Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Al Williamson, and the stories are “Relic” from Epic Illustrated #27 and “Out of Phase” from Epic Illustrated #34, both of which were published by Marvel and are cover dated December 1984 and February 1986. I found these stories on the blog Ragged Claws Network here and here. Enjoy! (Oh, and there’s some Not Safe For Work shenanigans below. Comics artists are just filthy old men, aren’t they????)
I have nothing to write here. Let’s get to it!
Holy crap, look at that page. Williamson gives us a bizarre alien world, bizarre mostly because of the odd rock formations rising to the sky, and he hatches the ever-loving crap out of it, turning it into rough, wildly over-rendered world. One reason I don’t mind this as much as other wildly over-rendered stuff we’ve seen this year (and in comics in general) is because Williamson knows that he doesn’t have to do it on everything, so his people are perfectly “normal-looking,” which makes the world seem even more alien. The “sappers'” ships are intense, too, as Williamson uses a lot of black chunks and white space to create those monstrosities. In the background, he uses thin lines with gaps for shapes, which makes even the sky appear alien and bizarre. In the middle row, Kirth and Jarel are well done – Jarel’s hair is a bit Seventies, but by this time Williamson was in his 50s and maybe he didn’t realize style had moved on a little bit. Still, there’s some beautiful inking in those two panels.
More dazzling work here, as Williamson again uses a lot of lines to show the archaic ruins that Kirth and Jarel discover. The most interesting things to me here are how he differentiates between the “man-made” ruins and the natural world. Despite the natural world overrunning the ruins, he still uses lighter and straighter lines to define the buildings, while in the foreground, the trees are twisted, gnarled, and much more menacing, while the ruins are far colder. Williamson’s use of different weights in the line work helps that, too, as the trees look far more alive than the ruins. That’s certainly not surprising, but a lot of artists wouldn’t think of that.
Lots of nice work here, as Kirth tries to convince Jarel to leave the world alone, and Jarel isn’t having any of it (and shoots at Kirth with a seriously old-fashioned rifle – that thing looks old-fashioned for 1984, much less whatever far-flung future this story takes place in!). Williamson doesn’t need motion lines here, because his figure work is quite good. He’s never going to be mistaken for the greatest action artist, but he knows how people move, so Panel 2 is nicely done, as is Panel 5, where Kirth dodges the bullet. Williamson was using an actual statue as a model for the one in the story (we’ll get to his other swiping below, I promise!), so I can’t give him too much credit for shadowing in the statue’s tiny paunch, but I will give him credit for making sure it was in there. The statue has a slight belly, and Williamson made sure to include it, which adds the slightest bit of poignancy to the scene – it’s not a completely idealized rendition of the people who lived in the ruins, as it includes a bit of their humanity as well as their appreciation of beauty.
The final story I’m going to look at is “Out of Phase,” which appeared in the final issue of Epic Illustrated. Like “Relic,” Archie Goodwin wrote this, too, continuing the two creators’ 20-year working relationship. See if you can spot the obvious swipe below!
Here’s the amazing splash page, with your standard “guy riding a flying monster fighting a giant snake wrapped around the ruin of the Empire State Building” set up. So boring, right? Once again, Williamson uses lines – duo-shade? – in the sky and negative space to create clouds, which we’ve seen him do before and which has such an interesting, ethereal effect on the story. Obviously, the snake is wildly impressive, as is the spotting on the flying monster, but I love its wings. Williamson uses those thick lines to make them more leathery, almost ancient, as if it’s amazing the damned thing can still fly. He knows where to put the shadow of the wing on the body, too, which adds a nice level of realism to such a fantastic scene. I even dig the groovy lettering, man!
There’s a lot going on here, but Williamson, naturally, does a marvelous job with it all. He gives us more of his weird alien landscapes in Panel 1, with the thick, curved lines and the strange architecture in the distance. He takes his time with the woman’s boots – they’re leather, and like a lot of artists, Williamson uses a lot of white to make the black shine nicely. The topless lady is there, presumably, just so Williamson can draw a topless lady, but look how beautifully he inks her diaphanous coverlet in Panel 3 as she kisses Strode. Williamson uses whites instead of blacks in Panel 4, as Strode begins to discorporate – he’s set against the darkness of the night sky, so Williamson uses the white to make him a “negative image” as he fades. Then, we shift abruptly to a modern office, and Williamson uses more angular lines and less black/white contrast to make it look as sterile as possible. It’s a very cool tonal shift, and Williamson nails it.
Williamson easily moves to a more mundane reality, as we learn a little about Strode and how he began “reality-hopping.” Williamson obviously used a lot of photo reference on this page – that house looks disturbingly similar to the one I grew up in – but his inking, as always, makes up for it. The encroaching shadows in Panel 1 are tremendous – they’re probably benign, of course, but Williamson still makes them seem sinister – and once again we get the unbordered smoke in Panel 3. The light slowly fades as the page moves along, from the brightness of Panel 1 to the gloom of Panel 6, which is a nice touch. I can’t help wonder if Goodwin and Williamson are referring to writers and artists in this story, which would be depressing considering what happens to Strode.
Yeah, I know – it’s another amazing page. Again we get sleek lines contrasted with the riot of nature, especially in Panel 2, and in Panel 3, all Williamson has to do is tilt the buildings in the background to make the wrecked world look even sadder. The blacks in Panel 3 are excellent, too, as Williamson creates a mossy top to the columns while scoring them with deep lines, making the stone itself look ancient. This is just really nice work all around.
You can read both stories in their entirety at the two links I provided above, in case you’re interested. Did you happen to notice the obvious swipe in the second story, beside the suburban scene? If you said the topless woman looked a bit like Sophia Loren from 1951, you’d be right, as you can read about here, if you wish. But this isn’t the only time in these stories that Williamson swiped something. Kirth in the first story is modeled on Stewart Granger for some reason. Maybe Williamson just dug Granger’s look, man!
The point is that swiping is an old and cherished tradition. Williamson doesn’t even do the greatest job with Ms. Loren, as she’s holding something in her hand in the actual photograph and nothing in the story, and her hands up like that are a bit awkward in the context of the story. So why do I forgive it when Williamson does it and excoriate poor Greg Land for doing it? Well, Williamson is better at it, and that goes a long way. He probably traced or even light boxed in Ms. Loren and Mr. Granger, but they’re integrated far more into the flow of the story than a lot of what Land does with his swipes. I also think that fact that technology has changed is a factor, as well. Yes, it’s probably easier to swipe today, but the digital inking and coloring makes a lot of things look “false,” for lack of a better word, and it makes swiping stand out a bit more than it did back in the day. Williamson might have light boxed Topless Sophia Loren, but he sat down and inked her, and he even eliminated the shadow on her lower left and added a bit of hatching to her belly. He did a bit of work on it, and even if Land inks and someone else colors his swipes, in my mind, the digital sheen makes it seem a bit more fake. But that’s just my opinion.
Anyway, that’s Al Williamson. He was awesome. I love that he’s well known as an inker, and we’ve already seen his inking on John Romita on Daredevil, but he was an amazing penciler, too. Go find some of his work!
Tomorrow: You thought today’s post was Not Safe For Work? Hoo-boy, you have no idea. Join me tomorrow … but not at work! And of course, you can always find more NSFW stuff in the archives!
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