Practitioners 54: J H Williams III

It’s back!! Practitioners, our weekly article featuring the people who made the comics industry, went on a three month away day while we continued to complete Moon but it’s now back!! Practitioners will now be bi-weekly, while every second week on Tuesday Practitioners Reloaded will present the previous 1 – 53 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo) and then continue to showcase all the new articles until we’ve written a comprehensive history of the comic book industry!! Or die.

James ‘Jim’ H. Williams III, usually credited as J.H. Williams III, is a comic book artist and a penciller, best known for his work on titles such as Promethea (with Alan Moore), Desolation Jones (with Warren Ellis) and Batwoman (with W. Haden Blackman).

J H Williams is a master of his art and others aside. Most Practitioners have a near-complete grasp of the comics page, panel to panel storytelling, placement and composition. Most pages produced for comic books are purpose built as little more than a rendition of a writers words and descriptions. J H Williams III limits himself to nothing, challenging himself to extrapolate only the most complex compositions in the history of comics without losing control of plotting, pacing or flow. Bleeding edge double page spreads, multiple styles and techniques combining into both unique and familiar page styles. Able to mimic the most prominent and recognisable legends in comic book history, while able to seamlessly drop into his more comfortable naturalistic style, Williams has defined himself as a master draftsman and a timeless artist.

Williams’ early work includes pencilling the four-issue miniseries, Deathwish (1994-1995) from Milestone Media, a company founded to present a platform for characters of ethnic minority, the most famous of these Hardware, Icon, Blood Syndicate and Static. Deathwish – tag line: ‘Paint the Town Dead’ – was a dark number, featuring Wilton Johnson, the victim of a brutal family raping from which only he survived. Appearing in Hardware six times, the series was notable for it’s use of a pre op transexual, obsessed with sex related crimes, as it’s protagonist. It also featured the exclamation ‘Fuck art! Let’s dance!’ at the close of the third issue. This was a dark and distinctive introduction to comics for J H, the artwork visceral, savagely brutal, anarchic and powerfully emotive, Deathwish presented as a damaged, frightening and unpredictable figure – rendered powerful with extremely tight line work from Williams. It’s hard to imagine a more fringe entrance to the popular comics industry but JH held nothing back and presented himself as a strong contender. Written by Adam Blaustein, Deathwish has disappeared into the murky comic book back catalogue but JH Williams III was to plough on to handle some of the most challenging and venerated comics in the industry (most often thanks to his art work). It also gave Williams the chance to work with legendary inker and Joe Quesada partner, Jimmy Palmiotti.

But it was on the short-lived 10-issue (including a special 1,000,000 issue) Chase title, with writer Dan Curtis Johnson that he came to prominence. Based on a character, Cameron Chase, that appeared in Batman #550 in January 1998, it followed Chase as an agent of the Department of Extranormal Operations tasked with monitoring and neutralising Metahuman threats to national security. The blend of the extreme metahumans and the noirish, dark edged naturalism made Chase a moderate hit for fans of fine comic art, J H Williams’ involvement perhaps elongating the short run. Never the less, it was here that J H Williams entered the DC firmament and began to make creative ripples throughout the industry.

Even then, at the start of his main career, J H Williams III demonstrated all of the skills that have made him a watchword for both wild experimentation and paradoxically professional reliability of quality. Every page bled with the precise representation of the writer’s ideas somehow locked seamlessly between naturalism and comic book fantasy. Anchoring the content with a powerful grasp of expression, anatomy, light and composition, JH Williams III draws in the reader, pacifying their expectations with beautifully accessible detail while introducing dizzying and brave compositions.

Williams collaborated with inker Mick Gray on two DC Elseworlds graphic novels, Justice Riders – in which the Justice League of America are recast as western figures – written by Chuck Dixon and Son of Superman, written by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman. Justice Riders would likely inform Williams’ interest in drawing wild west heroes, as they appear again in the later Seven Soldier’s series bookends (written by Grant Morrison) and a single issue of Jonah Hex (#35) on which Williams said “I certainly want to do more issues myself or even a graphic novel if the opportunity and schedule presented itself.”

It was with another of DC’s most famous writers – the legendary Alan Moore – that JH Williams was to find yet greater prominence, both as an interior and cover artist, with the utterly glorious Promethea (32 issues, 1999–2005). It was here that Williams’ now legendary capacity to twist the logic of a comic book page really took hold. Taking first of all the poetic and holistic plots and scripts of Mr. Moore, JH Williams treated every page (or double page) as single images, and rather than simply breaking them into neatly compartmentalised shot boxes, expanded the use of the form in a way most artists would never think to. Some panels were simply single figures occupying space centrally in the page, events, language and conversations rotate around specific images at the heart of the image, where panel work took place in more conventional ways, large, iconic panels drew the scene effortlessly across the top of a double page spread, making the remaining panels parts of that larger image. A dramatic understanding of fable, fantasy, ancient historical and the art nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha, popular with other legendary artists such as Joe Quesada and Adam Hughes, permeates the indelible world of Promethea. Notably, it wasn’t Moore that walked away with as many accolades as Williams, Moore taking considerable criticism at the suggestion that Promethea was acting as a mouthpiece for his religious beliefs while praise was heaped on the series for the beauty of it’s artwork and innovation regarding the medium itself. It is there that Williams excels, breaking tradition and standards perhaps unitentionally layed down at the birth of early comic books and again indirectly cemented by the unquestionable work of Kirby, Ditko, Gibbons – even Otomo through the popularity of their work.

But Williams isn’t trying to change the industry. His work isn’t a clarion call to other artists to try to do the same. Should too many try, comics would most likely become a chaotic mess. Williams’ work is innate and personal to him, a style and level of detail and naturalism that comes from pure, raw talent. His work is a treat. His is the Art Deco print amongst the Metallica posters. It flatters the owner and offers a beautiful and enlightening alternative to the great and beloved standard.

Detective Comics with writer Greg Rucka gave birth to the series that will leave JH Williams III in the upper echelons of comics practitioners. In the wake of the loss of the title character, ‘Detective’ Batman was absent in the aftermath of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, causing the title to focus on Rucka’s Batwoman. Williams has returned as an artist and now writer of the new Batwoman series, accompanied by co-author W. Haden Blackman. Using all of the talents and skills from his previous work, Williams has formed a title of delicate and volatile beauty. Batwoman, shock of sharp red hair and porcelain white skin, is an even more distinct figure perhaps than Clark Kent when not Superman, and should be easily recognisable in the bat suit as the only person in Gotham with no pigment on their skin. None of this matters though, as a languishing presence of a child-stealing spirit of a bereaved mother haunts the waterways of Gotham. Blending dizzying but easily maneouvrable double page spreads with fine art, profound expressionism, watercolour, pencil line, ink and hand drawn finishes entwined with a haunting, feminine and original story line, Batwoman ticks a lot of boxes. It is, of course, Williams’ unerring pages that draw the real attention. Williams seems to have come full circle from his days on Deathwish – pushing the boundaries of sexuality (Batwoman is one of only a few prominent gay characters in comics – of which she is perhaps the most prominent) and using the backstreets, slums and sidewalks as his backdrop – JH Williams remains, for now, a million miles from the twisting reality of the Promethea universe, the hardy western violence of Jonah Hex or a thousand miles at least from the old swamp hut where ancient beings redesign reality, visited by I, Spyder in Morrisons’ crazy Seven Soldiers bookends.

Able to mimic Kirby, Simone Bianchi (Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight), Cameron Stewart (Seven Soldiers: Manhattan Guardian), Ryan Sook (Seven Soldiers: Zatanna), Frazer Irving (Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch Boy), Pascal Ferry (Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle), Yanick Paquette (Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer) and Doug Mahnke (Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein) in order to combine the varied strings of Morrison’s seven different titles stylistically and draw them to a very specific close in his own style. Given that that style involves pages made up of puzzle pieces, whole newspaper pages, Western scenes involving giant spiders, world twisting imagery and the destruction of the end of the Sheeda, a devilish Hybrid civilisation born from the remnants of the Human society it’d be a crisis for almost any other artist – though a challenge many will take on. But a man like JH Williams III, it appears that it’s terrifyingly par for the course.

At present, a talent unlike any other in the comics industry, which in an industry built on clear principles and methodology, only highlights just how special the third JH Williams really is….

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Practitioners 24: John Romita Jr

John Salvatore Romita Jr or JRJR (born August 17, 1956) is an American comic book artist best known for his extensive work with solely with Marvel comics from the 1970s to present day.

Born and still living in New York city, Romita Jr is influenced heavily by the city around him and that he grew up in. Fittingly he has remained at the company that calls New York home, 367 Park Avenue South or Marvel Comics throughout his professional career and his work has become synonomous with its most famous characters. He was born to John Romita Sr, co-creator of several notable Spider-man stories in the 1960s and 1970s. In true New York style it could be said that drawing Marvel comics is the family business.

Oddly Romita Jr began his career at Marvel UK, doing sketches for covers of reprints. His American debut was with a six part story entitled ‘Chaos at the Coffee Bean!’ in Amazing Spider-man Annual 11 in 1977. At this point Romita Jr’s artwork represented the time it was being produced with clean linework and animation standard (simplified) detailing. But his characterisation and simple adjustments to the panel by panel and simple visual storytelling that was taking place then won him a lot of fans. His characters weightier and more rounded than others, his line work curvaceous and bold when necessary Romita Jr’s style was bold and easily digestible. Romita Jr is a commercial artist, offering bold and brash imagery that feeds the eye more for the same price as other artists.

Romita’s early popularity began however with his run on Iron Man with David Michelinie and artist Bob Layton which began in 1978. He was eventually offered his first regular run on Spider-man in the early 80s and was the artist that launched the Dazzler series. In this period Romita Jr co created the character of the Hobgoblin with writer Roger Stern – a kind of Green Goblin light with his own good / evil morality in play, Hobgoblin represented a genuinely unrestricted and unfamiliar goblin for Spider-man to play with.

Uncanny X-Men 304

From 1983 to 1986 he had a popular run on Uncanny X-Men, introducing the future X-man Bishop in his tenure in a brutal and distinct storyline that battered the edges of what was being done in comics at the time. Romita Jr returned to Uncanny X-Men in 1993 in which he pencilled the Fathers and Son’s crossover Uncanny issue in which Prof X and Magneto collide and Magneto has his mind removed. He depicted the turning of Colossus and his joining of the Acolytes and the showdown between Xavier and his X-Men and Magneto and his Acolytes on Asteroid M in the Fathers and Sons X-over that made history with the release of X-Men 25. Romita Jr’s work was bold, reminiscent of 50s and 60s pop art and exploded from the page in a way nobody else’s did at the time.

But prior to his second stint on Uncanny X-Men Romita was granted an extended stint on Daredevil with writer Ann Nocenti and Eisner award winning inker Al Williamson. In this period he began to develop the Romita Jr style we see now. Shoulders and shape became more developed and something significant happened… Romita Jr broke the rules…

Most artists use a series of bubbles in place of parts of the body in order to decide placement, perspective and shape. The leg would be perhaps five parts (the longer larger upper leg, the smaller oval knee joint, the slightly bannister like lower leg / shin, perhaps a round joint at the ankle joint to indicate a change of angle and an uneven tear drop shape to form the foot). You can achieve this easily with every body part and build an entire Human frame using these bags. You then pencil over it, define the shape clearly and subsume it in ink – hiding your working underneath all that.

Romita Jr doesn’t. His characters are effectively the same set of shapes inflated and deflated according to the size and shape of the character. The sawn off frame of Wolverine is the same as the tall powerful frame as Colossus. The Punisher from Romita Jr’s very cool run in Punisher: War Journal is the same shape as Wolverine. Art law says this is bad practice. That by showing your working and working from such a clear template is not art. Romita Jr has made one thing clear in the nicest possible way. He simply doesn’t give a shit. And neither should he.

Romita Jr’s success is built on these parameters. The characters represent mannequins on which Romita Jr applies the feelings and the events that are taking place around them. He applies garish, squared and diametrically even surroundings that draw in the eye and hold it there. He isn’t a naturalist or a life artist, Romita Jr is a comic artist and a purist and never an apologist.

He has built an incredible career with the same company (even his other company credits are Kick Ass – printed through Marvel’s Icon Imprint, Punisher/Batman in association with Marvel as well as DC and admittedly 1 credit with the Gray Area 1-3 in 2004 with Glen Brunswick for Image Comics). He is a class act and no freelancer – he has a job with a reputable company which he is doing well and there is no reason he should stop doing it.

Rolling out Spider-man, Avengers (most recently the new Avengers series), Black Panther, Daredevil, Iron Man, Cable, Punisher, The Eternals, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men, Ultimate Vision, Wolverine, Sentry and pretty much the only thing worth picking up World War Hulk for by ingraining it with such force and mind-bending power on each that it was a joy to behold.

The fact is with Romita Jr, you can see the workings but you can also see the most basic rules of comic book art. Clean lines reminiscent of the 60s era in comic books, graphic and bold line work that still belongs on an Andy Warhol Pop art wall hanging. Romita Jr is keeping historic conventions alive and kicking in his work. If you look at his work you can still see the influence of Ditko and his dad, Romita Jr and the reason that everything we see in comic books today comes from it. I hope Romita Jr remains at Marvel for a great many years.

He’ll be attending the Kapow Comicon in London on April 9-10th and I hope to catch him there. My work isn’t much like his but frankly I think that’s because I’m not sure I’ve fully learned how to draw comics.