J.H. Williams III From "Promethea"
If you want to skip my preamble about how awesome Promethea is, you can just scroll down to my interview! with! J.H. Williams III !!! OHMYGOD(DESS)!!!!!!!!
Long-time readers of this blog know by now that they must resign themselves to the fact that every few months I'm going to crow about my favorite comics series of all time, Promethea. Written by story magus Alan Moore and illustrated by picture phenom J.H. Williams III, it is a perfect storm of inventiveness, beauty, and magic. Plotwise, it's a bit difficult to describe, but it basically follows student Sophie Bangs who finds out that she is to become a vessel for imagination incarnate, in the form of Promethea, a caduceus-wielding, winged-helmet-wearing deity. She's sort of an anthropomorphization of the spirit of art; the goddess of creativity; what have you.
But the series transcends this plot, and unfurls into what I've often called the finest treatise about magic and creation I've ever encountered. It's a dizzying mash-up of mythology, alchemy, hermeticism, and history. It plays with ideas of consciousness and perception, apocalyptic theory, mysticism, and the mind. I'd call it Moore's masterpiece, if he wasn't constantly making other masterpieces. But it is, in my opinion, the most spiritually personal thing he's ever written, and the most brilliant.
This warlock's brew of teachings and tales is only half of what makes it so marvelous, however. Words are powerful, but without Williams' stunning visuals, the series wouldn't be anywhere near as great. Using his full arsenal of styles and skill, he elevated the medium of comics, shattering previous notions of what a paneled strip could be, and expanding the page to a netherspace of grandeur and infinite possibility. What do I mean by that exactly? Well, here's an example:
That's right, you're looking at a double-page, 5-paneled spread, that's also a mobius strip, with word balloons rotating in time and orientation. Killer. The series is chock full of these breathtakers, and every image is lustrously colored and finely rendered with beauty and a vivid, visionary eye.
Anyhow, I've mentioned before that Promethea has been released in Absolute editions, and they are MUST BUYS. Large and gorgeous, they are worth it for Williams' art alone, glowing and vibrant in all its glory. But each is filled with loads of extra bonus juicy bits to boot. Absolute Promethea 3 is coming out in September, and is available via heavily discounted pre-order now.
So, without further ado, my Q&A with illustration blackbelt J3:
Phantasmaphile: There's a lot of information online about your drawing and inking techniques -- I'm curious about your creative process. Obviously much of your work is heavily deadline driven. How do you keep your creative juices flowing? Do you have any rituals (certain music/beverage/time of day, etc) that get you in the right frame of mind?
J.H. Williams III: Yeah deadlines are the toughest thing for me because I just can't draw very fast. I'm sure a lot of fans think because it takes so long for a project of mine to see the light of day that I'm not working diligently. But I assure that is not the case. I pretty much work everyday except weekends, unless needed. But my speed only allows me to be able to draw roughly 2 1/2 to 3 pages a week of fully finished inked and rendered pages. But there have been plenty of occasions where a two page spread has easily taken me a week or more. It really depends on the level of rendered details or compositional tricks involved. Part of my speed issues have to do with a tremor that I have in my hands, so it takes a lot of concentration. The tremor is something inherited, many people on my mother's side of the family suffer from it.
As for any ritual, when I first get up in the morning I check the news, or work on script writing, or concept development, or write a blog, while waking up from grogginess. I get started with actual drawing work around 11am, then break for something to eat around 12 or 12:30 for a half hour. Then return to work until at least 7pm to 8pm, sometimes later. Then try to answer email or deal with any other things that need attention. Quite often though my day can be interrupted with business calls of various lengths or errands. I like to listen to music while working whenever the mood strikes me. But other times I like it quiet. Also, I can't live without having my daily coffee, at least 2 cups worth throughout the day. Obviously nothing exciting really.
Ph: What inspires or influences you as an artist?
J3: Oh all kinds of things. I never know when something is going to grab me in a creative way. Music can really have an impact but so can Film, or Novels. Even looking at various types of art that has nothing to do with comics. Sometimes just the way things look in real life when talking with people, the light on their face, the shadows or colors, can get locked into my memory. Architecture against an open sky. Sometimes its just the enjoyment of a cool breeze when sitting out in the garden. So I guess the best answer is "everything" at one time or another.
Ph: Someone with your exceptional talent could be successful in any number of art arenas. What is it about comics that appeals to you?
J3: Thanks for the kind comment. I think it's the aspect of telling stories that gets me, but in the way that only Comics can tell them. Sure a story can be told in Film or Prose, but not in the same way. I find that comics can be, at their height of potential, much more expressive, a lingering expressiveness from the style that something is drawn in can have a powerful emotional resonance beyond just capturing the same basic images using Photography or Film. With Prose you have to paint with words and hope that a descriptive creative emotion translates, but with Comics you can get right to it if properly done. The words and the images with good Comics work in tandem to grasp deeper meanings in an immediate way. Especially because much of the reader invests in the participation of multiple concepts being displayed within one frame via words and art. With Film, the story is sort of presented to you and you passively watch it. Yes it can be emotionally riveting if done well, but it doesn't make you interact with it like Comics can.
However, I certainly do have an interest in exploring film making, photography, and prose for myself. To see what I can do or say withose mediums.
Ph: You've made mention of your interest in metaphysics and the occult, and this is evidenced by a lot of the visual tropes you use in your work. Can you elaborate a bit more about this fascination of yours?
J3: This is a big question because you could easily go on about this all day and still not answer it properly. I think what is inherent in metaphysics that interests me is that there are certain energies than be tapped into or presented in the form of ideas that go beyond the basic human understanding of the universe. Some of this can be shown using iconography or symbolism within the context of story. Thinking of a story and creating it, is very much a thing of magic, just as it is also when experiencing that story as a reader or viewer. The fact that we can so easily be immersed into other realities that exist on a page or screen, believe in them so readily, gives way to the notion the reality is somewhat intangible or transformational. We can immerse ourselves in a fictional character's dealings with such ease that we mix up ourselves in it, until we decide to look up at something else. It's something that can be shaped by ideas.
As an example, the creation of Superman, has actual impact. The world we live in is a very different place purely because this idea of Superman and what he, that idea, means as an ideal. The basic thing that Superman can stand for, or our understanding of what he represents, which can be different things to different people at different times, has impact on the physical world view. Can you imagine a world where we live without a Superman comicbook character or the equivalent thereof? Once an idea is exposed to the world it's very difficult to comprehend not being exposed to it, giving it power, therefore it becomes "real", and its meaning can affect us, changing our behaviors.
The entire modern world of mankind is basically this building and building of ideas. Layers upon layers of thoughts, and patterns of thoughts, forming ever tightening complexities. We could never have an Empire State Building in New York if there never was language. Defining our reality is language, but the notion of giving meaning to a set of sounds that come from vibrating flesh forms in our throats defies logic when you really examine it. By logical thinking this is an irrational event, language, it is illogical to exist, but yet it does. Language or any form communication is the way the deeper soul energies are trying to express themselves. Metaphysics steps in where logic can fail. I'm not sure if this is clear, but this is only a fraction of what this subject provides.
Ph: As my readers and now you know, Promethea is quite simply one of my very favorite works of all time. I almost hit my head on the ceiling from jumping with excitement when I found out the series was being rereleased in Absolute edition form. What was it like for you to revisit one of your works ten years later?
J3: Well now that Absolute Promethea is to be completed this fall with the release of volume 3, it has been a strange journey. Looking back on it gave me a sense of gratification, but also it made me look at how I would have approached some things differently today. The new editions definitely give it that extra sparkle, but from a creative growth process, I can see the flaws too. But there are moments in the work that still reach some lofty heights, things to constantly strive for in current works. I think we did some daring things, but in other areas could see pushing it further.
It also shows that as a body of work, it is conceptually executed beyond todays standards to some degree. When I say this I don't mean in terms of how good it is, but rather in its ambitions. I find it difficult in today's market to believe that a book like Promethea would have found life among a major publisher for as long as we did back then. I seems to me that the major publishers are showing themselves to be in less of a position to take risks in the same way that we were able to when producing this work. The financial equation for publishers has gotten tougher, and therefore making them less willing to push boundaries in the same way in terms of thought-provoking content. Content that makes you think differently about the world around you.
My fear is that it will cause a breakdown, or a visceral homogenized aspect to mainstream comics beyond what we are already seeing. Things have become more about the sizzle and less about what causes the sizzle, if that makes sense. I think the saving grace will be found in the alternative publishers. You can see that there is willingness to take risk there, and they're finding that it can pay off, when done well. Even though I currently work for a major publisher, what is taking place outside of that is what I have my eye on.
Ph: Promethea is a real love letter to the imagination, and posits that art and magic are essentially one and the same. Does this jive with your own beliefs?
J3: Yes it does, which is what I tried to convey in another answer above. As an example, you can always look at how science fiction quite often predicts future technologies. Such as Jules Verne, with the Nautilus, essentially showing us a nuclear powered submarine well before they truly existed. It is imagination that fuels the possibilities of our world. If it can be thought of, it can happen if the circumstances are viable. Does it occur in the ways that one might dream up? Certainly not always, but intention of possibility remains, because of imagination. Imagination applied to ingenuity creates progress, progress designs our world, and huge portions of this design is informed by what is imagined in art and story.
Ph: Are you superstitious?
J3: I can be. I do get irrational thoughts of unfounded fears or embedded impractical ideas. I think everyone does to some degree. The trick when being overwhelmed by some thought that has no solid basis, is to try to see why you're feeling what you feel. Is there some unseen truth or meaning that can apply realistically to whatever the situation may be? I think sometimes superstition feelings can be attributed to the subconscious id trying to tell you something is off, to pay more attention and glean what the environmental energies are telling you. I do my best to live by my "gut", it usually is correct.
Ph: Alan is unabashedly impressed with himself regarding the writing of issue 12 - the tarot issue (and rightly so). Are there some sections of the series where you are particularly proud of something you pulled off visually?
J3: Yeah issue 12 was a good one. I only wish we had the budget to have printed that as a long fold out in Absolute Promethea volume 1. I really pushed for it, but the publisher was concerned over cost of doing that. And wanted to make they sure could budget in issue 32 as a poster for volume 3. It's really too bad because I think it would've just been perfect for people to see that issue 12 scroll out of the book.
As for something that is a favorite of mine, I'd say it must be issue 32. This was a piece of work that defies logic. In its stapled page reading form it is a comic, but take it apart and reassemble it according to the presented numbers, and it forms two impressionistic pop art posters, that you now can read the contents in a different order, creating deeper connections. Also in its poster form, if you follow the little trails that we placed in, they begin to draw connections to things in other ways. Something said at the top, can trail downward connecting to other thoughts that eventually lead back to a notion referenced at the top. It's almost as of if it functions like the human brain, or maps an example of the unsuspecting patterns of the mind. What I mean by this is that it sort of represents the same notion that, say in a conversation, something can be said by one individual that suddenly calls up a seemingly unrelated shift in subject by another, but there was something in there that triggered a trail of thought. Issue 32 in poster form shows this through example by following the trails.
The other thing I love about it is that it is a comic that becomes a poster, but still is a comic as a poster. It's like a physical paradox in front of you, a comic that takes itself outside of being a comic, but somehow remains a comic. Then the mash art fusions taking place, the line art presented psychedelically over the pop impressionism of these two surreal portraits, really adds to how the thing works and the emotional resonance of it. I try my best to affect the reader in emotional ways, but am never sure about it, because I usually don't react that way to my own work when I view it. But the first time I saw issue 32 completed, the energy it gave off brought me to tears.
Ph: I've heard rumors that Alan is a bit of a happy luddite. Was it challenging collaborating with him without email, say? What was the logistical process like working with him?
J3: Yeah, that is a little bit true. No email for Alan, not sure if he still does that. But at the time, he sent script material to us a lot of the time via fax. That was certainly troublesome on a occasion. Especially if we didn't have access to a fax machine here at the house. Also sometimes we would only get 2 pages worth of story at a time because that's all that was written when I was ready to draw.
Ph: From what I've read, it sounds like your creative partnership was very 50/50. Can you talk a bit about how that affected your work, both on the series, and as an artist thereafter?
J3: Yes, you are correct. It definitely was about 50/50 in terms how the visual art direction affected things. Things I wanted to do as an artist affected how he would write scenes. My inescapable obsession with 2 page spreads really got him thinking differently about comics compositions and how we could make something function. Being partnered with Alan was a perfect union for me at the time. Being with a writer so willing to think outside the norms of what people think of for comics, came at a time when I was eager to see what I could do to stretch myself. I'm always looking for ways to grow and experiment, and Promethea was the perfect vehicle for that.
Ph: You've mentioned that in the next Absolute editions, there will be quite a few goodies and extras included. Can you give us a hint as to what they might be?
J3: Well, I'm sure many people have already seen volume 2 by this point. But with volume 3 to be released before too long, you can expect more of what you saw with volume 2. But in addition to some of those types of extras (sketches or unpublished images), volume 3 will feature a new introduction by Eric Shanower, as well as the Little Margie Promethea stories he illustrated, excerpts from Promethea's various appearances in other America's Best Comics titles giving greater context to the Promethea story. There will be previously unseen process materials as well, a partially illustrated script book as a separate volume within the slipcase, more of those newly designed chapter head images by me, and last but not least, a new poster version of Issue 32 folded into the volume. Overall it's a really nice complete package, that features the same gold and white slipcase theme as 1 and 2 with a new spot varnished wrap image for the book cover.
Ph: I imagine you don't get much downtime, but when you're not working, what else do you enjoy doing?
J3: Yeah, downtime can be hard to acquire, especially because even if I'm not drawing or writing, things creep into my mind anyway on the subjects. But I like to watch films, or read, wanting to stay home and keep things quiet most of the time. But whatever it is, I spend that that time with my wife, and we do those things together. But we also like to travel to see friends, or take a drive up into the mountains, or go to the ocean. My wife enjoys the mountains greatly, I do too, but my favorite places are by the ocean. Although I'm not a beachy guy, at least not where where it's populated with lots of sunbathers. I like the more isolated areas. Here at home, we have a garden area that we enjoy a lot, with outdoor seating, rocking chairs and such, where we like to read or just "be." Other times we like to go to concerts, but haven't had much time for that lately.
Ph: What other projects or news of yours would you like Phantasmaphile readers to know about?
J3: Well, my continued work on Batwoman for DC Comics will be released soon. So I hope people will check that out. I've taken over writing duties on that with my writing partner Haden Blackman, and we're quite proud of what we're building over there. That arrives around the same time as Absolute Promethea volume 3. I've got other creations going on a side-burner too, but nothing that can really be talked about just yet.
Ph: What advice, if any, would you impart to people who are trying to get success in their own creative pursuits?
J3: Just never give up! It's hard work that a lot of times doesn't pay the best, but it pays in personal satisfaction, usually. It takes a lot of perseverance and sacrifice. Unfortunately we live in a world that doesn't fully embrace the power of creative arts, making it difficult to make a living doing it. But if it's your passion, then you have to see it through to feel whole.
(THANKS SO MUCH, J3! You reign.)