J.H. Williams is one of the most celebrated artists of this generation. His art is transcendent from what you would expect from a comic book artist. He's a 3 time Eisner Award winner and has also won a Harvey Award as well as an Inkwell Award.
His work on BATWOMAN is some of his best work, and one of my favorite books. His work on that book along with writer W. Haden Blackman, won a GLAAD Media Award for "Outstanding Comic Book" in 2012. The character is set to appear in the CW's Elseworlds Crossover this Fall.
The way he structures and composes the books he illustrates, is what truly makes his art a visual masterpiece. It is in "Sandman Overture" where he really goes all out and is my favorite project of his to date. It is one of the most beautifully illustrated comic books I've ever read. The detail he puts into every page makes every reread a chance to discover something you may not have seen the previous time.
He's current working with W. Haden Blackman on their new Image series, "Echolands". It hasn't been given a release date yet. But it's a book that I'm sure many fans are eagerly anticipating.
Comic Lounge: How did you get your big break in comics?
J.H. Williams III: Getting my break is kind of a long story. The short version is, after many years of going to show after show presenting my portfolio to editors I just about gave up. I was frustrated with every critique giving conflicting information year after year, many contradictions given, or the new hot style was no longer the new hot style being looked for. So when I was about to give up, my wife said to try stop showing my work to editors and take it to artists and writers I admired instead. That same year I had tried doing various independent projects. Two of which were diversely different in style from each other. I had an issue completed of each when I went to Wonder Con, when it was still in Oakland, CA. There, I showed the work to several people, but importantly to Howard Chaykin. I talked him into giving me a long critique of each project. He really focused on at least 40 pages of material I had done, voicing his astute opinion on the efforts, what he liked and disliked. Whenever he saw something unusual in the layouts he asked why I did it that way, and I’d have answer. That showed him I was trying to think about things, examine how comics functioned and could be presented in interesting ways. He ended up feeling like it was some of the best amateur work he’d seen in a while, but in retrospect it was still terribly rudimentary when compared to my work today. However, it was strong enough that he asked why I wasn’t working professionally. To which I said, “because I can’t get anyone’s attention”.
So at that moment he got up from his table, walked me over to a DC Comics convention booth and began exclaiming as loud as he could for someone to give me a job, even it meant him writing it for me. That was astounding. Then editors gave me cards with contact info. Denys Cowan gave me his card, this was when Milestone Comics (a DC imprint) was getting started. It still took me leaving roughly 80 phone messages before I got a call back (I counted the messages). Basically it took Howard’s one-off rant that day and me being a pest for many many weeks for someone to give me a shot, but even then it was really only fill-in issue work at first when they needed someone in a pinch, and I was the guy they remembered because I wouldn’t leave them alone. But the first gig led to another, then another, and so on.
Comic Lounge: Your art has changed so much, from "Chase" to "Sandman Overture". Are you constantly tweaking your style and adding new techniques to the way you approach things?
J.H.III: I guess so. I’m always looking for ways to improve or learn something, or try something new. It’s been a long evolution. Hopefully that evolution continues into new ideas or new examinations of what comics have been and can be.
Comic Lounge: You have worked with absolute legends of the Industry such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison. What was it like working with writers that have such over the top cerebral ideas ? Did you approach their scripts differently, based on the writer?
J.H.III: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate. I suppose it’s because perhaps they could see in my work what Howard Chaykin saw in that early crude work, that I did my best to put thought into it. But in ways that might be unexpected, or at least not commonly presented. And each of those 3 guys definitely need different approaches, different examinations, and yet they share a certain expansive thoughtful quality in their work that goes beyond typical comics while still staying true to what comics are. The most connected thing between the projects though, is that I always try to get at what is at the heart of a scene or story, what may lay between the lines of what is being said or written, on what may be the subtext, or at least the subtext that I see. Then I try to bring that out in various ways, creating an enhancement of the intended goals. Rather than just draw what is written on the surface, I’d try to understand why it was written in the first place, what is the point being attempted.
Comic Lounge: Your run on Batwoman was a personal favorite of mine, what was it like working on such a breakout character?
J.H.III: Batwoman was a very satisfying work, at least in terms of developing a character with so much emotional and heroic potential, excluding our unfinished ending of course. The most gratifying thing for me was doing our best in portraying how real she is. That she is a real human being with flaws and positive attributes, like all of us. I think it’s this aspect that attracts readers to her. That is my hope.
Comic Lounge: Sandman Overture is my favorite project that you've worked on, it is one of the most beautifully illustrated graphic novels I've ever read. Where did you draw your inspiration from when illustrating that book? What was it like working on such a huge character?
J.H.III: Sandman is nothing short of iconic when discussing all time great comics series. That was something I knew going in, and I was an admirer of all the work on that character that came before me. The trick to it for me was to tackle it as if it was something entirely new. To pretend we were creating something that hadn’t been seen before, while still subconsciously understanding there was an entirely rich world already in existence that had to be respected. The great thing about working on a series that is inspired by dream worlds is that anything is possible visually, and it’s okay to explore that. There are no more rules to follow. My work on Promethea takes a similar approach. And my current project Echolands, coming from Image Comics relatively soon, is also similar in that regard.
Comic Lounge: One of the things I love most about your art is the way you compose a page. How do you come up with such unique ways to compose each individual book? Do the writers give you complete freedom?
J.H.III: Yeah, for the most part I have the freedom to tackle things how I want. I’m trusted that I know what I’m doing. You have to work with people that are willing to experiment, even if the experiment falls short doesn’t mean it should not have been done. Nothing is learned if experimenting is curbed. So it’s important for everyone to be onboard. As for how I come up with the unique layouts, thats always changing really. It’s never just one thought process. Foremost, whatever the choices that are made have to be in service to what the goals of the scene or story is about. And secondary, the choices must be whatever works best to bring out certain visual attitudes that keep the visuals interesting. When I say “work best”, thats always subjective due to the experimentation taking place. The other thing I do is not overthink the decisions being made, and go with a more gut feeling about it all. This allows the design aspects to be more immediate and a bit spontaneous, it becomes what feels right at the time of doing it.
Comic Lounge: Are there any writers you would like to work with in the future?
J.H.III: Several. The top would be Michael Moorcock.
Comic Lounge: Do you prefer illustrating traditionally or digitally?
J.H.III: Traditionally for certain. I rarely use digital. Digital is mostly relegated to coloring the line art or greyscale art. But even then, I prefer traditional painting. The reason for that is a personal one. I prefer the risks involved when working traditionally versus digital. There are better lessons learned in that process I think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock digital artists at all. Just noting the differences in the risk aspect, and that I like to live in that risk territory.
Comic Lounge: Are there any projects you're currently working on that you can talk about?
J.H.III: There are several, but only a couple that I can discuss at this time. The first is one that is already available. We recently put out Where We Live, an anthology curated by wife and I and published by Image Comics in support of the victims the October 1st 2017 shooting here in Las Vegas. It’s available for purchase right now from any good comicshop, and from Amazon or Barnes And Noble. Please order it. All proceeds go toward helping those in need. The other project is Echolands, which also will be from Image Comics. This is a project I’ve long wanted to do, a creator owned concept developed by me and Haden Blackman. Haden was my co-author on Batwoman. Echolands does not have a scheduled release date yet, but I’m already working on issue 4.
Comic Lounge: What would be your dream project?
J.H.III: The one in front of me.