Merced comic book artist J.H. Williams makes mark on industry

Williams was recently honored for work on DC's Batman franchise

08/02/2010 5:43 AM

08/02/2010 6:01 AM

It's Wednesday -- comic book day -- and J.H. Williams III is talking about his favorite pastime with the other comic book geeks who show up faithfully at Red Sky Comics each week to obtain their latest fix.

But Williams is no mere geek. The Merced resident is a celebrity in the comic book world. And he just won two Eisner awards, the industry's equivalent of the Oscars, for his work on DC Comics' Batman franchise.

Red Sky has devoted a table to Williams' work, which goes back more than 20 years and includes such top-tier titles as "Batman" and "X-Men," and lesser-known but critically acclaimed works such as "Desolation Jones" and "Promethia."

Like other comic book fans, Williams could talk for hours about the latest story lines and artwork -- he's as big a fan of comics and graphic novels as the fans who stop him in public for an autograph. And even after more than two decades, he marvels at the attention he receives.

"It's weird. Some people are completely cool and treat me like anyone else, but every now and then people will geek out," Williams said. "I got stopped at Raley's -- I was buying eggs or something -- and these people tapped me on my shoulder and said, 'Excuse me, are you J.H. Williams?' They weren't even from town, but they recognized me."

Williams spent his teen years in Atwater, where his father was stationed at Castle Air Force Base. Commercial art classes he took as part of a vocational education program wielded a formative impact. In fact, it was the only formal training he had.

"The advertising and design class, I thought, was the coolest thing. When you're born with the ability to draw and paint, you can only learn so much from a normal art class. The fact that this class was all about thinking about what you're putting down on paper was unbeatable."

Williams moved to the Bay Area after graduating from high school in 1984, but moved back to Merced after a few years, where he met his wife, Wendy. He does most of his work from his home, sending his art, as it is completed, to DC's New York-based editors.

Twenty-six years after leaving Atwater High School, Williams is an industry favorite. At last weekend's Comic-Con in San Diego, he was awarded Best Penciller/Inker and Best Cover Artist for his work on Detective Comics, one of DC's Batman titles.

But like soap opera star Susan Lucci, who was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards before she finally won in 1999, Williams endured his share of disappointments in the past.

"I've been up for those categories before, more than once, and I've never won," he said. "And each time I had gone to the ceremony. One year I was up for five awards, and I didn't win one."

So he chose not to attend this year's ceremony. A friend at the ceremony informed him of his wins over the phone.

"When the phone call came, I was in shock. I was like, 'Well, now what do we do?'"

Williams is focused on DC's Batwoman, a character he helped develop with writer Greg Rucka. Batwoman tells the ongoing story of Kate Kane, a Batman-inspired vigilante who happens to be a lesbian.

When DC introduced the character in 2006, she received a fair amount of news coverage for being the highest-profile gay superhero.

The one-dimensional attention rubbed Williams the wrong way.

"What makes it special is that it's a mainstream character who is also gay," he explained. "That's not the focus of the book. It's part of her identity, which is the same as everyone else. Different aspects of ourselves don't decide who we are -- the deciding factor about who she is is that she's a hero."

And now, Williams will get his opportunity to further put his stamp on the character. Rucka recently left for another gig, and Williams has agreed to take on writing duties as well.

He'll be working with co-writer Haden Blackman. The "zero issue" of the comic series, which Williams describes as a "bridge from what came before to what comes next," will hit stores in November. The book takes a look at the Batwoman character from Batman's point-of-view, Williams said.

"It was pretty daunting, but at the same time, I'm pretty confident," he said. "It's not like I'm unfamiliar with writing, but a lot of the stuff I've written before was unto themselves. I haven't had to follow another writer on the same subject. Following Greg, I'm not sure how people will respond to my take on it. Hopefully, they'll like it."

Williams says he grew up reading Marvel Comics, but eventually gravitated toward DC's iconic characters -- Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

"I got more interested in DC because they have a lot of oddball characters, who you wouldn't normally expect to see. They have some weirdness to some of their stuff."

And he's hoping to bring a little of that weirdness into Batwoman's world.

"We're kind of all over the place," he said. "The first story is horror, the second is espionage and intrigue, then we have a fantasy epic and then it goes into a family nighttime drama -- all with a twisted point of view. It sounds like it's all over the place with the genres, but we figured out how they dovetail into each other in a natural way. I think it's really, really cool."

While other forms of print media are worried about what the future holds, Williams says he's confident the comic industry will continue to grow. He's heard gripes that sales of individual comic titles are down, but insists it's only because the selection of books has grown.

Technology will continue to introduce new readers to comics, he says. One of the first applications for the iPad, in fact, was a digital comic book reader.

And there's always Hollywood, which seems to have a voracious appetite for movies that were once comic books or graphic novels.

"Even when some of the films don't do as well as expected -- 'Watchmen' is a good example -- it's not stopping that train," Williams said.

"Honestly, it's because Hollywood is out of original ideas, and they see a ton of ideas in this field. We can develop them for relatively low cost, and they're willing to take gambles."

Hollywood producers haven't yet knocked on Williams' door, but he's ready to talk: "There have been hints of offers, but nothing concrete has happened yet. But we're hoping, at some point."

If that happens, one of Batman's fairly famous quotes may apply to a local boy who has made the big-time: "Lieutenant, is there a six-foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police payroll? And if so, what's he pulling down after taxes?"

Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsun-star.com.

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