J.H. Williams III talks Batwoman, writing and ambitions
With his artwork on the Batwoman feature in Detective Comics, longtime artist J.H. Williams III cemented his position as one of the most forward-thinking illustrators in comics today. Following healthy attention this year at various awards ceremonies, DC Comics greenlit an ongoing Batwoman series and the chance for Williams to step up as both an artist and a writer. For Williams, it’s a longtime dream come true after furtive previous writing work on anthologies and miniseries, and a chance to fully embrace the process of creating comics — from the ground up.
Chris Arrant: Let’s start with an easy one – what are you working on today?
J.H. Williams III: I’m working on the tale end of Issue 1 of Batwoman, on the art side specifically. Then I’m going to put the finishing touches on a couple other scripts for the series.
Arrant: After [writer Greg Rucka's] departure, you were the natural choice to continue Kate’s story – especially given the intense nature of the creation of the character, as well as your own writing background. But this is undoubtedly your biggest writing gig yet – so what did you do to freshen up your skills on plotting and dialogue?
Williams: Well , the first thing I did was examine the direction of the series so far. There were certain plot elements Greg planned on following up on that I’m going to avoid in case he plans on returning and pursuing those. But besides that, it was just a matter of taking a look at the material and seeing what sort of angle we could take that might not be expected. At the same time, it needs to feel natural as to what came before it. It was a matter of doing brainstorming, figuring out what the series needed, a lot of invention, and plans for a creating a rogue’s gallery that Batwoman can call her own.
Arrant: Although you’re primarily known as an artist, you’ve written before – I think your last was a short in an issue of Hellboy: Weird Tales.
Williams: I also did Batman: Snow, but they were both relatively close together.
Arrant: Yes. What do you think you’ve learned in the intervening years since these last writing gigs?
Williams: I guess it was just a matter of focusing on making sure it’s a good story, and told in an interesting way. As far as what I’ve learned, it’s hard for me to really judge that because I feel like learning never stops; that’s the way I feel about my drawing style, too. It’s just a matter of doing the best I can do, and coming up with the most interesting things I can come up with. It helps having a writing partner such as Haden [Blackman, Williams’ Batwoman co-writer] to bounce ideas off of and play to each other’s strengths.
Arrant: In your artwork for Batwoman in Detective Comics, I see a lot of your work trying to solve problems and bringing more elements to the story instead of just depicting people — you use style, color, mood, composition and even page layout to get some larger points across. But with you simultaneously drawing one arc and writing for another artist, how do your tendencies to get so much across with your art conflict with you “just” being the writer for Batwoman?
Williams: Essentially it’s one of the things where you try to get as much descriptive detail in the document that you’re working on; it’s not just “here’s what happens and here’s where it happens.” But it’s important to imbue the feelings the scenes should evoke, and what the storytellers’ point is for the scene and larger story. In some ways, I’m trying to put down on paper visual descriptive stimulation along the lines of something you’d want to read besides just a bare-bones outline of a story and “here’s some dialogue to go with it.”
I can’t help but think in those terms, and it goes into my writing as well. I want to write scripts that are fully fleshed out and have some sort of readability to them. A lot of times we’re dealing with the esoteric emotion side of things, and it’s important to think about how scenes could play out with a particular layout and what that could symbolize. I’m trying to interject a lot of things but not be too heavy-handed and allow Amy Reeder to draw the way she draws – not the way I draw. It’s important for me to make her feel comfortable doing her own style. But at the same time, I’m working to find a way for it to be cohesive with what came before. It’s a tricky balance, and I’m anxious to see how it all shakes out.
Arrant: Have you had any formative conversations with her about your aim for the series and her alternating arcs?
Williams: We talked a little bit about the first arc because of the way the stories are going to progress. Each story arc switches its genre a bit, but it all flows together and will blend in a natural progressing. At the same time, we’re wanting to present plot elements in a way that it will fit together as well. For example, the first story arc is a horror story that dovetails into the second, which is an intrigue/espionage thing. When I was describing it to Amy, I told her to pitch it along the lines of a James Bond-type plot but with a structure that isn’t necessarily James Bond; more along the lines of a Quentin Tarantino film’s structure.
Arrant: Is Batwoman strictly going to be you and Amy alternating art on arcs, or have you thought about bringing in a third artist if things get too busy?
Williams: I hate to bring in a third artist because it begins to have a mishmash feeling without a real direction, particularly when the third arc gets here. I’d hate for a third artist to have to draw that instead of myself. Each arc stands on its own, but it also builds to form a larger overall arc. I’m one of those types that can’t help but think way down the road for the characters; I feel like If we know where we’re going, it informs us in where we’re starting.
Arrant: In the previous Detective Comics story arcs, you did some homages to Batman artists of the past – working in their style for certain appropriate scenes. Using other artists’ styles also belays a notion that you have keenly understood what their style brings to a story. Now that you’re writing actively for other artists, are you tailoring those scripts to their style – and/or looking for artists that fit your ideas for the story?
Williams: We’ve written each arc with a specific artist in mind – me for the odd-numbered arcs, Amy for the evens. But I’m not trying to get her to evoke other art styles to garner whatever desired effects. If she sees something she wants to explore, she has the same luxury I had to do that. It’s one of those things where I can’t help but write in terms of the way I see things visually. A lot of the Batwoman scripts have my pacing sensibility more so that my style senses, but pacing in the way a page or a scene moves. It’s going to be interesting to see Amy’s interpretations of that. Our goal is to give her a solid script and try to challenge her in places where she is evoked into putting her brainpower into it and really giving it 150 percent.
Arrant: For the arcs you aren’t drawing, can you still visualize in your head how you’d do the page while you write it? Does your mind think that way?
Williams: Definitely. In visual terms, I can see how things flow. For example, in some cases with the scripts Haden is writing the first draft before I step in, and when I do I can sometimes see how panels are flowing and figure out how to reorganize the structure or figure out something new for the scene to be more efficient in its storytelling. Also I try to hold ourselves to the rule of not having too many panels. I don’t like to write over five panels for one page, because then you’ll start to get things boxed in and make the artist feel more boxed in and get artwork not as fully realized as it could be. It’s a good rule, and it forces your brain to be more efficient with storytelling and to not necessarily use excessive storytelling just because you can. The goal is to figure out how to be really efficient and editorially judge the material; I think it’s a good exercise to work within certain parameters.
Arrant: Is writing something you’ve wanted to do more of for years? And do you see yourself transitioning into a full-time writer and artist akin to Frank Miller?
Williams: Yes, I’m definitely trying to get people to take a look at what I was doing with my past writing experiences and see that there’s some quality there.
As for getting gigs as a writer, it was a little hard. I don’t know what was going on editorially at DC, but I know it felt like I was getting a lot of resistance to it for a while. There wasn’t any overt dictate saying, “No, you can’t write,” but I feel like when I brought it up they said “Yes, yes,” but nothing would come of those discussions. After the recent changeovers at DC, however, it opened up doors and seems more open to realizing the full potential of artists who can write.
Haden and I have been writing together for a long time – since that story in Hellboy: Weird Tales. We’ve been working on concepts and creations; behind-the-scenes creator-owned stuff that we hope will see the light of day. I’ve definitely being aiming towards that as an end goal, but I didn’t – and still don’t – know when and how it will be fully realized.
Arrant: DC has recently begun encouraging more artists to write, from you to David Finch, Tony Daniel and others. You mentioned some resistance from DC earlier about you writing more. Can you expound on that resistance and how it’s changed for you?
Williams: I think so, but it hasn’t been with any real sense of maliciousness – but rather not fully understanding your players. It simplifies things to classify people for one discipline: he’s a writer, she’s an artist, and so forth. When you get individuals who can do both, there’s a perception, real or imagined, that one of those skills will be lackluster due to time constraints or just being more talented in one area than another. I’m sure there’s some truth to that – we’ve all seen artists who begin writing their own stuff and it’s not as dynamic as it could be. But at the same time, I think the industry could benefit from publishers reaching out to artists and seeing what they’re truly capable of.
What will happen is that if you have an artist who says they can write, and can do a decent job at is, is constantly put in a position where they can’t explore that, then he or she could start to feel stagnated and the end result is artists who aren’t putting as much effort into a book as they could. There’s a whole psychology to this, about feeling confident about the work you’re doing in comics.
I think it’s good DC is taking some chances and trying out some new things to see what might work. It’s certainly been successful in the past; we’ve seen quite a few artists crossover into writing, like John Byrne, Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons and Alan Davis. All of those guys can do a really good job on both ends – as a writer, as an artist, or handling both simultaneously.
Arrant: You seem genuinely excited about it more than just any one gig drawing. Some of those behind-the-scenes projects of yours I found out about with a little digging is a book you want to do with Laurenn McCubbin. What kind of creator-owned stories do you want to tell?
Williams: I definitely want to have more control over the stories I work on, as well as write for other people – if they want to work with me in that capacity. I think writing more will be a tremendously rewarding opportunity, and allow for a lot more ideas to come out at a quicker pace – especially if it’s creator-owned. The idea of building up a cache of ideas and get more material in front of people’s eyeballs seems like a worthy goal. It’s one of the things Mike Mignola has been so successful at doing; even though the bulk of it is in the Hellboy world, he has a variety of different titles with him either writing, co-writing and occasionally drawing. I think that’s a really cool set-up.
Arrant: Would you ever get to a point where you quit drawing to write more?
Williams: I’ll always be drawing, primarily because I don’t see myself being fast enough of a writer to do multiple projects and make a living. Keith Giffen is a good example; for a long time he didn’t do any finished artwork, but wrote and did layouts. He’s been focusing on the writing side of comics, and he’s also gifted in the regard that he’s very fast at it and can do several things at once. I don’t know if I could do that.
Haden and I are pretty quick with scripts, but I also like to take time to analyze what we’re doing. I generally go over it four or five times to make sure it’s what we want to say.
To answer your question, though: No, I can’t imagine myself to stop drawing actively.
Arrant: Where do you see yourself five years from now, Jim?
Williams: Ultimately, what I’d like to see for me is becoming known as a writer and an artist; someone who does good quality work and is a creator that can be followed and produces really cool work. I’d definitely like to see myself doing more creator-owned work; Haden and I have an obscene amount of ideas and we’re just now starting to explore them.