An appreciation of JH Williams III
I recently had the pleasure of presenting an excerpt from my upcoming Kirby book at the University of Oregon conference Understanding Superheroes, a two-day event organized by UO professor of English Ben Saunders that went a long way toward persuading me that there is life, potential, and diversity in superhero studies. This fine event was joined at the hip to Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero, a decades-spanning comic art exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (up until January 3) curated by Saunders that in itself constitutes a capsule history of the genre. I and the other presenters were treated very well, and my presentation was well received, and I learned a lot. So I came away from UO with a gushing sense of gratitude for the whole affair, and to the many fine people I got to meet.
One of the pleasures of the conference was witnessing a keynote -- the last lecture at the conference -- by Dr. Henry Jenkins about David Mack's work on Marvel's Daredevil. In particular, Jenkins discussed the Echo: Vision Quest arc from 2003-04, a Daredevil run that partakes of the meditative, nonlinear, fragmentary, multimedia and painterly aesthetic of Mack's own Kabuki series (and that struck me as a revisiting of Elektra: Assassin territory, though without Miller & Sienkiewicz's gonzo sense of humor).
What interested me most about Dr. Jenkins' talk was not the story behind Echo: Vision Quest, nor even Mack's visual realization of same, but Jenkins' examination of genre.
I have to admit, Mack's Vision Quest is pretty far from my idea of what superhero comics are good at. Nor am I a devotee of Kabuki, though I have tasted small samples, most recently from Vol. 7, The Alchemy, which I found enticing for its formal experimentalism but ultimately hard to believe in, I suppose because its narrative struck me as attenuated and unconvincing -- notional and self-regarding rather than fully fleshed out -- in contrast to its visual ingenuity. But Jenkins' talk revived my interest, if not in Mack's work itself, then in the question of how such experimental work fits, or doesn't, under the big tent of so-called mainstream comics. And this put me in mind of work that in some ways cleaves to genre convention but in other ways pushes far, far out.
Running through mainstream genre comics, most particularly superhero books, is a tradition of design-oriented experimentation that belies the conventionality of genre. Said tradition fulfills expectations even as it defies them, relying on the putative stability of genre to ground purely graphic explorations, for example innovations in layout, coloring/toning, stylistic variation (including pastiche), the intermingling of different artistic media, and even printing and packaging. What I mean by this is a type of comic which may seem conventional in its generic narrative "content" (in the sense of the fabula, the story at the heart of the comic) but which is decidedly experimental -- that is, dedicated to formal exploration and development -- in its deployment of graphic design, media, and style. In short, comics with familiar narrative premises but startling means of delivery. Some of Mack's work fits in this category; some of it, arguably, discards familiar narrative premises almost entirely (as in The Alchemy).
We could trace an experimental tendency almost all the way back to the origins of the superhero comic, or at least to Eisner, Fine, and Simon & Kirby, whose formative works vigorously explored the relationship between heroic anatomy and dynamic layout. However, the tendency seems most pronounced in the work of Neal Adams and his successors, who, starting in the late sixties, brought both a penchant for hyperrealism and yet an extravagant design sense to the genre. If Adams introduced a Raymond-esque gloss founded on commercial illustration, and reintroduced the Lou Fine-like tendency to explode panel layouts in order to better show off the splayed, hyper-extended superhero body, Jim Steranko worked initially within the stylistic orbit of Kirby but with a sense of layout influenced by the experiments in pacing seen in Eisner, Kurtzman, and Krigstein. Steranko also brought a yen for artistic pastiche, self-consciously importing elements from Pop Art, Op Art, Surrealism, and Wellesian cinema, at times not quite managing to skirt kitsch (remember his Dali riffs?) but still invigorating the comic book page.
Since the era of Adams and Steranko, a whole tradition of graphic design-centered experimentation has appeared, sometimes fading back, sometimes surging forward, fitfully making its mark on mainstream comic book art (Arlen Schumer has written helpfully about this in "The New Superheroes: A Graphic Transformation," Print 42.6 [Nov./Dec. 1988], pp. 112-31). After Adams came a number of artists whom he inspired and/or helped make room for, such as the layout-savvy Howard Chaykin (whose prescient graphic novel experiments and frantically inventive early issues of American Flagg! are design landmarks), the aggressively stylized Walt Simonson (whose energetic drawing reflected diverse influences, but in whose storytelling the Kirby influence eventually won out), and, later, Bill Sienkiewicz (at first an Adams wannabe but soon distinguished by his own expressionistic multimedia style, juiced up, I suppose, by the influence of illustrator Bob Peak).
The Barron Storey-influenced multimedia vanguardists -- Dave McKean, Kent Williams, and George Pratt come to mind, as does Sienkiewicz -- brought such experimentation into the era of full-process coloring, Baxter paper, and upscale formats, creating, in some cases, fully painted comics, or, eventually, comics dependent on the digital collaging of elements (as appears to be the case with McKean's Cages, a work that sought to distance the artist from earlier mainstream projects such as Black Orchid and Arkham Asylum). More recently Mack has imported Storrey-ish "dirty style" and multimedia conceits into Kabuki and Daredevil, etc., though I think without extending what Sienkiewicz accomplished way back in the glorious oddness of Elektra: Assassin. ("Dirty style" is what Storrey admirer David Choe calls it.) High-end mainstream comics, such as those in post-Alex Ross painterly mode, have sought to naturalize and tame some of these techniques (Ross's clean, conservative style providing the counterweight or alternative to dirty style), making American comic books these days more and more like lavish genre BD in a Humanoïdes/Heavy Metal vein.
And then there's JH Williams III, in whom graphic experimentation, the demands of narrative drawing, and the conventions of genre are perfectly counterpoised. These days, in the wake of the so-called widescreen genre aesthetic -- all those hyperrealist godchildren of Adams and Ross, artists like Bryan Hitch and Steve McNiven and the more interesting John Cassaday -- Williams is the new master of trick layouts, the one artist who is, month after month, doing more than anyone else to reinvigorate page design in mainstream comic books. Though capable of, indeed comfortable in, hyperrealism, he has, like Frank Quitely and few others, a flare for design that reintroduces a graphic energy to the straitened pages of today's mainstream comics. Williams has brought back the kind of (as Benoît Peeters puts it) decorative layout strategies seen in such Golden Age work as early Simon & Kirby or the more eccentric Fiction House comics, what my academic colleague and friend Rusty Witek has christened the "high baroque" approach to layout. What Williams is currently doing with the pages of Detective Comics represents a tour de force of narrative design: a riff on the Adams/Steranko tradition, using the digital tools of this age. (He has acknowledged, on his eminently bookmarkable blog, that Steranko is a major influence.)
Williams is probably best known for his work on Promethea (1999-2005), that esoteric philosophical treatise-cum superhero comic scripted by Alan Moore in a rapture of visionary, world-redefining occultism (or, if you're unsympathetic, epic crackpottery). Initially taken for an knockoff of Wonder Woman, Promethea went in a more experimental direction soon enough, wending its way through an elaborate cabbalistic exegesis of the very nature of reality, a sort of magical mysteries tour enabled by Williams' visual ingenuity and craft, indeed probably the result of Moore seeing what Williams could do and deciding to run with it. In short, Promethea became exactly the sort of exercise in occultist Pop subversion that I was so often warned about in church years before. It also represented the culmination of various mystical/hermetic strains running through mainstream comics since at least the seventies. Moore aimed high and pushed far, unpacking esoteric ideas in the abstract, so much so that the series became didactic, an occult primer; yet the whole thing was so effectively concretized and energized by Williams' graphic treatment that its tendency to devolve into lecture was pretty well disguised. I dug it, in any case.
By its end, Promethea embraced Apocalypse as a good thing and ended in a kind of ecstatic dissolution that also wiped away much of Moore's America's Best Comics (ABC) imprint. Long before then, in fact throughout, the series put Williams (and his collaborators, including inker Mick Gray and colorist Jeremy Cox) to the test, calling for continual modulation in style and technique and unstinting inventiveness in design. One of the most notorious examples is the Möbius-strip two-page spread in issue #15 (which I'm reproducing here as a borrowed thumbnail only [sorry!], for want of a large-enough scanner):
Another is the endless, cyclical crawl of issue #12 (which was laid out as a single scrolling page and so ought to have been bound as an accordion-fold book rather than saddle-stitched). The final issue (#32) of Promethea was the proverbial icing on the cake: its pages (32) could be reassembled to form a giant metapanel, an extension of a technique tried out by Dave Sim in Cerebus, in a sense a gigantic riff on Neal Adams' use of the panel/page gestalt. These pages, exploded beyond any sense of conventional "panel" layout, represented a design triumph (if also an unrepeatable, sui generis stunt) for Williams and co-designer/letterer Todd Klein.
It's testimony to Moore's reputation for eccentric genius that Promethea is typically introduced as an "Alan Moore" project rather than a Moore/Williams collaboration. It should have been clear from the get-go, and it's even clearer in hindsight, that Williams is one of Moore's great collaborators, in the company of Lloyd, Bissette/Totleben, Gibbons, Campbell, O'Neill, and Gebbie. Four elements in Promethea pushed Williams far artistically:
- Its metafictive, meta-art premise (that Promethea embodies the imagination and is herself a fiction made real) invited playful visual riffs on art history and comics history.
- Its unpacking of highly abstract metaconcepts put great stress on the byplay of word and image, offering strong proof of comics' capacity for graphic ideation and analysis.
- Its emphasis on the Apocalypse as a kind of fortunate dis-integration, a traumatic yet affirmative transformation, justified bringing all kinds of generative instability to the picture plane (this theme was essentially a warrant for upping the ante).
- Finally, the plot called for a lot of what I call ontological hopscotch, that is, skipping between supposed planes of reality, or multiple dimensions, a trope visually reinforced by changes in style. Dig the various photographic or photorealistic portions digitally finished by Jose Villarubia and/or Williams himself, for example in the climactic arc when Moore and Williams themselves appear in cameo, breaching the fourth wall as the entire story spills from the fictive to the exhortative (leading to #32's lecture/epilogue in which Promethea speaks directly to us readers). In other words, Promethea signals shifts in ontological status -- movement between realities -- by shifts in technique, a device familiar from cinematic portal fantasies (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, Bunin's Alice in Wonderland, James and the Giant Peach, etc.) and pulled off with great élan by Williams. Thus Promethea added to his already impressive arsenal of techniques photocollage and digital manipulation, techniques that, in the end, allowed Williams and Moore to destabilize or dissolve out the story's default version of "reality."
(BTW, I once saw Williams selling original art from Promethea at the San Diego Comic-Con, and was surprised to find that many of the elements I had assumed to be digitally inserted after the fact were actually present on his B&W boards, the results of his patient handiwork rather than Photoshopping.)
I wouldn't say that everything about Promethea works. To be honest, my interest in it dipped during the final third (until the Apocalyptic finale, that is). From my perspective, it peaked during its mystery tour segment, roughly its middle third. Even there, the demands of exposition sometimes result in creaking, juryrigged dialogue, the result of having to reconcile the cyclopedic qualities of the work with the needs of narrative. There are probably too many scenes of beatific, slackjawed wonderment, too many moments at which the characters are subjected to experience rather than choosing to act on it. There's a blatantly trippy quality to some scenes that makes me think the characters are in ecstasy while I'm not. But the whole project is so far beyond what almost all other comics in the superhero idiom have attempted that I can only be grateful for it. Its momentary weaknesses are trumped by its sheer chutzpah. What's more, its pages remain eminently readable despite their envelope-pushing far-outness. Unlike many of the above-named experimentalists, Williams observes the principles of narrative drawing even as he flouts what superhero comics should do. For him, it must have been a helluva self-imposed master class in design and style.
That critics and admirers of Promethea did not immediately fall all over themselves singing Williams' praises is probably testament both to Moore's overwhelming reputation and to the patent, almost unassimilable sense of surreality conjured by the artwork. It really was a bit overwhelming; I myself didn't know how to react to it. Subsequent works by Williams, for example a collaboration with Warren Ellis, Desolation Jones, and his collaborations with Grant Morrison on Seven Soldiers and Batman: The Black Glove, were, plot-wise, more generically conventional (well, okay, that's not fair to the labyrinthine Seven Soldiers) but helped demonstrate the extent to which Promethea's formal gambits were Williams' too, not only Moore's. The more down-to-earth the fabular content of the work, the more obvious and outstanding Williams' visual contribution.
Currently Williams is drawing the adventures of Batwoman, a solid, meat-and-potatoes sort of superhero project, in Detective Comics (since #854), part of DC's sprawling "Batman Reborn" initiative in the wake of Final Crisis, Batman R.I.P., and Battle for the Cowl (I have to look to Wikipedia for help with this stuff). This is the same Batwoman, Kate Kane, outed as a lesbian to a flurry of publicity back in May/June 2006, coinciding with her introduction in DC's weekly crossover epic 52 (which I found tedious, though I confess I didn't get into double-digit issues with it). This new Batwoman is now getting her first starring role in Detective, written by Greg Rucka, who I believe first developed the character in 52 and seems to have a proprietary interest in her. Rucka, whose scripting is intelligent and emotionally insinuating, handles Kate as a costumed detective with paramilitary skills whose world just happens to include elements of the supernatural and occult, as well as other bits of weirdness from the DC Universe, all of which he takes for granted: dig the poker-faced insertion of hybrid, half-human, half-critter characters, who are initially uncanny but soon become an accepted part of the plot mechanics; or the invocation of a weird crime cult and some vague prophetic rumblings. Generic Bat-elements are of course included too, such as the requisite ritual nod of the head from Batman (which one?) to Batwoman, but thankfully Kate's adventures seem largely self-contained and require little knowledge of the character's origin in 52. What makes all this terrific, though, is Williams' visual intelligence and panache, which turn Rucka's propulsive action story into a riotous exercise in graphic symbolism that has its own richly textured, darkly suasive, occult quality. Williams makes the "Batwoman" series a complete visual world.
Some might find Williams' "Batwoman" a bit too baroque. Truth to tell, there's a sense in which his designs are almost overripe, like the smell of a perfume that is strong enough to fill a room. Certainly Williams, like Steranko, deploys layout with a high degree of self-consciousness, an arch cleverness that is mannerist and baroque in feel. Take for example the pages of Detective #854-57 (the first arc), in which the very panel borders, increasingly, form a dialectic between Batwoman and her nemesis, the Lewis Carroll-obsessed villainess "Alice." Batwoman's activity is limned by jagged, serrated borders suggestive of stylized bat wings, Alice's by coiling, vine-like tendrils, and these contrasting tropes collide in #857's climactic fight, leading to some eye-boggling two-page spreads that tilt strongly toward the symbolic (as usual, click for larger view):
What's especially noteworthy about this is that Williams clearly knew, going in, that the whole arc would have to do with notions of duality, doubling, and symbolic opposition, and that he would need to insinuate certain underlying aspects of characterization and theme graphically, by dint of his design choices. By #857 his conversation, so to speak, with Rucka's script comes to a logical and dramatic culmination. In other words, Williams extends his design conceits not just over individual issues but across extended narrative runs.
In addition to his smart layouts, Williams makes intelligent use of color. Detective is colored by the redoubtable Dave Stewart (who has done much excellent work, for example on the Hellboy franchise and Darwyn Cooke's DC comics), but the pages give every evidence of a coordinated effort between cartoonist and colorist. In fact I don't see how many of Williams' effects could work without a knowing collaboration between him and Stewart. Variation in coloring -- not just in hue, but in the very approach to rendering and modeling in color -- is such an integral part of Williams' technique that I cannot imagine how the work could happen without the two artists inspiring and conspiring with one another. (In fact Williams has frequently colored or co-colored his own work, as seen in, for example, Promethea #32 or Seven Soldiers.) Color is used in Detective not only for the sake of world-conjuring but also, again, dialectically, to underscore relationships or oppositions between the characters. One could write at length about Williams and Stewart's deployment of reds to tag or highlight Batwoman herself, and how these reds contrast with the pearly, almost opalescent whites that drape Alice (the technique interacts with the aforementioned variations in paneling). What you get with Williams and Stewart, as before with Williams, Cox, and Villarubia in Promethea, are true color comics as opposed to comics that just happen to be colored (I borrow the distinction from David Mazzucchelli and Dash Shaw's conversation in the new Comics Journal #300).
As if this weren't enough,Williams is a staggeringly good stylistic mimic, a talent he showed off in various pastiche covers for Promethea (homages to Mucha, Warhol, Parrish, McCay, Van Gogh, Peter Max, et al.) and in the dizzying capper for Seven Soldiers, where he mimicked not only Kirby but also the styles of various artists who, like Williams, had worked on Morrison's byzantine crossover (Frazer Irving, Doug Mahnke, etc.).
(Again, click for that larger view!)
Clearly Williams studies and understands, and certainly he can disappear into, the rendering styles of other comics artists. In this league he is matched only by Bob Sikoryak and perhaps Paul Mavrides. Williams, I suspect, likes to set himself challenges by using stylistic pastiche deliberately toward specific narrative ends, as he did in Batman: The Black Glove, in which supporting characters -- basically second-string, wannabe superheroes -- were rendered in styles subtly but unmistakably lifted from, say, Chaykin or Dave Gibbons, as if in commentary on the recent history of the superhero genre. Some of this intertextual play may have been inspired if not requested by the scenarist (Morrison in this case), but it's hard not to believe that Williams worked out the details on his own initiative. He brings a knowledge of art and comics history and of the superhero genre to all these stylistic gambits.
Currently he is trumping his own efforts in this area with Detective, the most recent issue of which (#858) features flashbacks to the hero's childhood that are rendered in a spare style redolent of Caniff and Toth, something much closer to David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One or to, say, Javier Pulido or David Lapham than to Williams' own technique (click!):
These pages, though they're well-integrated into the overall narrative, appear to have been drawn by an entirely different artist -- no lie. What's more, a two-page spread of what I took to be warfare in Afghanistan is in yet another style, one harder for me to place though it reminded me of the sunbaked pages of Cosey or Joe Kubert. Williams is either a quick or an obsessive study.
Story-wise, I think the current run on Detective is solid, even intriguing, a better-than-typical costume book because its lead character is deepening and becoming more complicated with each installment and because the project has about it a sense of freshness and discovery. But above all what makes it special is Williams' willingness to work so hard to bring the story to life, whether in his scenic establishing shots (the view of Kate's apartment in #854 is in itself a wonder), his ability to juxtapose media and styles even on a single page, his careful attention to the interpersonal dynamics of characterization (dig the ballroom dance scene in #856), his bracing, sometimes alarming, aestheticizing of violence, or his insinuating treatment of sexuality.
Graphically, this book is a mindblower, a bravura run of graphic experimentation that will be talked about decades from now. It's stunning what this artist can do under the tyranny of the monthly schedule.
Speaking personally, Williams is exactly the sort of artist who can lure me into months of buying a mainstream comic book serial. If one of the appeals of mainstream comics is their occasional capacity to slip the rails of inter-title continuity and (as we've said here on Thought Balloonists before) pile up new characters and new ideas in a breathless, panting rush, another strong appeal, for me, is to see displays of visual intelligence such as those regularly offered up by Williams. I'm a jaded reader when it comes to superhero comics, and so it usually takes more than a dab hand at scripting to make me want to revisit a superhero series over and over. It takes a great cartoonist with a knack for design and, in contrast to some of the experimenters named above, a commitment to storytelling. Williams is that, an artist whose balancing act between designing intellect and visceral emotional oomph is a thrill to see. While Detective is not, thematically, the horizon-pushing experiment that Promethea was, it's a delight to witness Williams' continual exploration of how art can deliver and transform a superhero narrative, and how that boxed-in genre can keep exploding, like a Lou Fine hero bursting through a panel border, out of itself.
PS. (Update) I just found (I'm slow these days) Jog's thought-provoking review of the Batwoman run and smart, image-crammed analysis of Williams' artistic development. Read it if you haven't!