SDCC: Spotlight on J.H. Williams III

Along with moderator John Bultena, acclaimed artist and "Batwoman" writer upcoming "Sandman: Overture" Vertigo series with Neil Gaiman and an exploration of his process as an artist.

Starting with a slide show of work from classic comic artists like Michael Golden, Moebius and Jim Steranko, Williams offered up his secret origin, which involves the Micronauts.

"When I was kid, I was obsessed with these Micronauts toys," he said. Though he read some comics, his passion began with the first issue of the Marvel tie-in book written by Bill Mantlo with art from Michael Golden and Joe Rubinstein. ""I was completely mesmerized," he said. "It wasn't drawn like any comic I'd read before. It didn't read like any comic I read before. It didn't talk down to you. It raised the bar." He scrutinized every page and noticed the credit box for the first time. Talking with friends, he was exposed to "Uncanny X-Men" and knew he wanted to make comics.

Referring back to Golden, Williams noticed the artist's use of negative and positive space. "It has this intensity without it overpowering," he said. Golden himself works on cover art these days, but Williams classifies the artist as one of the greats, along with Jim Steranko.

"[Steranko] looked at comics from a design point of view; how the art can force you to notice certain things," Williams said. "The energy is mindblowing." Referencing a full-page spread from a rare "Heavy Metal" story called "Outland," he pointed out the way Steranko used a single image, but creates the fluidity of panels within the image to direct the reader toward dead bodies, creating a pace and rhythm that influences the entire page.

From Moebius, Williams focused on his use of color, particularly in an early page from "The Incal" #1. As John DiFool falls to his possible death, the colors disappear toward the end of the character's fall. Like Golden, the technique is sophisticated without "overpowering" the reader.

The slide show moved on to a "DC Comics Presents" page written and drawn by Jim Starlin. "When he started writing his own stuff, you could see something interesting was happening," Williams said. The "interesting thing" was the incorporation of text directly into the art, divorced from the confines of a caption box. Though the page contains a lot of text, Williams noted it never seemed crowded.

Moving on to Williams' work as a writer, Bultena asked him what he considers to be the creator's biggest challenge. "Making sure your story points match up from A-to-Z," he answered, adding the importance of making sure his characters are believable.

"There are some guys who are really fast at [writing]. I can't do that. I have to sit with it or ... meld with the universe to write something," he continued. "I'd like to move faster, but my brain doesn't work that way." With a brain wired for art, Williams also found it challenging to put his thoughts into words for another artist to realize.

Williams offered a wise truth for aspiring writers: "Write all the time. If you want to do anything creatively, do it all the time. Get people to look at what your doing." Writing is foremost on his mind as he wants to write a long-form prose project and has a few ideas he wants to realize as novels. "I've had this long career working with great writers, but I find it easier to write prose than comics scripts," he joked.

In the last year, Williams added album art to his resume, working with heavy rockers The Sword and punk innovators Blondie. Butlena presented a slide of the cover to The Sword's "Apocryphon" album by Williams. "Their lyrics are esoteric and fantasy based and I wanted to tell a story with the artwork." The band saw the album as a more personal project and Williams wanted to connect it thematically with the earlier albums. "They want to see [political] change happen and we wanted to reflect that in the artwork."

His idea: a goddess returning to a dead planet, splitting it in two and bringing the world back to life. Her cloak features cryptic symbols. "We thought it would be cool to create a symbol for each song with the Alphabet of Desire," he said. The method involved taking each song title, removing vowels and redundant letters and building a new glyph out of the remaining letters. He suggested the idea to the band and they fell in love with it. Another aspect of the Alphabet is that the symbols true meanings are never shared, so Williams received the symbols without explanation.

Another recent project was the cover and interior booklet art for Blondie's new album: "Ghosts of Download." Williams is a great fan of the band. "The first record I bought as a kid with my own money was Blondie." He happened to meet the band a few years back, and discovered they liked his "Batwoman" stuff. He blurted out, "If you ever need an artist --"

Williams presented interior work he created based on the individual members of the band and a piece featuring a skeleton melding into inks, pollen, circuit boards and pixels. "This is a lively, dance related record, but when you listen to the music, it feels like you're listening to the ghosts of dance records. It has this haunting quality. It doesn't fit into a modern dance scene and it made me think of viruses, so I brought a sense of biology to it."

Other work outside of comics includes a logo and t-shirt design for Jenn O. Cide, a side-show performer and professional weirdo. He also devised concepts for limited edition line of clothing from Artful Gentlemen, and portions of the proceeds go to Hero Initiative.

Moving to some upcoming comics, Bultena showed slides of the covers to "Batwoman" #22 and #23. On issue #23, Williams said, "I was surprised I got this one approved. Bawoman is hardly in it." With a story wrapped around Kate's feelings about her lover Maggie and the push-pull of her life, the cover is limited to a color mix of reds, greys, and blacks, it reflects a sequence of nightmare in the story. "[DC is] particular about keeping their main characters prominent," he said, but the end result is striking, even if Batwoman appears in the background.

The panel also showed the cover to #24, which features Batman and Kate in conflict. "Once we knew she would be absorbed into the DEO, we knew she would fight with Batman." The battle, Williams said, "will not fit in a single issue."

Taking a look at the "Sandman: Overture" #1 cover, Williams wanted to capture the sci-fi elements of the story, likening it to an old 1960s sci-fi paperback. He also pointed out Morpheus's signature headgear, saying, "We've never seen Sandman in his helmet on a cover before." The overall effect is striking and Williams called one of the few finished pieces he's really happy with.

During the Q&A, Williams was asked about Guided View in the comiXology app and it's impact on layouts. "It's not comics," he said. According to the artist, he and Dan DiDio discussed the potential change Guided View represents and recalled his thoughts: "Toying with the layouts as I do, [I think] the technology needs to catch up to me. I shouldn't have to change what I do."

The discussion turned to collaborating with writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. In rapid fire, Williams gave some impression of those working relationships. "When I was working on 'Promethea,' Alan changed what he was doing [once he saw early layouts]. He catered to the boundaries I wanted to push." Morrison, on the other hand, suggested how the page should layout with a few exceptions. "There's instances like on 'Seven Soldiers [of Victory]' where we talked about story content ahead of time and he picked my brain on how to present some of the ideas and it appear in the script," Williams said.

Gaiman, meanwhile, trusts Williams style enough to accept larger alteration. "He would write two pages, [for example,] and I saw it as a single spread and he was open," Willaims said.

Moving to another collaborator, Williams was asked about his colorist, Dave Stewart. "When we took on the idea of 'Batwoman,' I wanted to do something where you can't tell where the art ends and the colors begin," the artist said. "I do full inks and Dave comes in and figures how to change the ink into color." Their communication is very close and the artist values Stewart's willingness to experiment.

Williams occasionally colors his own work, but mostly because he doesn't want to inflict his perfectionist tendencies on Stewart otherwise "I might make him sit there and fiddle with it because he can't read my mind." On the first page of "Sandman: Overture", Williams colored the space backgrounds himself to spare Stewart from madness.

Closing the hour, Williams was asked about how the initial "gimmicky" feel to Batwoman's sexual orientation differs from how he presents the character.

"They announced her orientation without story to back it up," said Williams. "Some of that comes from marketing. With [me], it's always what's right for this character. The characters are alive. They are people we live with and we try to do what the characters tell us to do. That makes it emotionally challenging; you become protective of it and want to see it done respectfully."

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