Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Episode #131: Al Williamson, Superman Inker!

Originally, I had planned to highlight the series of backup stories, The Fabulous World Of Krypton, that ran in the back of Superman during the early 1960's. That was because June 16 is recognized as the day that Krypton exploded, according to our calendar (thanks to the Superman Homepage website). But, since the recent death of comic book artist Al Williamson, I thought I would highlight his contribution to Superman stories. He did not have a long run as a Superman artist, but it is worthy of note, and this would be my contribution to honoring his memory.

Al Williamson was born on March 21, 1931 in New York City and died on Saturday, June 12, 2010. He spent his early childhood in Bogata, Columbia, since that was his father's home country. Al returned to the United States at the age of 12.

He took art classes at Byrne Hogarth's Cartoonists & Illustrators School, and assisted Hogarth on the Tarzan Sunday pages as his first professional art work. Al made his professional comic book debut at the age of 17, drawing stories for western and adventure genres for a variety of publishers. He was the youngest artist for EC Comics during the late 1940's and early 1950's. Al was also noted for his science fiction story art. He also was an artist for comic strips such as Rip Kirby and Secret Agent X-9 (later renamed Secret Agent Corrigan), written by Archie Goodwin. Al was an artist for the Flash Gordon comic book, as well as the Warren horror titles Creepy and Eerie. He is also known as the artist for the comic book adaption of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Beginning in the 1980's Al Williamson began a twenty year career as a comic book inker. He was having trouble finding comic book work for science fiction and adventure genres, since there was not as much of a market for them as for superheroes. According to Eddy Zeno's book Curt Swan: A Life In Comics, Al pencilled and inked an eight page story, The Living Legends Of Superman, for Superman #400, October 1984. Editor Julius Schwartz liked his work, and asked Al to ink the pencilled art for another Superman story. When he brought the finshed project back, Al was surprised to find that his paycheck was more than what he had received for his pencilled and inked art for his own stories. Al asked Julius if he had any more ink jobs and Julie replied that he was now the regular Superman inker, over Curt Swan's inks. Williamson served as the inker for Superman 408, June 1985, through 416, February 1986, except for the Julius Schwartz birthday issue, 411 (the topic of episode #78). Al also inked DC Comics Presents (the other Superman team-up book) issues 79 and 85-87. He pencilled tow Superman covers, issues 408 and 409.

Al was very impressed with Curt Swan's art. He was familiar enough with Curt's style as printed to notice how some of his other inkers had not followed Curt's excellent line work. Al was impressed with the proportions of Curt's figures, and his portrayal of action. He enjoyed inking Curt's pencils. In the book Superman At 50! The Persistence Of A Legend, Curt wrote in an essay that Al Williamson was one of his favorite inkers, and repeated his opinion in an interview printed in Eddy Zeno's book. Al also enjoyed working for Julius Schwartz. He found Julius professional and fair, if deadlines were met. Al described Julie as being tough but good, and he always had a check ready when the finished art was turned in.

Williamson's time at DC was short however. While he enjoyed working with Julius Schwartz, others at DC were not as nice. Al described them as downright rude. He began working for Marvel, and he pencilled or inked about 152 stories, and 89 covers for them.

Al retired to live in Pensylvania with his wife Corina.

This short biography does not do Al Williamson's career justice. In the days since his passing, there have been many other articles written about him online. For a more in depth biography do an online search for these articles.

While I am familiar with Al Williamson's career somewhat, and have liked examples of his art very much, the only example of his Superman inks I have is Superman #416, published on November 14, 1985. The cover was drawn by Eduardo Barreto, and portrayed an old Superman, with long white hair and a beard, standing in front of the key to the Fortress of Solitude. This issue was my favorite Lex Luthor story, as I mentioned way back in episode #1: My Top 10 Favorite Superman Stories!

The Einstein Connection was written by Elliot S! Maggin, colored by Gene D'Angelo and lettered by Ed King. This story was reprinted in the trade paperback Superman Vs. Lex Luthor.

On a March 14 of some years in the past, Superman captured Lex Luthor after he escaped from prison, as he attempted to reach the New Jersey shore on a motorboat. Lex disappeared as he mentioned perfecting teleportation. Actually, he had made himself invisible, but Superman was able to follow him. the Man of Steel thought to himself that Luthor kept underestimating him, even though he was almost as smart as Lex. Superman followed Luthor after he had become visible again and hitched a ride on the back of a truck heading toward Princeton.

Luthor walked into an ice cream store and ordered a tutti-frutti cone with jimmies, just as He did, although we have no idea who Luthor referred to. The soda jerk behind the counter was actually Superman in disguise, and he easily captured Luthor, returning him to prison.

A few years later, Clark begged Perry to cover his flight to Europe to cover a story. Perry agreed after Clark said the magic words, what if the Eagle got the story first. Clark flew to Europe and disguised himself as a Frenchman as he visited a patent office. Lex Luthor was also in a disguise and working as a patent office clerk. After a disguised Superman presented the plans for a perpetual motion machine, Luthor rushed him out of the door, promising to let him know when a decision was made about his application, as he planned to steal it himself. Superman had seen through his disguise and captured Luthor again.

Finally, on March 14, 1984, Clark Kent received a phone call informing him that Lex Luthor had escaped prison again. As Superman, he flew to his fortress of solitude. Before he entered the Fortress, a giant elderly bearded Superman advised himeslf to let Luthor escape, this time. the young Superman ignored his older doppelganger and entered his Fortress. Inside, he searched the news service wire services he had installed for clues to Luthor's possible location. He decided to check out an archway made only of water that had appeared at a New Jersey lake. Near the archway, Luthor was in a building, studying the personal papers of someone. superman quickly captured Lex. Outside the Man of Steel saw another Luthor, this one in flying armor. Superman put Luthor down to check out this second one. Once he confirmed that it was a flying hologram, he caught the real Luthor again. While Superman checked out the fake Luthor, the real Lex saved a boy from drowning when the collapsed water arch washed him into the lake. Luthor didn't want him to drown on his birthday, although we don't yet know who he is.

We quickly find out. Luthor noticed that they were not flying toward prison. Superman flew Lex to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C., to the Albert Einstein statue honoring the centennial of his birth. A teary eyed Luthor simply said, "Happy Birthday, Sir!" Then Superman returned him to prison. End of story.

The second story, The Ghost Of Superman Future had the same creative team, except for Dave Andrews. In the distant future, Superman was interviewed by a group of future reproters on board of a space station. He answered a question about Lex Luthor, informing them that they explored the universe together, until Lex died. Superman asked to use the onboard Holocaster, a type of future TV (a few decades before HDTV.) He recorded a message, and we see a flashback to the scene in the previous story when the elderly Superman appeared outside the Fortress. We learn that the name of the boy Luthor saved was Calvin Anderson, who would grow up to become a world renowned criminal psychologist. He would grow up to cure Luthor of his criminal obsessions.

Superman beamed the message into the time stream, and recorded a copy onto a video tape (this story was created in the years before DVD's were released. He asked the reporters to mail it to the now elderly and retired Calvin Anderson, before flying into deep space again. This story was not reprinted.

I agree with Curt Swan's assessment on Al Williamson's inks. While his linework is thin, since he used a pen, it is not as lush as Crarles Paris' inks over Dick Sprang, for instance. but his inks give the art depth and dimension, and is a very recognizable, and enjoyable rendition of Superman.

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