Writer, Editor, Author

Tag: Archie Goodwin

Al Williamson, 1931-2010

Word has been spreading  today that one of the all-time great comics artists, Al Williamson, has died at the age of 79.

I never met him, so I’ll let others fill in the details of his life and career, but I love his art and he remains one of my favorite artists of all time.
Like most fans of my generation, I first saw his work on Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and was completely and totally blown away. I loved Marvel’s Star Wars series, which was the first series I really collected as both a young reader and later as a collector. And even though I loved the series when it was drawn with incredible energy and dynamism by Carmine Infantino, I always wished deep down that there was an artist out there who could also make the comic look more like the movie.
And that artist was Al Williamson, who was working with co-penciler Carlos Garzon and writer Archie Goodwin on adapting Empire. It was gorgeous stuff, conveying the romance, the humor and the adventure while still capturing the special appeal and look of an actor like Harrison Ford. I loved it and was more than a bit disappointed when Williamson didn’t stick around as artist after Empire.
But he wasn’t gone completely. I didn’t have access at the time to the Star Wars comic strips that Williamson was doing with Goodwin because my newspaper didn’t carry it. But I definitely looked forward to Williamson’s return with Star Wars #50, which came out about a year after the Empire movie and was another landmark for the series.
I soon drifted away from comics and came back about four years later, thrilled to find one of the first issues of Star Wars I picked up when I started reading comics again was a “lost” Goodwin-Williamson job in issue #98. Jumping back in, I found that he, Garzon and Goodwin also had adapted Return of the Jedi in a four-issue series, as well as another classic Harrison Ford role in Blade Runner.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Williamson was a prominent inker at Marvel in particular, giving a lot of my favorite comics from Wolverine to Daredevil a distinctive, professional polish.
His Star Wars work was rediscovered along with the entire Star Wars phenomenon in the early 1990s. Dark Horse republished not just his Empire and Jedi work, but also turned the newspaper strips into color comics for which Williamson contributed the occasional new page and covers.
I also finally got a chance to see Williamson draw one of his favorite characters when Marvel published in 1995 a two-issue Flash Gordon series drawn by Williamson and written by Mark Schultz.
The 1990s also finally gave me a chance to read some of the work Williamson had done early in his career thanks to Gemstone Publishing’s reprinting of the EC Comics line in a new line of color comics and annuals. There I got to see at last the stuff Williamson had done early on, and it was as classically beautiful as I could have hoped. I particularly liked his adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury short story “The Sound of Thunder,” in Weird Science-Fantasy.
I never got to meet or speak with Williamson, so I have no idea beyond others’ recollections what he was like as a person. There’s still lots of Williamson art to enjoy, with IDW adding this summer Secret Agent Corrigan to its Library of American Comics series of reprints.
Looking through samples of his work today, I can’t help but be struck by the detail and care that he obviously put into creating both fantastic worlds and also believable characters. I wish more of today’s comics artists could capture even a fraction of Williamson’s ability to make his characters look like they’re real flesh-and-blood humans, or convey a character’s attitude so clearly with a natural pose.
I’m sorry to hear he’s gone. But I know that even if I should someday stop reading comics completely, I will always never forget the beauty of his artwork and the impact it had on me as a both a young comics reader and as an adult admirer of art.
I’ll finish with a small sampling of Al Williamson images I pulled from my collection and scanned today. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you and encourage you to seek out his work. It’s worth it.
 Splash page for “Upheaval” from Weird Science-Fantasy #24 (EC Comics, 1954), as reprinted in Weird Science-Fantasy #2, (Gemstone Publishing, Feb. 1993)

 Splash page to Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” from Weird Science-Fantasy #25 (EC Comics, Sept. 1954), reprinted in Weird Science-Fantasy #3 (Gemstone Publishing, May 1993)

Splash page for “Food for Thought,” from Incredible Science Fiction #32 (EC Comics, Dec. 1955) reprinted in Incredible Science-Fiction #10 (Gemstone Publishing, Feb. 1995) 

A 1970 strip from Secret Agent Corrigan taken from Library of American Comics #1, IDW’s Free Comic Book Day release in 2010.

 Interior Empire page showing a bit more of this scene than the final movie did, also from Marvel Super Special #16 (Marvel, 1980).

Interior page from Star Wars #50 (Marvel, Aug. 1981).

Page from the adaptation of Blade Runner appearing in Marvel Super Special #22 (Marvel, Sept. 1982).

 Key scene from Return of the Jedi, as seen in Marvel Super Special #27 (Marvel, 1983).

Splash page from Classic Star Wars: The Vandelhelm Mission (Dark Horse, March 1995). This one-shot featured a re-colored reprint of Star Wars #98 (Marvel, Aug. 1985).

 Page from Flash Gordon #2 (Marvel, July 1995).

Off the shelf: Wilson, Other Lives and Blazing Combat

Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95, 80 pages) is the most-recent release from Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame, telling the life story of a guy who is most accurately described as a misanthropic jerk in a series of one-page stories. At first, the format is a bit choppy and repetitive, but these little vignettes — each playing out like a little remembered incident you might tell at a party — start to add up and have a surprisingly emotional effect. Wilson’s story is a sad one and he’s not the first character of this type that Clowes has tackled, but the relentlessness with which Wilson is shown to constantly choose to be a jerk is compelling as it goes from annoying to self-destructive to sadly sympathetic. It’s not the easiest thing to get into, but it’s well worth it.
I’ve long been a fan of Peter Bagge’s talent for creating completely believable and weird characters, and his most-recent outing — the Vertigo original graphic novel Other Lives (DC/Vertigo, $24.99, 136 pages) — is no exceptions. Here, Bagge delves into a world where everyone is pretending at least part of the time to be something they’re not. What I like the most about Bagge’s characters is the realism that results from having them think they’re a lot smarter than they are. They never see past their own fantasies to the obvious real-life conclusion that’s bearing down on them, which makes the way Bagge resolves his plots all the more fun and weird. My biggest complaint with this book is that this is a $25 hardcover graphic novel from one of the industry’s giants and it’s in black and white. This isn’t new — Vertigo’s been doing this since the likes of The Quitter, The Alcoholic and Incognegro. Honestly, I’m already paying $25 — I would pay an extra $5 if that’s what it took to get this in color.

Saving the best for last, there’s Blazing Combat (Fantagraphics, $19.99, 208 pages), an amazing collection of the stories from the short-lived cutting-edge mid-1960s Warren Publications series. These are all short stories in the mode of Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat, but with a 1960s edge to them. They’re all written by the outstanding Archie Goodwin, with a few assists, which for most fans would be reason enough to buy this comic all by itself. But then you throw in some of the most amazing art, all of it sharply and expertly reproduced, and you’ve got some real dynamite here. This book includes prime artwork from Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Reed Crandall, John Severin, Alex Toth, Al McWilliams, Wally Wood and Russ Heath. And there’s fantastic bonus features, including interviews with original publisher James Warren and Goodwin on the book and the troubles it faced getting distribution after being labeled an “anti-war” book in the early days of the Vietnam War, and the original color covers by none other than the late Frank Frazetta. If all that doesn’t sell you on this as a must-buy, then you may need professional help.

Off the shelf: Alien: The Illustrated Story (1979)

This is one of those books that I’ve really really wanted to read ever since I first heard about it a very long time ago. I mean, how could you not want to read this? It’s got Archie Goodwin, one of the all-time great writers and the guy who wrote the best Star Wars comics ever. And then its got art by Walter Simsonson. Yes, the same Walter Simonson who did Manhunter with Goodwin, made Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica into a surprisingly good comic and then did a definitive and long run on Thor.

But for whatever reason, I never picked this up until now. Part of that is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy in any of the dozens of comics shops I”ve frequented over the years. The other part being it just never came to mind as something to get on eBay, until now.

And despite the long wait and the high expectations, this really did live up to my expectations. First, Alien is a great movie, one of the best from that heady period between Star Wars and the mid-1980s, when almost every sci-fi/superhero movie coming out had at least something to recommend it. (Consider Superman: The Movie, the first couple of Star Trek movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tron … and that’s without getting into secondary stuff like The Last Starfighter or Krull.)

What I love the most is this book works as both an adaptation that accurately conveys the story and the experience of the movie and as a damn fine comic book with smart scripting and excellent art.

I have no idea what the reaction to this book might have been. The indicia says it came out in 1979, same year as the movie, but its in a format where the dimensions are similar to a magazine yet the quality of the paper and the ad-free interior are like a book. It’s a bit like what Marvel and DC would try a few years down the road with their original graphic novel format. The pages are larger than the average comic, which lets Goodwin and Simonson put more panels on a page without having to make them too small. The coloring is excellent and the lettering is by John Workman, so you know it’s good. I imagine this must have sold on newsstands alongside things like Heavy Metal magazine (HM published this adapation by the way — and it looks like it could have been serialized in the magazine. I don’t know.) All this for the original cover price of $3.95 — not much less than what I just paid for it recently on eBay.

The only downside is there’s now one less lost gem to cross of my list … I’ll have to start looking for another.

Comic du jour: Detective Comics #437 (Nov. 1973)

I was visiting flea markets again this past weekend and came across a good deal on this classic issue of Detective Comics.

Was there ever a better time to be a Batman fan that the early 1970s? You had Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams doing their classic thing. And then there was this issue, the first edited and written by Archie Goodwin and featuring art by Jim Aparo and the first installment of “Manhunter” with art from then-newcomer Walt Simonson.

The lead story is a solid Batman detective story in which the Caped Crusader stumbles across and foils an elaborate criminal blackmail plan revolving around a mysterious artifact in a Gotham museum. (I’d like to know how often the Gotham museum cliche has been used in Batman stories over the years – I’d guess it’s in the top five.) But this is a solid, complete story told in a mere 12 pages. Aparo is one of those workman-like artists who never got the acclaim that guys like Adams or Simonson did, but he should have. Looking at the quality of both his storytelling and his illustrations, this is top-notch stuff. There’s even a stellar “silent” action sequence on page 2, in which Batman dispatches a group of rooftop thieves in an economical and compelling eight-panel layout. And Aparo still was a top-notch Batman artist more than 16 years later, when I first started reading his work on such seminal 1980s Batman stories as “10 Nights of the Beast,” “A Death in the Family” and “A Lonely Place of Dying.”

The backup story is known as a tried and true classic. I have a trade collecting the Goodwin-Simonson “Manhunter” stories, and they are definitive of the best comics of this era. Simonson remains one of my all-time favorite comics artists, mostly for his work on Thor, X-Factor, Star Wars and even Marvel’s old Battlestar Galactica series, (which I believe gave him his first credits as a writer). Seeing these stories from early in his career, it’s remarkable to see how consistent his distinctive art style has been, even as he improved his storytelling and drawing abilities in quite significant ways over the years.

Even more interesting is the letters page in this issue, in which Goodwin introduces himself as the successor to Julie Schwartz and outlines his plans for reviving Detective. (At the time, the book’s sales were slumping and the series was being published bimonthly! I don’t know how long this lasted, but I’m sure the quality of issues like this one helped turn that around.)

The weakest point of the whole package is, surprisingly, the cover. It looks like Aparo to me, but the illustration is poorly composed and completely overwhelmed by a design that overemphasizes the logo and trade dress. Even so, with regular comics today about to reach en masse the $3.99 price mark, this comic was a tremendously entertaining bargain, even at the princely sum (in 1973) of 20 cents.

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