INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
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 Promethea #30, which was published by DC/Wildstorm/America’s Best Comics and is cover dated July 2004. These scans are from Promethea Book Five, which came out in 2005. Enjoy!
As Williams moved into the 2000s, readers saw some changes in his pencil work, as it became a bit finer and less heavily inked, even though he was still working with Mick Gray quite a bit. In 1999 he began working on Promethea, and while he did some things here and there, this was his primary comics work over the next five years, so a lot of his development came here. Toward the end of the series, he began to branch out even more, so I wanted to look at issue #30, which is the pen-penultimate issue of the series.
I own this in trade, so the scan isn’t great, as it didn’t fit perfectly on my scanner and the spine gets in the way, but I hope you’ll bear with me. In this issue, Sophie/Promethea is destroying the world. Yeah, sucks to be them. This is the first big double-page spread in this issue (Williams uses them a lot in the series), and this is the top panel. It shows a bit of what Williams is doing, as his own art is interspersed with other artwork that Williams either drew/painted in a different style or just Photshopped in. I’m inclined to believe that Williams did it all himself – he’s good at shifting styles, and the woodcut demons attacking the dude on the hood of the car, for instance, are too perfectly suited for the scene. Perhaps the background is simply filtered photographs, but they still fit in with the theme of the artwork of this issue, which is transformation. Notice the woman in the right foreground – her arm is a typical Williams arm, while the rest of her body has been turned into a cubist(?) form. The awkward pastiche format that Williams uses in this panel is probably deliberate and definitely appropriate, as the world is changing, and not always gently.
This is the way the world looks once it turns “real,” which is sort of what Promethea is doing (I’m not getting into what Moore is doing in this series, because it’s way too complicated). Williams paints the pencils, making the world softer and blurrier, implying that things aren’t as cut and dried as they are in Promethea’s comic book world. I don’t know if this is the first time Williams tried something like this in a comic book, but it’s not done as well as his later works. It’s still a neat choice and helps make the comic so visually arresting.
This is a nice sequence in which Williams shows a person “becoming” “real.” In Panel 1, Williams uses his traditional style, with some heavy, stark inks on the soldier’s face and elsewhere in the panel. When Promethea’s power washes over him, he transforms into a painted version of himself, with much softer lines and muted blacks that are more indicative of how shadows play across skin. The soldier’s wrinkles are more just highlights on his face rather than sharply delineated lines. We can see the contrast with the way his uniform looks in the lower left of the panel. Even the colors – José Villarrubia and Jeromy Cox are both credited, but I don’t know who did what – are subtly different, with the colors in the “real” part a bit more suffused with shades while the green in the lower left is much more monolithic. It’s a neat trick. [Edit: One his Facebook page, Villarrubia mentioned that he colored the “real” part and Cox did the “comic book” part, and that Williams had “specific directions” about it all. That was cool of him to note – I’m always keen on learning more about the mechanics of comic book making!]
As Promethea “ends” the world and changes it, Williams switches to a simple nine-panel grid to help hit all the beats in the transformation and turn it into a bit of a chant, which fits in well with Moore’s magic thing. We get the “X” of Promethea talking and the “♢” showing people reacting to it. Promethea’s panels use a bit more earth tones, with yellow dominating but brown, orange, and deep red also showing up, while the other panels are more blue-dominated, showing the different levels of reality that the two separate scenes are experiencing. Promethea is already in the light, while the characters in the four other panels are only beginning to experience it. The yellow bleeding into the colder blue is a good way to show this. Notice the way Williams portrays himself in Panel 4 – the page is the one he appears on, and we can see the pencil sketches of the panels. Instead of inking these panels, Williams would go straight to paint, but we can still see his process a bit in this panel. It’s neat.
Promethea, as far as I can tell, was where Williams really became the J. H. Williams III we all know and love today. Prior to that, he had been a very good artist who occasionally toyed with some interesting page layouts and different ways to draw a comic. During and after Promethea, he began to challenge the way an artist can tell a story more than most artists, and we’ll see some of those ways over the next few days. Come back and check it out, and be sure to trawl through the archives for more keen artists!
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