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  • Al Williamson- I Went Backstage

    I’ll go back and put in art this week, I have a headcold and it’s late. Plus, deadlines. Yet, I couldn’t do anything else until I got these thoughts down. –JP

    Al Williamson has left us after years of declining health. There are many people I need to take the time out and thank for contributing to this career I’m in, you may have read me talking about the late Dave Stevens . Apparently people have to be gone before I talk about how much they meant to me. I should write several pages about what Berni Wrightson or Don Newton did for me through their work when I was a teenager. But the one I put at the beginning when it comes to meeting an influence was Al Williamson. I know I’ve mentioned the day a thousand times to friends, but I never tire of remembering it.

    First, let me back up further and thank John Hitchcock of the comics shop Parts Unknown in Greensboro, NC. At the time he was with ACME Comics over on Lee Street and instrumental in bringing out convention guests whom he was interested in meeting, largely the creators who worked for EC Comics in the 1950s. For this reason, by sheer luck of growing up in a state known largely for tobacco and textiles, I got to meet giants of the comics industry. Talents like George Evans and Harvey Kurtzman, Angelo Torres… there was no reason I should have been able to get an audience with these people, but someone else’s tastes made it happen. And I loved those books. My horrible imitations of Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson could stop a bullet if stacked together. So one weekend in ’88 I drove down to the Piedmont only 20 miles from where I grew up and nervously took a stack of pages into the Acmecon.

    Here, I’ll note that I realize probably 88% of people reading this are thinking “you used to draw?” That’s no loss, what is tragic is that about the same number think only of Al Williamson as a guy who inked a lot of Marvel Comics. What he was though was one of the major talents to ever grace the field. Even if you didn’t know his work, you felt his influence elsewhere in pop culture, one of the most apparent being what everyone in Star Wars is running around wearing. Appropriately, they came to him to draw the newspaper strip later. Some of my all time favorite Williamson work is three issues of Flash Gordon he drew in the ’60′s. To look at his work as a young artist is an exercise in frustration; he was such a virtuoso that in trying to learn from him, you get caught up in a lot of execution beyond the part you need to be focusing on. Those brush lines are enchanting and you want to go right to them, forgetting that Al knew how to do the figure, staging and powerful composition first. I spent many hours wondering why I couldn’t make a Windsor Newton brush do these things. I’m sure I was up late the night before working on pages I was going to show him.

    When you’ve blown up an artistic hero in your head, it’s always an experience to see them sitting at a table near you, being real people. I got that bumped up yet another level as Al looked over my pages and chuckled at a panel where I’d drawn the alien lizard kid from his old EC story. These pages would be hard for me or anyone to look at now, but the important thing I’d done right without realizing it was to not be the 7000th kid to shove superhero pages under his nose. Most of it was attempts at the kind of adventure strips he’d read since being a kid himself growing up in Columbia (and thus pulling off better jungle vegetation and lizards in his environments than oh, anyone). But here’s where the experience went on to dominate my psychological landscape. After some nodding, he realized that the line was building for him to sign books. Instead of handing back my art he put it to the side and said “come back around and sit down.”

    I don’t know if you ever had Chuck Yeager say “Come on, climb up in the Bell X-1″ or Louie Armstrong tell you to grab a horn and sit in with him, but that would have to be how it feels.

    Al never really had much of a break to go over my art with me, but that hardly mattered. He had invited me to come sit on the other side of the table, the first time I’d ever seen the world from that side. With him. I got in a little small talk though, and he gave me his address and said to come by if I managed to get up around Pennsylvania some time. That next summer, I saw to it that I got up around Pennsylvania.

    This was essentially a pilgrimage. I planned out a trip through Washington culminating at Al’s house with my friend Micah Harris who I worked with on comics in school. At some point we confirmed the visit with Al, who mentioned that newcomer Mark Schultz of some Xenozoic Tales book lived nearby in Allentown, he could call him down or we should stop by there too. I still love that Al considered Mark able to drop whatever and run over- which I’m sure he would have been happy to do had Al asked. So we headed up, and in fact did meet Mark and Denise Schultz by stopping and looking him up in the phone book, as Micah just reminded me at the HeroesCon last week. I clearly was the master of tact, essentially inviting myself to people’s houses if they did comics I liked. That alone was important as I’m happy to still be friends with the Schultzes after all this time. Before the internet, it actually was a special thing to run into more people who appreciated the same things in art and story, and that was a great evening.

    The visit to Al’s the next day was not as happy, no way to revise it otherwise. He was in a very low mood-his oldest son had died a couple of years back, and that was weighing on him as it must have constantly. We briefly met his then studio-mate Bret Blevins as he was on the way out the door. Our incessant questions about his friends Wally Wood, Roy Krenkel, and anything relating to his EC days actually did seem to give Al a small break from his troubles, at least I hoped it had. His daughter popping in for a few minutes probably did much more for him- I think he had her filling in blacks on pages. The studio was one wonder after another. This was the first time I ever saw an enormous Hal Foster Prince Valiant page on the wall, and really more incredible art than I’ve seen since, only visiting Howard Chaykin has come close. When King Features was just throwing out the original art to their headliners like Flash Gordon, Al had kept his best poker face and offered to get rid of some of those useless, worthless art boards. But he also had a trove of art his peers had given or traded him over the years. We talked about how great Terry and the Pirates was, I remember that. But then when it came time for him to get back to work, the walk through of happier times seemed to make coming back to the present that much more painful.

    A few years later I got back to Al’s neck of the woods again and called to see if I could stop by. He had moved to another house and wasn’t working out of a home studio anymore, he had an office in the building where the magazine Highlights was made. The room he rented was stacked with books everywhere but where he sat and drew, not really anywhere for me to hang out. So we walked down to the nearby lunch place where he was clearly The Regular. It was a much happier day for him.

    At some point he told a story about going with his mother to see Stewart Granger in a play. Scaramouche was one of Al’s favorite movies, but the connection was mostly from him being told all his life that he looked like Granger- which he very much did. They met briefly afterward in the autograph group, and Granger said something charming that I can’t remember now no matter how hard I try. This may have been where he said that was an exception and imparted the advice: Don’t Go Backstage. I think. I’m not sure I can trust my memory anymore, I’m so geared to putting things where they go in a better story order. If you don’t infer, he was referring to hunting down and meeting your heroes. I don’t know who all he had a bad experience with, though one was obviously Burne Hogarth, an infamous blowhard and Al’s teacher when he was very young.

    The one who would have been the worst to go badly was Al’s greatest drawing hero, Alex Raymond. But that day at lunch, he told me about going out on his own pilgrimage to Raymond’s house and it had gone very well. Young Al was met at the door by a servant, which seemed right for going to see such a bigshot- I can’t remember how he got in touch with Raymond for the visit. The Society of Illustrators maybe? But apparently the titan who created Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby let Al stick around and ask questions for a couple of hours, though I think Al remembered being mostly quiet. Raymond invited him to stay in touch, but Al didn’t want to push his luck. Later he ran into one of Raymond’s assistants from that time who translated the experience for the unassuming Al; Raymond had been impressed with the young man and was interested in giving him work, had he followed up.

    I can’t describe how wonderful it was to sit there in that cafe and hear Al Williamson talk about his brush with greatness while I was in the middle of mine. Talking about his hero made him wear that Stewart Granger smile, and I think I did correct him on his ‘backstage visit’ advice by mentioning that it worked out very well for me. I was of course waved off, Al was not going to let me put him on a pedestal. Some time later I got around that humble wall by writing him a letter telling how much that invitation behind the table still meant to me. You can’t wave off my sappy sentiment in a nice one-sided letter, all you can do is sit there and take it.

    I don’t know how serious I truly was about working in comics that day of the Greensboro show – I loved them, but that was a point where I could have gone in many directions. It certainly wasn’t my major in school, and my father was not encouraging of something he’d never known anyone to make a living in. But after that meeting I went back and tripled my output of story pages. I stayed up late at night working on comics and always had new material to show at each comics show within driving range. And that range was the continental US, because the next couple of years I drove the 2500 miles to the San Diego Comicon.

    There are a few major road markers on the path of my life, and one of the biggest was put there by Al Williamson, just being himself. There will never be another like him.

    Comments

    Comment from Jimmy palmiotti
    Time: June 14, 2010, 4:33 am

    Great memories and well written. Al will be missed.

    Comment from tomg
    Time: June 14, 2010, 5:28 am

    WOW! This makes me sad. He was one of my artist heroes too. Probably number one. When I was trying to draw comicis (Orpheus and more so later Delta-3) he was the big influence. I remember pouring over his sketchbook, X-9 strips, and his EC stuff to see how Al did things.
    I remember that Acmecon too. I was there and I remember how you were floating on air. We all were for you. It was historic? maybe. I showed Al my art that day too. He said some kind things that encouraged me. I was impressed at how nice a guy he was. There were others there who gave me the brush off but Al didn’t. He took a brief moment to encourage me to keep at it. I really appreciated that.
    And I do remember you cranking things up after that.
    And I still have some of those Dash pages. And I have a scanner.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:38 am

    Thanks Jimmy.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:40 am

    Tom, let’s be clear- you proliferate those old pages, and I will nuke the entire Raleigh-Durham area to insure their destruction. The losses will be sad, but necessary.

    Comment from Michael Hoskin
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:54 am

    Seriously? He’s dead? Why is this the first place I’m hearing of this?

    Now that I’ve heard your tale, I can see that your art and Williamson’s came from a similar place. It depresses me to think that while Foster, Caniff & Raymond influenced a generation of artists, that next generation’s influence doesn’t appear to be that strong today; I would love it if more of today’s talent looked to Williamson for inspiration.

    The books Hidden Lands and Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon helped me appreciate his work; now I’m left to ponder his legacy.

    Comment from Sandy Jarrell
    Time: June 14, 2010, 7:20 am

    Really nice piece, Parker. Sorry you lost another hero.

    Comment from Reilly Brown
    Time: June 14, 2010, 7:34 am

    Man, I just heard about his passing. The world of comics has lost one of it’s titans this past weekend. Al Williamson is one of the artists who’s work I always have next to my drawing table for quick reference any time I need to see how one of the greats worked something out, or even if I just need some inspiration. As hard as I try, though, I can never channel even a fraction of his great talent.
    Jeff, I envy you for having met him and having the opportunity to see him in action in his studio.
    Thanks for sharing that story.

    Pingback from Legendary illustrator Al Williamson passes away | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment
    Time: June 14, 2010, 8:01 am

    [...] Palmiotti and Jeff Parker recount their memories of Williamson. I'm sure more creators will join in as the day [...]

    Comment from David Oakes
    Time: June 14, 2010, 8:54 am

    Thank you, Mr. Parker, for taking those of us that never met him “backstage” with Mr. Williamson.

    Comment from Zack Smith
    Time: June 14, 2010, 9:09 am

    …that made water come out my eyes.

    Comment from Mitch Breitweiser
    Time: June 14, 2010, 9:58 am

    What an wonderful memory, Jeff. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with all of us. It seems Al’s kindness is just as much a testament to his life as is his breathtaking artwork.

    Comment from Jed Alexander
    Time: June 14, 2010, 10:12 am

    Someone quoted you elsewhere mentioning the 3 issues of Flash Gordon Williamson did for Dell/Gold Key, and I had been looking at those same issues just a couple of weeks ago and they were the first things that came to mind when I heard that he had died–Williamson getting a chance to draw his hero’s creation. Also some really fine comics, and when he returned to the character some years later for a 2 issue project at Marvel, it was still excellent stuff, but not as inspired as the earlier work.

    Williamson was one of those great craftsman who never let you down. There is no such thing as Al Williamson hack work. Thanks for the story, and what a wonderful privilege to have met the man.

    Comment from Patman
    Time: June 14, 2010, 10:30 am

    I think the first thing I remember seeing Al Williamson draw were the Star Wars daily strips, and the comic book adaptations for ESB and RotJ, and even then he drew with such an easy and naturalistic style, it made me very interested in his graceful brushwork before I even entertained the art of inking and brushes in comics. Reading about his impact on you was a heart-warmer. RIP, Mr. Williamson.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 12:12 pm

    I agree- there’s just some magic in those King Comics issues, I know it sounds like I’m overselling them!

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 12:12 pm

    Thanks Mitch!

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 12:12 pm

    Mine too

    Comment from Jamie S. Rich
    Time: June 14, 2010, 12:35 pm

    Wonderful piece, Jeff. Really made me remember what a helluva guy Al was.

    Comment from Mark Bourne
    Time: June 14, 2010, 12:55 pm

    Great tribute! The word “incomparable” describes his work for me.

    Comment from John Hitchcck
    Time: June 14, 2010, 3:35 pm

    This was a wonderful read Jeff.
    I am glad my little shows made that kind of impression on you. Al was one of the best friends I ever had and I will think of him with a huge smile on my face.
    I hope he is visiting with Roy Krenkel right now and Roy is taking him around to visit Stoops , Coll and Eisner.We were so lucky to be able to meet Al and he was so generous with his time.
    Thanks again,
    John Hitchcock

    Comment from Frank Lovece
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:26 pm

    That was a wonderful reminiscence, Jimmy. You put into words exactly what it felt like to be a teenager and having that tremulous feeling of getting to meet one of your heroes and hang out for a while — and I love that you still can reach in and touch that feeling even after all these years. I enjoyed reading this, and as you say, it’s sad that it often takes a passing to make us say what we feel.

    Comment from Frank Lovece
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:28 pm

    Sorry — meant “Jeff” — it’s late and I’m bleary-eyed and I opened Jimmy Palmiotti’s blog at the same time. Doesn’t change my genuine feelings about your reminiscence.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 14, 2010, 6:54 pm

    Yeah, but now you have to go call Jimmy my name! Good to hear from you Frank.

    Pingback from Remembering Al Williamson (1931-2010) | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment
    Time: June 15, 2010, 11:01 am

    [...] Jeff Parker: "When you’ve blown up an artistic hero in your head, it’s always an experience to seem them sitting at a table near you, being real people. I got that bumped up yet another level as Al looked over my pages and chuckled at a panel where I’d drawn the alien lizard kid from his old EC story. These pages would be hard for me or anyone to look at now, but the important thing I’d done right without realizing it was to not be the 7000th kid to shove superhero pages under his nose. Most of it was attempts at the kind of adventure strips he’d read since being a kid himself growing up in Colombia (and thus pulling off better jungle vegetation and lizards in his environments than oh, anyone). But here’s where the experience went on to dominate my psychological landscape. After some nodding, he realized that the line was building for him to sign books. Instead of handing back my art he put it to the side and said 'come back around and sit down.'" [...]

    Comment from Dana
    Time: June 15, 2010, 12:41 pm

    He was a class act.
    One of the pillars of professionalism.

    Comment from King Hulk Marco
    Time: June 16, 2010, 9:04 am

    Another giant gone but not forgotten. Through his work will Al Williamson live forever and inspire future generations of budding young artists (like he did with you Jeff and countless others). May God welcome him through those pearly gates with open arms and reunite him with his loved ones.

    Comment from Aaron
    Time: June 18, 2010, 1:14 pm

    I’m a little unfamiliar with Al Williamson’s work, but when I saw that Flash Gordon cover, my jaw dropped I was impressed & saddened of his passing. Al Williamson is gone, but he definately will not be forgotten, RIP Al Williamson.

    Comment from Brian M.
    Time: June 22, 2010, 6:55 pm

    Jeff, thanks for sharing that as most of what I have read since his death was in praise of his work, deservedly so, but you have done a great job of commemorating the man.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 22, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Thanks for reading it, Brian. JP

    Comment from Joe Alexander
    Time: June 23, 2010, 12:27 pm

    Jeff, thanks for a great column. When I read Mr. Williamson had passed, it was like a smack to my inner teenaged dreamer. I have always tried to drum up conversations with fellow comic fans regarding how much I loved his art. Sadly, as you say, many either did not know him or only knew of his recent work as an inker. In my imagination, where all the greats get to do their best work, I often dreamed about how cool it would be to have another set of Al Williamson prints, where he could do his incredible combination of layouts and detail. I love many artists work, but especially those whose work remind me of no others. His stuff evoked the most incredible, fantastic ideas of adventure on exotic planets. Thanks again for sharing your insights and absolutely cool experiences.

    Comment from Keith
    Time: June 29, 2010, 1:26 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    I’ve just gotten around to reading your reminiscence, well done. I met Al when I attended the Kubert school – he taught there ’84-85 (I don’t know if he ever taught another year, but that was when I was there.) I too made the trek out to his home and studio in Pensylvania with a couple of classmates and met Blevins then. Al was kind enough to contribute to my class sketchbook.

    My best memory of my time in Al’s class is that he taught me how to use a brush. He couldn’t explain it, because it’s just something he did. In drawing him out and engaging him, Al was a brilliant instructor and through that, and observation, I began to get a feel for the brush, and I owe it to him.

    He was a wonderful artist and a good man. He’ll be missed.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: June 29, 2010, 1:42 pm

    Good to hear yours too Keith!