Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Artist Alley: JH Williams III

Original Photo via Flickr User Kyrre Gjerstad (CC BY 2.0 license)
Photo via Flickr User Pat Loika (CC BY 2.0 license)

J.H. Williams III is easily one of the most gifted and well-respected artists currently working in comics.  His twenty-year career has mostly been with DC, and he has collaborated with some of the best writers in the business: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, etc.

Unfortunately for the world, he is, as far as we know, curiously straight (or married to a woman and not open about any queer leanings at least).  I say curiously because Williams has worked on at least three series that are inherently queer (and knowing Neil Gaiman, is probably working on a fourth right now).

Today, I'm going to highlight this artist's prodigious talent through these works.

One of JHW3's first titles was Deathwish in 1994, a spin-off of Milestone Comics' Hardware, written by Maddie (Adam) Blaustein.  It's a hardboiled detective story featuring "the first pre-operative transsexual police lieutenant the city has ever employed," Marisa "Maddie" Rahm. 

Everything about this comic is a little crazy. The killer is an artist who targets transwomen, the lead is not the "superhero" vigilante character (most of the time), and the fact that DC put their name on a book that spends just as much time discussing gender identity as fighting bad guys make this a uniquely awesome series.

You can easily tell that this came early in Williams' professional life.  The art isn't bad, but his faces and action sequences lack a lot of the smooth lines of motion that he incorporates into his later work.  Of course it may have all just gotten butchered by the inker; most panels look like the guy just went to town to fill in every blank square inch with some nice, jagged lines.

Deathwish #1
His next big, queer series was Promethea with Alan Moore, published by America's Best Comics from 1994-2004.

If you can believe it, Promethea is even more trippy than Deathwish, courtesy of Alan Moore' deliciously bent writing.  It's all about Sophie Bangs, the latest avatar of the mystical feminine force, Promethea, and the woman who is destined to bring about the end of the world.  The series is often overtly didactic and is a great introduction to Western magic and Moore's own personal brand of philosophy.

To my knowledge, there is only one prominent queer character: a former avatar of Promethea who was biologically male but internally feminine (it is left unclear if that character is trans, and Promethea refers to them as gay).  Overall, though, the whole run is best described as queer.  Promethea's duty is to queer reality and bring existence to a higher level of consciousness (hippie-style but with magic instead of drugs).

From an art standpoint, JHW3 had definitely improved in the intervening five years and had a much cleaner style.  His detail work was much finer, he warranted a better inker, and he let the colorist have some space to work with.

Promethea #7
Williams' most recent queer outing is Detective Comics/Batwoman with Greg Rucka and later with W. Haden Blackman. 

Words cannot describe how epic this run was.  Kate Kane is tough, bleeds integrity, and is undeniably queer.  Something I have really appreciated about the way Ruck and Williams crafted this character is how to she embodies a traditional, super femme heroine in her Batwoman persona and a butch/androgynous/gender-queer marine when she's "just" Kate. It's not just Kate that changes either; the entire art style flips when she is in or out of costume.

Detective Comics #854
Despite Rucka and Williams excellent writing, the best part of the series is definitely the artwork. I could just look at this stuff all day.

Detective Comics #854
Compare this kick to the panel from Deathwish.  Everything is much more fluid and anatomically sound.  It is still a busy scene (no one could call Williams a minimalist), but the handling of fine details and the knowledge of when to back off and let the colorist handle things have vastly improved.

The best part of Williams' time on Batwoman may be this completely unconfirmed Easter egg from Detective Comics #854.

That's Maddie Blaustein on the right.



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