Last Saturday, JH Williams III made an appearance at The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, celebrating the addition of his artwork from “Sandman: Overture” to the museum’s current exhibition, “Grains of Sand: 25 Years of Sandman.” Williams’ work from issues #1 and #2 now hangs alongside original work from the entire “Sandman” alumni, including Dave McKean, Sam Keith, Colleen Doran and Jill Thompson. The retrospective, curated by Ryan Graff, beautifully captures the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s series, following Morpheus, The Lord of Dreaming, as he searches for his role in a world that has no place for him.
Williams’ work on “Sandman: Overture” is so perfectly suited for the series, it’s easy to forget he hasn’t always been a part of it. His contributions thus far have been dramatic, detailed and bizarre, with the trademark otherworldliness the artist is known for. Before Williams spoke at the museum to a crowd of excited fans, he spoke one on one with CBR News, sharing his thoughts on what his first formal art show means to him, the fan-favorite characters slated to return and his point of view on sharing pages before an issue is released.
CBR News: The show at The Cartoon Art Museum is incredible — how did you get involved?
JH Williams III: Pretty simply, actually. Ryan Graff had reached out to me — he’s a big “Sandman” enthusiast — and said that the museum was planning an event around the anniversary of the book. Since I was doing the new series, he asked if I wanted to contribute, which I, of course, did.
What aspect of the show are you most looking forward to?
I guess the experience of it, mostly. I’ve never done anything like this before, except some smaller stuff at Isotope in San Francisco, but nothing so directly associated with a venue specifically exhibiting art. This is a new thing for me.
How did you decide which pieces to include?
It was pretty easy on this one. Everything being shown is from issue #1 and some select images from issue #2. The selections from issue #2 all boiled down to negotiations with DC about what they felt comfortable showing before the issue comes out. Originally, the plan was to show all of issue #2, but with the book being delayed, it messed up that particular plan.
Do you see any harm in showing second issue? Would you have done it if it were left up to you?
I would’ve shown it, particularly because it’s not a large gathering or something for a media site. I guess it depends on the timing. With the issue coming out so shortly after the event, I personally wouldn’t have been overly concerned — but DC is, and they like to keep stuff under wraps until publication, which is fine. I didn’t see how it would’ve mattered, ultimately, but it’s their product, so they have the right to feel how they do.
For me, anything I can do to build excitement for a project is a bonus. I can understand reservations if all the artwork was revealed through a major media venue. But this is the work in its original black and white form, it doesn’t have the lettering intact, so I don’t think there’s a lot people could take away from seeing it.
You mentioned that the pieces being shown aren’t colored or lettered — what are some other differences between the finished printed pages and what we see in the gallery?
There are a few things that might surprise some people. In issue #1, in the quadruple spread, there are three painted figures that appear in the printed issue. Those were actually hand painted on the original pages. I think people will find it interesting to see that I went in and painted stuff in certain parts and not others because I felt like those sections needed to have a different feel than digital coloring. Those characters needed to have a painted style, referencing something particular in a different medium.
What other mediums besides ink and paint are you working in?
Pretty much the basic ink work, and I do a lot of washes and tones, sort of creating a combination of ink and black and white watercolor effects. There’s a lot of that. Occasionally there’s painting, like I mentioned, and in issue #2, I do significant amounts of painting. I don’t really do anything digital except once in a while, like, say, if I do a wash to create a deep space background, I’ll go in and hand draw the stars, but I’ll go in digitally to add gleams and glows to them. Other than that, it’s all done on the board.
Your body of work stretches into other areas, beyond comics — album covers, fine art. Do you have any interest in pursuing more in the world fine arts?
Yeah, that’s definitely an area I want to explore a lot more, particularly as I get more and more comfortable doing fully painted pieces. I’ve always painted, but in some ways, I don’t think I’ve felt overly comfortable doing it, except in certain occasions. Now I’m at a point where I feel like I can do a lot more of that sort of thing and I’m looking into it. I’d like to do larger painted pieces, things like that. I’m sure at some point I’ll get to explore it; it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it.
Do you think there’s more album work in the future. Are there any bands in particular you’d like to work with?
Yeah, I have such a good time doing that stuff. It’s such a good creative outlet. The funny thing about it is that the couple of times I’ve done it, I find myself still trying to find a narrative theme in the packaging art, which comes from being a storyteller working in comics. I can’t stop thinking about how to make it all make sense.
In terms of bands, I don’t know. The 69 Eyes would be cool. Blondie, I’ve already done. It’s a tough call. I like so many different bands!
Getting back to comics, how have you been managing the high expectations for “Sandman: Overture?” It’s a series with such a long history and devoted fan base. â€¨â€¨When I first started, before I even picked up drawing tools, there was some definite trepidation on my part. I felt daunted by the legacy of the original material because there are a lot of high expectations. What helps get me through it is realizing that we don’t want this to be a nostalgic trip. Honoring the original material is important; making it feel current has helped a lot.
What do you do to get yourself into the right headspace to hang out in Morpheus’ world?
â€¨I’m kinda there all the time. Having to be creative and draw every day really sort of makes it so that there’s nothing flexible about it. I’m in that space, all the time.
We saw a lot of Corinthian in the first issue — was it exciting getting to bring a fan favorite back? What are some of the characters you’re most enjoying drawing?â€¨â€¨It was very cool to draw Corinthian. I don’t want to reveal too much, I’d rather let people see it when it comes out, but people can expect to see more familiar faces. I’m having a lot of fun dealing with Morpheus and getting to know him more closely. Now that I’ve gotten through issue #2, I think I’m a lot more comfortable with the character than when I first started out.
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