Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Late Great Al Williamson

Legendary comic book artist Al Wiliamson passed on Saturday, June 12, 2010. He had suffered for many years from Alzheimer’s. He was 79. He was perhaps best known for his work in science fiction titles over the years, including Weird Fantasy, Weird Science, Forbidden Worlds, and Flash Gordon.

Al Williamson was born on March 21, 1931  in New York City, but he spent a good portion of his childhood in his father's home of Bogotá, Colombia. He returned to the United States when he was in his teens. He and his mother settled for a time in San Francisco before moving to New York City.

Al Williamson was among the first students to attend the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, founded by Silas Rhodes and Burne Hogarth (best known for his work on the Tarzan newspaper strip. It was while Mr. Williamson was at the school that he met future EC artist Wally Wood and fantasy artist Roy Krenkel. Mr. Williamson's first professional work may have been illustrating a story in the comic book Famous Funnies. His first actual narrative work may have been in Wonder Comics, October 1948,  New Heroic Comics #51, November 1948, or possibly even assisting Mr. Hogarth on the Tarzan comic strip. From 1949 to 1951, Al Williamson worked for several different comic book publishers, including the American Comics Group, Avon, Eastern Colour, Fawcett, and Standard Comics. As an inker during this period he collaborated with both Frank Frazetta and Wally Wood.

It was in 1952 that Al Williamson became one of the many freelancers to contribute work to EC Comics, in part due to his many contacts in the industry. During this period Mr. Williamson worked with several different inkers, including Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, and Angelo Torres. Mr. Williamson for the most part worked on EC's science fiction titles, including Weird Fantasy and Weird Science. Al Williamson's last work for EC Comics was on Shock Illustrated #2, February 1956, only a short time before EC Comics would cease publishing comics entirely.

Shortly before EC Comics got out of the comic book industry, Al Williamson started doing work for Atlas Comics (which in a few short years would be renamed Marvel Comics) in 1955. At Atlas Mr. Williamson primarily worked in Westerns, although he illustrated war comic books as well. His last work for Atlas was in 1957. In the late Fifties Mr. Williamson worked for a variety of publishers, including American Comics Group, Charlton, Classics Illustrated, Dell, and Prize. From 1958 to 1959 Mr. Williamson did a good deal of work at Harvey Comics, once more working with Angelo Torres, as well as former EC artists Reed Crandall and Roy Krenkel. While at Harvey, Al Williamson also inked the legendary Jack Kirby.

In 1960 Al Williamson became an assistant to John Prentice on the newspaper strip Rip Kirby (created by the legendary Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon). During the same period Mr. Williamson also assisted John Cullen Murphy on the newspaper strip Big Ben Bolt and Don Sherwood on the newspaper strip Dan Flagg. When Warren Publishing launched Creepy in 1964 and Eerie in 1966, James Warren recruited many former EC Comics artists, including Al Williamson. As a result, Mr. Williamson was among the first artists to work on the two legendary magazines. In addition to Creepy and Eerie, he also contributed to Warren's short lived war title Blazing Combat. It was in 1965 that Mr. Williamson contributed to Gold Key's comic books Ripley's Believe It Or Not, The Twilight Zone, and Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery.

It was in 1966 Al Williamson drew the first issue of the Flash Gordon comic book published by King Features Syndicate's short lived comic book imprint King Comics. He worked on several issues of the title, for which he was given a National Cartoonist Society Best Comic Book Art award. In 1967 Al Williamson took over as the artist on the newspaper strip Secret Agent X-9 (created by Alex Raymond), working with writer Archie Goodwin. It was not long after Messrs. Williamson and Goodwin took over Secret Agent X-9 that it was renamed Secret Agent Corrigan. Messrs. Williamson and Goodwin continued to work on Secret Agent Corrigan until 1980. In 1969 some of Mr. Williamson's work was published in Wally Wood's underground comic book witzend #1. In 1975 more of Mr. Williamson's work would be published in Flo Steinberg's underground comic book Big Apple Comix #1.

After Al Williamson left Secret Agent Corrigan in 1980, he worked on Marvel Comics' adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back. It was also in 1980 that Al Williamson was the artist on Western Publishing's comic book adaptation of Dino de Laurentiis' movie adaptation of  Flash Gordon (1980). From 1981 to 1984, when it ended, Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin worked on the daily Star Wars comic strip. Al Williamson was also among the artists who worked on Marvel Comics' adaptation of Blade Runner in 1982. In 1983 he also worked on Marvel Comic's adaptation of Return of the Jedi. Al Williamson would also work for Pacific Comics, contributing to Alien Worlds issues 1, 4, and 8, as well as a back up feature for miniseries Somerset Holmes. He contributed work to two issues of Marvel Comics' Epic Illustrated (in 1984 and 1986).

It was in the mid-Eighties that Al Williamson began inking for various comic books. He inked Curt Swan on Superman issues 408-416, then inked several artists at Marvel, including John Buscema, Gene Cola, and Mike Mignola. Between 1988 and 1997 Mr. Williamson won several Will Eisner awards and several Harvey awards. In the Nineties Al Williamson provided covers for Dark Horse Comics reprints of the Star Wars newspaper entitled Classic Star Wars. Mr. Williamson inked issues of Marvel Comics' Daredevil, Spider-Man 2009, and Spider -Girl. In 1995 Marvel published a two part Flash Gordon series which featured art by Al Williamson. He would later serve as the inker on Dark Horse Comics' adaptations of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

There can be little doubt that Al Williamson was one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, and quite possibly the greatest comic book artist to work in the science fiction genre. If Mr. Williamson was called upon to work on various Flash Gordon titles over the years, it is perhaps because his work evoked that of Alex Raymond without being derivative. Indeed, Mr. Williamson's work had a dramatic flair that suited space operas such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars perfectly. The men and women which he illustrated were always heroic and beautiful, bigger than life figures whom another artist could not have done justice. Indeed, I first encountered Al Williamson's work in used issues of King Comics' short lived Flash Gordon title from the Sixties. To this day whenever I picture Flash, Dale, and Ming the Merciless in my mind, it is as Al Williamson had drawn them.

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