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….

Practitioners 48: Frank Miller (Part 1)

Frank Miller is an American comic book artist, writer and film director best known for his brooding, dark, film noir depictions of famous comic characters and the development of noir dystopias, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300, Ronin and Daredevil: Born Again. Batman : Dark Knight Returns is viewed as a seminal work in comics history, mandatory for any that want to understand what (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) changed the face of comics so dramatically in the 1980s. He is also, nowadays, a liberal hate figure after outspoken statements regarding protest camps in the US and UK against multinational corporations. This, among other things, has placed a pall over his previous work, calling into question his politics and views on women, crime and society.

Miller was born in Olney, Maryland and raised Montpelier, Vermont, the fifth of seven children of a nurse mother and an electrician/ carpenter father. He was raised as an Irish Catholic.

Setting out to become an artist, Miller recieved his first published work at Western Publishing’s Gold Key Comics imprint on the comic book version of The Twilight Zone, drawing ‘Royal Feast’ in issue #84 (June 1978), and “Endless Cloud” in #85 (July 1978). Jim Shooter, one-time Marvel Editor-in-chief recalled Miller’s attempt to join DC, emboldened by his sign up with Western Publishing. “He went to DC, and after getting savaged by Joe Orlando, got in to see art director Vinnie Colletta, who recognized talent and arranged for him to get a one-page war-comic job”.

Miller’s first listed work is the six-page “Deliver Me From D-Day”, by writer Wyatt Gwyon, in Weird War Tales #64 (June 1978). A two-page story, however, written by Roger McKenzie and titled “Slowly, painfully, you dig your way from the cold, choking debris…”, appears in Weird War Tales #68 (Oct. 1978). Other fledgling work at DC included the six-page “The Greatest Story Never Told”, by writer Paul Kupperberg, in that same issue, and the five-page “The Edge of History”, written by Elliot S. Maggin, in Unknown Soldier #219 (Sept. 1978). and his first work for Marvel Comics, penciling the 17-page story “The Master Assassin of Mars, Part 3” in John Carter, Warlord of Mars #18 (Nov. 1978).

Miller’s style was never super hero orientated but in an industry that was he had little choice but to pursue it, practicing the form and bringing Superheroes to life well enough to secure a position as regular fill-in and cover artist on a number of titles, including Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-man #27–28 (Feb.–March 1979) which featured a character that grabbed Miller’s attention. As Miller recalled in 2008 “… as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it”

Although still conforming to traditional comic book styles, Miller introduced his noir style to the pages of Daredevil on his debut, joining on a finale of an ongoing story written by Roger McKenzie. Living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s Miller sketched the roof tops of his surrounding neighbourhoods and imbued the title with a greater accuracy than fans had seen before. New York was now a more dangerous place. His work was cited as reminiscent of German Expressionism’s dramatic edges and shadows as the Red Devil fought mostly now at rooftop level, among the water towers, pipes and chimneys.

Miller’s run was successful enough to bring Daredevil back from being a bi-monthly title to a monthly one but that was far from the limit of the success. With the departure of Roger McKenzie, Miller took over as writer and penciller, with long time collaborator Klaus Janson on inks introducing a skittish, visceral feel. Art became to form. Violence bled (within the limited parameters of the Comics Authority), fear was felt, anger and danger were portrayed. Everything was comics +. This was a slightly more frenetic, powerful version of the superhero canon – the focus on the darkness in the lives of the bright tights. Issue #168 saw the first appearance of the ninja mercenary Elektra, who despite being an assassin-for-hire would become Daredevil’s love-interest. Miller would write and draw a solo Elektra story in Bizarre Adventures #28 (Oct. 1981). This further characterised Miller’s work on Daredevil with darker themes and stories. This peaked when in #181 (April 1982) he had the assassin Bullseye kill Elektra. Miller finished his Daredevil run with issue #191 (Feb. 1983); in his time he had transformed a second-tier character into one of Marvel’s most popular.

Gotham's skyline from Miller's 1986 Dark Knight Returns (with Klaus Janson)

Additionally, Miller drew a short Batman Christmas story, entitled ‘ Wanted: Santa Claus: Dead or Live’ written by Denny O’Neill for DC Special Series #21 (Spring 1980). This professional introduction to the Dark Knight was to prove a point at which the comic industry stopped being something and developed into another entirely. It was the moment that comics began to move into a more graphic, realistic, emotionally dynamic, engaging and challenging era. Elsewhere, Alan Moore was working on The Watchmen and would be asked in future to write The Killing Joke and further darken the world of Gotham and it’s central hero. But nothing that Moore was writing on the Dark Knight compared to one of the most important pieces of comic book literature in history. With Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, Miller began to put together a fractured tale of a future without a Batman and a Bruce Wayne broken by the loss of Jason Todd. Now older and slower, a mournful Wayne is presented again with taking on the banner of the Bat. Only this time the world in which the caped crusader stepped into was very different…

Working with Chris Claremont at Marvel on Wolverine 1-4, inked by Josef Rubenstein and spinning off from the popular X-Men title, Miller used the series to expand on Wolverine’s character. The series was a critical success and cemented Miller as an industry star. Taking an older, curmudgeonly and effectively lonely character and dropping him into a world of greater brutality and violence proved very popular – the Wolverine series still continuing today, surviving the collapse of comics in the mid 90s and still going strong. While other great artists such as Adam Kubert and Marc Silvestri continued and concreted it’s success, Claremont and Miller set the tone. Brutal, fringe figures were quickly becoming Miller’s niche.

Marvel's Wolverine 2 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

In Miller’s first creator-owned title, Ronin, Miller had found himself with his original quarry, DC, and he was given the opportunity to further the concept of the isolated figure of violence on the edge of society. Ronin revealed most clearly the influences of Manga and bande dessinée artforms on Miller’s style, both in the artwork and narrative style. In the early 198os Miller and Steve Gerber proposed a revamp of DC’s central figures entitled ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Dark Knight’ and the frankly less inspiring ‘Amazon’. This proposal was rejected, however the first shoots of a seed of an idea were clearly being shown in those proposals. While the Man of Steel and the Amazon remained as they were, The Dark Knight was set to rise. In 1985, before the release of Miller’s finest work, he was honoured as one of the 50 honourees in the Company’s 50th Anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. Had they left it one more year, Miller would have rocketed into the top 5 with the release of the Dark Knight Returns.

Having never left, in 1986, the Dark Knight Returned and was welcomed with open arms. A four issue mini-series it featured a Gotham gone downhill, unprotected by a figurehead crime fighter as it had been time immemorial in the wider DC Universe. This was the first Elseworlds, a parallel world inhabited by a familiar but substantially different set of characters who could now live or die without consequence. However, Miller was never going to let them off that easily…

At the age of 55, Bruce Wayne returns to the hilt and takes back his role of Batman, it showcased a more adult form of comic-book storytelling by heralding new waves of darker characters. Miller, much like Moore, absorbed a great deal of the world around it though Miller twisted his into a more immediately engaging shape. Punk Gangs and Neo Nazis rule the streets alongside older, more familiar foes – all now even darker than before. The smell of paranoia over the Cold War and the threat of Nuclear War is musky in The Dark Knight, increasing the pall of murk that has descended on Gotham. Simultaneously though Miller gave voice to both liberal and right wing opinions during the series, through continual talking heads on various invented TV shows. With the themes of media, crime, personal responsibility, federal control, public opinion and the futility of redemption, Dark Knight represents a dark and risible future. It was excellent. A timely chime on a bell of collective paranoia, it tapped perfectly into the state of mind of society at the time. Rather than the patronising resolution by brightly coloured gods – here the solution contains only glimmers of salvation but deep shades of absolutism. It satisfies fully as emotional resolutions are struck so rarely in the real world, rarely in conjunction with the resolution of situations. In Miller’s world there are no easy answers. His worlds roll on beyond the final panel, stories often unfinished, character’s unresolved. 25 years later the collected novel remains a timeless best seller.

But what was to come next would cement Miller as a legendary artist and writer but it will be his move to LA that will reveal him as a true auteur. Noir bleeding from every pore, Sin City was still almost a decade away…

Part 2 will be here Next Tuesday