Few artists working in superhero comics today have as much design sense or think about layout and style more than J.H. Williams. If you need evidence of that, just check out DC Comics’ just-published “Batwoman: Elegy” which collects, in hardcover, the acclaimed seven-issue storyline Williams and author Greg Rucka originally serialized in the pages of “Detective Comics.”
Within those pages, you’ll find Williams adopting a plethora of artistic styles, from the moody, dynamic and action packed sequences of Batwoman on the prowl, to an outright homage to David Mazzucchelli and Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” in an extended flashback sequence. Every panel panel, each page feels like it has a purpose and thought behind it that extends far beyond merely getting from plot point A to plot point B.
For this edition of THE BAT SIGNAL, We spoke with Williams about the new collection, found out the reasons behind his meticulous craftsmanship, discovered what it was like working with Greg Rucka and learned what fans can expect with the new, upcoming “Batwoman” series he’s in the midst of co-writing with Hayden Blackman and (in later issues) splitting art chores with Amy Reeder.
CBR News: So, JH, how did you get involved in this particular project and what attracted you to it in the beginning?
I was supposed to be doing a lot more Batman sort of stuff. I was going to be working with Grant [Morrison] for a little bit, but then they decided they wanted me to do “Detective Comics” when Paul Dini was working on it. But I was only able to do an issue of that because I had a prior commitment to the Seven Soldiers project. The plan was to return to “Detective Comics” while Batman was in it, but working on “Seven Soldiers” took a really long time, and by the time I was ready to come back, the production schedule on “Detective” was done in such a way that there was no way for there to be scripts written in advance enough of the publishing schedule for me to return to it. In the meantime, I ended up doing the Batman “Black Glove” storyline with Grant while they were trying to figure out what I was going to be doing next.
Then, they talked to me about the Batwoman thing that they wanted to do with Greg Rucka. It sounded like a cool idea. Greg’s a great writer, I thought it was an interesting prospect, particularly in terms of being able to work on a Bat-oriented character. I love the Batman universe. To be able to work on a character from the ground up and define that character for others to follow down the road was a really intriguing thing for me, instead of me having to follow years of what was expected based on what people had done with the character. That creative bug was there. There was a lot of inspiration in terms of being able to work on something from the ground up.
My understanding from reading older interviews with you is that the series went through a long gestation period. Do I have that right?
Yeah. There was a lot of talking back and forth, trying to figure out what to do with the character. There was definitely a long process of figuring out what to do. That’s the sort of thing every new character that is meant to have big plans surrounding [them] has to go through. You have to make sure everything’s lining up properly, working the way it should and being its own unique voice.
You redesigned the character a bit from how she initially appeared in “52” to when she debuted in “Detective.” Can you talk about why you made some of those changes?
It was based on conversations with Greg. He really wanted my take on the character from a visual standpoint instead of relying on what someone else had designed, just so the sensibilities of story content and character direction would match. Which I was perfectly fine with. I talked DC about it, and they were perfectly happy for me to do a redesign. They just didn’t want basic the color elements or silhouette elements to change, because they had already established a toy for the character. We couldn’t do something extremely radical. It had to be something where you could see the differences when you studied the finer details. The gloves were still red, but when you compared it, the new gloves have armor gauntlet aspect to the forearms.
Things like that. Making the boots more sensible, but still retaining a sense of style to them. One of the things that bugged me was, the cape was always shown to be dangling off back of neck. It looked a little goofy and unrealistic in terms of being able to take it seriously. That was one of first things I came up with, pushing that up and over shoulders and upper chest area to give it more of a cloak aspect.
The other thing for me was changing the mask. The mask, as I said, superficially looks the same on a basic level, but previously the bottom line of it went up around and above the nose, and it weakened the expression of the character in terms of being able to take her seriously as someone intimidating. That was another thing I changed immediately. I felt it really had to come all the way down past the nose to have a more predatory aspect to it. It definitely makes a big impact on any close-up shots of the character.
For the boots, we wanted something more sensible and combat-like. At the same time, I wanted something that was a little unusual without looking like a typical superhero boot. If you look at the basic shape of the top of it, it’s more like a cowboy boot shape, which lends to the rockabilly aspect of the character. I think that’s a nice, little, subtle touch.
We changed her skin tone to be more pale and more like a true redhead. On a graphic appeal point of view, it just seemed to work better. Red and black are so graphically iconic and powerful colors. All of the drawings I saw of her where they used more of a fleshy, comic book flesh tone defeated and defused the iconic palette presentation. Paling her skin and brightening the lips solidified her palette in a more iconic direction.
There were lots of little, subtle, cosmetic changes we came up with that I’m really proud of, because we were limited on the parameters. We couldn’t go in and do a complete overhaul. It had to be these more thoughtful details that had to be brought out and fully realized. I think the character is stronger for it.
One of other things that bugged me was the way they handled her utility belt. It was very generic. It didn’t look like there were real pouches there, and then the buckle was shaped like a bat. She’s already got a bat on her chest. Changes like that made it more realistic in terms of the way it moves and fits.
What was your working relationship with Rucka like? I think most people tend to think the writer pens the script, hands it to the artist, and that’s that, but I get the feeling that might not have been the case here. How did the two of you trade back and forth while working on the story?
Your assessment of how most comics are put together is pretty accurate, unless it’s more of a long-term relationship. I’ve never operated very well under those circumstances. I work better when I can collaborate and have deep conversations with whomever I’m working with. It allows me to get into their brain and determine what they’re after from the story. [Working with Greg] was highly collaborative, probably most collaborative writing experience I’ve had since working with Alan Moore. Before writing the script, he would call me about specific scenes he had in mind, [wanting] to make sure that I thought they worked. He wanted that reassurance that he was headed in the right direction. And vice-versa. I would talk to him about the visuals to make sure they were working in terms of what he wanted to convey. That collaboration and those conversations were so key before the actual writing of the script. A lot of the way the story moves or some of the layout presentation and different ways to approach a scene really comes through in terms of how those conversations went. A lot of those scenes could be handled in a typical way, but having actual conversations about them before they were being written allowed the creative process to produce…how to do a scene that you would typically see in a story such as this, in a way that isn’t typical anymore. It was a really great time.
Can you give us a concrete example of what you mean?
One of the key pages in the first issue where we see the layout of her apartment from above, as though we’re peering through the roof. If that had been written straight without any visual thought put into it, where we were exchanging ideas back and forth, more than likely that page would not happen like that. That page relied so heavily on getting across to the reader the exact layout of the apartment, but brought an interesting page design because of it.
Speaking of that particular page, actually, is it true that DC made you change “Darkseid’s Bitch” into “Darkseid’s Witch?”
Yes. [Laughs] It’s totally true. To this day, some of the editorial things they change some times just crack me up. You can never figure out what real game plan is. In some instances, you can’t use word “piss” or “bitch,” but there’s other instances where characters can say the word “damn” or…I’m not sure how they make those choices.
You have four different styles going on in “Elegy,” and I wanted to break them down and talk about each one to get an idea of what your influences where and the reasons for each style, starting with the “Batwoman style,” the most obvious and striking style you adopt for the series. On those pages you do a lot of dynamic layouts. For example, in the opening sequence you incorporate the bat insignia into the panel structure. What was the idea behind that?
It s hard to point to any specific things in terms of direct influences other than I’m always interested in trying to find different ways to present a visual concept in a comic, because a comic is not like a film where the image is constantly moving. The person viewing the film is being informed by the movement of the characters in relation to the story being told to the audience. With a comic, it’s different in nature because you need to convey that there is movement in the story and that the characters move, but really we’re looking at stagnant images. They don’t move. That presents an interesting paradox. You want to convey a certain aspect of the story, but at the same time, the fact that the image doesn’t move allows you to do things from a design sense that can bring out aspects to a scene or to the attitude of the characters in ways that couldn’t be done if it was a fluid, moving piece of work such as film. In turn, what that does is it allows you to present things in more interesting, dynamic ways than just “panel A leads to panel B” and so forth. That fascinates me. I’m always seeing where that can be taken.
Now, the style I chose for Batwoman was highly reliant on the style I used for her as Kate, when she’s in her civilian life. I wanted the Batwoman stuff to be colorful, yet moody and shadowy and murky at same time for various reasons. Most of the time, when you see a lot of Batman comics, over quite a long time, the color becomes more and more drab and brown and grey and starts to lose vitality for me. I was thinking, “How could we bring a sense of vitality back to these moody, darker concepts and still be true to being dark and gothic?” It really struck me that, if you have black on the page spotted in particular ways, you can punch color where you have the color applied. What that does is it makes black stronger and more palpable. You get a more vivid, darker experience than if it was grayed out.
At same time, the color brings clarity to the images using watercolor tones and textures with the shadows and the rendering, balanced against Kate’s personal life. There is no shadow [in those scenes]. Every detail is there for you to see. When she’s Batwoman, yes, she’s very confident in what she does and sure about herself in her direction as Batwoman. But at the same time, it’s a murky, risky, less sure thing to do with oneself. There’s a gamble to it. As Kate Kane, having that clarity, particularly in terms of her sexuality and being gay, I wanted to remove all the shadows from her personal life, to show that she’s perfectly fine and comfortable with who she is as a human being. The two styles psychologically play off of each other in that regard. On a whole other layer, by having clear-cut divisions between Batwoman life and Kate Kane life, on a pure aesthetic level you immediately know when you’re dealing with what part of her story. It keeps things fresh on visual level from page to page.
Then there’s the third style you have, which, forgive me, I like to call the “David Mazzucchelli tribute section,” as it’s a very open homage to Mazzucchelli’s work, especially in “Batman: Year One” and “Daredevil: Born Again.” Why that particular style?
It served many purposes. One of the things that Greg and I were trying to do with this character was make her just as relevant to the DCU as Batman is. That’s a long road to take for a character to become that. But there are ways you can shorthand some things and do some iconic things that can stick in someone’s brain. There are things you can look back to that have had a long-term impact and resonance when you look at comics history.
In the historical terms of Batman, one of the best origin stories ever told was “Batman: Year One,” at least in my opinion. I think what Miller and Mazzucchelli did there was fantastic. It just sticks with you. It burns in your brain. When we decided to do her origin story originally, we kept referring to it as “Batwoman Year One.” That kept sticking in my brain. When someone looks at “Batman: Year One,” the feelings and emotions they feel when they read it, I wanted to see if I could trigger those same responses in them subliminally by using an art style that was heavily influenced by that particular material. So, on a psychological level, it connects the reader here and now to a time of “then,” when there’s such high regard and nostalgia for “then.” It immediately connects the here and now with this new character to something that has long-term relevance.
One of the other reasons I adopted it was because I really like the idea of doing something that has, for want of a better term, a deceivingly simple comic book look and more of an innocent quality to the drawing style, in comparison to the present day Batwoman scenes. It really gives you a sense of the personal histories of the characters in that regard.
The third way it works for me is, even if readers haven’t read “Batman: Year One,” just the fact that the style is dramatically different than anything that has appeared in the book prior, immediately on a superficial level it works for the narrative – that they’re now looking at different time instead of just relying on a color palette of, “Let’s do everything in blue.” Monochromatic stuff. It’s too big a section and [doing that] would weaken it.
That posed some really interesting things for me on a storytelling level. In the scene when Kate first meets Batman outside the bar, it allows an interesting thing to take place where Batman is more fully dimensional compared to her. Her more simplistic drawing style symbolizes that she has not fully realized herself.
Then as the book goes on, the style starts to change subtly as she starts to become the Batwoman.
Right, as she’s discovering her true direction in life. That’s really a cool thing. The shot where Batman is helping her off the ground and their two hands are touching but they’re drawn in two completely different styles yet look like they’re actually touching, is so symbolic of where she’s been and where comics have been and where both are now. My favorite thing to do is bring as much subtext to a scene as possible and have dual meanings in a single image.
That’s especially true in the battle scenes where – I don’t want to give anything away, but when the big revelation is made, you go back and look and you’ve got all this symmetry taking place on the pages between the main characters and you’re basically telling the reader way ahead of time what’s going on.
Exactly. The best comics are the ones that are crafted in a way that reward additional readings.
The other thing you did, just getting back really quickly to the origin, you cut quickly to Kate’s dad on the battlefield, which is again, drawn in yet another completely different style. I was wondering why you did that.
There are a couple of different things going on there. The colors are reminiscent of the Kate Kane scenes, but when you go back and look at it, you’ll note that there’s a lot of painterly rendering in that, where the Kate Kane stuff is flat, and then the line work on that war scene is grittier and more organic-looking. The main reason I wanted that style for that two-page scene to be unlike any other styles in the book was because I wanted to indicate that was the life that Jacob Kane was living. He was living an outside experience from rest of the world. It’s something that soldiers really experience in combat situations. They’re in a foreign country under extreme circumstances – it’s like you’re stepping into another reality. I wanted to convey that part of his life as unique unto itself compared to anything else he experiences. That was the main purpose behind doing that.
It’s clear through your art that you have a deep concern about the page itself, not just panel-to-panel progression, but making sure the page is an object to itself as well. I suppose one of the dangers in that is that the reader could get tripped up by too much content or not knowing what panel to go to next. How do you avoid those landmines? Are there any tricks of the trade you’ve learned from doing projects like this?
Not really. I don’t have a method to doing it other than I try to look at it like, “OK, stepping back from the page, can I follow storytelling myself, purely as a reading experience and not a design experience?” You can design something to death, but if you’re losing message in the process, ultimately, it’s a failure. I know I walk a fine line on that quite a bit, and there’s times where it’s more successful than others, but at the same time, I feel like I’m compelled to do it. I can’t see myself doing it any other way. It’s just the way my brain works. It’s my way of expressing my thought processes as an artist and storyteller. It’s interesting, because I’ve heard from readers where some completely could follow along, no problem, and others were confused by some of the sequences and didn’t know where to take it. That’s really fascinating to show how different peoples’ perceptions and perspectives are. People looking at the same material perceive it so differently. To me, that makes it even more worthwhile to keep pursing that. To see what those reactions are from people.
That’s interesting because one of the things that struck me about the book was that, even though it was visually ornate and complex, I didn’t have any trouble reading it.
Some of the things I’m doing here aren’t so new in terms of comics narrative. Will Eisner was doing it. Jim Steranko was doing it. Not necessarily in the same ways that I do it, but it’s the same mode of thinking. It feeds into where human beings are progressing in terms of what they accept on a visual basis. When you think about modern society, particularly the computer age and how people are so connected to their iPhones and so forth, all that stuff is represented by icons. There’s a visual capacity that’s there, and humans are tapping into visual capacity of recognizing symbology. That brain mindset is at play in some of these pages, but in a slightly different way because it’s telling a story. The capacity for being able to accept the more iconic or symbolic form of language, particularly if you’re a comics fan to begin with, is already there.
I wanted to ask you about the new Batwoman series you’re working on. Are there any new details that you can reveal? Can you give any kind of hints as to when we’ll see the first issue?
I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about the release date yet. All I can say about the launch date is you’re going to see something small come first and then something more substantial after that. But it is coming out much sooner than I would like, personally. I like to have a lot more lead-time. People will be seeing something very soon, and hopefully they’ll really like it.
As far as the direction of the series itself, there’s a little bit of everything in here. As the series progresses, the sensibilities and types of stories being told definitely represent me without losing qualities of what made Batwoman cool in first place, the things that Greg introduced. We’re going to be working in quite a few different genres, even though it’s all under guise of a superhero epic. The first story arc is very much a horror story, the next one is more espionage/intrigue and the one after that is a fantasy epic. Then we go into a bit of a family drama, but everything will be interconnected through plot points and have natural progressions into each other so it won’t feel jarring or jaunting in any way. It will feel like further extensions of what came before.
To what extent are you building on what you and Rucka did? I know he had the next couple of chapters plotted out with you, and certainly “Elegy” ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. How much do you feel like you have a responsibility to “Elegy” and to what extent do you feel like you can break off from that and go off on your own?
It’s a tricky balance. Greg had a very specific thing we were going to do with next segment that had to do with origin of Alice. Ultimately, he left DC to pursue other things. At same time, I didn’t want to try to tell that story without his perspective. I’m leaving that alone so if he wants to come back at some point and tell that story, he’ll be able to do so. Some of the Alice stuff will be left dangling for a while, but that’s probably a good thing for that character. That character could easily suffer from overkill if played too much.
In other ways, we’re extending bits and piece of what came before. Carrying over a lot of stuff from the series in ways that Greg might not have anticipated. At same time, we’re creating a bunch of new stuff, too. Right now, Batwoman doesn’t have rogues gallery of her own besides Alice and the Religion of Crime, and the Religion of Crime is very amorphic for the most part. So we’re creating a rogues gallery for her. By time we reach the third arc, we’ll have four or five new villains that can be considered part of her rogues gallery. The more mysterious, otherworldly themes will be carried over. Right from beginning Greg and I established that Batwoman’s world was a little spookier than what we normally get in a Batman comic. In a lot of the Batman comics I read as a kid way back when, there were all kinds of unusual things like that. Slowly, over time, the more gothic, spooky stuff eroded away. I think it’s cool we have this character that can address this stuff in the DCU without losing the integrity of Gotham-type hero.
We’re going to be exploring stuff with Betty Kane. There’s no way that could not be addressed. We’re going to be exploring stuff with Maggie Sawyer. There will be lots of interesting things coming up. There’s going to be a reintroduction of an older character that I’m somewhat associated from my career path that will be making its way into the book. Hopefully people will like it. The flavor of [“Batwoman”] definitely moves differently than with what Greg and I were doing in terms of story structure. At the beginning of the series, it definitely feels like you’re getting more of what came before instead of starting over. By introducing a lot of new elements, the story structure has more cutting together of various pieces that will build to a greater whole, much more along lines of the story editing in the “Dark Knight” film, where all these intersecting pieces build up to a greater piece. It has its own voice, I think, and will be different enough but not feel alienating.
I know you’ve written comics before, but this is probably your big introduction to the world as a writer. I was wondering if you had any concerns, not about your abilities, but just that all eyes are going to be on you, so to speak. Is it easier being both the writer and artist?
This will definitely be the thing that people will see as my first venture out, though I have written stuff before. There’s going to be a lot of tension on this. It does raise trepidation in me because I know how critical an eye there will be on it. I’m not coming out with something no one has seen before. I’m coming out with something I worked on with somebody else before. I’m following in Greg’s footsteps and I have to think about that, but at the same time I can’t concern myself with it too much. I just have to try to stay focused on telling the types of stories I want to read and tell and be true to myself in the process.
As far as missing the collaboration, it’s definitely harder to think about the story 100 percent from the ground up by myself. At the same time, I do have my writing partner Hayden Blackman, a tremendous storyteller himself, to bounce ideas off of. I’m still getting that sense of collaboration. I think it will be even more so when I’m working with [Madame Xanadu] artist Amy Reeder.
You’re one of the few artists working in superhero comics these days that has fans both within the mainstream DC/Marvel world and in the indie/art comics world. If we can get you to speculate for a minute, what is it about your art that draws in readers from so many different areas?
Wow, that’s a tough question. The only thing I can possibly think of is that, even though I’m working in mainstream comics and doing superhero stuff, I’m trying to bring a very personal voice to it on a visual level and do something where I push the boundaries of the conventional aspects of superhero comics in visual terms. That’s something that [an artist] like Chris Ware does with his independent stuff, even though he’s not doing superheroes. He’s trying to twist conventions and come at stuff from different point of view. The other thing is that, I hate to say this, but there are so many comics readers that are jaded about a lot of the material over the last five years or so. I’ve seen more and more of that, probably because I pay too much attention to the internet. There’s a huge amount of creative talent out there in this business who love what they do, but there are also a number of people out there who are just doing the job and not thinking about it as much as they should. I hate to sound so critical, [but] the end result is, some projects come across as not having much enthusiasm behind the material, and I think people can see, even if it’s on a subject that’s not their favorite, they can see I’m approaching it with enthusiasm and relish and trying to make it as best as I can. I think that translates through the page, somehow. I am putting myself into the work and don’t necessarily treat as a commercial property. I draw from my gut. I design everything from my gut. I don’t do thumbnails. That immediacy…it’s almost like fine art. Yes, there can be methodical thinking behind it, in what the piece is trying to say, but there is a lot of work that is done from pure expression and emotion, trying to garner some sort of emotion out of the viewer. I try to bring that to the work I do, even if I’m doing my best to be clever about it. Some of that might be translating to people, too, and reaches them somehow. I don’t know any other explanation for that. It’s very nice to hear that there’s that connectivity happening amongst a wide variety of comics appreciators. Very cool!