J.H. WILLIAMS III

 

J.H. Williams III is a professional illustrator who has worked on a wide range of titles from DC and Marvel, including his co-created title (with D. Curtis Johnson) Chase and fill-in issues of Batman and X-Men among others. Along with art partner Mick Gray, J.H. is currently working on Promethea for ABC comics with writer and co-creator Alan Moore (2000 Eisner winner for Best Writer).

With the Promethea: Book One hardcover coming out, I thought I’d interrupt J.H. just long enough to catch his attention, but hopefully not long enough to cause a delay for the next issue of Promethea.

Wacky hi-jinks ensue.

The Slush Factory presents:
20 Questions with: J.H. Williams III

Interview Conducted By
Ed Mathews

 


 

1) What was your first work in comics and what was Alternative Existence #32?  Where can a JH Williams III fan go searching for that pin-up you mentioned in Chase #1? 

Actually it is Alternate Existence #2.  It was a very independent publication and I have no idea where someone would find one and not that they should try because my pin-ups really weren't very good.

2) How did you and Alan Moore hook up to create Promethea?  Did he approach you and Mick Gray, or did you pitch and someone suggest you to Moore?

I was introduced to work with Alan by Scott Dunbier from Wildstorm. Scott in turn was shown my work from Alex Ross, which completely surprised me because I had no idea that Alex was familiar with my work.  When Scott first approached me for Promethea he had said that actually I wasn't the first choice for the project.  He originally wanted someone who had a bigger name and fan base draw, but for some reason none of the other people could do the project for whatever reasons.  So Scott took Alex's advice and had me put together a large packet of my work for Alan to look at.  Alan looked it over and said this is the guy.  Needless to say I was ecstatic. I never thought in all my time as a fan and professional of comics that I would work with Alan Moore.  I feel that Promethea has become, for several reasons, the most important project I have worked on to date.

3) A common theme in your titles is strong, independent women. In Chase, Cameron Chase is quite the thinker, Promethea manages to really convey strength, and even Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Wonder Woman in Son of Superman are portrayed as incredibly strong through your visuals.  Is this a goal or is this just how the characters happen to "speak" to you before drawing them?

Both actually.  I do intentionally portray female characters strongly and as realistically as possible because I believe that they deserve to be treated as such.  I can't think of anything I hate more than female characters that are treated as bimbos or airheads or purely sexualized. So when I work on projects I try to look for the strengths of the female characters. There is definitely not enough of this type of thinking in comics today and that needs to change.  I mean, how can we expect our female readership to grow if we don't treat female characters respectfully?

4) How long have you and Mick Gray been an art team?  Also, who came up with the idea of having fill-in artists do flashback sequences while you guys did the framing sequences?  It's a technique we've seen in Chase and in Promethea...

Mick and I have been working together since early 1995.  The first piece we actually did together was when I was working on Judge Dredd for DC.  I needed a Wondercon Judge Dredd program book piece inked and asked Mick to do it.  It came out perfect.  The best that I had seen from anybody else over my pencils.  So I convinced Mick that he needs to quit doing inking assists and ink over my stuff. I fought for him to be my inker with editors because I was very unhappy with the way other inkers handled my pencils.  I even turned down important gigs to prove my point of how much Mick was the right guy.  After a while we didn't need to fight for it anymore. It was accepted that we would be a team. 

As far as having different artists handle flashback stuff, D. Curtis Johnson and I both thought it would be a clever way to gain more lead-time.  So when we were running short on time we would place these flashback sequences into the story.  We wanted the change of artists to have a point instead of being just a random fill-in artist issue. To me this worked a lot more effectively than the way those situations usually play out.  So the change in look and style has purpose for the series as well as gain me time for the following issues. It also seemed to be more accepted by the readers to handle it that way as well. They understood that there was a point to it.  Alan seems to think in the same way.  He doesn't want random fill-in artists. He wants it to be a planned thing so it doesn’t interrupt the look and feel of the story without a reason.

5) The covers of Promethea all have a different theme, aside from the obvious "inside this issue." Would you mind talking about which one is your favorite and what the homage is?

First off I just want to say that Todd [Klein] is the main person responsible for the great cover ideas.  He suggests an idea to everyone and we go from there. He designs it all.  The main thing I want to see with the covers to Promethea is that we tribute them in some way to another artist or artistic style. I can't really say which is my favorite but if I was to choose one I think it would be the cover to #8.  You know the one that is thanking Terry Gilliam.  That cover is a nod to Terry's strange photographic animation sequences that he would do on Monty Python.  Those were absolutely brilliant. I also like the cover to #11 as well.  It’s like a movie poster for an old monster B-movie from the fifties.

6) What got you interested in comics? What is your inspiration?

Ha!  Toys actually.  When I was a kid I read some comics and would draw the characters out of them like Spiderman for example.  But I really didn't pay them much thought. You see I was really into these far out toys called Micronauts.  I was crazy for these toys.  So one day I’m in a 7-11 store looking at some comics and I come across Micronauts Comicbook #3 (I actually remember the issue number).  I couldn't believe it!!  I bought it without even looking at the interiors. 

When I got home and opened it up I was blown away by the visuals and the story.  That is when I actually realized that somebody drew these things.  The artist for the Micronauts was Michael Golden and his art was magnificent.  I quickly bought every Micronauts comic I could find.  I told some friends of mine about it and they said if I liked that I should look at this other comic called The Uncanny X-Men. That is when I discovered John Byrne.  He was completely different than Michael Golden’s style but just as captivating. Then my brother-in-law showed me Jack Kirby's Kamandi The Last Boy on Earth.  By then I was absolutely hooked and convinced that this is what I would do when I grew up.  I was going to become a comicbook artist and here I am doing just that!!

7) Aside from your own creations and co-creations, which character do you most identify with in comics?

You know, that is a very tough question for me.  Come to think of it I don't think I do identify with any one character.  But I really do identify with a lot of the autobiographical comics from the independent publishers. I can relate to the human qualities of these comics. I think everyone should be reading this stuff because they tend to provide some insight to humanity in many ways.  The way other people think and live and you can relate to it.  Someday, if possible, I would like to do a project like that. To study human nature in myself.  I also really like crime stories for some reason, as long as they are done well with complex characters.  Again I probably like these because of the very human element.  I’m a very big fan of Terry Moore's Strangers In Paradise.  That series really impresses me because the characters seem so real.  You feel like you are reading about somebody that Terry knows in real life. The characters and story make you laugh and make you cry.  And he is really good with the crime and intrigue elements of that story as well.

8) Now that you're an Eisner nominated artist working with an Eisner winning writer, do you think you can get DC to make a trade paperback of all the Chase issues?  It really was a great series that died before its time. :-)

Thanks for liking Chase. We put a lot of thought and heart into that work. Again here is that human element.  I would like to see a trade paperback of that stuff because ever since it was canceled the series has actually become more popular.  A lot of people are buying the issues out of back issue boxes.  I am constantly hearing from people who have just discovered the series and absolutely love it.  We are working on a new project with those characters, which I can't really go into just yet, so there might be the possibility of a trade paperback of the original series. I hope anyway.

9) Which artwork from among your contemporaries do you enjoy looking at?  Why?

Ooh, you would ask me this.  I don't want to forget anybody that I really like but there is no way I can list everyone either. I really like what José Villarubia does.  He wants to push the boundaries of comics with painting and digital photography.  Jae Lee's work is so impressive.  His work is very emotionally charged.  Same goes for Sean Phillips.  I'm also very into a lot of European artists as well.  Such as Moebius, Juan Gimenez,

Enki Bilal, Bess, Berthet, many many more.  I've also just recently picked up The Complete Little Nemo from Winsor McCay…astonishing.  All of this stuff is absolutely wonderful and inspirational.  They all have qualities that I admire and strive for in my own work.

10) Why did ABC decide to print the first six issues of Promethea as a hardcover instead of the first eight?  Wouldn't that have made more sense story wise, or is the origin not over yet?  What kind of extra material can we expect in the hardcover?

I agree that issue 8 would have been a better cut off point for the collection.  To be honest I'm not sure why it was decided to be only six issues in the collection.  Even though #8 would be a better place to cut it, it still isn't the end of Promethea's self-discovery.  She will probably be continuously discovering new things about herself.  It is a magical journey after all.  There will be a few extras in the hardcover. Not as much as I would have liked but it wasn't my decision.  The cover is a painting over my pencils by José Villarubia.  It looks beautiful.  The signature page will reproduce the pencils to that cover.  There will be a small section in the back for pieces that people haven't seen.  Also in that section is a reproduction of the pencils to cover number 6 without the color. I thought people might like to see that.

11) What is it like working with Alan Moore?  Seems like he can put out an awful lot of scripts out in a fairly short amount of time...

Yes, he can be quite fast when need be. I think he is probably at his most prolific right now in the amount of work he is doing.  He is an absolute dream to work with.  Even though his scripts are fairly complex and tight he is open to my interpretations of the imagery.  If I see something in a different way he allows me the freedom to do things the way I see them.  So the end result is a very collaborative effort.  He tends to prefer this as long as it doesn't destroy what he was trying to do.  I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Alan.  We have developed a very wonderful friendship and I feel he can teach me things about subjects that we have a similar interest in such as magic.  He is a very thoughtful, considerate and sweet man.

12) There is a cinematic quality to your work.  What is your favorite movie of all time and is Terry Gilliam involved? ;-)

To be honest I really don't have a favorite movie of all time. You know what? That isn't true. I feel silly right now for that first comment.  My favorite movie would have to be "The Day The Earth Stood Still". That is such an ingenious film for its time.  Not only for its effects but also for its story and message.  I love that movie.  I watch it over and over. But I must say I am truly a lover of Terry Gilliam's films as well.  Except for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."  There were some great moments but I feel it didn't really work as a film all that well.

13) We never got to see The Word in action in the pages of Chase, but his design cries out for more usage.  When you create characters like Cameron Chase or The Word, how much freedom does a company like DC have to use them?  Are they creator owned or are they squarely property of DC?

Unfortunately, in most cases they are squarely owned by the company. D. Curtis Johnson and I own equity in those characters.  So if the company ever does merchandise or license the use of the characters for film then we see some money.  So basically the company can do whatever they want to those characters and there is nothing we can do about it.  Which is unfortunate because they haven't been used all that well since the original series except for some Secret Files issues here and there written by D. Curtis Johnson.

14) Out of curiosity, when artists sell their original comic book art, how do hardcover reprints and the like get made?  How much of the original art belongs to the artists?  All the pages?

All of the art is owned by the artists but cannot be reprinted without the company's permission due to copyright of the characters. The way the company reproduces the material for collections is by having film shot of the art and kept on file.  I think most of this is done digitally now.

15) What genre of comic book would you like to work on that you haven't worked on yet?

Besides something of an autobiographical nature, a really down and dirty crime drama or an ethereal science fiction story in the tradition of Moebius and other European creators.

16) How long does it take for you to pencil an issue on average in order to maintain a monthly schedule?

Technically I can't do a monthly schedule.  Promethea actually comes out whenever an issue is ready.  I can pencil about a page a day. From what I understand that is fairly fast considering the amount of work I put into each page. The trick is to be diligent and disciplined, that way you can be consistent.  The main reason I can't do a monthly schedule without having some fill-in work in there is because after about 5 days of drawing I need to take a break for a couple of days so my eyes can rest.

You would be surprised by the amount of actual physical fatigue you acquire as well after drawing for a lengthy time.  This occurs probably because of the amount of highly focused energy and thinking involved in producing quality work on a page-by-page basis.  There are days that my head actually gets hot due to the amount of concentrated energy I’m putting into my work.  

Sometimes, on my time off, my wife Wendy notes that I’m not very cognizant. My brain is trying to recuperate.  I apologize to her because I know this drives her crazy.  Fortunately for me she is very understanding.  I try to work Monday through Friday with weekends off for painting or going to movies with my wife; spending time with Wendy is the most important thing to me.

17) Do you have any nightmare stories about conventions you'd like to share?

Actually no.  I love doing conventions and meeting followers of my work.  I’d say the toughest thing about cons are not being able to do a sketch for everyone who asks.  Sometimes its just not possible, especially in a busy, poorly lit (for drawing) convention hall.  I don't like to disappoint fans who really want to have an original sketch from me.  But at cons you get tired quickly so you end up having to tell people no.  Plus I like to look around and see what else is going on so I always a lot time for that. I am a fan myself you know.

18) When do we get to own a Promethea action figure?

Hopefully soon!!!  There has been some discussion on making one and a PVC set as well.  There also might be a t-shirt in the works.  In the meantime I recommend that Promethea fans check out the statue, which is due out in September.  It looks beautiful.  The sculptor (forgive me but I can't remember his name at the moment) [Tim Bruckner –ed.] did an amazing job.  It was done based on design drawings of mine.  But if you wish to get one, I would place an order immediately because they are manufacturing to order only.

19) Who do you picture as Promethea if they ever made it into a movie?  Who is the ideal Sophie?

If there were to be a movie, Promethea would be very difficult to figure out for casting.  She would definitely need to be someone ethnic, regal, and a very, very good actress.  At first I was thinking of Katherine Zeta Jones. But I don't think the looks would be quite right.  For Sophie it would definitely have to be Natalie Portman.  Give her slightly shorter hair and she would look just like Sophie.  And she is quite a good actress as well, which would be a must to pull off the character's complexities.

20) What do you think is needed in order for comics to reach out to the next generation of readers?

I'm not sure.  We definitely need a lot more promotion.  There is absolutely no promotion for comics outside of the industry.  This annoys me very much.  Especially when I see plenty of cross promotion ads in comics for music and video games.  I think the same could be done for comics in other forms of entertainment magazines.  I would think that would be a no-brainer.  If someone like DC were to do this then other publishers would probably follow.  Also comics need to be in more accessible places, not just comic shops.  

Don't get me wrong, comic shops are a great idea but comics have become too isolated in recent years.  Also we need to watch the price tags. I have heard from so many people that they would have tried out Chase right away if the book was $1.95 instead of $2.50. They wouldn’t have waited to hear about it from somebody else. That mere 55 cents made a lot of difference to a lot of comic buyers. The end result was slow sales and cancellation. There are a lot of choices for comic fans to make and only so much money to spend.  

The prices are my biggest concern at this very moment.  Also I think fans are interested in more self-contained stories or books instead having to commit to another ongoing series.  If you look at the way comics are packaged sold over in Europe you can see that they understand this.  I recently spoke to a European publisher who can sell a $15 56-page hardbound comic at 300,000 copies for its initial print run and then sell continuously 8,000 to 10,000 additional copies every month there after and this was a 15 year old book.  He explained to me that this is a typical example of all their publications to this day. This is because they understand the idea of limited buying habits and commitments of the consumer. This publisher is only interested in high quality material that he knows will have long-term staying power.  He is not trying to meet that monthly short-term issue quota that seems to purvey American publishers thinking. 

I think eventually that the European comics sensibility will be become a common way of doing things here but it is going to be a lot of hard work to change the publishing views of the companies in our country.  I think fans here in America are almost at this point of thinking now, of buying self-contained material.  More and more fans are willing to wait for their comics, as long as the quality remains at a high standard.  I think they are getting tired of seeing their favorite comics have the occasional bad issue because the publisher needs to meet that monthly quota.  

The lack of quality in some of mainstream comics is really starting hurt the industry but I think this lack of quality will change as we progress into more self-contained stories.  I have hope for this industry here in America.  I am definitely not a pessimist but there is a lot of progress to be taken.  I hope to be contributing in the best way I know how, to this ideal, with all the projects I choose to work on. Thanks for letting me rant.

Thank you for ranting, and thanks for letting us turn your brain to Slush.


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