Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is J. H. Williams III, and the issues are Uncanny X-Men #352 and The Creeper #9, the first of which was published by Marvel and is cover dated February 1998, the second of which was published by DC and is cover dated August 1998. Enjoy!
When I was trying to figure out what comics by J. H. Williams III to feature here, some leaped to mind immediately, and you probably won't be too surprised to see them over the next few days. Some of you might have expected me to go with Chase, his superb and short-lived series that came out right around this time, but I wanted to focus on these two short pieces of art (he drew three pages in Uncanny X-Men and five in The Creeper) because they show him experimenting just a bit more than he did on Chase. You may disagree, but that's why we all have brains, right? So let's check these two comics out!
Uncanny X-Men #352 has been described to me by its writer, Steven Seagle, as the worst comic ever, but it's not that bad. Something was going on behind the scenes at Marvel at the time and apparently the book needed to be put together really quickly, which led to a bunch of different artists working on it. It's a bit weird, shifting from Cully Hamner to Tommy Lee Edwards to Daryl Banks to Terry Dodson to Williams to John Cassaday, but that's just the way it is. Here's Williams's first page:
We see a few things that Williams began doing in the later 1990s. The first, obvious thing is the circular panels (see below). He started screwing around with panels and page layouts, and an easy way to break up the stolid quadrilateral panel construction is to use circles. This links the panels quite well, as we see in the progression from Panel 1 to Panel 3 - the caption boxes lead us across the first panel to Panel 2, and the explosion and sound effect at the bottom of Panel 2 leads us directly to Panel 3. Williams would get more clever with his page layouts, but this is an early example (from what I can see) of him doing stuff like this. He's being inked by Mick Gray, as he usually was for many years, and his pencils are interesting, because he's slowly moving away from the very heavy line work he showed earlier in his career. I thought about showing work from his arc on Legends of the Dark Knight, but I decided against - you can check out some of the art here. In that story and others from 1995-1997, Gray used really heavy inks, and Williams's work was much more ... grounded, I guess? There wasn't a lot of room for the smudged brush work of the clouds in Panel 1, for instance. His figure work is not as crisp, either, as he and Gray go without holding lines in some places, such as Scott's jacket. A year or two earlier, Scott's jacket would have been much more crisply inked, but now Williams and Gray get rid of the lines creating the border of the jacket and simply use spot blacks to indicate the folds. This is much more a "modern" Williams drawing than what we saw in earlier comics. The jagged inking on Scott and Jean's face, however, is very much a Williams/Gray trope in the 1990s - we see it in his Batman work, his Starman work, and in Chase. In the middle of the page, Staci's face as she says "We're all going to die!" is interesting - it's a typical Williams face from this time period, but it looks a bit rougher than usual, with less definition and more extreme features. I don't know if this is simply because Williams, like the other artists on this book, was rushed, but it's unusual. Weirdly enough, Steve Oliff colors the Williams pages with a lot more deep orange and brown than he does the rest of the book, even though it's all taking place in the same confined place at the same time. It seems that Williams's more idiosyncratic art might be better suited for the rich colors that Oliff uses on these pages. It's odd.
Here's another circular panel, with Williams's art looking very much like the rest of his "transitional" period between his stuff in 1994-1997 and his later, post-2000 art. Once again, the spot blacks are prevalent but used judiciously, and the way Williams/Gray draws Jean's hair is pretty typical for the way they portrayed long hair at this time. The sooty smoke in the background gives an impression of danger and darkness, which helps with the mood of this moment in the book, as things come to a head. Scott is darker, presumably, because he's not actually in the scene - he's communicating with Jean through telepathy.
Moving on, we come to The Creeper #9, which features stories by a few different artists - Phil Hester, John Paul Leon, and Williams, around a framing device from series regular Shawn Martinbrough. Jack Ryder needs to write a feature for his magazine over the weekend, but he can't get anything out, so he uses the Creeper's imagination to write three different twisted tales. Williams's is a fairly standard horror story from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, as a ghost writer kills the dude he's been working for so he can write his own stuff, only for the Creeper to exact bloody revenge. Check out this first panel of the story:
It's fairly simple, but it really establishes the dark tone of the story. Williams and Gray use black almost exclusively, creating negative space for the windows of the house and even the sky, while colorist Shari van Valkenburgh suffuses the sky with just enough blue to be creepy and ominous. The trees and the darkness of the sky look almost sponged on, which gives it a vague, mysterious feeling to the scene around the house, which is speckled with white, almost as if we're looking at an idea of a house. Perhaps it's Williams/Gray's way of identifying this as taking place within Jack Ryder's mind. The "g" at the bottom of the page is a motif, as we'll see in the next example.
Check out the letters (and words) scattered in the gutters around the panels. The story is about a frustrated writer (being written by a frustrated writer), so Williams puts letters in the background. The story concerns a murder, so we see blood splatters in the margin as well. Meanwhile, the pencil work is a bit different than what we've seen from Williams. Yes, we still get the heavy blacks, but notice Ray's hands in Panels 2 and 3. The lines are much thicker than we've seen from Williams in his work up until then, and they give a more "realistic" impression than his artwork prior to this had done. In the example from Uncanny X-Men, the jagged blacks on Scott and Jean's faces was reminiscent of Tony Harris, and while Williams was never a Harris clone, he and Gray used some of the tricks Harris and his inkers used to make his art slightly more Art Deco. In this story, Williams is moving past that to a less stylistic mode, while still retaining flourishes that make his art so distinctive. As we'll see, one thing Williams is able to do is move between styles effortlessly, which is why he's so versatile.
When Roy starts working after he kills Harvey, the Creeper appears on his typewriter (man, the world has changed in 15 years, hasn't it?) and orders him to start typing, whereupon this happens. Williams doesn't do anything too innovative with this, as we've seen jagged border panels to indicate stress and fear forever (including yesterday, when Williams did it), but it's still a cool page, as we tumble down the Creeper's maw with Roy. The letters and words bleed into the large (too large?) red area at the bottom of the page, which helps create the mood of falling. When drawing the Creeper, Williams uses fewer lines and more blacks, especially in the hair, as his trademark wisps of hair are minimized and the shock the green becomes more prevalent. The thick blacks give way to simply thick lines by Panel 3, as Williams forces us into the Creeper's mouth. It's a nicely designed page.
With these two examples, we can see Williams balancing on the fence between his early style and his attempts to move beyond it. There's a lot of examples in 1998-2000 or so as Williams continues to flex his artistic muscles. Tomorrow we'll check out another giant leap he made as we move into the new millennium! Give into nostalgia and check out the archives!