Al Williamson was probably the most important artist in my pantheon. I met him back in 1992 when a friend of mine was sharing studio space with him. Professional, affable, humble, and charming, he taught me about how to conduct myself as a professional over the course of a couple of days hanging out in the studio.
Yeah, it was that pivotal of a meeting.
I was most taken by the fact that this guy was just a couple of years younger than my dad, yet here I was relating to him about science fiction, art, illustration, comics, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Comics and adventure fiction had worked their magic on him and he truly seemed like a young, vibrant guy.
My artwork at the time was bad—truly awful—yet he took the time to go over it with me, spending far more time than was justified by the level of craft in the work.
I came into Al's work by way of his work, with Archie Goodwin, on the Star Wars daily strip. Lush settings with dynamic figure work—and those layouts! Look at the way the man composed a Sunday page...stunning, elegant storytelling at it's best. His sense of action wasn't Kirby dynamics; it felt more like a glorious action-movie punch. When an Al Williamson hero threw a punch, you FELT it.
I later gravitated to his E.C. work, particularly his collaborations with Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta.
However, it's his work on Secret Agent Corrigan (again with Archie Goodwin) that became my eventual all-time favorite of his work. Al's using more photo reference on this stuff, and it boasts a slicker line (you can really see the influence of John Prentice, who Al assisted on Rip Kirby, especially in the first few years of the strip), but it's just so damn perfect. I'm eagerly awaiting IDW's release of these books.
If you're curious about Al's work—possibly, you're only familiar with his latter day inking for Marvel Comics, check out the following books:
Creepy Archives, volume 1. Dark Horse. The first issue of Creepy contained one of my favorite Williamson/Goodwin collaborations, The Success Story. Based on an actual guy...but you can judge for yourself which parts are fiction.
Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Vision of the Heroic by Mark Schultz. Flesh Publishing knocked it out of the park with this collection. Buy this. Buy it now. Perfection.
X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan. IDW Publishing is adding Al and Archie's seminal work to their Library of American Comics. The first volume releases in July.
Al Williamson Archives volume 1. Flesk Publications, the people who brought us the awesome Flash Gordon volume will be releasing the first of a series of Williamson sketchbooks in July. Buy this.
Star Wars deluxe hardcover slipcase edition, published by Russ Cochran. Beautiful b/w reproduction of Al and Archie's strip work in gorgeous oversized volumes. (sadly, out-of-print)
The Art of Al Williamson by James van Hise. Some great stories about Al and the rest of the Fleagle Gang (the nickname of Al and his E.C. artist pals) and wonderful art and reference photos of Al and company. (also out-of-print)
Al Williamson Adventures. Published by Insight Studios, this features a bunch of Al's Warren work, and some other lost gems. The frontispiece, a Star Wars illustration, is actually from the Game Designers' Workshop RPG magazine Challenge—I commissioned it from Al in my days as an art director. (possibly out-of-print)
Volumes to be avoided: Anything by Pure Imagination (the had a few Al Williamson Reader volumes with AWFUL reproduction). Ditto for the Al Williamson Sketchbook from Vanguard from 10 years ago—weak reproduction and awful graphic design. Save your money for the good stuff from Flesk and IDW—and the Russ Cochran books, or the Van Hise book.
So long, Al. I hope you and the other Fleagle Gang members that preceded you (Roy, Wally and Frank) are banging out a story with lizards, swashbucklers, and forgotten cities as I type this.