|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Interview with Al Williamson
Interviewed by & © John MorrowFrom Jack Kirby Collector #15
Al Williamson was born March 21, 1931, and lived in Colombia, South America until the age of twelve. He's no stranger to the science fiction genre, having made his mark drawing stories for EC's science fiction comics in the 1950s, and later for Marvel's Star Wars adaptations and the Star Wars newspaper strip in the 1970s and '80s. In-between, he carved out a career in the syndicated comic strip field, and even inked a few of Jack's stories in the late 1950s. This interview was conducted on January 6, 1997.
THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR: Was there much Kirby work available in Colombia where you grew up?
AL WILLIAMSON: The first work I saw of Jack's was in Colombia. I can't remember the Spanish title, but in English it was Cosmic Carson. I loved it! The next stuff I saw of his was The Lone Rider in Famous Funnies.
TJKC: Were you fluent in English at this age?
AL: My father was Colombian, and my mother was American. They met here in the States, got married, and went down. I grew up down there, so I learned both Spanish and English at the same time. It was comic books that taught me to read both languages. (laughter)
TJKC: Did you follow Jack's work all the way through his career?
AL: More or less. I loved that early stuff of his very much. I loved Stuntman, and the westerns he did were just great. The first stuff I saw of Jack's was the early stuff, so it's sort of my favorite, but that certainly doesn't take away from what he did later. The real good guys turned out a lot of stuff, and they never looked back. I don't think Jack looked back. I have a feeling he did a drawing and that was it; on to the next one. The real good artists were like that. Raymond was like that, Foster was like that.
TJKC: Jack mentioned many times that Hal Foster and Alex Raymond were big influences on his art, and you've said the same thing about your work. Do you see common elements between their work and Jack's?
AL: Well, in early Kirby work-1940, 1941-I can see certain influences of Alex there, especially the way Alex drew legs. If you look at Alex's work around 1935-36, you'll see Jack Kirby. I mean, you take from the best! He didn't swipe them, he just got the idea, he got inspired, which is fine. All of us are inspired by something or someone.
TJKC: What about their approaches to storytelling?
AL: I think Jack was a better storyteller than Alex. Oh, yeah, Jack was a very good storyteller. I mean, Alex was very good when he did Rip Kirby-he was very good on the characterization. But I think Jack Kirby was a better storyteller in the long run.
TJKC: Didn't you attend Burne Hogarth's School?
AL: Actually, I just went to that Saturday morning sketch class he had. It was never really the school. I did go to the school when I was working for him, but only to pick up the work and spend some time there. That's how I got to meet my dear friend Roy [Krenkel].
TJKC: Isn't that also where you met Wally Wood?
AL: Yeah, I met him at the school when I was working with Hogarth. He was there and I met him briefly, but I didn't really get to know him until about 1950. As the years went on, we became better friends, but we hit it off right from the beginning. We talked serials, old movies. We talked comics, and we talked art. He just loved serials, and he loved comics. We had a lot in common.
TJKC: We hear now that the names "Simon & Kirby" on a book were a real sales factor. Were you guys aware of that name recognition?
AL: Oh, sure. We were all crazy about that stuff. I know Wally liked Jack's work very, very much. Marvin Stein liked Jack's work very much. Marvin was a good friend; I met him back in 1945 when he was going to the Saturday morning sketch class at Hogarth's. He wound up working with Jack Kirby. He was a great fan of Jack's work. I remember going up to their studio when they did Prize Comics, to see Marvin. _I met Jack probably 25 times, and every time I met him, he never recognized me; he didn't remember me. (laughter) He was in a world of his own.
But the thing I remember about going up to Prize was, there was a fellow there, a very fine artist named Mort Meskin. Mort Meskin was one of the sweetest gentlemen I've ever met in the business. He and I got along famously. Every time I'd see him, we'd sit and talk. I was just a kid, between eighteen and twenty-four, twenty-five. I had, and still have, a Sheena Sunday page he did for Eisner and Iger back in 1938, and I asked if he'd sign it for me. He did, and I'm very proud of it. He was a damn good artist.
TJKC: I have your first published work as being in 1948.
AL: It was two spot illustrations for Famous Funnies, for a story called "The World's Ugliest Horse." (laughter) That was my first published work. I don't count the Hogarth stuff, because that was for Hogarth.
TJKC: Did you do a lot of work before you hit EC?
AL: Yeah, I worked for Toby Press, which was the Al Capp outfit. I did John Wayne Comics for them, a western. I did some more work here and there for Famous Funnies. Mostly it was western stuff. Then in 1950, I started working for different companies like ACG. I did some stuff for Marvel; that was one of my first jobs, too. I worked in the bullpen in early 1948 or '49.
TJKC: Was Stan Lee in charge?
AL: Stan hired me as an inker, and I punched the time clock for a couple of weeks, and then I got tired of that. I'd just gotten out of school, and I hated going to school because it was a 9:00-3:00 business, y'know? I hated regimentation.
TJKC: What do you remember about working for Stan?
AL: I brought my samples in, and there was a guy who came out and looked at them. He said he'd take them in and see if Stan was interested in hiring me. He came out and said, "Stan likes your work. He wants to hire you as an inker." I wanted to pencil though, because I wanted to do Sub-Mariner. That was not to be! He gave me a staff job at $30 a week, but I had to punch the time clock. After a couple of weeks, I said, "Naahh...."
TJKC: It sounds like you didn't have much interaction with Stan.
AL: Absolutely not. I'd take my pages in when they were done; all the artists had to do that. He'd look at it and say, "That's fine," or "Change this, fix this" or something. But I don't recall him giving me any trouble. I never had trouble with Stan; he's a nice guy. I enjoyed working for him.
TJKC: As I understand it, Wally Wood urged you to go to EC.
AL: That's correct. Wally and Joe Orlando both. I went up in January or February of 1952, I think. I was just about to turn 21. They gave me a job, and I had my 21st birthday by the time I'd done my third story for them. I still don't understand why they hired me. What's annoying is, I look at some of that stuff, and I say to myself, "Why did you waste your time, Al? Why didn't you really work?" I had absolutely no faith in my work or myself. It was terrible that I wasted so much time, and thought so little of myself. Not that I think I'm so hot, but I look back and I say, "You had the talent, why didn't you work at it?" I didn't really shape up until I was about thirty.
TJKC: I've read all the stories about you going out and seeing movies and playing baseball, and letting your deadlines slide until the last minute. (laughter)
AL: Well, when you're a bachelor and don't know any better, (laughter) you go ahead and live for the day. It's when you get married that reality sets in. (laughter)
TJKC: I understand that, at EC, the horror books were the big sellers, and the science fiction never did that well.
AL: The money they made on the horror books was put back into the science fiction books, because they loved doing them. The science fiction never sold.
TJKC: I've always wondered what it would've been like if Jack had worked at EC on some of the science fiction books.
AL: Well, I have a feeling he probably wouldn't be as dynamic as what he was on his own. First of all, you've got the pages already lettered, and you only had a certain amount of room to draw, which was kind of a drawback. The last job I ever did for them was a science fiction, and I said, "Please let me lay it out," and they did. If you see that job, it's quite different from the others. It's got long panels, and things like that. Now I'm sure Jack could've done them, but whether he would've been able to give that wonderful "bam, sock, wow" look to those pages, I don't know. It probably would look like his "love" stories. EC stories never had any action in them, unless somebody was slashing somebody, or stuffing somebody in a stove, or something like that. (laughter) I don't think I ever drew anybody bopping anybody in those stories. I think he would've been wasted doing that stuff.
TJKC: Didn't you do some westerns for Prize Comics?
AL: I worked with Johnny Severin on some stories. He had a terrible deadline a couple of times, and I went over and we worked a couple of days. He put me up, fed me, and we worked around the clock and turned out fifteen or twenty pages between the two of us.
TJKC: Didn't you also work with Frazetta during the 1950s?
AL: Yeah. Frank came and helped me out with some jobs; he inked some things for me. I was always late on deadlines, and he'd come in and give me a hand. He only helped me out for maybe three years, on and off. It wasn't for every job. He helped me out with some John Wayne stuff.
TJKC: I've read that you used to bring jobs over to Wally Wood's studio and work on them at his spare table.
AL: Oh, yeah. I used to take my jobs over there. Several times he asked me to help him out, but I did very little.
TJKC: Did you work better having somebody there to shoot the breeze with?
AL: Yeah. We'd B.S. back and forth, we'd tell gags and crack up, and rehash a movie we liked and go through the dialogue. I still do it with some friends; Angelo Torres and I, and Mark Schultz.
TJKC: You and Wally both had slick styles, but they were very different.
AL: Well, Wally was Wally. He and Jack Kirby, you can't mistake who they are. And the two of them working together is amazing, because you know it's Jack Kirby and you know it's Wally Wood! (laughter)
TJKC: Did you and Wally ever discuss how to approach inking Kirby?
AL: No, it was a job. I remember going up to Harvey and getting work there. They said, "We haven't got any work for you, but we have some stories here that Jack penciled. Do you want to ink them?" I'd never really inked anybody else before, but I said, "Sure," because I looked at the stuff, and thought, "I can follow this." It's all there. I inked it, and they liked it, and they gave me three or four stories to do.
TJKC: I was just reading some of those Race For The Moons. There's some beautiful stuff there.
AL: Well, he did a beautiful job. Some of it was redrawn by somebody there, I guess because it didn't pass the Comics Code or something. There's parts that I didn't ink, because it's not my drawing or Jack's drawing. Somebody went over it and changed some things, like a monster or something to make it more pleasing to the eye, which bothered the hell outta me. I never really thought I did him justice, though. The drawing is there, because it's Jack Kirby's drawing, but I just traced what he penciled.
TJKC: Did you feel intimidated to add too much of yourself to it?
AL: I don't do that. If the job is penciled, I would ink it the way the guy penciled it, because it's his pencils. If I think it needs something, I'll call the artist up and say, "Listen, I kinda would like to add a black here. Is this all right with you?" And as a rule, they say, "Sure. No problem." But I don't do any redrawing on anybody's work unless I talk to the artist-and I very seldom have to do that.
TJKC: You said it wasn't until you were about thirty that you settled down. Was that when you got married?
AL: Yeah. I met this wonderful girl, and we decided to get married, and I had no work. I hadn't worked in months. So I sat down and started doing samples, and just when I started doing that, I got a call from Johnny Prentice to be his assistant on Rip Kirby. So that was great. That would be the first week of January, 1960.
TJKC: Was doing a syndicated strip always a dream of yours?
AL: I think so. I discovered newspaper strips first, even though they were reprinted in Latin American comic book form, which were different from American comics; they were bigger, and they printed a whole set of dailies and the Sunday pages. Then I saw American comic books six or eight months later.
TJKC: Was there a lot more prestige working in comic strips as opposed to comic books?
AL: Well, here's the way it worked: fine artists looked down on illustrators; illustrators looked down on newspaper strip artists; newspaper strip artists looked down on comic book artists! (laughter) And comic book artists looked down on underground comics. So there you go! (laughter) This went up to the '60s and '70s; that's the way it was. It was still kind of prestigious to do a newspaper strip, but that's not why I did it. I wanted to do one.
TJKC: So that was not long after you inked Jack on Race For The Moon?
AL: Yeah. I didn't have too much work; things were not that good in the business. But I was my own worst enemy; I could've kept on working.
TJKC: Is that why you turned to inking?
AL: No, Race For The Moon was the only thing I inked. I didn't ink anybody else's work after that.
TJKC: In the Kirby Checklist from The Art Of Jack Kirby, you're credited with inking a story from Alarming Tales called "12,000 to 1."
AL: I don't think so. In some of Jack's hardcover books, they've listed me as inking a cover, which I didn't ink. I feel very bad, because they've given me the credit. I have a feeling it was Marvin Stein that inked it, or somebody else. It's not mine. I never inked any covers. The only thing I inked of Jack's was those four or five stories, those five-pagers for Race For The Moon.
TJKC: They also put you down for inking a Kirby story for Battle, called "Sitting Duck" from 1960 for Atlas.
AL: No, I didn't ink anything else of Jack's. I feel bad that they give me credit for someone else's hard work. No, no, no, that's not right.
TJKC: Jack started Sky Masters in 1958, with Wood inking. Did you ever assist Wood on that in any way?
AL: No, not on Sky Masters, But I remember Wally was inking something of Jack's for DC, and Wally called me and said, "Can you give me a hand with some backgrounds? I'm inking some of Kirby's stuff, and I know you inked those stories." So I said, "Sure, I'll come over." I looked at the stuff, and I remember just inking backgrounds. But not on the strip. And that was only an afternoon's work. But I couldn't tell you which ones they are, and it's only one or two pages.
But I remember Jack Kirby coming in, and the fellow who wrote the stuff [Dave Wood]. They were going over the stuff, and Jack looked at me like, "What the hell are you doing here?" (laughter) But I was just helping Wally out with the backgrounds. Wally told me later, "He's worried that you might be inking his stuff. I told him, 'Don't worry, he's a good artist, but he's not gonna touch this. But don't worry.'" Wally was a good guy. But Jack was a little concerned: "What's this guy doing here?" And he scared me. You don't wanna mess with Jack! (laughter)
TJKC: You did a solo story for The Fly #2. How'd you get that job?
AL: I was asked by the editor, and he gave me a five-pager to do. I'd never done superhero stuff before, and I sat down and did this Jack Kirby-type character they wanted me to do. I penciled it and took it in, and the editor had a fit. "Aahh, you're a lousy artist. This is no good." I had to do the first two pages over again, and he paid me $45 for five pages of work. And when it came out, the only thing he'd changed was the splash, and he'd copied it from Jack. I was really pissed off. So dear old Angelo Torres gets a call from this guy, and he says, "I gave Williamson a job, and he's a lousy artist, he can't draw. I want you to do this four-page Fly story for me." So Angelo went up and said, "Sure, I'll do it." Then he came over to the house and said, "Listen, Al. This guy said you can't draw, you're a lousy artist, and he wants me to do this four-page superhero thing, so I thought maybe I'd let you pencil it." (laughter) So I did! I penciled the four pages, and gave it to Angelo, and he took it up. The editor looked at it and said, "See, this is great! You're better than Williamson!" (laughter) So Angelo inked it, and the guy never knew I penciled it.
TJKC: Did you follow Jack's Marvel stuff in the 1960s?
AL: I was busy working on syndicated strips, and I hated to look at some of the stuff that was coming out then, because they had an inker on him that wasn't doing him justice.
TJKC: Did you get to know Jack at all over the years?
AL: I met him several times. We went to Lucca; we flew all together with Jeff Jones, and Jack and his wife in 1976. They were very nice. They were always kind of by themselves in Lucca. Jeff and I tried to take them around and introduce them to the artists and the people from Europe, and I think they enjoyed themselves.
TJKC: Finally, can you elaborate on how you approached inking this issue's cover?
AL: I didn't change anything. The only thing I added was the cross-hatch in the nebula. It needed it. That's the only thing I added. Basically, I traced his pencils. I put it on the lightbox, and penciled it as close as possible; it took me a couple of sittings. Then I inked it, holding the xerox next to me, so I could see what I was doing. I tried to follow it as close as possible; I didn't want to deviate at all from it.
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