Al Williamson is one of the unsung greats of comics art. Well, perhaps “undersung” is a better word (if it is a word), in that those aware of his contributions are usually great admirers, but his work is not as widely known among contemporary comics readers as it should be (not by a long shot).
Williamson occupies a unique place in the history of comics, acting as a kind of bridge between the dazzling full page newspaper adventure comics of the early 20th Century (and the traditions of the great 19th Century pen and ink illustrators that they embodied) and the modern comics upheaval and revolutions of the late 20th Century.
At the early stages of his career, Williamson fell smack in the middle, going to work for the notorious EC comics in 1952, where he was the youngster amid legendary comics greats like Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Wally Wood and others. His striking science fiction work graced the pages and covers of EC titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, and influenced the generations of comic artists who were growing up at the time, goggle-eyed with flashlights under the covers, reading his lavishly illustrated tales of outer space adventures and outlandish monsters.
Prior to his work with EC, Williamson studied with Burne Hogarth, and assisted him on pages for his Tarzan Sunday newspaper strip. Newspaper adventure comics were dying at the time, however, under pressure from other forms of entertainment and economic squeezing from newspaper editors, and what would have seemed Williamson’s natural place became something of a dead end.
Though he worked within the increasingly restrictive format of small daily adventure news paper strips off and on for years, he also moved into comic books, where adventure comics went and morphed into something different in the middle of the century, and he followed them into the latter half of the century, working for the Warren comics magazines (image above, 2nd from top) and Marvel Comics in its heyday, where he was known in particular for his work on a series of Star Wars comics.
All the while he carried forward his love for the great adventure comics, and especially his admiration for the work of Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, and one of the all time greats of comics art (more on Alex Raymond in a future post).
Williamson had a chance to step into Raymond’s considerably large shoes on several occasions, taking over his spy adventure newspaper strip Secret Agent X-9, which became Secret Agent Corrigan and moved from film-noir to James Bond style adventures (image above, bottom and detail), ably scripted by Archie Goodwin. He also assisted John Prentice, who took the reins of Raymond’s Rip Kirby strip.
Williamson worked on several versions of Raymond’s star character Flash Gordon (image above, top), the strip that had obviously been such and influence on him, from the amazing King Comics version in the 1960’s to the Marvel Comics version in the ’90s (more on Williamson’s Flash Gordon work in a subsequent post).
Unfortunately, though there are scattered resources, I can’t find a major repository of Williamson’s work in the web, so it’s hard to convey the grace of his figures, the elegance of his pen lines, the chiaroscuro drama of his spotted blacks, the dynamics of his compositions or the ground breaking inventiveness of his storytelling and panel layouts. I also can’t lead you directly to great examples of his astonishingly rendered details, applied with a delicate finesse that never leaves the impression of gratuitous unnecessary fiddling, unlike so many lesser artists whose grasp of the use of pen and ink textures will never approach Williamson’s.
The only thing I can supply, apart from those resources I can list, is a hearty recommendation that those of you with any appreciation for great adventure comics art, or graphic stories told with superb draftsmanship and a subtle command of the visual language of the great pen and ink illustrators, who are not yet familiar with Williamson, treat yourself to one of the many printed collections available that feature his work.
There is a recent book collecting some of his short story work, titled Al Williamson Adventures, from Insight Studios (more here). The limited edition hardcover has apparently come and gone, and I’m unsure of the status of the softcover edition (if it’s out, Insight needs to promote it better, I couldn’t even find mention of it on their web site.)
Fortunately, there is a great new collection from Flesk Publications, Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic. This book is so terrific I’m going to make it the topic of a separate post.