"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
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 Desolation Jones #1, which was published by DC/Wildstorm and is cover dated July 2005. Enjoy!
Let’s dive right in!
This is the first page of issue #1 of Desolation Jones, which, along with Fell, is one of those Warren Ellis series that he claims will eventually return even as everyone nods and pats him on the head and makes him sit in the corner. Michael Jones is dreaming, and Williams does a very nice job showing how he dreams. Williams is no longer inked by Mick Gray – he’s inking himself on this series – and he’s in total command of the artwork. He twists border panels and slides the layout to the right and downward, as we saw him do a few days ago on The Creeper. Here he draws the people in the dream and then softens them as he did in Promethea, using graytones rather than bright paints – which is probably colorist José Villarrubia’s doing, as he credited with colors on the book, but it might be Williams, too. There aren’t any heavy lines on this page – everything is shading, and it makes the characters and the backgrounds blend together a bit. It helps create a dreamlike sense to the page, which is of course the point. It also foreshadows the somewhat murky world in which Jones lives – despite the fact that the book is colored fairly brightly by Villarrubia, it’s not a terribly pleasant or morally clear world, and this page alludes to that while still defining a moment in the book well. Williams distends the people in the panels just enough to make them “non-real” – we can tell from all the visual cues that this isn’t real, and Williams changes the characters just enough to make it clear.
Here’s a more traditional Williams page, with a lot of spot blacks and precise line work. The middle panel, of course, is something different, but not so much, as Williams and Villarrubia simply use large blocks of color to imply a virtual map of Los Angeles. I’m more interested in the pencil work, as we can see how much Williams has changed in 10 years. While he uses blacks as liberally as he and Gray did when they worked together, the thinness of the lines make the art lighter, even with the blacks. Looks at Panel 2, with Jones’s hands by his face – the lines creating his hands are thinner than we would have seen from Williams in earlier years, and the blacks on his forehead and even in his goggles feel less oppressive as a result. Jones is a dark character, of course, but because Williams draws with a thinner line, even solid blacks are lighter. Notice, too, that Williams moves our eye across the page by using the van’s virtual route through Los Angeles, so that we move in a “Z” across the page. The line from the map becomes an afterimage of the taillight. It’s a neat effect.
There doesn’t seem to be any reason for Williams to design the page this way, but he does, so there’s that. Based on the plot of the comic (Hitler porn – don’t ask), I could make the case that this is vaguely phallic, but I don’t think it’s that deep. The layout is the same on the preceding page, which are the only two pages that feature Jeronimus, and one thing you might notice over the years is that Williams has picked out certain characters and used particular tools when that character appears – it’s almost like a theme song. I don’t know if that’s what he was doing here, but the layout does allow him to get Jeronimus, Robina, and Jones in a trinity-like formation in the middle of the page, so maybe there’s something there.
We can see very clearly the difference in the way Williams draws from his earlier work, as this page is almost devoid of large pools of black that we saw in earlier work. Williams inks the page a bit differently, using lighter and fewer lines on Jeronimus and Jones than he would have in previous years. This makes him much more flexible, as this scene takes place during the day in a relatively well-lit room, so of course there’s going to be fewer shadows. It contrasts with the darker places that Jones and Robina need to go, and makes those pages more effective. This is one reason Williams has become such a good controller of tone in his comics.
I hate posting double-page spreads here because my scanner is too small to accommodate them, so I end up scanning both pages separately and then posting them next to each other, which means you can only embiggen one side of the drawing. This spread, however, is a really cool example of Williams doing different things for effect, and it shows his growth as an artist. He begins in Panel 1 with a gray drawing of Jones ducking Arthur’s punch. The lack of holding lines turns it into a mess of blacks clashing with each other, giving us the impression of a messy fight, which is appropriate given what’s about to happen. Jones retaliates by jamming his finger into Arthur’s eye, and Williams uses the same approach, getting rid of the holding lines to connect the scene to the previous one but making it more immediate, as it’s a crucial one in the fight. There’s a really nice use of the blacks to hold the characters together, and Williams links the two panels nicely through the movements of the characters – in Panel 1, they move from the right to the left, and then in Panel 2, Jones ripostes and the panel moves us from left to right. His entire body leads us directly to Arthur’s eye, and the intrusion of Panel 3, with its outer box jutting into the panel from the bottom, leads us there. Williams focuses in on the crucial moment, and Villarrubia gives us actual colors, although they aren’t “realistic” colors – the cold blue and the dull brown simply serve to make the bright blood pop, as it becomes the entire focus of our eye.
On the second page, we get three more panels, the first two with the boxes-within-boxes that link all three panels. In the first one, Villarrubia has expanded the red to fill the entire panel, as Jones digs in and causes real pain. You’ll notice that Williams doesn’t re-use the same drawing for these three panels – each drawing shows a slightly different moment in time during the assault, and if Williams doesn’t draw everything from scratch, at least he alters them enough so it’s not what many other artists do – re-use their own drawings over the course of several panels (Greg Land, I’m looking at you). Anyway, the red in Panel 1 on Page 2 gives way to the spray of red in Panel 2, as Jones pulls his finger out. Williams still uses very few holding lines for the figures, but he does use them in the sunburst behind the two men, which helps us focus on the spot in the center, which is the line of blood still connecting Jones and Arthur. The sunburst is supposed to indicate the terrific pain Arthur is no doubt feeling, and it’s a pretty clever way to do it. In Panel 3, the moment has passed, and we’re back in the “real” world, where time moves the correct way. The entire sequence probably took a second or two, but the way Williams draws this stretches the moment out excruciatingly, which many artists do well and is another reason why comics are awesome. But in Panel 3 on Page 2, Jones has completely disengaged, the blood is flying from Arthur’s eye, he is, it appears, peeing uncontrollably, and Jones is stepping back as the big man topples. Williams is back to his “base” style, with thin lines, spot blacks where we expect them, and regular coloring. This is a really well done sequence, and it’s largely due to Williams and Villarrubia.
So that’s what Williams was doing in 2005. He still had some tricks up his sleeve, which we’ll see tomorrow in our last day with Williams. Yes, he’s done a lot since 2005, but if I went nuts with showing Williams, I’d go nuts with all the other artists, too! I have to stop somewhere! Come on back for yet another masterpiece – I promise you’ll like it! If you don’t, you can always find solace in the archives!
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