Al Williamson: A Personal Reflection
When I was a kid, I met Al Williamson on the cover of the King Comics first issue of their Flash Gordon comic book. The elegant romance of the drawing simply stood out from every other comic book cover I had seen. The entire comic book, drawn by Al was a masterpiece that made an impression on me that I never managed to let go of to this very day. And because Al’s work was directly influenced by the creator of Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond, Al’s work on that comic book served to introduce me to all the great comic artists of the past. And from those artists I discovered the great illustrators of the past as well. I’ve become something of an expert on early comics and illustration as a direct result of my picking up one single comic book by Al Williamson.
I was insanely happy to have dinner with Al Williamson and Robert Bloch in the mid-1980s. I didn’t say much, I just listened as these two incredibly talented and influential men talked. I suspect that since Robert Bloch was also someone that Al held in high regard, that is the reason that my first meal with Al didn’t give me any clue to his true personality. At that dinner, Al was polite, intelligent and somewhat reserved in his comments.
A few years later, for a convention in Texas, Al Williamson, Mark Schultz and I were all stay in the same hotel. I believe we had all just attended the Harvey Awards where we had talked together a bit. We then found ourselves sharing the same elevator up to our rooms. On the way up I asked how their rooms were. Mark and Al both said something polite about how they had slept fine. And then Mark asked me how I had slept the night before. I launched into a story about how the people in the room next to me had apparently been having wild, heavy sex all night long, banging the headboard against the wall and keeping me awake. I finished the story and both Mark and Al were laughing at the way I had told the story. Honestly – I felt a little out of line telling a slightly off-color tale to one of my heroes. But them we all got off the elevator at the same floor, and walked to the same hall, to find that Mark and AL were sharing the very hotel room that was next to mine. We all stood in the hall with our keys in hand looking at each other for a moment before Al started laughing so hard that soon both Mark and I were also laughing. We couldn’t even speak we were laughing so hard so we just waved at each other as we entered our rooms. That was my first real introduction to Al Williamson the man.
Al was a funny guy. And he loved to laugh. I came to know him as a slightly more reserved version of Groucho Marx. He could really nail a punch line.
When I visited Al and his lovely wife Cori at his home I came to understand that it was no accident that Al’s artwork had introduced me to the great comic and illustration artists. Al was himself an avid collector and historian. His collection of original ink line illustration and comic art encompassed the cream of both fields. In fact, his collection is unsurpassed for the quality as well as the quantity of material. And Al loved to share the collection with visitors. In fact he was so eager to show me his collection of art that I had to derail him to get him to actually show me some of his own amazing work. But when we would be looking at the classic illustrations and comic art I kept thinking how odd it was that I knew enough to carry on an intelligent conversation with Al about this art precisely because his own work had set me on the path of discovery to go out and learn about it. I tried to tell Al this and explain how important that was – but that was way too serious a subject for Al. He didn’t want to hear it.
I put together a book on Al after that. Al Williamson Adventures collected some of his very best later work. I kept interviewing Al on the phone and in person to try to get some tidbits of interesting background to include in the book. But Al simply didn’t want to get into it. Mark Schultz finally told me that Al didn’t like to examine his process or his inspiration. So I designed a book that would only present Al’s work. And really – his work says it all. His spirit reflected there shows his own eternal youth, romance, adventure, grace and beauty.
When Al Williamson Adventures was published and Al got his copies, he called me to rave about how wonderful the book was. In fact he called three times that first week to tell me! But he seemed to believe I had somehow made his work look good. I kept telling him all I had to do was put his work into one book – he had done everything. So he would change the subject and we would talk about Roy Krenkel or Adolfo Buylla or Gray Morrow or his son or Cori. Because as much as Al loved to talk about art and artists, what he really loved to talk about was his friends and his family.
I would like to believe that Al and Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel and Gray Morrow and Wally Wood are all out there somewhere, working on some new and amazing comic, together. But the deadline has finally passed. So I know it is far more likely that they are hanging out, talking art or playing ball – but certainly just goofing off. I know they’ve earned it.
Al Williamson was born in New York on March 21, 1931. While still an infant his family moved to Bogota, Columbia where he spent his formative years. While in South America he discovered his life-long influences of Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond and the movies. In 1943 he and his mother returned to the United States where he began to develop his abilities as an illustrator and comic artist. He studied with Burne Hogarth and was soon working professionally, assisting Hogarth on the Tarzan newspaper comic strip as well as making his first sales to the comic book industry. He has left a trail of spectacular creations wherever he has worked. Beginning with his remarkable stories for fabled EC Comics in the 1950s, then his work on the Rip Kirby comic strip with John Prentice, Big Ben Bolt with John Cullen Murphy, and eventually his own credited work on Secret Agent X-9 in collaboration with writer Archie Goodwin – his works always embodied grace, style, epic scope and a supreme grasp of figure and character. His body of work and his Flash Gordon comic books of the mid-1960s were the direct inspiration for George Lucas to create the Star Wars movies and caused Lucas to spend years in an attempt to have Williamson draw the Star Wars comic books and newspaper comic strips. When Lucas succeeded in convincing Williamson to take on Star Wars, a new, and possibly the last, classic adventure comic strip found its way to the pages of newspapers worldwide and ignited the imaginations of a new generation of readers. Williamson has been honored for his works with a multitude of awards the world over, but his own best reward has been the love and support of his family, his wife Cori and his children.