the latter’s best:













In 1995 Marvel put out a new Flash Gordon two part series by Williamson. Great stuff once again:














The last published new work by Williamson that I’m aware of was a Sub-Mariner story from last year:













Great to see those evocative lines in the sea background, and lithe figure work too.
Another strip he drew for many years was Secret Agent Corrigan, which is all going to be collected soon. Here’s a nice moody three panel sequence:






I’ve picked up other Williamson comics over the years. As much as I could growing up in a town without a comic shop.
Here’s a nice page from Alien Worlds in 1984:

















There have been many more books on Williamson since The Art of... in 1983:







































There has also been a collection of all his Flash Gordon work which looks tremendous. I’ve mock-complained with my friends that every time I turn around, someone else has brought out a book on Al Williamson! Didn’t stop me buying and enjoying them though…

I had just ordered The Al Williamson Archives which is due out in September. It’ll be a bittersweet experience looking through it now.



















For many years my admiration of Williamson was such that I thought the best word to describe his work was “impossible”. How could anyone draw entire comic books to that standard? It just seemed impossibly good. As I got older I realised that it came down to bloody hard work. Williamson didn’t have a magic paintbrush that produced this stuff, he had talent and had to sit down and put the hours in to make it all look so good.
I was paralysed in my own drawing by Williamson. For a long time, I thought I had to measure myself against him. I could never reach that level (no-one did), so I was stuck. I finally had to throw him away completely from my thinking when drawing my own stuff, which finally liberated me.
Now I’m free to enjoy and marvel at the beautiful artwork that is still there on the page.

Thank you, Al Williamson.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for a wonderful retrospective on Al Williamson. I was reminded of the wonder when my cousin gave me the Marvel Super Special edition of The Empire Strikes Back. And the beauty, the delight of Marvel's issue fifty, to see his work again. He is remembered fondly.

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  2. Thanks, Matt. I put a lot of work into choosing, scanning and writing about the art. His comics are worth the effort.

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