Welcome to the fourth part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists! In the first column in this series, Jason Sacks wrote about one of the greatest comics storytellers of all time, Bernard Krigstein. Then Eric Hoffman looked at one of the finest craftsmen of the EC line: the amazing Wally Wood. Next, Jason Sacks gives us a unique look at the art of the sublime Harvey Kurtzman. Now Eric returns to explore the life and career of the amazing Al Williamson.
Al Williamson's 50 Girls 50 is a sterling entry in Fantagraphics' series of EC reprints, representing the entirety of a key effort by one of the finest pen and ink illustrators in the comics medium. 50 Girls 50 also includes a section of additional stories, including two that were originally planned for inclusion in an EC 3-D comic but never saw the light of day. As a result, 50 Girls 50 is an affordable means of acquiring a pleasingly complete collection of this seminal work by a seminal artist.
Regrettably, given the subtlety of Williamson's exquisitely detailed line work, the present volume's small, 7 x 10 format makes for a less-than satisfying presentation of this remarkable artist. In this cramped format, it is inevitable that some of Williamson's wonderfully baroque and richly textured line work is lost, and in fact, is most often always better served by a larger format. Indeed, other recent reproductions of Williamson's work have alighted on this, including the Al Williamson Archives books (two so far) published by Flesk in a 9 x 12 format, and Dark Horse's recent Hidden Lands anthology, in an 8.5 x 11 format. Though the page size used here faithfully reproduces the artwork as originally printed, doesn't Fantagraphics know enough by now to realize that these EC artists (especially Williamson) deserve better? On the plus side, the black and white format adds clarity to Williamson's painstakingly detailed line. And, well, it's Al Williamson, all 200 something pages of it.
Al Williamson (b. 1931) was just 21 years old when EC artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood recommended him for work on EC's line of "New Trend" science fiction and fantasy titles Weird Science, Weird Fantasy and Weird Science-Fantasy, written mostly by Al Feldstein (but also featuring adaptations of renowned science fiction and fantasy authors Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, among others). Williamson also drew a handful of horror and crime stories for EC, yet the bulk of his work was science fiction and fantasy-based. At the time of his hiring, Williamson had already amassed an impressive portfolio of published work, including assisting Burne Hogarth on a few Sunday pages of his Tarzan strip, providing stories for Eastern's Famous Funnies, and an array of genre work for publishers Avon, Fawcett and Standard. His work was often done in collaboration with celebrated fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta and background artist Roy G. Krenkel; while at EC, Williamson would frequently collaborate with Frazetta, Krenkel and Angelo Torres, a cohesive group within EC's stable of artists that came to be known as the "Fleagle Gang," named after a gang of early 20th century bank robbers.
Many of the stories included in 50 Girls 50 are typical Feldstein/Gaines concoctions: O. Henry-inspired twist endings, like in "Mad Journey," where a trip to Venus ends with a crashed spaceship and disinterested Venusians imprisoning the unsuspecting Earthman in a prison occupied by lunatics that believe they are from another planet. Or in "Captivity!" where a team of uranium miners are transported to a prehistoric monument valley, only to discover that the Earth is in fact an ancient galactic zoo. In "The Quick Trip," a trio of scientists travel light years in suspended animation to visit a star system that died prior to their arrival. "The Long Trip" tells an alternate version of the same story, only this time without the help of suspended animation; once the aged men arrive at their destination they discover that a few years after their departure from Earth, a "spacetime overdrive" mechanism was invented that allowed for instantaneous interstellar travel. D'oh!
The first half-dozen or so stories are fairly average outings for Feldstein (and Williamson for that matter). "By George" is the first above-average effort, and a definite improvement in Williamson's already excellent draftsmanship; take a look at the wonderfully hideous monster adorning the story's splash page:
This Hal Foster-inspired tale tells the story of a then-future (1972) Lebanon where two archaeologists discover a strange cube covered in an unknown language (it's alien, of course). The cube is somehow dated as being fourteen centuries old and is eventually (somehow) translated: the writing is that of an alien child that stole a ship without its father's permission. The alien is given some distinctly human traits and comes off as being not all that different from your average human child. The first panel on page 38 depicts the forlorn alien, stranded on Earth after the explosion of his spaceship; this followed by a series of panels depicting his misinterpreted cries for help.
Williamson manages some real pathos in what is essentially an altogether absurd premise. The alien's misadventures inevitably run him into trouble and the alien is tricked into following a beautiful woman and a knight back to a castle, where his head is consequently lopped off: the alien, it turns out, is thought to be a dragon and the knight is none other than St. George.
Looking at the splash page to "Space Borne!", I am reminded of the heyday of science fiction, when technology was supposed to have led to utopia, rid the world of crime and disease, and create unlimited leisure, when the future was to have been bright and shining, and the galaxies awaiting our daring exploration. This era of unbridled optimism in science fiction fueled the imagination of an entire generation. On the surface, Williamson's heroic men and beautiful women seem to embody this endless idealism. Yet, these stories often depict a dystopian reality lurking just beneath the surface.
The young lovers pictured above are marooned on an alien planet after the woman's heart becomes injured (?) due to their take-off from Earth and landing on this alien world. Luckily, the planet is earth-like and, a staple of science fiction to this day, biologically non-threatening. However, being a 1950s woman, she is perennially dissatisfied, and so desires all the creature comforts of home. Our chivalrous hero takes off for Earth and on the way, his overdrive conks out, causing a six-year delay in his return. Soon after, returning to the alien world, he is attacked by a horrible creature which, as luck would have it, turns out to be his horribly disfigured son (the reason for his wife needing her new clothes and dishwasher – get it?).
"Skeleton Key" is an interesting, if predictable, time-travel story, a King Kong-inspired tale that, due to time constraints, features significant finishing work from other artists. To his credit, Feldstein seems abundantly aware of this derivation: in one panel, a character proclaims: "I saw a movie once! This reminds me of it! King Kong . . . or something!" Or something indeed. The beast is captured, it is displayed at Madison Square Garden, it escapes, it wreaks havoc. Sound familiar?
The famous (or is it infamous?) story "The Aliens," by contrast, is strikingly original, wonderfully illustrated, and hilarious to boot, featuring some of the finest satirization to ever grace the pages of an EC Comic. (Mark Schultz states in his introduction "Triumph of a Romanticist" that the story would not have seemed out of place in an early issue of MAD Magazine.) In it, a group of aliens arrive in Earth's orbit at the same moment it explodes as a result of nuclear annihilation. The aliens comb through the planet's remains in search of some evidence that will tell them more about the late planet's occupants. In the process, they discover an issue of Weird Fantasy #17, the very same issue in which this story first appeared.
"Strange markings and pictures on each sheet!" one of the aliens declares. "Their language no doubt," another adds. "It seems primitive!" The aliens quickly arrive at the conclusion that they are reading science fiction, and soon discover that one of the stories in the comic depicts themselves. The pages they are reading are the pages just preceding the panels depicting them reading the comic! The aliens invariably catch up to the pages depicting them reading the comic, and the final panel shows the comic within the comic within the comic, and so on, ad infinitum, receding into infinity like a funhouse mirror:
Masterfully composed by Williamson with an absolutely effective concluding splash page, the story loses some of its frisson by not appearing in its original floppy format, yet it's still an enjoyable example of early, post-modernist self-referentialism.
In "Snap Ending!" Williamson makes full use of photographic sources (in this case models) and it shows: the story includes some of his best and most detailed line work.
The panel depicted above, the splash page for "Homesick" (note the reference to Earth as a "green sphere"; this was, after all, before actual space travel became a reality), with its Kubrickesque space station; the reflection effect, Schultz's introduction tells us, helped Williamson get a job working on his beloved Flash Gordon strip.
The title story "50 Girls 50," featuring inks by Frazetta, is the true masterpiece here, another interstellar potboiler centered around interstellar travel and suspended animation. In it, an astronaut revives himself early so that he may enjoy each of the fifty women on board, "volunteers," the organizer of the expedition tells us in a flashback, "for the first journey to a distant star," chosen "from over twenty thousand volunteers."
Look at Williamson's fluid use of the panels – in the first of three top panels there is no panel with an overlay onto the bracketed second panel, followed by a third, non-bracketed panel with a dark background, and a phenomenal use of zip-a-tone. Sublime. Aside from the beauty of the illustration work here, the story is really just a hardboiled crime story in science fiction dressing, complete with the femme fatale tempting the hapless man, and the inevitable double cross – yet it's an amazing effort, eminently readable, expertly paced and composed.
The final story, "Food for Thought," is also Williamson's final contribution to EC's "New Trend" line (he would contribute some additional EC work for their aborted "pictofiction" magazines in 1956). Here, Williamson breaks from EC's standard production method of first inserting panel borders and word balloons and having the artist draw around them. Comparing this with the early stories underlines Williamson's remarkable artistic progression (however collaborative; the later stories have considerable help from Torres, Krenkel and Frazetta). Truth be told, the stories where Williamson works in collaboration look better – there's more richness in detail, varied tone and better composition; for instance, look at "Food for Thought"'s uncharacteristically large splash page:
50 Girls 50 is rounded out with several more collaborations with Frazetta, notably "Two's Company," an Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired tale of a man and woman stranded on a distant planet. Yet the finest collaboration here is the Frazetta-penciled and Williamson-finished "Squeeze Play."
Frazetta's facial expressions underline Williamson's weakness in facial characteristics and the conveyance of emotion.
Mark Schultz observes that Williamson "was an anomaly at EC Comics, an oddball among a collection of oddballs. In vision and execution he was a pure romanticist, interested in depic
ting traditional heroes triumphing over physical odds, a stylistic throwback to a time of broad optimism and clearly defined notions of morality and beauty." As Schultz notes, this was in marked contrast to the modus operandi of other EC horror and crime comics, which depicted a post-war malaise of corruption, intolerance and violence, the seedy underbelly that existed beneath the picture-perfect sheen of 1950s America.
Similar to these horror stories and hardboiled pulps, Williamson's work, too, derived from generic traditions, yet instead of looking to Poe, Lovecraft or Cain, Williamson's comics took their cue from the fantastic pulp fiction of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle, by way of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, which first inspired the ten-year old Williamson to try his hand at cartooning. Roy G. Krenkel, writes Schultz, pointed Williamson to Raymond's forebears, including the illustrators Joseph Clement Coll, Franklin Booth and Daniel Verge.
Schultz notes that at first Williamson and EC seemed like an unlikely marriage: "EC's unusual style," writes Schultz, "almost across the board, stressed hard edges, strong figure outlines, and heavy solidity, in keeping with its bleak, doom-filled scripts . . . In contrast, Williamson's webs of spidery ink line appeared to be in constant, flattering motion." Williamson's style, then, was naturalistic, as opposed to the expressionistic house style associated with Harvey Kurtzman or Bernie Krigstein.
Because Williamson was younger than most other EC artists, and therefore did not have the same financial considerations (such as a mortgage and family), he could be choosier about which scripts he wanted to illustrate. Moreover, he could spend more time on a single story. He frequently utilized real-life models, including his chiseled, body-building collaborator Frank Frazetta, and made excellent use of Craftint doubtletone board (a board that featured embedded, invisible hatching lines) and zip-a-tone.
In an afterword, S.C. Ringgenberg tells us that Williamson's work "was frequently late and his pages were notoriously messy, the panels a hodge-podge of Benday, Craftint, or pasted-on scraps of tracing paper where he had labored to get a figure or a texture just right.") As a result, Williamson's output, as evidenced by this present collection, is considerably smaller than his peers, yet it is a testament to his skill as an artist that much of it remains among EC's most highly regarded work. Less impressive are Williamson's contributions to EC's crime and horror lines – where Jack Davis and Wally Wood excelled in such a format, the grisliness and manic energy (particularly in the rendering of facial expressions and other forms of body horror) are not well suited to Williamson's clean, painstaking illustrative style.
Unlike Wood, Williamson's faces are mostly static and often do not come alive; his cerebral illustrative style, however, lends itself incredibly well to the brainy, sterile, and fantastic settings of science fiction. Williamson's lack of attention to backgrounds further limited his pallette; often he depended on background artists (in particular Torres and Krenkel) to supply the futuristic settings in which his characters appeared.
Williamson's 1950s work remains his most consistently inspired, yet there was still much great work to come: following his stint at EC, Williamson contributed some work to Atlas Comics, some three-to-five-pager Western and war comics, and work for Harvey Comics; he contributed to Classics Illustrated and did additional generic work for Dell and Charlton. After that, Williamson left comic books, which were suffering a post-Kefauver, pre-Marvel slump.
He found work assisting John Prentice on Alex Raymond's classic comic strip Rip Kirby. This one of three Raymond strips Williamson did work for, the first being Flash Gordon and the third, beginning in 1967, was Secret Agent X-9, later retitled Secret Agent Corrigan, a collaboration with writer/editor Archie Goodwin. Williamson met Goodwin when contributing work to James Warren's mid-sixties black and white magazines Creepy, Eerie and Blazing Combat, magazines published following a lax in Comics Code enforcement as the problems of juvenile delinquency began to fade in the face of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam.
In 1966-67, Goodwin and Williamson also collaborated on three issues of a Flash Gordon comic for King Comics, and, beginning in 1980, the two would again collaborate on two Star Wars adaptations for Marvel, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) as well as a Star Wars daily strip (later republished in the 1990s by Dark Horse under the title Classic Star Wars). During this time, Williamson would also contribute two stories for Goodwin's Epic Illustrated magazine and independent publisher Pacific's vastly underrated Alien Worlds, edited and written by Bruce Jones. Work on Corrigan continued until 1980, after which time Williamson focused on his Marvel movie adaptations, which also included adaptations of Flash Gordon (1980) and Blade Runner (1982).
A third and highly productive period in his career was his work as inker for DC and Marvel, beginning with a superb run on issues 403-416 of Superman, inking over Curt Swan's pencils, and a lengthy run on Marvel's Daredevil (roughly 248-300), providing expressionistic, kinetic inks over John Romita, Jr.'s pencils for most of that run (a collaboration that, to this author, represents some of the finest artwork to ever grace that titles' pages). John Romita, Sr., then Marvel's art director, stated that the reason Williamson did mostly inking was that he could not make enough money penciling, as it required too much time for him to produce finished artwork. Williamson garnered nine industry awards for his inking from 1988 to 1997.
Still more Star Wars work followed, including new covers for Dark Horse's reprints of Star Wars daily strips. Williamson's final pencil work was for two mini-series, Atomic Age (1990-91) and Flash Gordon (1995). Career retrospectives began appearing, with Williamson the subject of much admiration among a small but devoted coterie of fans. Aside from a 1971 book Al Williamson: His Works, a feature by James Van Hise in the fanzine Rockets Blast Comic Collector, and The Art of Al Williamson (Blue Dolphin, 1983), the bulk of Williamson's reprints and critical estimations appeared in the last ten years. These works including The Al Williamson Sketchbook (1998), Al Williamson Adventures (Insight Studios Group, 2003), Al Williamson: Hidden Lands (Dark Horse, 2004), The Al Williamson Reader (Pure Imagination, 2005), Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic (Flesh, 2009), Al Williamson: Forbidden Worlds (Pure Imagination, 2009), The Al Williamson Archives (Flesk, 2010) and The Al Williamson Archives Volume 2 (Flesk, 2011).
Williamson retired from comics in 2002, and died June 12, 2010. Other excellent work remains in print thanks to the efforts of Fantagraphics, Dark Horse and IDW, including: Creepy Archives (17 volumes, Dark Horse, 2008-2013), Eerie Archives (14 volumes, Dark Horse, 2009-2013), Blazing Combat (Fantagraphics, 2010), X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan (5 volumes, IDW, 2010-2013), Star Wars Omnibus: Episodes I-VI (Dark Horse, 2011) and Forbidden Worlds Archives (2 volumes, Dark Horse, 2012-2013). All of these efforts, like 50 Girls 50, are highly recommended.