An interview with comic book artist Keith Williams

When I first got into comic books in the second half of the 1980s, and continued reading them as a teenager in the 1990s, one of the names I would frequently see in the credits was Keith Williams. He worked on numerous series: Alpha Flight, Transformers, Action Comics, Web of Spider-Man, Quasar, Robocop, Sensational She-Hulk, U.S.Agent, Ravage 2099, The Mask, Star Wars, and so on.

Keith is one of the various comic book creators who I have been fortunate enough to get to know on social media. He has always come across as a genuinely good person. Given Keith’s lengthy career, I felt it would be interesting to speak with him about his work in the medium.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between April and May 2021.

A recent photo of Kieth Williams at a comic book convention

BH: Hello, Mr. Williams. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with the basics. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?

Keith Williams: Thank you for asking, Ben. I was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 16, 1957. My grandma gave me my first comic. It was Batman issue 184. I must have been 9 years old at the time. I always loved comics after that. I enjoyed watching astronauts fly into space, and for a while I wanted to be one.

BH: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan from 1976 to 1980. How did you find that educational experience?

Keith Williams: It was wonderful! The main reason I went SVA was because Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit, was teaching there. My major was in Cartooning and Will brought fun and a lot of knowledge about the art and business sides of comic books. The other classes were fine and rounded out my art experience. I still have great friends that I talk to from my time there.

Sectaurs #6 (May 1986) written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Steve Geiger, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Janet Jackson

BH: I understand you entered the comic book field as a background inker in the early 1980s. How did that come about, and which artists did you assist?

Keith Williams: I knew Howard Perlin from high school, working on school shows together. He introduced me to his father Don Perlin. At the time he was the artist on Ghost Rider. I had shown him my inking samples. He saw that I had potential and took me under his wing. He mentioned my name up at Marvel when they were looking for a background inker for Mike Esposito. I was hired and have been working in comics ever since. Besides Mike Esposito there was Joe Sinnott, Bob Wiacek, Andy Mushinsky, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Vince Colletta, John Byrne, Bob Hall and a few more.

BH: Why did you decide to focus on inking?

Keith Williams: I focused on inking because I learned that I was better at it. I had great people to learn the skills of inking from. Inking became my foot in the door.

Alpha Flight #19 (Feb 1985) written, penciled & figures inked by John Byrne, backgrounds inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Andy Yanchus

BH: At Marvel Comics, you were also the first person to join Romita’s Raiders, the art apprentice program initiated by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and run by art director John Romita. What specific sort of work did you find yourself doing as one of the Raiders? How do you feel it helped you in terms of honing your skills and preparing you for a career as an artist in the comic book industry?

Keith Williams: As a Romita Raider, I, and the other Raiders were art correctors. We would fix storytelling if the panels didn’t flow correctly. If a character was wearing the wrong costume we would correct it. Assist John sometimes in cover design. John Romita was the Art Director at Marvel [and] everything would go through him meaning pages of art and he would assign us to fix things that needed fixing. While we were there as Raiders, we received a master class on how to create a comic.

BH: What was your first credited work in comic books, and how did you get assigned that job?

Keith Williams: My first credited work [was] Sectaurs for Marvel, 1985. I inked over Steve Geiger, another Raider. I think I started on issue 4. Mark Texeira moved on and they needed a new art team. It was a mini-series which ended on issue 7. I got the job because I was lucky enough to be in the office at the time.

Avengers West Coast #53 (Dec 1989) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: In late 1984 you became John Byrne’s background inker beginning with Alpha Flight #19. You provided background inks on several issues of Alpha Flight, and when Byrne moved to Incredible Hulk for his all-too-short run you accompanied him. After Byrne left Marvel for DC Comics where he oversaw the successful post-Crisis revamp of Superman, you were his background inker on Action Comics in 1987. How did you come to do background inking for Byrne? What was the experience like?

Keith Williams: Mark Gruenwald, one of the editors at Marvel, came up to me and asked if I was interested in working with John Byrne on Alpha Flight as a background artist. Of course, I said yes. It was a great experience.

BH:  It’s noteworthy that Byrne saw that you were credited on all of those stories as the background inker, something that at the time was not expected, much less required. Do you find that this helped your career? Certainly as a young reader it was probably the first time I noticed your name.

Keith Williams: John put my name on the cover of the books and my name was right beside his in the credits. I would also get pages from the books we did. No other inker had ever done that for a background artist or would expect that to be done for them. I will always be grateful to him for doing it. He helped my career because of it.

Sensational She-Hulk #33 (Nov 1991) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Jim Novak and colored by Glynis Oliver

BH: Later on you had the opportunity to do full inking over Byrne’s pencils on Avengers West Coast #53 in late 1989 and on several issues of Sensational She-Hulk in 1991. How did you like that experience? As a reader, I felt you did a good job. Looking at that Avengers West Coast, in particular I was very impressed by the detailed, intricate inking you did on the sequence with Immortus in an alternate timeline where Queen Elizabeth I was executed instead of Mary, Queen of Scots. The storyline in She-Hulk where she ends up in the Mole Man’s subterranean kingdom and fights Spragg the Living Hill also had a lot of interesting, detailed work by Byrne. You did a fine job embellishing all those caves and rocky textures.

Keith Williams: Actually, working fully on John’s pencils, scared the daylights out of me. As an artist, you always feel there is still so much to learn. Am I ready? I guess I was. All of the background inking got me ready to do full inks with John and I loved making his lines come to life.

BH: Jumping back a bit, you and penciler Alex Saviuk became the regular art team on Web of Spider-Man with issue #35, cover-dated March 1988. How did you get that assignment, and how did you find it working with Saviuk? You stayed on Web of Spider-Man through issue #85 in early 1992, so I’m guessing it was a good experience. Of course, as you were a freelancer, I’m sure you were also grateful to have a regular monthly assignment.

Keith Williams: Jim Salicrup was the editor on the Spider-Man books at the time. He must have seen my work here and there in the office and tried me out. I worked over Steve Gieger on an issue of Web of Spider-Man and then worked with Alex. I guess he saw something in us working together and we stay together for almost five years.

Web of Spider-Man #35 (Feb 1988) written by Gerry Conway, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: Speaking for myself, I find Saviuk very underrated. I feel he was overshadowed by Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man, which at the time was in the spotlight. I think that was a shame, because you and Saviuk were doing good, solid work month after month on Web.

Keith Williams: Alex is a great artist. I feel he’s up there with Romita in style. It was very enjoyable working with him.

BH: You worked on a wide variety of titles throughout the 1990s, inking a diverse selection of pencilers. I wanted to briefly touch upon the work you did for Dark Horse. You inked Doug Mahnke on The Mask Strikes Back and Bill Hughes on Star Wars: Droids, both of those coming out in 1995. Any particular thoughts on those two jobs? Mannke and Hughes both seem to have detailed penciling styles, so I wondered how you approached inking them.

Keith Williams: Doug Mahnke’s style on The Mask was different than any I‘ve encountered. It was zaniness stuffed into reality. Bill Hughes had more of a cartoon style which fit into the loony situation the Droids were put in. I try to go with the flow of the penciller. With Doug it would be more of a hard edge, using crow quill Hunt 102 pen point nibs. With Bill it more of a softer look. I used a Winsor Newton Series 7 No. 3 brush and a Gillotte 290 flexible pen nib.

The Mask Strikes Back #1 (Feb 1995) written by John Arcudi, penciled by Doug Mahnke, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Lois Buhalis and colored by Gregory Wright

BH: In 1994 you became the regular inker of The Phantom newspaper strip written by Lee Falk, inking George Olesen’s pencils. You were on the strip until 2005, when Olesen retired. Had you previously been a fan of The Phantom? Although it isn’t especially popular here in the States, it has an absolutely huge following in other parts of the world such as Sweden and Australia.

Keith Williams: I wasn’t really a fan of The Phantom. That was because it wasn’t in any of the newspapers in New York. I did learn to like it. The Phantom has a great cast of characters.

BH: I’ve heard working on a daily newspaper strip described as a grueling, endless treadmill run. What did you think of the work? How was it different from monthly comic books?

Keith Williams: I really had no idea what it was like to put out a six day strip every week. There was no time for a real vacation. So, even when I would go away on a trip, the Phantom would be with me. I’m not really complaining, because it was always better to have work than not. It was different than a comic book because, working on dailies, you only had as much as three panels to work on for a strip.

Star Wars: Droids #6 (Oct 1995) written by Jan Strnad, penciled by Bill Hughes, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Steve Dutro and colored by Perry McNamee

BH: Finally, what have you been working on in the last decade and a half? Do you have any new projects coming out soon?

Keith Williams: Actually, I got to work for Marvel again with the help of Ron Frenz in 2019. It was a 10 page story in Thor the Worthy. Other than that, it’s been conventions and commissions for me.

BH: If people are interested in hiring you for commissions, what is the best way to get in touch with you?

Keith Williams: You can DM me on Instagram or Facebook: keithwilliamscomicbookart. You can also email me at keithwilliamscomicbookart@gmail.com.

The Phantom pin-up penciled, inked & colored by Keith Williams

BH: Thank you very much for your time!

Keith Williams: Glad to do it.

Remembering comic book artist Paul Ryan

Comic book artist Paul Ryan passed away on March 6, 2016 at the much too young age of 66. Ryan was a prolific artist whose career spanned from 1984 until the time of his death.

Fantastic Four 358 cover

A lifelong comic book fan, Ryan did not made his professional debut until the age of 35. He submitted a story to Charlton Comics which was originally scheduled to see print in the anthology title Charlton Bullseye, but the company folded before it could be published.  Much of Charlton’s unused inventory was acquired by AC Comics head honcho Bill Black, and Ryan’s debut finally saw print in the AC title Starmasters #1.

Shortly after Ryan met professional artist Bob Layton at a comic book convention. Layton had recently moved to the Boston area and was looking for an assistant.  Layton recounted on his Facebook page

“I trained him as my apprentice, inking backgrounds for my various Marvel projects. All that time working together, Paul worked on his penciling samples for Marvel.”

Eventually accompanying Layton on a trip to the Marvel Comics offices in Manhattan, Ryan was introduced to the editorial staff. This led to Ryan receiving assignments from the company.  His first job was inking Ron Wilson’s pencils on The Thing #27 (Sept 1985).

Shortly afterwards Ryan was tapped to take over as penciler on the 12 issue Squadron Supreme miniseries written by Mark Gruenwald.  Ryan penciled issue #6 (Feb 1986) and then issues #9-12.  Ryan was paired with inker Sam De La Rosa, and also had the opportunity to work with his mentor Layton, who inked four of his five covers.

After completing Squadron Supreme, Ryan again worked with Gruenwald, co-creating D.P. 7 which debuted in November 1986. D.P.7 was considered one of the high points in Marvel’s very uneven New Universe imprint.  Ryan was the penciler for the entire 32 issue run of D.P.7.  It was on D.P.7 that Ryan was first paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi as his inker. I really appreciated the rich, illustrative quality that Bulanadi’s inking gave Ryan’s pencils.  They made a great team.

During this time, in 1987, Ryan penciled Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, the historic marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Avengers 330 cover signed

After D.P.7 came to an end, Ryan became the penciler of Avengers with issue #305 (July 1989). He was teamed with writer John Byrne and longtime Avengers inker / embellisher Tom Palmer.  After Byrne departed, Ryan worked with succeeding writers Fabian Nicieza and Larry Hama.  Ryan and Hama introduced the African American teenage hero Rage who, after a short stint as an Avenger, joined the New Warriors.

In late 1989 Ryan also penciled the first six issues of the ongoing Quasar series written by Gruenwald. Ryan was inked by Bulanadi on these.

Ryan was an incredibly fast artist, and in 1990 at the same time he was penciling Avengers he was also working on the Avengers West Coast spin-off series. Ryan inked Byrne’s pencils on issues #54 -57.  He then penciled issues #60 – 69, working with writers Roy & Dann Thomas, with Bulanadi once again inking him.

After departing AWC in early 1991, Ryan was once more paired with Byrne, this time on Iron Man. Bob Wiacek inked Ryan on these issues.

Later that year Ryan & Bulanadi joined writer Tom DeFalco to become the new creative team on Fantastic Four. Their first issue was #356 (Sept 1991).  Two months later, in the giant-sized FF #358, the series celebrated its 30th anniversary.  Among the numerous features contained in that issue, Ryan & Bulanadi illustrated an amazing double-page pin-up featuring many of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe.

In an 1997 interview Ryan stated that FF was his favorite Marvel title.  He had bought the very first issue when it came out back in 1961 when he was 11 years old, and was “very excited ”to be working on the series 30 years later.

Fantastic Four 358 Marvel characters

Ryan began co-plotting Fantastic Four with DeFalco beginning with issue #260. He remained on the series until issue #414 (July 1996). He penciled 59 consecutive issues, one month short of a full five years.  Ryan would undoubtedly have stayed on FF even longer if he and DeFalco had not been given the boot to make way for “Heroes Reborn.”

Reader reaction to DeFalco & Ryan’s time on Fantastic Four was decidedly mixed. I personally enjoyed it, but I understand why others were less enthusiastic.  Looking back, it is obvious that DeFalco & Ryan wanted to emulate the classic Lee & Kirby era, but they were also attempting to make the book competitive at a time when X-Men was Marvel’s hottest property, and everything else was falling by the wayside.  They wanted to give FF a retro Silver Age feel and make it appealing to teenage readers, i.e. sexing up the Invisible Woman and making her more ruthless, giving the rest of the team a more gritty look, generating numerous long-running subplots & mysteries, introducing a younger “next generation” of FF-related heroes, and tossing in lots of stuff involving time travel & alternate realities.  At times perhaps those styles did not mesh well, but DeFalco & Ryan were clearly giving it their all.

Understandably annoyed at being tossed off Fantastic Four, Ryan left Marvel and went to DC Comics. He worked there from 1996 to 2000.  His main assignments at DC were the quarterly Superman: Man of Tomorrow and the monthly Flash series.  He also penciled issues of Superboy, Aquaman and Batman: Gotham Knights, as well as a four issue Legion: Science Police miniseries.

Superman Man of Tomorrow 9 pg 6

One of my favorite DC issues that Ryan penciled was Superman: Man of Tomorrow #9 (Fall 1997), written by Roger Stern and inked by Brett Breeding. As Superman is busy adjusting to his new energy powers, Jonathan & Martha Kent recollect on their son’s life.  This provided Ryan & Breeding with the opportunity to illustrate many of the key moments in Superman’s post-Crisis history up to that point in time.

Notably, Ryan was one of a number of artists to work on the Superman: The Wedding Album in 1997, penciling 11 pages of this giant-sized special. By his involvement in this, he had worked on both the wedding of Clark Kent & Lois Lane and the wedding of Peter & Mary Jane.

I was glad to see Ryan receive work at DC.  I was a regular letterhack back then, and I wrote in to the Superman editors with the following…

“Paul Ryan is a superb penciler, and I’m glad you guys got him to work on this book. It’s nice to see that you guys can appreciate true talent.”

Yes, that was something of a swipe by me at Marvel for their treatment of Ryan the year before.

After his time at DC concluded, Ryan penciled a handful of fill-ins for CrossGen.  He worked on several issues of Crux and Ruse.

Phantom newspaper strip 04 13 2007

In 2001 Ryan began working on The Phantom comic books published by the Swedish company Egmont. This was the start of an association with Lee Falk’s legendary comic strip hero that would last for the next decade and a half.  Ryan was tapped to take over The Phantom weekly comic strip in 2005, working with writer Tony De Paul.  Two years later Ryan also assumed the art duties on the Sunday comic strip.

Ryan was a longtime fan of The Phantom.  He produced quality artwork on both the comic books and the newspaper strip.  He was still working as the artist on the daily strip at the time of his passing.

(For fans of The Phantom, the comic strip is archived online going back to 1996 on The Phantom Comics website.)

I really feel that Ryan was an underrated talent who was too often eclipsed by the “hot” artists of the 1990s.  Unlike many of those guys, Ryan was a very good penciler with strong sequential illustration skills, an artist who turned in quality work while consistently meeting deadlines; in other words, a true professional.

Paul Ryan 2000 photo

I was a fan of Ryan’s work ever since I first saw it in the late 1980s. Over the years I corresponded with him by e-mail on Facebook.  I was fortunate enough to meet Ryan once, back in 2000.  He was a guest at a major comic convention held at Madison Square Garden that was organized by Spencer Beck.  Ryan drew an amazing color sketch of Beautiful Dreamer for me at that show.  I had always hoped to one day meet Ryan again so that I could obtain another sketch from him.  Sadly that is no longer possible.  But I am grateful that I had that one opportunity to meet him all those years ago.