Whether drawing metaphysical epics or pulp Westerns, he remains one of the most unique, innovative, and - strangely - overlooked artists in modern comics. Ninth Art talks to JH Williams III about sex, magic, and the end of PROMETHEA.
13 January 2003

"I'll try not to come across like such a dork," says JH Williams, taking a break from his book signing at Alternate Reality Comics in Las Vegas to dive into a plate of homemade brownies, baked by a fan.

His wife Wendy sits by his side, minding the tub of artwork they brought to sell. "Don't get crumbs on those!" she says, referring to the unpublished pages for PROMETHEA #24, laid out on the folding table in front of them. Williams' father mills about the shop in a black PROMETHEA T-shirt, proudly introducing himself to fans.

The atmosphere is relaxed and chatty, like a cocktail party or a wedding reception. The family vibe is strong here. JH signs book after book, sketching on spiral notebooks and backing boards, and sincerely asking for feedback. The fans file out of the shop, thrilled that he asked each and every one of them to call him 'Jim'.

Though raised in a musical family - his great-uncle was country music legend Hank Williams - The young JH Williams III found his own calling as an artist. By age six, he was drawing his own colouring books, and by eight, he'd already decided on a career in comics. His introduction to the artform, however, had more to do with plastic robots than traditional superheroes.

"They had these toys that I was completely insane over called Micronauts, and then I discovered the MICRONAUTS comic book. The story was great, the art was amazing, and I started to realise that people's names were attached to these things. [Then] a friend of mine said, 'If you like that, you've got to read UNCANNY X-MEN,' and this was at the time of Claremont and Byrne. I was completely sold, and I've never deviated from that."

A few years later, Williams was busy shopping his portfolio around the convention circuit, dramatically altering his style from year to year, trying to accommodate the latest fads. "Finally, I got sick of it. I said, 'I'm just going to draw the way I want to draw, and just not worry about it.'"

Williams' newfound confidence eventually caught the eye of legendary DC editor Howard Chaykin. "I drew up a whole issue of a series that will probably never see print, called DOLPHINS [written by Chuck Austen]. It was a very realistic adult science fiction series that [Austen] wanted to do, that never happened. So I had a whole issue of that, and an independent comic called EMPIRES OF NIGHT, which was really gritty, and wasn't very good, in my opinion.

"Well, I went to Wonder Con in '94. The guy who wrote the EMPIRES OF NIGHT stuff had copies of the pages with him. He was there the day before, and he'd shown it to Howard Chaykin. And he said 'You've got to go talk to Chaykin, he really loved what you did.'

"So I went to him, and he was really cool. He was looking at [the DOLPHINS pages], and he said, 'You know, this is some of the best stuff I've seen from an amateur in 20 years. This is what I'm going to do for you'. He literally got up out of his seat and walked me over to DC Comics, and started ranting and raving, saying, 'Somebody give this guy a job. Right now. I'll write something for him to draw.'"

"He had four editors' cards," adds Wendy, snapping her fingers. "Right then."

The following year, Williams met inker Mick Gray, beginning an exclusive partnership that continues today. "I had done a couple small things for DC, a couple of JUDGE DREDD things, and I wasn't happy with the way the inks were coming out. It just looked like a lot of the guys were doing it in a hurry, just rushing stuff. The pencils were tighter than it looked in the final version.

"I knew Mick through Chuck Austen. We had sat at a convention next to each other a few years before, and we stayed in touch with him. He had been assistant for Mark McKenna, and I finally got him to ink over a JUDGE DREDD pinup that I did for Wonder Con one year, and he just nailed everything just the way I thought it should be. From that point on, that was my agenda - to have [Mick] be my inker, and I did not relent.

"I had tons of resistance from editors, because they want to have control. Even though I was still up and coming, I stuck to my guns, and would turn down jobs, because they wouldn't hire him as my inker. And they liked my stuff, and they called back two days later, and said, 'Okay, We'll let Mick ink you'. And so I just stuck to that."

'It's almost like it was meant to be, like I was meant to draw this.' While Mick Gray's high-contrast inks helped to define JH Williams' style, it's his baroque panel arrangements that have become his trademark. Will Eisner seems like an obvious influence in that respect. Not so, according to Williams.

"Funny thing is, I'd always heard how great Eisner was, and I'd always just assumed how great he was, [but] when I started doing this sort of thing, I hadn't really dived into Eisner yet. Only over the past year or so have I really explored how amazing he is."

So where did his inspiration come from? "When I was in high school, I took a class called Advertising Art and Design, where they didn't focus on the quality of the drawing, but more on the thought behind it, the impact of it. And that's probably always influenced my work. Because of that class, I've always thought of things from a different perspective. So in that way, there's a lot of commercial design aspects to what I'm doing. Even though it doesn't look conventional for comics, if you were to take some of these design aspects to advertising, to big campaigns and stuff, its not unheard of."

After putting those commercial design skills to work on various DCU projects (most notably the Batman miniseries, CHASE, which he also co-wrote with D Curtis Johnson), Williams eventually caught the attention of Jim Lee's WildStorm Studios and landed his most respected work to date: Artist and collaborator on Alan Moore's epic maxi-series, PROMETHEA.

Armed with an all-star creative team (even the letterer has his own fan club), PROMETHEA has racked up industry awards and respectable sales throughout its run. But is that run almost over? Are the rumours true? "Yes," Williams says, taking a deep breath. "PROMETHEA will be ending with issue 32. I can safely say that."

PROMETHEA is first and foremost a story about magic. The occult world is presented with an 'authenticity' rarely seen in popular fiction. How much research is required to bring that level of realism to such a fantastic story? Is the Williams family home filled with dusty tomes and ancient scrolls?

"Well, we do have magic texts at home; we have reference books on different types of art, cultural stuff, things like that. Wendy does almost all the research for the series. That's the only way I can keep the speed up on the art. She'll look at the script and figure out what we need, and if we don't have it, we'll either buy a book on it, or we'll download stuff off the internet."

"I'm actually the second person to read the issue," Wendy adds. "I go through and highlight what Jim's going to need to concentrate on. He doesn't really use a lot of reference, except for the magical symbols and things like that, he needs to get them accurately, but generally he doesn't use any reference at all."

No photo reference at all? "Not unless it's something I've never tried to draw before," says Williams humbly.

Williams notes that PROMETHEA has stirred in him a latent interest in magic. "I was always fascinated by it, but not as much as I am now. Working on a series like PROMETHEA is really trippy, especially when you look at it in relation to how magic works, how magic can affect your reality. It's almost like it was meant to be, like I was meant to draw this. Because I'd always been drawn to that subject."

In turn, has the magic ever been drawn to him? "The weirdest thing that's happened was with issue 20, the abyss issue. The characters go to a sphere in the Kabbalah that's sometimes referred to as the Invisible Sephiroth, or the Dead Sphere. It's supposed to be kind of a scary place. When Alan was working on it, he got really ill. When I started on the pages, he called me up and said, 'Listen, I just wanted to let you know, if something bad happens, feel free to call me. It could be anything. It could be nightmares.'

"Well, as I was working on the book I started developing these really bad chest pains. At the centre of the book is a black hole that leads to the anti-Tree of Life, to the Klippoth, and that's where all the nasty stuff in reality supposedly comes from. So, as I started getting closer and closer to that spread, the chest pains got more and more severe, and when I finally got past that hump, it started to dissipate. ... The pain was enough that I went to the doctor and got an EKG test.

"They couldn't find anything. There was no reason for it. After I got past the black hole page, and the issue started to wrap up, it completely subsided. And then when Mick started working on it, his whole family got sick! They all got colds that lasted about two weeks. To this day I don't know if anything weird happened to Jeremy [Cox, PROMETHEA's colourist,] or Todd [Klein]."

Varying cover designs aren't entirely uncommon these days - the pulp-inspired covers of Warren Ellis' PLANETARY are a good example - but PROMETHEA's ever-changing covers always manage to stand out from the rack.

'I don't try to be too literal with what [Alan's] given me.' And so they should. Williams and letterer Todd Klein have mined a millennium's worth of art history to produce cover designs that not only enhance the stories within, but also help to place those stories in a broader context.

"Todd and I talked about cover designs for PROMETHEA before the series started. His job was to be cover designer for the ABC line. With PROMETHEA being so much an homage to 'art' itself, we [thought] ... 'You know it would be really great to do covers that are just based on all kinds of different styles.' So Todd and I always communicate about what the covers should be like, what style we should try. He's a big part of that. And you just can't get better than Todd Klein."

Some in the industry have criticised Alan Moore for his notoriously lengthy scripts (and lengthy they are - PROMETHEA scripts often break 100 pages). Has Williams ever felt 'artistically limited' by Moore's scripts? "Not at all. It's challenging, because he puts so much into a script that there's no way in hell you'd be able to put everything into a page, and I don't think he really expects that, anyway. I think he does it more to give the artist the full impact of the atmosphere he's trying to create.

"So I tend to pick and choose what I think are the most important things, and then interject my own self into it, which Alan really likes. I don't try to be too literal with what he's given me. He feeds on the fact that I like doing heavy design, so he gives me interesting ideas to build on. Sometimes I use them, and sometimes I put my complete own spin on things.

"And what's amazing, I find, working with Alan, he will give me a description that's three pages of text for one or two panels - it's this amazingly long and detailed thing but then quite often, at the end, he'll say, 'But if you see it differently, go for it.' So he's very open. I'd say about 70 per cent [of the visual design work] is me, and 30 per cent is Alan."

Issue ten ("Sex, Stars, and Serpents") won the 2001 Eisner Award for Best Single Issue, garnering praise for its impressive balance of 'high art' and blunt sexual content. Was it difficult to keep that issue above the porno line? "Not really. I mean, it was written with taste. Not that porn can't have taste, but..."

Wendy giggles.

"We knew the audience that we were writing for, and we knew there was only so much that [DC editorial] were going to let us get away with. DC recognises that PROMETHEA is an unusual series and meets special circumstances, so they allow some nudity, obviously, but if it's nudity in the context of sex, we can't have it. That's why that page was edited in issue twenty-two." Issue twenty-two, "Et In Arcadia Ego...", had a two-page nude scene censored - repeating panels and coloured partitions were used to obscure the image. But Williams assures us that the artwork will be restored in the collected edition.

"In issue ten, they manipulated things in the colour, covering up nipples, things like that. I was totally surprised, because a couple of issues after that, we have this border, bordering the pages, and it's actually an orgy of demons. They're all having sex, and there's little floating demons with erections and somehow those ended up going by."

Recently, PROMETHEA has come under fire from fans and critics for being short on plot and long on navel-gazing. How does the creative team balance the immediate plot concerns with the philosophies that drive the book? "I'm not sure how Alan looks at it. I mean, the whole 'Kaballah quest' thing... he knew that was a huge gamble, and that we would lose readers. We actually lost less than he had expected. But that was a huge commitment; to expect people to go on this two-year journey that doesn't really have a conventional resolution. It's more a mapping out of the Tree of Life, and what each Sphere is supposed to represent.

"And, yeah, I've read a few complaints on the [DC message] boards. You know, 'When is PROMETHEA gonna get a plot again?' And my answer to that, is that it does have a plot; it's just not a plot that's conventional. I mean, there's still a point to everything, it's not just random bullshit. And as far as a balance, I don't think Alan worries about that. He does what he wants to do. We just let it be what it's going to be. It's not really something we stress about."

But, of course, the books are only half the story. There's also the merchandising. We've already seen PROMETHEA statues, posters, and a kick-ass set of action figures, but why stop there? If SANDMAN can spawn lunch boxes and plush dolls, why can't PROMETHEA have its own brand of incense?

"That was actually something that Wendy thought of, and Alan loved the idea. Alan's always wanted to attach a scent to PROMETHEA in some way, perfuming the issues, you know, so you could smell it when you opened it. So, when she came up with the incense idea, with the design of a box based on PROMETHEA designs, he was totally crazy for it. But we have yet to get the publisher to go for it."

Other current projects for Williams include an experimental short for METAL HURLANT, a covers gig on Marvel's WEAPON X series, and a five-page story for Glenn Danzig's INQUISITOR (Danzig has the distinction of being Williams's biggest fan. He reportedly owns several thousand dollars worth of original PROMETHEA art, which he proudly displays in his home).

2003 will also see Williams's return to the Batman franchise, once again writing. "I'm working on a project with D Curtis Johnson. We're co-writing a Batman story for LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT. It's going to be five chapters, drawn by Seth Fisher." Williams is clearly jazzed about this one. "It's the definitive Mr. Freeze story," he says with a laugh.

The artist leans forward in his chair and starts to put his artwork away. "So that's about it," he says, holding out the plate of brownies. "Oh. Did you get one of these yet? They're awesome."

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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