Al Williamson Interview conducted by Steve Ringgenberg (Part One of Two)

Posted by on June 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

(With an assist from Kim Thompson.) This interview is reprinted from TCJ #90 (May 1984).

Back in the old days, before the comics industry felt the need to censor its own produce, EC Comics produced some of the finest science-fiction comics ever published. One of the reasons why Weird Science, Weird Fantasy (and later, Weird Science-Fantasy) were so good was the work of a lanky young man named Al Williamson. At 21, Williamson was the youngster of the EC family, but everyone was in awe of his draftsmanship. Williamson could draw bravura science-fiction adventure like no one else, though it didn’t hurt that he had the likes of Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, and Angelo Torres assisting him with backgrounds and inking. After the collapse of the EC line, Williamson worked for such companies as ACG, Atlas, and Harvey, to name just a few, bringing to the stories he did for their SF and mystery titles the same superb rendering and palpable sense of atmosphere that made his EC work so memorable. In addition to the comic books he did, Williamson also made significant contributions to the art of the comic strip, ghosting several weeks of Flash Gordon for Dan Barry, and assisting John Prentice on Rip Kirby. These last two assignments are particularly ironic when you consider that it was Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon that inspired Williamson to become a comics artist in the first place. Indeed, Williamson has been the primary proponent of heroic realism in comics, and is the rightful heir to the Flash Gordon mantle of Alex Raymond, something Williamson has proved with his superb work on the King Flash Gordon title of the mid-’60s, and on the Flash Gordon movie album adapted from the (otherwise wretched) DeLaurentiis film.

Although not exactly a stranger to comics since the mid-’60s, Williamson concentrated most of his energies on the Secret Agent Corrigan strip that he drew (from Archie Goodwin’s scripts) from 1967 up until the strip’s demise several years ago. Williamson has reemerged in the comics limelight lately with his graphic-album adaptations of the last two Star Wars films: The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. In addition, Williamson has been carrying on the Star Wars newspaper strip since the death of the late Russ Manning. Star Wars has never looked better than it does in Williamson’s hands, for most of his artistic career can be seen as a warm-up for realizing George Lucas’s extravagant science-fiction universe. I had long been an admirer of Williamson’s work, and it was doubly rewarding to discover in the course of the interviews that he is such a warm, humorous, generous fellow—a delight in every respect. Kim Thompson and I journeyed into the wilds of Pennsylvania late in November of 1982 and spent a wonderful day with Al, his lovely wife Corrie, and their three children. It was no surprise to learn that Williamson has one of the largest collections of Alex Raymond’s originals this side of a museum, though it was refreshing to learn that, despite his many years in the comics business, he remains a comics fan, bubbling over with enthusiasm whenever he sees new work from anyone he admires. Al Williamson is a rarity in the comics business, a genuine talent who’s also a gentleman.

—Steve Ringgenberg

STEVE RINGGENBERG: How did you get your job at EC?

AL WILLIAMSON: Wally Wood suggested I go up.

RINGGENBERG: How old were you at the time?

WILLIAMSON: Twenty? Let’s see…’52,1 was born in ’31. I just turned 21 in March, so it was just before I turned 21: I went up in January or February. January, I think.

RINGGENBERG: Where were you working before that?

WILLIAMSON: I was doing stuff for Richard Hughes, who was the editor—I forget the name of the outfit. Forbidden Worlds. He was a real nice guy—I liked him. Good guy to work with.

RINGGENBERG: What was it like working for EC in the ’50s?

WILLIAMSON: Fun. For me. A lot of guys were already married and had to turn the stuff out and make a living and pay the bills, but I was kind of footloose and fancy free, so it didn’t bother me too much. I could play the prima donna and get away with it, I guess.

RINGGENBERG: How did you get along with Feldstein and Gaines?

WILLIAMSON: Fine. I liked them both very much.

RINGGENBERG: They didn’t treat you like the youngest member of the staff?

WILLIAMSON: No. Nice people to work for.

RINGGENBERG: What motivated your frequent collaborations with Frazetta, Krenkel, Torres, et cetera?

WILLIAMSON: I figure if you’re going to have somebody collaborate with you, you might as well get the best.

RINGGENBERG: How did you first meet Frazetta?

WILLIAMSON: I was working at Standard and he walked in, and I’d known his work, so we hit it off.

RINGGENBERG: How did working with Frank influence you? Has it left a mark on your style?

WILLIAMSON: Well, he was doing stuff that I was doing before we met each other. Well, I had discovered jungles myself. I loved lizards. That’s one thing that’s always fascinated me, lizards. Living in South America, I remember the lizards. You look around and there’s this gorgeous lizard posing on a rock! Jeez, it was great!

RINGGENBERG: Were you into collecting animals when you were down there?

WILLIAMSON: No. Nothing like that. Collecting comics, yes, but animals, no.

RINGGENBERG: Did you ever go out and draw from life?

WILLIAMSON: No. I was a kid kid. This is before I became an artist. Before I decided to become an artist. I guess I discovered comics in 1939, and by about 1940 I guess I was 9 or 10 when I decided, hey, I’d like to draw comics. So that’s when I started drawing. And then I said hey, I think I’ll become a cartoonist. I’m going to do these when I grow up. I’m going to do comics when I grow up.

RINGGENBERG: Did Bill Gaines ever object to the fact that you had so many people working with you?

WILLIAMSON: No. What’s so many people? Roy [Krenkel] worked with me, Frank [Frazetta] worked with me, but we were always together. It was like—gee, like I said, we were all free, we weren’t married, we had no responsibilities, so when we got together to do a job, it was mostly for the fun of it, even though we were getting paid. This is hard to explain nowadays, because nowadays things are so cut and dried. But things were a little more free in many ways.

RINGGENBERG: You didn’t need as much money to survive.

WILLIAMSON: Oh, no. Most of it—and I think Roy and Frank and Angelo [Torres] will back me up on this—was done for the fun of it: because they were fun stories to do. We knew EC was doing some interesting stuff, above the average comic-book stuff. Different. So, in a way, it was like being above the crowd in some respects, and yet, we could do this work without having this terrible feeling of gotta do it. It was a labor of love and fun. And I wanted to see a good job done. I was deathly afraid of inking. I had no problem pencilling. I love pencilling, and I used to use a lot of pen-work in my sketches. So my love was the pencil, the layout. And I certainly didn’t want some DC inker to ink my stuff. I wanted someone like Frank, someone like Angelo Torres, who has a feeling. These guys are artists. They’re not inkers, they’re artists. So, we were turning out jobs that had a feel to it. It wasn’t just a job where a guy took it and inked it and collected his money, it was a job where Angelo, Roy, Frank, and myself sit down and we loved what we were doing. It may not have been the best drawing—speaking for myself—but there was a love there. You got the love there, and that’s all that counts. You can dazzle them with footwork, but if you don’t love what you’re doing, what the hell.

RINGGENBERG: Was it usually Frazetta inking over your pencils?

WILLIAMSON: Usually. He pencilled a couple of things, but basically I tried to do all the pencilling myself. I think I still have a lot of the sketches that I did, but where they are I don’t know. That’s because I used to do everything on tracing paper, and then I’d have a lightbox—I’d do it the same size, naturally, since we used to get the pages already lettered. Then I’d do my layouts on tracing paper, and then I would put the tracing on the lightbox, and put the page over and trace it again. That’s how I used to pencil this stuff.

RINGGENBERG: Has your drawing technique changed over the years?

WILLIAMSON: I’ve worked basically the same way I’ve always worked. I think you just change normally, naturally without even realizing you’re doing it. I’ve made no conscious effort to change.

RINGGENBERG: It seems now, that your style is a lot tighter: it’s not as loose as it used to be in the EC days.

WILLIAMSON: Well, I guess I’m getting more sure of myself in certain respects, but I used to be deathly afraid of inking. I was a better penciller 20 years ago than I am now, but I’m a better inker than I was 20 years ago.

RINGGENBERG: What makes you say that?

WILLIAMSON: I used to pencil fairly tight—well, I still pencil tight, but I don’t know, I guess I just got a little more confidence in myself, that’s all.

RINGGENBERG: Do you ever ink with a brush?

WILLIAMSON: Sure.

RINGGENBERG: Well, what kind of stuff would you ink with a brush?

WILLIAMSON: Well, all the main stuff, just about everything is inked with a brush. The pen is only for crosshatch, or outline, or blond hair sometimes, or just depending on what the background is: and if I feel like using a pen.

RINGGENBERG: Didn’t you used to ink primarily with a pen?

WILLIAMSON: No. It was all pretty much brush. Sure, I used to ink a lot with a pen, but most of it was brush.

RINGGENBERG: How fully do you render your pencils?

WILLIAMSON: They’re tight.

RINGGENBERG: Just for yourself.

WILLIAMSON: Just for me.

RINGGENBERG: What if somebody else is going to ink over them?

WILLIAMSON: Well, as a rule, I ink my own stuff. So I pencil for me, but I like to have them pretty tight. I do a lot of my stuff on tracing paper, and I ink on that because I personally feel very free on that. I can do it very quickly that way and then I’ll trace it on the machine and pencil it and re-ink it. It sounds like doing it twice, but actually it’s quicker. Sometimes if I have a problem with a figure or an action scene I do it on tracing paper. For some reason, it comes easier.

RINGGENBERG: You did a couple of stories with George Evans. I think you did some stuff for Valor.

WILLIAMSON: No, I laid out that Knight story, and he took it from there. I didn’t do the whole thing. I think I laid out one or two panels, but he did the rest. And the other was the three-dimensional science-fiction job; 3-D, which I pencilled, and George inked.

RINGGENBERG: OK, on “50 Girls 50”—you remember that one?

WILLIAMSON: I pencilled that, Roy [Krenkel] did some of the backgrounds on that, and Frank [Frazetta] inked most of it.

RINGGENBERG: Was it different working with someone like George Evans or Reed Crandall, as opposed to working with Frazetta or Torres?

WILLIAMSON: Well, when I worked with Reed, mostly he pencilled and I inked. Or I would pencil and ink. The stories that come to mind—I remember one he pencilled completely, but that was his pencils and my inks. One we did together in the sense that I pencilled some stuff and inked it, and he pencilled some stuff and inked it. I’m sure there might have been more, but that’s all I remember offhand. I know he pencilled some things for Western, which I inked. But that’s a pencil-and-inker job. It’s not like working together on something, working things out together. When I worked with Roy, we’d sit down and talk this thing out in a sense. Talk it out, like when I work with Carlos [Garzon]. I’ll do my layouts the way I want to, and if I have a problem or something, we’ll work it out together. And it’s a lot of fun doing that.

RINGGENBERG: So it was more of a planned collaboration, like those two guys coming over to help you out with the deadline.

WILLIAMSON: It wasn’t cut and dried like that. It was like I said, a labor of love. I think they enjoyed doing this stuff as much as I did. As I said, I would prefer getting the best to help me with a job, just to have a good job, than just to turn out a job for the buck. I’ve worked with a lot of artists now. I’ve done their work, and it’s the same thing. When I worked for John Prentice, I did the very best I could. I learned with John Prentice. I learned a hell of a lot with him. I learned how to do a newspaper strip, because I didn’t know how in the hell to do one. All I did was comics before. So he taught me a lot, and working with John was a lot of fun. A lot of times, those things were very hard to come up with. How to do a scene, where it would be interesting, so the reader could see what was going on. In that respect, John and I enjoyed doing the job together. But in that case we weren’t splitting. He was just giving me a salary, and it was a joint effort in the finish, because I enjoy drawing.

RINGGENBERG: Would you work in the same studio?

WILLIAMSON: Oh yeah.

RINGGENBERG: It was never just like working through the mail—

WILLIAMSON: That was later on. Later on when I started doing my own work again, and I would completely pencil and ink. By that time I wasn’t having any trouble.

RINGGENBERG: Were you doing X-9 by yourself?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, most of the time. I had Stan Pitt do a whole story for me once, but then I did a DC job, or a couple of DC jobs. See, I like the break. It’s rough staying with one thing.

RINGGENBERG: Do you get bored?

WILLIAMSON: Tired. I’d like to break away, so I can come back to it. When Archie [Goodwin] and I started doing X-9, one story was civilian, the next story was fantasy, and the next story civilian, and the next story fantasy, that’s when I really started enjoying the strip and I didn’t get tired doing it. When we started we did a take-off on The Lost World, we did The Prisoner of Zenda, we did Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure: you name all the greats, we did them. We did The Silent Earth—our version, of course. I remember, I said, Hey Archie, why don’t we do Lost World? So we did The Lost World.

RINGGENBERG: How was your working relationship with Frazetta and Krenkel?

WILLIAMSON: Fine. Great.

RINGGENBERG: You guys were all pals?

WILLIAMSON: Sure.

RINGGENBERG: Was there any ego in the collaborations?

WILLIAMSON: I don’t think so.

RINGGENBERG: Nobody was jealous of anybody else?

WILLIAMSON: Oh, no. Well, we all admired Frank. I know Frank likes Roy’s work. I don’t know how he feels about my work, but I heard he likes it. No, there was never anything like that, thank heavens.

RINGGENBERG: Here’s a technical question. In the EC stuff, generally maybe on one page you’d have one panel where you’d have a lot of Ben Day or Zipatone, on that one panel. Where did you decide to use it for effect?

WILLIAMSON: Where it called for it. Sometimes I just put it in to put it in, to maybe detract from the fact that the page wasn’t that good.

RINGGENBERG: Were you influenced at all by Sickles’ use of Ben Day?

WILLIAMSON: No. I knew Sickles’ work, and I liked it: but I was influenced, I would say, in the Ben Day stuff by Wally Wood. Because he started using it, then we all started using it.

RINGGENBERG: What about Roy Crane?

WILLIAMSON: That was Craftint. I used Craftint on stuff of my own before I met Wally [Wood], so I did try to do some of that, use Craftint. But not for publication. For my own amusement.

RINGGENBERG: Krenkel seems to have had the most influence on your architecture. Would you care to comment on that?

WILLIAMSON: Sure, yeah. Absolutely. No question about it: he was influenced by Franklin Booth.

RINGGENBERG: Is that where he got a lot of his fantastic cities?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. He could make them up: but he got inspired by Franklin Booth. He was doing cities like that back in the 1930s, when he was a kid. So, Alex Raymond got his cities from Franklin Booth, too. The Hawkmen scene, with the flying city—I’ve got to show you this picture by Franklin Booth called “Unseen Foundations,” and that’s where it came from, and he did it in 1925. So there you go.

RINGGENBERG: Besides the use of Craftint, do you think Wood had much of an impact on your style?

WILLIAMSON: Sure. I was inspired a lot by Wally.

RINGGENBERG: You guys did a few jobs together.

WILLIAMSON: Not as many as I’d like: It was fun working with Wally. Every time I went to visit Wally, it was a lot of fun. I’d have one of my jobs, and he’d have an extra drawing table there. I’d sit down and draw, and sketch. He was great to work with, because he was very—when somebody like Wally says, “Hey, I like that,” it means something. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working with someone who appreciated.

RINGGENBERG: Did you ever feel that on the things you did with Wood that his inks overpowered your pencils?

WILLIAMSON: Wally Wood, when he inks, it’s Wally Wood. And I like Wally Wood, so it didn’t bother me at all! [Laughs.]

RINGGENBERG: Why haven’t you and Krenkel collaborated more since the mid-’60s?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I lived up here in the country, and he was doing a lot of paintings and stuff.

RINGGENBERG: I remember “Water World” in Creepy. Now, what did Krenkel do on this?

WILLIAMSON: Now all this was originally laid out by Roy, except the first page. I did that. And he did it on tracing paper. He did all these beautiful scenes, but the figures were not there. He just suggested a figure. What I did is take those tracings and trace them, put my own figures in, added some fish, and I inked the whole thing.

RINGGENBERG: So each of you did what he was strongest at.

WILLIAMSON: Well, he laid it out, and I took it from there. I changed some layouts and did some things to make it look like my stuff.

RINGGENBERG: What were your biggest influence during the EC period?

WILLIAMSON: Wally Wood, Daniel Vierge, J.C. Coll, Roy Krenkel. As much as I admired Frank’s work, I never tried to draw like him. I don’t know why, because he’s just great, but I never tried to draw like him. Not consciously, anyway.

RINGGENBERG: Did you ever imagine that the EC work you did would be as highly regarded as it is now?

WILLIAMSON: It never occurred to me. Never even thought about it. I figured comics would always be used to line garbage cans and birdcages.

RINGGENBERG: What do you think of Russ Cochran’s sets of EC volumes?

WILLIAMSON: They’re nice. I’m glad to have them, to have Wally’s work and Reed Crandall’s work, because I used to have all that stuff, but I gave it all away, except the science fiction.

RINGGENBERG: You kept all those?

WILLIAMSON: I kept all those. I still have those.

RINGGENBERG: Are those particular favorites of yours?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I like the science-fiction books. I’ve kept the books intact. I like the first 23 issues of Mad, I like the EC books, I like the war books that books that Harvey Kurtzman did. I like the Valor book that Feldstein did.

RINGGENBERG: You had stories in the first three issues of that, didn’t you?

WILLIAMSON: Valor? I think so.

RINGGENBERG: Did you like doing the stuff with the knights?

WILLIAMSON: No, I did the Roman stuff. I had a thing about Romans, I guess. The funny thing is, when I first went to Italy, I landed in Milano, which is not exactly the most beautiful city in the world. Unfortunately, it’s very polluted. But I landed there and I loved it. There was something about Italy. It was like I’d come home. It was great; I loved Italy. I found the people to be absolutely delightful. I think on the throwback I must be Italian, or Roman, or something. I like to think so, anyway. So maybe doing those Roman things was subconsciously like a little bit of home.

RINGGENBERG: Were you influenced at all by the big biblical epics that were coming out in the ’50s?

WILLIAMSON: No, I was influenced by Roy [Krenkel] and I was influenced by [Hal] Foster, and I was influenced by Matanian, who did a lot of Roman illustrations for English publications.

RINGGENBERG: Are you still in touch with many of the old EC gang?

WILLIAMSON: George. George Evans. We’ve been friends for a long time: since 1946.

RINGGENBERG: Ever see Gaines?

WILLIAMSON: Once in a while. Well, I haven’t seen Bill in a long time, but I talk with him on the phone at least two or three times a year, on one thing or another. Just to say hello.

RINGGENBERG: Do you resent the fact that Gaines kept all the originals for the EC stuff?

WILLIAMSON: No. I thought I did for a while there, when he started selling them, but no, not really.

RINGGENBERG: What’s your opinion of the EC stuff?

WILLIAMSON: It’s overrated, except Wally Wood is always number one for me, and Reed Crandall, and people like that. I think their stuff is incredible. And Johnny Craig is very good: very, very good.

RIGGENBERG: You must have liked the one or two things that Toth did.

WILLIAMSON: Absolutely. But again, when you think of the EC crew, you think of the guys who were there all the time. I know Joe Kubert did a job, and Gene Colan did a job, and several artists did one-shot jobs. The point is, for me EC artists are the guys that worked there. Did more than two or three jobs. My favorites were Reed Crandall and Wally Wood.

RINGGENBERG: What did you think of Bernie Krigstein?

WILLIAMSON: I didn’t think he was that great. He was an excellent artist. I think that he certainly did some beautiful work, but I think that Johnny Craig did a hell of a lot of good stuff, too, and he doesn’t get any credit at all, and I don’t think that’s fair. Krigstein did beautiful work: very modern, very different. But frankly, I’d seen Will Eisner do the same kind of storytelling 10 years before.

RINGGENBERG: Were you reading much science fiction during the EC days?

WILLIAMSON: No.

RINGGENBERG: Did you like Kutrtzman’s work?

WILLIAMSON: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

RINGGENBERG: How come you never did any work for the war comics.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t believe in war.

RINGGENBERG: Well, they were more anti-war comics, actually.

WILLIAMSON: I know, but no way am I going to start getting research on rifles and all that crap.

RINGGENBERG: You did do some stuff for Blazing Combat. You did that one tanker story with Torres.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, but that was like doing a monogram version, as opposed to the everything’s there, Gone With the Wind type thing. So I did two tank jobs, and the only reason I did them was that I had seen Sahara—it’s one of my favorite Bogart films, and that’s the only reason I did them, so I did them like that. So I went out and got a whole bunch of stills from Sahara, and that was my reference.

RINGGENBERG: Are you a science-fiction reader at all?

WILLIAMSON: No.

RINGGENBERG: What do you like to read?

WILLIAMSON: I don’t read as much as I should. Certainly nothing deep. No way. Escape stuff. I like reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. I haven’t outgrown him yet.

RINGGENBERG: Still reading Burroughs.

WILLIAMSON: Still reading Burroughs.

RINGGENBERG: How was working for Warren different than the old EC days?

WILLIAMSON: Well, you did your own layout. You didn’t get the pages lettered. It wasn’t working for Warren so much: it was working for Archie Goodwin. I did it mostly because Archie was my friend. I enjoyed his scripts, and that’s why I did it, and that’s the same reason I did those two jobs later on for Warren, because Bruce Jones called me and asked me if I would do a couple of jobs. And Weezie Jones was the editor at the time, so I figured with Weezie Jones and Bruce Jones at the helm, I wasn’t going to get screwed, and that they’d look out for my interest, so I did those jobs for them.

RINGGENBERG: How was the money Warren was paying back in the early ’60s?

WILLIAMSON: Very bad. I think it was either 35 or 45, I forget which.

RINGGENBERG: For pencils and inks? That’s terrible.

WILLIAMSON: That’s awful.

RINGGENBERG: You must have liked the scripts then.

WILLIAMSON: Well, I was working faster. I remember doing that job—ever see a thing that Wally wrote that I drew, called “Clawfang the Barbarian”? That’s five pages of story and two pages of introduction, or two pages of introduction and five pages of story, and I did that in one week. All myself. Now, if I could do that today. . .

RINGENBERG: Why can’t you?

WILLIAMSON: I don’t know. I don’t know! I can’t work fast any more!

RINGGENBERG: Were you pretty fast in the old days?

WILLIAMSON: I guess I was! Do you realize, I was pencilling and inking two strips, plus penciling a daily and a Sunday, and I was doing that constantly, for about six or seven months. That’s a hell of a lot of work for one guy to turn out.

RINGGENBERG: You wrote some of the Flash Gordon comic strips for King. Why haven’t you done more of your own writing?

WILLIAMSON: I’m not a very good writer. I have ideas. I’m an idea man. You put me at the head of Disney, and you’d see good stuff done, because I have good ideas. I can’t put them down on paper, which is very frustrating, but I think I can get my ideas across.

RINGGENBERG: Do you ever come up with plot ideas for Goodwin?

WILLIAMSON: Sure. Archie is a great guy to work with. First, we love the same films, we get along great together, we’re very good friends. We’ve known each other for so long, and there’s just no problems. I am very lucky in this business, because I’m working with the people who are the best and I get along with the best. So, I’m lucky. I know some guys—Tom Yeates, for instance—who’s a hell of a good artist: the sweetest guy in the world, and a hell of a good artist. He’s doing Swamp Thing, and the writing is atrocious. And he’s fighting this. He wants to do something good with the Swamp Thing, and he’s capable of doing something good, but what can you do with lousy scripts? You go out of your mind! So there’s Tom, who could make this book, if he had the right writer. It could be a beauty. And DC won’t give him another writer, I don’t know why.

RINGGENBERG: Well, you dealt with some atrocious scripts in the past.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, but I wasn’t even aware of it. I did it because it was a comic book, and it happened to be science fiction, maybe, and I want to do science fiction. So the story I didn’t give a damn about. But there was a charm about those. I mean, they were terrible stories, but on the other hand, they had a reason for what happened. What I’m talking about is a Swamp Thing that seems to leap from one thing to another, and when they try to say something, be deep about something, about morals or some damn thing, you wind up with—wha? I mean, in one of my stories, the guy gets killed, he goes to another world, he comes back, he does something to the guy who’s the killer, the bad guy gets it, and then he goes back to this beautiful world with this beautiful girl. I think that’s lovely. That’s a lovely story. It should happen to everybody. Wouldn’t you like to go to a place like that, with beautiful women, beautiful trees, lovely buildings a la Krenkel, mushrooms, women running around with hardly any—

RINGGENBERG: I’d love to live in a Krenkel city.

WILLIAMSON: Of course! Of course! And you say those are terrible stories? How dare you! [Laughter.]

RINGGENBERG: Tell me about the first time you met Goodwin.

WILLIAMSON: Oh God, it was years and years and years ago. I met him back in September or October 1956. He was going to the school of Visual Arts, and I met him at Larry Ivie’s house. And we just sort of hit it off, and we started hanging around, going to movies and stuff.

RINGGENBERG: He said you were the one who got him into comics. You got him a script at Harvey.

WILLIAMSON: Well, when Harvey started looking for writers, I suggested Archie because I knew he could write. But it’s just like somebody saying, “Well, why don’t you give it to Al, you know, he can draw.” [Laughter.]

RINGGENBERG: Is Goodwin your favorite comics writer?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Of all the writers I’ve worked with…yeah.

RINGGENBERG: Even over Feldstein?

WILLIAMSON: Oh sure. Yeah. I think my two favorite writers are Archie Goodwin and Bruce Jones. I just did a job for Pacific, a Bruce Jones thing.

RINGGENBERG: I was going to ask you how that came about.

WILLIAMSON: Well, he’s my friend and he asked me to do it, and he’s a good writer.

RINGGENBERG: You liked his script?

WILLIAMSON: Oh sure, it was a fine script. Bruce is a good writer.

RINGGENBERG: Do you think he’s going to try to recreate the old EC atmosphere?

WILLIAMSON: It looks that way. And if anybody could do it, he could. And do it well.

RINGGENBERG: Have you ever done anything else with Jones besides that one story?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, he’s written a couple of stories for me that I did for Creepy. One was… I forget the name of it.

RINGGENBERG: The Santa Claus story?

WILLIAMSON: He did the Santa Claus story. That was Bruce Jones.

RINGGENBERG: And you had the Buck Rogers ray guns. In the story…

WILLIAMSON: That was my son, James that posed for that. In fact, I asked Bruce that I’d kind of like to use the kids and he said he’d write me a story. And he wrote me this nice story. Of course it’s a real down ending, but it was fun. That was back in ’76.

RINGGENBERG: I know Goodwin sends you rough pencils….

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I’ve got some right over here if you want to take a look at them later.

RINGGENBERG: How closely do you follow those?

WILLIAMSON: Well, here’s the funny thing. Sometimes I have to get the script over the phone. And I would say nine times out of 10, the layout that I do over the phone from his description is almost identical to his. When I get it in the mail and I get his little drawing, it’s almost the same. His figures here, the rocks there, the close-ups here, and it’s pretty much the same. But when I get the script and I do have his layouts, I usually do change them. Except when I have to rush.

RINGGENBERG: So you pretty much trust his visual sense?

WILLIAMSON: Well, yeah, sure. He’s a hell of an artist. But he does it for himself. I think that most artists, if you put a group of artists together and give them a script with no drawing and tell them’ “We want you to do this layout” you’ll probably get them all pretty much alike. Unless you’re Alex Toth, and you get something completely different and unique.

RINGGENBERG: How do you and Carlos break down the work on the strip?

WILLIAMSON: I lay it out, and I pencil it. I do all the backgrounds and all the figures. Carlos helps me most with all the rocket ships and the hardware.

RINGGENBERG: You don’t like to draw that stuff?

WILLIAMSON: It’s not that I don’t like to draw it, it’s tedious, but I just don’t have the time. I mean, to do Star Wars, I can do the Sunday or the daily by myself. But doing a daily is sort of a drag. Doing a newspaper strip is a drag in the sense that it’s constant and there’s never a chance to breathe. If you do a 10-page comic book story, you take the job in, and somehow, it’s done. Even though you start immediately on something else, maybe even the same character, you start another 10 pages. But somehow, there’s a breather there. There’s a space [whew] where you can [aah]. But with a strip it’s every day, every week. It’s never a let out, like “I’m done with that, now I can go on to something else.” It’s there every day.

RINGGENBERG: Who are some of the other people who’ve worked with you in the past?

WILLIAMSON: Well, you know Angelo Torres…Gray [Morrow]. I did some work for Johnny Severin back in the ’50s. I did some pencilling for him. This Indian character, American Eagle. And some Western stuff. I worked with John Prentice, I worked with John Cullen Murphy.

RINGGENBERG: On what?

WILLIAMSON: Big Ben Bolt. Gosh, who else. I worked with a lot of guys. I worked with Frank [Frazetta]. Dan Barry, I did some work with him back in the ’50s. Reed Crandall and I did some I work together. Wally Wood and I did some work together.

RINGGENBERG: Didn’t Kaluta assist you on one of the jobs you did. . .?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, he came out and worked on a couple of pages. That was when he first came up and he was having trouble getting into it. He’s a hell of a good artist, always was good. But it was the kind of thing where it was his first job, and he couldn’t quite get into it, I guess.

RINGGENBERG: Do you think he was having trouble with that one, or just working with you?

WILLIAMSON: Maybe he was just having trouble with me. Maybe he’s the kind of artist who just can’t work with anyone. He has to do his own thing. I love working with people. I enjoy seeing what two guys can do.

RINGGENBERG: Well, so much of your work has been done in collaboration with other people.

WILLIAMSON: Oh, yeah, a lot of it. Some things I’ve done on my own that I like. But for some reason the stuff I’ve done with others, there’s always this interest. Like Carlos and I get together on the strip, we both enjoy the films, we both enjoy that kind of thing, so it’s coming out better than if I were doing it myself. Because the drawing of the figures, the characters, and the drawings of the machines are complimentary to one another and we get the feeling it does look like Star Wars. And that’s what we’re trying to get. And we enjoy it, and I think that’s it.

RINGGENBERG: Is any of your current work the product of your hands alone?

WILLIAMSON: Well, let’s see. Well, I always feel it’s all mine, in a sense. And I don’t mean that to take away from anybody. Because I lay it out, and I do a hell of a lot of the backgrounds and I do all the figure stuff. Like if we have a jungle story, I do all the jungle stuff. The plants, the mushrooms…

RINGGENBERG: How much of Marvel’s adaptation of Blade Runner was all you?

WILLIAMSON: Well, originally, Carlos and I were going to do that together. And the way it worked out, we did two pages a week, but unfortunately, we didn’t get a script, and by the time the deadline came, we only had about I5 pages, and that wasn’t anybody’s fault, we just didn’t have a script. So the way we did it was Carlos and I did the first 20 pages, we both pencilled and we both inked: I laid it out; I pencilled all the figures. Carlos did most of the backgrounds on that stuff and he inked some of the figures. Then the next 20 or so pages I laid out myself and pencilled half of them, and the other half were pencilled tighter by Carlos over my layouts and the other fellows inked it.

RINGGENBERG: Dan Green and Ralph Reese?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Right.

RINGGENBERG: Green’s worked with you before.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, Green’s very good. He helped me on a couple panels on Big Apple Comix. I remember that because I was leaving for Lucca [Italy] and I had to finish about two weeks of [Secret Agent] X-9 and I wanted to get those three pages done because I had had them for about 17 months. And he came over the day before I left and helped me finish everything up in one day. That was a fun thing to do. He did just some of the backgrounds in that. The trees—I forget now what the hell he did.

RINGGENBERG: Whose idea was it to make the protagonist look like Roy Thomas?

WILLIAMSON: It was my idea. Oh, he loved it. We had a ball doing it. It was a lot of fun. Wally [Wood] wrote the story. And we were all horny in those days: so we decided what the hell, let’s do this.

RINGGENBERG: Were you working with Garzon on the Flash Gordon movie adaptation?

WILLIAMSON: No, let’s see, we had just finished Empire, and he went on to do some stuff for Western and I wanted to do the Flash thing myself. And I started doing it myself and I worked but it wasn’t getting done. That was the hardest job I ever had to do in my life. I forget what happened. There was a holdup again on the script because they changed the movie ending and to make a long story short, I finally had to get Al McWilliams to help with the backgrounds. And he inked most of the backgrounds in the last 20 or 25 pages. And there was one sequence there that seemed to go on forever, the rocketship going towards the city, that had to be extended because they didn’t know the ending of the story. So they changed the ending completely and that’s why that’s so long. That only should have lasted maybe two pages. But because they changed the ending, they shortened the story. Well, anyway, I finally got Al to help me with that.

RINGGENBERG: It’s good that you got somebody whose style is similar to yours.

WILLIAMSON: Well. . . yeah. But he and I worked completely different. His figures are completely different from mine, his action is completely different.

RINGGENBERG: Well, you guys have similar crosshatching.

WILLIAMSON: Oh yeah, because we both worked with Johnny Prentice and we picked up a lot of stuff from him. So there’s that, but I don’t think we draw at all alike. I know what you mean, but I draw differently than that.

RINGGENBERG: Did you enjoy doing the Flash Gordon adaptation?

WILLIAMSON: No. I mean I worked hard, and I think it was an adequate job. But I think subconsciously I wasn’t with it. I think it bothered me because when I first started it, I had no idea what the hell the people looked like because I had no reference. If you look, you’ll see the first four or five pages, there’s very little from the film, it’s all made up. I had verv little reference. Then about page 7 or 8 I got all the reference I needed. Then it started looking like the film, because that’s what I assumed they wanted it to look like.

RINGGENBERG: Why did you go into syndicated strips rather than staying with comic books?

WILLIAMSON: It just happened.

RINGGENBERG: Because they offered you X-9, back in the ’60s?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. I did some stuff for Warren. I was doing some stuff for Gold Key. And I was doing stuff for King Features, the comic books, Flash Gordon. And I was also ghosting two strips, Big Ben Bolt and Rip Kirby,o ff and on.

RINGGENBERG: How did you get the assignment to do X-9?

WILLIAMSON: When I did the first Flash Gordon book, I didn’t want to do any more. I don’t know, they weren’t paying me enough, I was kind of unhappy about it. And I just didn’t feel like doing it. So I didn’t do issues 2 and 3. 8y the time issue 1 came out, they must have gotten a hell of a reaction on it. I don’t know what happened, but they said they got letters from all over the world, so they must have printed the same stuff in Europe. They showed me a bag that was full of letters on the book, and that was the first time a reaction like that had ever happened to me. And everybody at King saw the second book coming in and they didn’t particularly care for it. They wanted the first book, my kind of work, or Alex’s [Raymond] type of work. And they gave me a little more money and said please do it. And I said, “OK, as long as I get my originals back,” and that’s why I did issues 3 and 4. On issue 3 I said, “OK, here’s what I want: I want my originals back, and I don’t want to do a Mandrake, I want it to be all my book and I want the filler to be X-9 so I have this break of doing a civilian thing, because I hate doing the same thing all the time.” So I thought I’d do two Flash Gordon stories and then the break would be the Secret Agent X-9, which would be fun to do. So when I started on my third book, that’s when I got the call to do X-9 and would I do it? I think I had a 10 or 15 page story to go on Flash and the four- or five- page filler. So I told them the situation and there was no problem with that. They said just go ahead and finish it. But I didn’t do the X-9 filler for that one. But they had seen the [X-9 filler] I did earlier. That’s the story I got. I suppose if Joe Blow had done the X-9 filler, they would have given it to Joe Blow.

RINGGENBERG: Was it deliberate that you worked on all three strips in which [Alex] Raymond was the original artist?

WILLIAMSON: No, it just happened.

RINGGENBERG: Did you ever get to meet him?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, when I was a kid, when I was 18. He was a nice man, very nice, a real gentleman.

RINGGENBERG: How is working on a syndicated strip different than working on comic books?

WILLIAMSON: There is a difference: it’s hard for me to put into words. But there is a difference. In telling the story, you can’t do a comic strip like you do a comic-book page. The strip is something that you have to read in so many seconds so you have to make it as simple as possible for the reader. You have a head shot, a long shot, whatever, you try to break it up so it’s easy for the reader to see it and read it at the same time. You don’t want to confuse them. But with a comic-book page where the reader will look more at the drawing, you put more into it.

RINGGENBERG: How long does it take you to do one of the Star Wars dailies?

WILLIAMSON: Well, it takes us 41/2 days to do a set of dailies and one Sunday page. That’s full days. You get to work at 8 and you don’t quit until 5:30 or 6. With an hour off for lunch. I’m usually here at 7:30.

RINGGENBERG: Do you work weekends?

WILLIAMSON: I try not to work on Sundays if possible, just to get away from it. But when the need arises, I do work on Sundays.

RINGGENBERG: How much freedom does Lucasfilm give you depicting the characters?

WILLIAMSON: No problems. Both Archie [Goodwin] and I love the Star Wars stuff, so we suspect we’re doing it the way he likes to have it done. I mean, we know the characters: I have a feel for the stuff. Archie has a feeling for it also, and I hope we’re doing it right.

RINGGENBERG: Has Lucasfilm ever approached you about doing any design work, or storyboards?

WILLIAMSON: No.

RINGGENBERG: Have you ever done any work in films?

WILLIAMSON: No.

RINGGENBERG: Do you have any interest?

WILLIAMSON: Maybe necessity. [Laughter.] If I don’t have anything else to do and somebody says, “Hey, want to do a film?” I’ll say, “Yeah, I need the money.”

SIDEBAR: THE BIG APE

RINGGENBERG: Was growing up in South America the reason for your fascination with drawing jungles?

WILLIAMSON: No, I don’t think so; I think King Kong was my reason. The original King Kong.

RINGGENBERG: The good one.

WILLIAMSON: The only one. That’s been an inspiration to myself, and, I understand, to quite a few people. If you look closely, you’ll see a lot of Frank Frazetta. He was in love with that film. He used to go see it every time they showed it. I think we saw the thing about 110 times.

RINGGENBERG: He’s depicted Kong in a couple of paintings.

WILLIAMSON: Sure. Well, the first time I saw it, I was living in San Francisco, and I’d heard about King Kong, and boy, when I went to see it, I couldn’t get over it. That’s why I really got interested in drawing prehistoric animals. That’s been one of the great inspirations. Great film. I never get tired of it.

RINGGENBERG: Do you have a copy?

WILLIAMSON: Of course! [Laughter.] Is the Pope Polish?

SIDEBAR: MORE APES

RINGGENBERG: I remember seeing 2001 when I was 11 or 12, and walking out of the theater thinking, “I didn’t understand that but it was great.”

WILLIAMSON: Well, I didn’t either, and I was 35. So don’t feel bad.

RINGGENBERG: About the 11th or 12th time I saw it, after I read the book—

WILLIAMSON: I couldn’t see it too often. I’ve seen it once.

RINGGENBERG: I’ve seen it 12 times.

WILLIAMSON: Oh, I can’t sit through that one 12 times. I don’t think I could sit through it again, as much as I liked it.

RINGGENBERG: I loved the effects and everything.

WILLIAMSON: I like the beginning with the apes. I like the whole thing.

SIDEBAR: SCALIENS

RINGGENBERG: What do you like to draw the most, given a choice?

WILLIAMSON: Lizards. Mushrooms? Rocks.

RINGGENBERG: Do you enjoy drawing the scaly skin?

WILLIAMSON: I don’t know.

RINGGENBERG: You seem to have drawn a lot of scaly aliens.

WILLIAMSON: Scaly aliens.

RINGGENBERG: Scaliens.

WILLIAMSON: “Scaliens.” He doesn’t say very much, but when he does… you wish he hadn’t.

RINGGENBERG: Most of the time. Aren’t scalliens those little onions you chop up for salads?

WILLIAMSON: Scallions. Oh no, it’s going to develop into that one. It’s practically over: you realize that…

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