In Praise of J.H. Williams III

(after a few words)

*Awesome Awards Wrap-up Dept: Gosh, I wish my fingers weren’t so crippled with the non-stop trembling prompted by all of the amazing news coming out of San Diego (man oh man, Darwyn Cooke doing the adventures of a pre-existing character dating back half a century? - WILD; Stephen King possibly writing for Marvel? - well, I haven‘t actually read anything by him in years save for his irregular column in Entertainment Weekly, which isn‘t very good), but I guess I’ll grunt through the pain to bring you an excellent semi-rundown of the hip hap happy Eisner Awards (and here’s the nominees for quick reference). The best bits:

- Floyd Gottfredson once again didn’t make it into the Hall of Fame.

- Remember when Tom Spurgeon looked over nominations and suggested that it was perhaps slightly ridiculous that, according to the nominations, one of the shining avatars of the future in an industry at its full and mature blossom was - a comic about a superhero mayor? Well guess what walked off with Best New Series?

- Having already knocked off the ultra-arty highbrow explosion of Kramer’s Ergot 5 and the super-populist candy-colored fable-like beauty of Flight by not even nominating either of them for Best Anthology, Eisner voters then proceeded to trounce the perfectly attractive ‘Baby’s 1st Literary Comics Primer and Catalogue’ of McSweeney’s in favor of that Michael Chabon book that I keep forgetting is still being published. It did, however, feature Will Eisner’s last completed story, and I must wonder if sentimentality seized the voters.

- You know, I pretty much liked those dog and cat stories that Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson did for all those Dark Horse hardcover books. But is the 2004 edition of those better than the Kramer’s Ergot work of Kevin Huizenga? According to the Eisners it was!

- Apparently, that one issue of Concrete that Paul Chadwick managed to get out in 2004 was more than enough to assure a sufficient number of voters that he was the Best Writer/Artist of the year. I mean, I like Chadwick a lot, but what are the regulations here?

- Well, at least they didn’t name Wanted as Best Limited Series. I would, however, have giggled like a three-year old if Tokyo Tribes had taken home Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material.

- Dave Sim did not get a gold watch.

- Comic Book Artist - definitely better than Comic Art and Indy Magazine!

- Damn. The Goon is a goddamned Eisner favorite. I like the book too, but if you were to ask me last year which of the ongoing series I read I thought would be an awards favorite, well…

Oh sure, there were awards I agreed with; there always are. I’m glad Eightball #23 won Best Single Issue/One Shot, and the convenient tie between Frank Quietly and John Cassaday for Best Penciller/Inker was cute and reminiscent of Solomon, though I’d have preferred Geof Darrow stepping in for Cassaday…

Aw, the hell with it. Newsflash - industry awards largely praise works I think are mediocre! Stop the Internet presses!

Desolation Jones #2

A good artist is absolutely vital to any comics project. It’s one of the basics of comics creation, a fact every reader and professional knows. But some artists (and now I’m referring to artists apart from the writer him/herself) simply excel with their given script. They’re willing to go the extra mile. They add things, good things that respect the story but deepen the reading experience. And in the event of color, they promote strong relationships with their colorist, the most consistently under-valued member of the creative team among fans, from what I’ve gathered over the years (second place - the inker; I’m sort of baffled by how often inkers go unmentioned in discussions of a book‘s visual appeal, especially in superhero comics… let me tell you, Jim Lee would be looking mighty different on All Star Batman if he was being inked by Bill Sienkiewicz rather than Scott Williams, yet too often only Lee is mentioned as the visual half of the equation).

J.H. Williams III is obviously that type of artist; it’s a tall order indeed to come up with someone who doesn’t at least respect his level of visual ingenuity and his dedication to presentational variety. His experiments with Alan Moore on Promethea weren’t always smash successes (I’m thinking of the fairly jarring use of computer graphics near the end), but they always drove at a stronger visual understanding of the script, line weight tempering tone, and thorough attention paid to color. And his work seems more chameleonic divorced from the once-constant grounding influence of inker Mick Gray (see the above parenthetical on the effects of inking), though the two did make a beautiful team. But it’s now as if Williams’ art is more prone to flight, to metamorphosis. Today, more readers than ever have seen Williams’ work through Seven Soldiers and the work at hand here, Warren Ellis’ new ‘not really ongoing but I don’t know how long it’s actually going to be’ series. Ellis has already praised Williams’ innovations in layout for issue #1, but let’s not wait for the writer’s guide to issue #2 to begin an exploration!

As always, fresh evidence of Williams’ aptitude surfaces. He’s paired with A-list colorist Jose Villarrubia, another old Promethea cohort, and the interplay between the two is a wonder to behold. Just look at a major mood transition in this issue, from night to morning. For much of this issue, the titular Jones is visiting with what I suppose must pass as a love interest in this noir-fueled plot, a fellow failed experiment named Emily Crowe whose pheromones trigger a natural reaction of panic and disgust from everyone save for Jones, whose forging in the Desolation Test has left him impossible to repel. The two share a data-gathering partnership and a chaste semi-romantic relationship; Williams deftly illustrates the bond between them by bordering all of the early pages involving Emily with a spider-web pattern, relating to an earlier line of Jones’ comparing people’s reactions to her with a similar communal reaction to a spider. And yet, as they cap the night in each others’ arms, the spider-web pattern suddenly intrudes across the page, symbolizing the passage of time. In the morning, the pattern is gone, their relationship having forced away the hesitant sense of revulsion that once lurked (literally!) along the sides of their meeting.

But that’s not all; Williams also clads Emily in gothy black, the cut of her dress seemingly meant to suggest a spider, a Black Widow, maybe commenting upon the femme fatale element of noir-type stories such as this (more on spider images and Ellis' role as writer in all of this at the impressive Focused Totality). Upon the arrival of morning, Emily is dressed in a softer (and significantly more scanty) thing, and Williams imbues her a nice toothy grin, breaking the dangerous, ‘untouchable beauty’ visual characterization he had been previously pursuing.

Villarubia is there too, cloaking everything in a luxurious shadow. Note how Jones’ and Emily’s skin colors seem to shift, one occasionally appear more pallid then the other depending on the panel. Sometimes, in close-ups of a kiss, their skin is perfectly matched, contrasting mightily with issue #1’s work in making Jones’ pallor clash with other characters’ fleshtones. The kindred pain of both characters join them, and thusly the color joins them as well.

Yet it's the joining of Williams and Villarubia that's the real main attraction. As night gives way to day, and Jones begins to wander the Los Angeles morning, note how there’s suddenly a lot more detail in backgrounds and clothing. Where Jones’ face was once craggy and fuzzy, there are now diagonal lines and added details to his hair, perfect to play off of the richer palate of deeper hues, the art shifting to join with the color, providing specific times of the day with a specific visual identity. And then, in the dark of Jones’ house, yet more simplicity, the color this time approaching a Sin City style of spot coloring dark primaries in a world of black and white (albeit with copious gray). And even yet then, there’s the moments of specific concentration, rendered in the painterly style of late Promethea, the angels outside the window of a car, a night view of LA neon, a conversational flashback, Jones’s face as he recalls the Desolation Test, and Jones’ body in the final splash, his imperfections and tiny maimings dutifully boxed off by the artist. Even if Jones still strikes me as a more sympathetic, damaged spin on Ellis’ Lazarus Churchyard, the way Williams draws his face, his eyes, makes all the difference in crafting a figure of unique sympathy.

Ellis does not always get artists of such a caliber. Occasionally, as with the disappointing final issue of Ocean, even a perfectly able team like penciller Chris Sprouse and inker Karl Story (another batch of ABC vets) can lose their way with Ellis’ space-faring scripts; it should be noted that the visual confusion of that particular issue was fascinatingly reminiscent of a very similar problem with the climax of Ellis’ AiT/Planet-Lar book Switchblade Honey - perhaps Ellis simply has difficulty with interstellar explosion-based conclusions? Regardless, we are bound to Earth with Desolation Jones, though the gravity of Willaims and Villarubia never has us feeling weighted, though we are always driven deeper, deeper.