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 49: Jack Kirby (Part 3)

In November 1961 The Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands across America. The story of four uniquely powered individuals related to each other as relatives, in friendship and purpose, revolutionised the industry. Although clearly reminiscent of hundreds of Sci-fi books before this had a comparative naturalism to it that hadn’t been seen before blended with a cosmic purview informed by boundless imagination. It was powered by Marvel Editor-in-chief Stan Lee and seasoned comics artist Jack Kirby.

For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel’s house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee’s request he often provided ‘new-to-marvel artists ‘breakdown’ layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:

‘Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.’

Highlights from the House of Ideas other than the Fantastic Four include: Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city Attilan and the Black Panther – comic’s first black superhero – and his African nation Wakanda. Last year and 2010 Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men grossed worldwide ($1,425,062,845) One Billion, four hundred and twenty five million, sixty two thousand, eight hundred and forty five dollars (A combination of $623,933,331 for Iron Man 2, $448,512,824 for Thor and $352,616,690 for X-Men: First Class). This was begun by two men, one of which was Jack Kirby. They cemented the concepts so clearly that while developed, the core values remain. All of them have the best writers, directors and actors vying to be a small part in the development of these ideas formed 51 years ago. Decades of the most talented artists have looked to Kirby for inspiration. His ideas as only presented more clearly, barely changed from the original concept design – perhaps drawn, in one case, on a table in Brooklyn many years before – with thoughts of war he hadn’t yet been called on to fight in his mind.

In March 1964, Simon and Kirby’s Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel, Kirby approving Lee’s idea of partially remaking the characters as a man out of his time and regretting the death of his partner. The suit returned almost exactly as it had been 23 years before. Last year, Captain America made $368,608,363 at the box office as Kirby’s suit stepped, again almost unchanged close to 70 years after the day it was designed on the back of Chris Evans.

In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.

Kirby continued to push the industries boundaries, devising photo collage covers and interiors reminiscent of ’80s artists in England playing with sellotape and photocopiers. Developing new drawing techniques such as the method of depicting energy fields known as ‘Kirbydots’ and other experiments. Able to handle high detail, explosive composition, emotion, perspective, conceptualisation and design – it was Kirby’s sense of scale that blows many artists away. Alien engines dwarf figures in certain panels, coils, springs and rivets collected together in such ways that they seem to be an optical illusion. Perspective twists in some of his environments such as Mr Fantastic’s lab in a way that somehow bends the eye. Many generations of artists have dismissed Kirby as dated or unsophisticated until presented with his depictions of machinery and the Silver Surfer.

A character of incredible simplicity, divinity and … just … cool. The concept of a humanoid riding the waves of space at incredible speeds highlights the natural beauty and associations with divine advancement incorporating the universe around it and the increased simplicity it brings. But none of that is said. But all of it is inherent. A perfectly formed, universally accessible character made even more interesting by Stan Lee by being a good man acting as herald to a being of unimaginable power. Again, the genius of the character is that it is a perfect template that can be adapted into anyone’s style. Much like any Kirby character you can mention. The simplicity and intuitive details he applies are often so universal that they are only more interesting with each new reinterpretation. While Iron Man had to inevitably change as technology developed, Thor still carries the same Hammer and wears the same white riveted top, Captain America still has his Red, White and Blue, the star on his chest and the skull cap design applied to him in the newest incarnation, the Ultimates, by Bryan Hitch is a throwback to Kirby’s original design, Hulk remains Green (as he was in his second appearance) and even had a Grey countenance as Peter David’s Joe Fixit in the ’90s – a nod to the original design. Black Panther, Magneto, The Inhumans and Attilan have also only ever been refined – never redesigned. This is the testament to the lasting influence of Kirby. Even the X-Men have retained the yellow and blue of their original uniforms for more than 45 years. Somehow Kirby just knew. Wiser than the rest of us what he put down on paper worked and generations of artists have never cracked how to improve on his original designs.

Yet, Kirby grew increasingly unhappy at Marvel. The reasons given for this included resentment over Stan Lee’s increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman and at Marvel specifically for lack of credit for his story plotting, character creations and co-creations. He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as “The Inhumans” in Amazing Adventures, as well as horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.

Spending nearly two years trying to negotiate a three year contract with the option of staying on a further two additional years. In 1970, at the age of 53, Kirby joined DC and immediately started creating a ‘Fourth World’. A trilogy of New Titles – New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People. He took on Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen because the series was without a stable creative team and he didn’t want to be responsible for losing anyone their job. The central villain of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and some other Fourth World concepts appeared in the pages of Jimmy Olsen before being launched as their own series, giving greater exposure to potential buyers. Jack Kirby remained an incredibly shrewd operator, still demonstrating the guile and forward thinking that is expected of great creative directors. Though here he was without a company, working as he had always wanted to. As a creative.

Kirby had a lasting effect on DC too, leaving characters that have recurred or consistently remained in the DC Universe, though not as centrally as the Marvel Universe. These included OMAC (seen in the Final Crisis crossover of 2009), Kamandi, The Demon, The Losers, Dingbats of Danger Street, Kobra and together with old partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman.

But it had to be said that rather than Kirby having Marvel blood in his veins, Marvel ran on Kirby Engine Oil and the company would always have taken him back. In 1975, Stan Lee used a Fantastic Four discussion panel to announce that Kirby was returning to Marvel. Ever the showman, Lee wrote in his monthly article ‘Stan Lee’s Soapbox’ that “I mentioned that I had a special announcement to make. As I started telling about Jack’s return, to a totally incredulous audience, everyone’s head started to snap around as Kirby himself came waltzin’ down the aisle to join us on the rostrum! You can imagine how it felt clownin’ around with the co-creator of most of Marvel’s greatest strips once more.”

Back at Marvel, Kirby both wrote and drew Captain America and created the series The Eternals, which featured a race of inscrutable alien giants, the Celestials, whose behind-the-scenes intervention in primordial humanity would eventually become a core element of Marvel Universe continuity. Kirby’s other Marvel creations in this period include Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and an adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as an abortive attempt to do the same for the classic television series, The Prisoner. He also wrote and drew Black Panther and did numerous covers across the line.

Still dissatisfied with Marvel’s treatment of him and with the companies refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, Kirby sadly left Marvel to work in animation. In that field, he did designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and other animated television series. He also worked on The Fantastic Four cartoon show, reuniting him with scriptwriter Stan Lee. He illustrated an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole for Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales syndicated comic strip in 1979-80.

In the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, a new, non-newsstand comic book publisher, made a then-groundbreaking deal with Kirby to publish a creator-owned series Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, and a six-issue mini-series called Silver Star which was collected in hardcover format in 2007. This, together with similar actions by other independent comics publishers as Eclipse Comics (where Kirby co-created Destroyer Duck in a benefit comic-book series published to help Steve Gerber fight a legal case versus Marvel), helped establish a precedent to end the monopoly of the work for hire system, wherein comics creators, even freelancers, had owned no rights to characters they created.
Though estranged from Marvel, Kirby continued to do periodic work for DC Comics during the 1980s, including a brief revival of his “Fourth World” saga in the 1984 and 1985 Super Powers mini-series and the 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. And in 1987, under much industry pressure, Marvel finally returned much of Kirby’s original art to him.
Kirby also retained ownership of characters used by Topps Comics beginning in 1993, for a set of series in what the company dubbed “The Kirbyverse”. These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts that Kirby had kept in his files, some intended initially for the by-then-defunct Pacific Comics, and then licensed to Topps for what would become the “Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga” mythos. Marvel posthumously published a “lost” Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (April 2008), with unused pages Kirby had originally drawn for Fantastic Four 108 (March 1971).
On February 6, 1994, Kirby died at age 76 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home. He was buried at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, California.

Kirby’s legacy is enormous. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis crossover hinged on Kirby’s Fourth World – specifically Darkseid himself – inflicting themselves on Earth, Captain America still leads the Avengers / Ultimates in colours picked out for him by a man he could have fought in the war with. The Hulk continues to smash, the Surfer continues to glide through the Marvel Universe. Artists around the world look to Kirby’s example of steadfast, unfussy iconography, simple, effective design and dizzying compositions. A generation of Marvel artists were trained by him. But more important than that, Jacob Kurtzberg of Suffolk Street, New York City built dreams others could build upon while simply building his own. He has influenced and inspired thousands of creatives (including this one) and built a House of Ideas that millions of people continue to enjoy. Kirby is a true legend to those who know, possibly the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Responsible for the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and The Human Torch. If they existed, all of them would have visited the grave of Jack Kirby. The Hulk would have stood in the rain over Kirby’s resting place, a giant over a small guy’s crypt and simply said ‘Goodbye Dad’. With that, the broad shouldered goliath would turn and launch himself up into the sky, disappearing into the distance. If Kirby, lying where he was could see it he’d have thought ‘Good angle, but perhaps it could be just a little tighter…’