Year of the Artist, Day 50: J. H. Williams III, Part 1 – Deathwish #4
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is J. H. Williams III, and the issue is Deathwish #4, which was published by DC/Milestone and is cover dated March 1994. Enjoy!
Deathwish is a very early Williams work, as it appears his first published work was in 1991. It’s certainly the earliest Williams work I own, and I bought it only because Williams drew it. I haven’t, in fact, read it yet (I’ll get to it eventually!), so I have no idea what’s going on in this story. I do know that the writer, Adam Blaustein, transitioned to female at some point (after this, I assume, as she was still credited as “Adam,” although I could be wrong!) and became a voice actor in a bunch of cartoons and died in 2008 at 48. That’s what I learned from Wikipedia, so it must be true. But I still haven’t read this mini-series, but I can appreciate the artwork, can’t I?
As with all of these posts, I want to look at Williams’s development into the artist we all know and love today, and it turns out I actually own quite a bit of his artwork from the 1990s, prior to what I think of as his first “J. H. Williams III” comic (I’ll let you figure out which one that is). So let’s see what we can see from his early days, as he grew into the master who blows our socks off with every comic he produces!
Williams doesn’t do anything too stunning with the page layout here, but he does show an awareness of how to make something a little different so that the action gets ramped up a bit. Just tilting the panels into a slight arc helps create a sense of movement with the knife arcing downward into the punk’s thigh, and the harsh panel borders make the scene a bit more frenetic. Williams was always willing to break the panel borders, and the third one shows Marisa leaping toward the punks, who bleed into the fourth panel, which is the view through the binoculars. There’s a nice sense of movement through the page, as Marisa stabs, then leaps, then strikes the blond dude, which we see through the binoculars in silhouette. Williams and inker Jimmy Palmiotti smartly use smudges in the view through the binoculars, which blends the soot in the air with the blood presumably spraying from the punk’s head as Marisa bashes him. It’s a clever device. Palmiotti inks the page pretty heavily, which isn’t surprising given the very dark tone of the book.
Williams is toying a bit with different kinds of layouts, as we see on this page. He leads us in a reverse “S” down the page – I assume he put in the caption boxes and not letterer Joseph Daniello – toward the final panel, and it works quite well. As we zoom in on Dini, Williams does a nice job showing her despair. The body language in Panels 1 and 2 simply look like someone trying to stay warm in a torrential downpour, but in Panels 3-5, we start to see that Dini is worse off, as her face slowly shifts from grimacing to defeat – Williams closes her eyes and mouth and tilts her head downward just enough to show how awful everything is. The fact that he focuses on her ass in the final panel is interesting – she’s been a prostitute in the past, and Williams shows her sex appeal in the final moments of her life. It’s a troubling image, but it’s supposed to be, as she’s been reduced back to a sex object, which is how she began the comic.
I just wanted to show this drawing because it’s an early example of Williams boxing off parts of a larger panel, something he has done his entire career to very cool effect. He draws our attention to Marisa’s face and her gun. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.
These two pages give us a good idea of early Williams attempts to mess around with page layouts and remain coherent. Deathwish dominates the first page, so Williams designs the page around him, with the curve sectioning him off from the rest of the action on the page creating an interesting half-arch into which Williams places the sequence of events. He leads us pretty well – in Panel 1, the dialogue leads us to Marisa, but the gun barrel helps move us back to “Boots,” the villain, whose action in Panel 2 moves us back to Marisa’s dialogue balloon in Panel 3. As we’re confronted with the two people facing off against each other, the sound effect links Panel 3 to Panel 4 and leads us to Deathwish crashing through the ceiling, and the position of Marisa takes us to the bottom row, where Deathwish throws Marisa the gun. It’s very nicely done. On the second page, Williams again leads us cleverly from right to left and then back to the right again without us jumping around the page. The “BLAM” sound effect with the blood splattered across it is a cliché, but it’s done well here, and it’s interesting, as usual, to see a fairly brutal comic by 1994 standards still use restraint that is absent from some far more mainstream superhero books today. Marisa’s face in Panel 2 is tremendous – she’s gone a bit around the bend, and her gambit of Russian roulette pays dividends, but she has no idea that it will. There’s a lot of nice spot blacks on the page, too, from the darkness around Marisa’s eyes to the shadows on Boots’s face when he puts the gun in his mouth to the shadow on Marisa’s face in the final panel. Very nice work by Palmiotti.
This is even more of a “Williams” page, as he uses the musical score to link the panels by making them twirl around the edges of the page, not only moving our eye where he wants us to go (and that’s not too impressive, as this is a fairly standard layout) but also giving us the impression of music constantly playing as Linda dances in the club. It’s a device he would return to often as he grew as an artist.
Part of the “problem” for me with Williams is that I own so much of his work, and it’s hard narrowing down which comics I want to show here. I’m trying to figure out how an artist develops, but Williams has made some many brilliant developments over the years that it’s hard to treack them. He continued drawing figures the way we see here for a while, but that began to change as he moved forward. He also got far more inventive with layouts and drawing different ways for different tones of the comic. It’s tough, but I’ll try to find watershed comics for Williams! Tomorrow, I’m going to cheat a little, but I think it will be fun. More 1990s goodness from Williams, but perhaps not the comic you’re expecting! Which one will it be? While you’re trying to figure it out, be sure to check out the archives!