Today would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary artist Al Williamson, who was born on March 21, 1931. Williamson passed away on June 12, 2010, aged 79. He left behind an impressive body of richly illustrated work that spanned decades.
I was very fortunate to meet Williamson on a couple of occasions at comic book conventions. I can confirm that his talent was matched by his kindness & generosity. He once drew a quick sketch for me of a warrior fighting a dinosaur. During the other encounter, I witnessed him very helpfully giving advice & feedback to an aspiring artist who had brought along samples of his work. Williamson took the time to patiently walk this fan through various steps & suggestions to show how he could work to improve as an illustrator.
To commemorate the legacy of Al Williamson, I am presenting a revised piece I originally wrote a couple of years ago concerning his work on one of the characters he became very closely associated with throughout his career:
Out of all the artists who have drawn Flash Gordon in the newspaper comic strips and comic books, there are two who are most frequently associated with the character. The first is Alex Raymond, who created the series in 1933. The second is, of course, Al Williamson.
Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, issued by Flesk Publications, assembles together for the first time Williamson’s complete works on the series. Accompanying this material is in-depth historical and critical commentary by writer/artist Mark Schultz.
Al Williamson was an amazing artist, a creator who could depict vast, sweeping science fiction vistas populated by two-fisted heroes, stunningly beautiful heroines, sneering villains, exotic aliens, and monumental high-tech fortress cities. He was probably one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century when it came to drawing space opera.
In his commentary, Schultz examines how Williamson, a shy child in an unhappy family environment, turned to drawing as a form of solace. And then, in 1941, at age ten, Williamson went to the cinema and saw Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. It was a life-changing experience, one that caused him to begin following the Alex Raymond newspaper strip. Williamson became a lifelong fan of both the character and his creator.
When I picked up this book, I was genuinely surprised at the relative paucity of published work that Al Williamson had done featuring Flash Gordon. So synonymous were the names Al Williamson and Flash Gordon to me that I actually believed he had worked for years on the newspaper strip, and illustrated dozens of comic books featuring the hero.
In reality, Williamson only drew three issues of the Flash Gordon comic book in the 1960s, illustrated the movie adaptation in 1980, and did a two issue miniseries for Marvel in the early 1990s. He also drew various comic book covers, prints, and advertisements featuring Flash, and occasionally pitched in as an assistant on the comic strip. And that was it.
(Williamson actually did have extended runs on two other newspaper strips, Secret Agent Corrigan and Star Wars, both of which he worked on with writer Archie Goodwin. The two of them collaborated frequently throughout the years, always to great results.)
It really says a great deal that, despite this rather small body of work on Flash Gordon, Williamson became so very closely connected with the character in the minds of readers. In a way, this is understandable, as Williamson was very influenced by Alex Raymond, and can be seen as something of a successor. But, as Schultz observes, the young Williamson quickly grew beyond a slavish imitator, and throughout the majority of his career continually developed and refined his individual style. Really, I think the fact that Williamson’s love for the character and universe of Flash Gordon is so readily apparent in the work that he did illustrate is what played a major role in his becoming so intimately associated with the series.
Williamson’s earliest work on Flash Gordon was assisting on the inking of the newspaper strip in 1953, when it was being drawn by Dan Barry. Obviously, Williamson’s impact on the look of the strip was minimal. The book does reprint one example that demonstrates his artistic contribution to the strip.
It was in 1965, when King Features, the owners of the Flash Gordon series, decided to venture into comic book publishing, that Williamson got his first proper crack at illustrating the character. Due to tight deadlines, Williamson was only able to draw three issues, plus an additional cover. But, oh, in that short space of time he rendered some incredibly exquisite artwork, full of both dynamic excitement and delicate beauty. The writing on these stories, of which Williamson also had a hand in, is at times a little simplistic, the plotting a bit dodgy. But the stunning artwork by Williamson more than makes up for any deficiencies in the stories.
Williamson’s next opportunity to draw Flash Gordon came in 1980, when the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie was in the works. Williamson was hired to illustrate the comic book adaptation of the film. Initially enthusiastic at the assignment, Williamson soon found it becoming a chore due to a lack of reference material and last-minute script changes. Also, when De Laurentiis decided to take the film in a more campy direction, Williamson, long-time Flash Gordon fan that he was, felt disappointed.
Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, and Williamson’s dissatisfaction with the film, the artwork for the Flash Gordon movie adaptation is amazing. You can see an artist at his peak, as Williamson renders the story in a grandiosely detailed, operatic manner. Appropriately, there is a very cinematic quality to his artwork. It appears that, despite the filmmakers’ intentions, Williamson and scripter Bruce Jones took the material seriously. The adaptation offers a glimpse of what the film might have been like if it had not veered so far into camp territory.
(Myself, I rather like the film, although at times it does have a “so bad it’s good” quality to it. As fun as it is, I think it would have been improved by taking things as least a little bit more seriously. And having Flash Gordon as a quarterback for the New York Jets was annoying. I mean, in the comic strip the character graduated from Yale. He had brains and brawn. I really do love the soundtrack by Queen, though. But I can understand why Williamson, who came from an earlier generation, might not have been as keen for the music of Freddie Mercury & Co.)
Williamson’s final major foray into the world of Flash Gordon came a decade later with the Marvel Comics miniseries, which was written by Mark Schultz himself. At the time, Williamson may have been starting to experience the onset of glaucoma, a condition that would plague him at the end of his career (honestly, I cannot think of a worse fate for an artist, especially one as talented and precise as Williamson, as losing your sight). Despite his difficulties in completing the project, the two issue miniseries has some wonderful work. To my untrained eye, I really cannot see much, if any, of a drop in the quality and detail of Williamson’s work. I bought this when it first came out, and really enjoyed it. Schultz writes a high-energy adventure that also reveals the secret origin of Flash Gordon, while Williamson gets to draw the diverse, exotic regions of the planet Mongo and its colorful inhabitants. So it was a pleasure to re-read it.
The dimensions of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic measure 9” by 12” (as opposed to the typical 6.5″ by 10″ of regular comic books). The majority of the artwork is presented in back & white. The oversized nature of the book, coupled with this black & white reproduction, really enables the reader to see the precise detail and fine quality of Williamson’s work. For example, as impressed as I was by his art on the Marvel series when it was published at standard comic size and in color in the early 1990s, here it looks even more amazing when blown up and in crisp black & white.
The text by Schultz is extremely informative. It is respectful to Williamson without being slavish. An artist himself, Schultz possesses the technical knowledge and aptitude to critically examine Williamson’s development as an artist over the years, to point out his major accomplishments within the material he did for the series, and to recognize the unfortunate beginnings of decline in his later work.
I highly recommend Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic. It assembles a wealth of material that has never been collected before, much of which has been out of print for decades. The book is a stunning showcase of Williamson’s artistic accomplishments.
As I said before, Al Williamson passed away in 2010. Looking at the copyright page of the book, I see that it was printed a year previously, in June 2009. I was certainly happy to find out that Williamson lived long enough to see the publication of this fantastic volume.