Celebrating the Illustrative Inspiration of Al Williamson
Illustrator supreme. Inker extraoardinaire. Member of the Eisner Hall Of Fame. Al Williamson's skill was matched only by his imagination, and in a career that spanned seven decades, he established himself as not just one of the greatest artists the comics industry has ever seen, but one of the most sympathetic and versatile collaborators, who brought an extra element of inspiration to everything he touched, and helped those around him to achieve new heights.
Alfonso Williamson was born on March 21st, 1931 in Manhattan. His family moved to Columbia shortly after his birth, and at age nine, after seeing a chapter of a Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial, he became obsessed with drawing scenes of alien worlds, outlandish creatures, and swashbuckling spacemen.
After his return to New York at age 13, he enrolled at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now known as the School of Visual Arts), and broke into the comics field by the time he was 17, assisting Burne Hogarth on some Tarzan Sunday pages, co-pencilling a story with Frank Frazetta for one of Standard Comics' anthology titles, and providing some spot illustrations for a 1948 issue of Western Publishing's Famous Funnies. For the next four years he produced a variety of western, fantasy, and sci-fi stories for Western, Standard, Fawcett, AGC, and other publishers, often in association with other artists such as Frazetta, Wally Wood, and Roy Krenkel.
In 1952, he joined Wood, Krenkel, and Frazetta at EC Comics, and soon became one of the company's star artists, primarily working on their science fiction comics, but also occasionally contributing to the horror and crime titles. Here, Williamson honed his signature style, establishing a place all his own somewhere between Frazetta's hyper-detailed exaggeration, Wood's sculpted romanticism, and the sleek photorealism of Alex Raymond.
Williamson drew matinee-idol handsome men, glamorous and mysterious women, and sleek, futuristic machinery, and his mix of intricate pen lines and deep black spotting was distinct and inimitable. His artistic sensibilities were a perfect fit for EC's stories, which skewed older than most of their competitors, and offered a potent blend of sensationalistic spectacle, social commentary, and shock endings.
Sadly, EC's time at the top was short-lived, and after publisher Bill Gaines' decision to close down their line of comics, Williamson was once again a free agent. For the rest of the decade he worked for Atlas, Dell, Charlton, Harvey, ACG, and a number of other publishers, and in the early '60s, he began working as an assistant for John Prentice on the Rip Kirby newspaper strip.
He returned to comic books in 1964, drawing stories for Gold Key and contributing to Warren's black-and-white magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Blazing Combat. In 1966, he launched a new Flash Gordon comic book for King Features, which won him both an Alley Award and a National Cartoonists Society Award, and he helped compile 1967's Flash Gordon hardcover from Nostalgia Press, which was the first volume to re-present Alex Raymond's groundbreaking strips in a deluxe, upscale format. Also in 1967, he teamed with writer Archie Goodwin to take over the syndicated Secret Agent X-9/Secret Agent Corrigan strip, which they would helm for the next thirteen years.
In addition to drawing that daily feature, Williamson continued to work for Gold Key, DC, Marvel, and other publishers, producing various covers, stories, and illustrations throughout the '70s. In 1980, once they finished their run on Corrigan, he and Goodwin collaborated on the Star Wars daily newspaper strip (which ran from 1981 to 1984), and the hugely popular Marvel adaptations of Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, which were published in various formats: as standard comics, oversized magazines, and mass-market pocket books. He also provided the art for various other projects, including the comic adaptations of Blade Runner (for Marvel) and the 1980 Flash Gordon movie (for Western/Golden Publishing).
In the mid '80s, Williamson cut back on pencilling assignments and began spending more time inking other pencillers, first with a short stint at DC on Superman (over Curt Swan's pencils), then hopping back to Marvel, where he and John Buscema handled art for the first arc of Wolverine's ongoing title. Next, he became the regular inker on Daredevil, pairing with John Romita Jr. for an essential three years' worth of issues, then sticking around after JRjr's departure for an acclaimed run alongside penciller Lee Weeks.
Through the '90s, he remained hugely productive. His inks helped define a pair of high-profile Spider-projects, as he teamed with Rick Leonardi for 1992's Spider-Man 2099 series and Pat Olliffe for 1998's fan-favorite Spider-Girl title. He also reunited with Romita Jr. for 1993's five-issue Daredevil: Man Without Fear mini-series, a book that saw writer Frank Miller expanding Matt Murdock's origin in a story that would, twenty-odd years later, provide much inspiration for the first season of Netfilx's hit Daredevil series.
Between 1988 and 1997, Williamson won seven Harveys and two Eisners for his inking work. And in 1995, he returned to pencilling for a special project, producing a two-issue Flash Gordon miniseries for Marvel that stands alongside his finest work.
As he reached his seventies, Williamson retired from full-time work, but still produced occasional illustrations for special projects. He became a regular feature at conventions, and contributed to a number of historical projects about his own work, and those of his artistic contemporaries. Though he passed away in 2010, his influence is still felt throughout the world of comics, and his work continues to be held up as some of the finest the medium has ever seen.
So today, on the anniversary of his birth, we remember the life and career of the great Al Williamson, and celebrate all the weird, wild, and wondrous worlds that his artistry brought to life.