It staggers me to think about all the people I've encountered in my comic book life. Particularly in my editorial days, where by virtue of my job I had contact with all manner of boyhood heroes, newcomers, and genuine comic book legends. Some passed right through, some stuck around for a while before our paths diverged, some are still here. I don't usually think about it in those terms until one of those people have moved on for good, and I think about the stories I have to tell about him or her. In that, I suppose, there is some permanent comfort--good or bad, I will always have stories to tell about others, they will always have stories to tell about me.
Al Williamson was one of those bona fide legends. He was also one of the good guys. One of the very good guys. It pained me to read of his passing this morning. He was 79. "1931-2010" is not a bad set of numbers to mark a life. But still...
I'll be honest, I didn't really know who Al was when his work started to show up around the Dark Horse offices in the mid-1990s. I was in my early 20s, and there was still much for me to learn about the history of the medium. Dark Horse was reprinting some of the classic Star Wars comics Al had drawn, stuff I had read when it was new but before I started paying attention to the fact that there were names attached to funnybooks, that someone actually had to put those lines on the paper. Seeing those comics again not only inspired nostalgia, but also proved to be an education. I could see where some of my favorite artists, guys like Dave Stevens and Steve Rude, had picked up some of their technique. Al Williamson was one of the masters who set the bar.
Part of my job at the time was assisting Lynn Adair, who was then the "collections editor" at Dark Horse, meaning she oversaw all the trade paperback and hardcover reprints. Al's comics fell under her purview, and my first encounters with the man came when I'd have to call him on her behalf. He was immediately friendly to me. He played the part of a cranky old man when he wanted to, but it was all in good fun. Al was a jokester, a prankster, and above all, a flirt. (He was also a family man, so don't misconstrue any of this as serious.) I could always tell when Lynn was on the phone with him because she'd be slightly flushed afterward. Surprisingly, Al flirted with me, too. I was game, it was funny. Though it was fairly tame stuff, it gave me a giggle to imagine my bosses listening in on a conversation where one of their junior editors shared randy barbs with Al Williamson.
Then one day, Al asked Lynn a question. "So, tell me about this Jamie. Hot new thing around the office?"
Lynn was surprised. "Al, you know Jamie is a boy, right?"
There was a pause. "Of course, I do! What do you think?"
Lynn wasn't entirely convinced. Back then, for whatever reason, I guess a combination of my unisex name and my voice, people who spoke to me on the phone regularly thought I was a "ma'am." So, was it possible that Al really was flirting with me under the misconception that I was Lynn's cute young secretary?
The next time I called Al, I decided to give him a hard time, and I spoke in an exaggerated deep voice. "Hiiiii, Al. It's Jamie." He didn't think it was very funny, and we never spoke of it again. To this day, I don't know whether he had the wrong idea or not, but there is a small part of me that is proud that I got one over on Al Williamson, even if I hadn't intended to.
Thankfully, such a small thing wasn't going to affect our friendship, and I finally got to meet Al face to face when he came to Oregon for one of the conventions Dark Horse used to run. He was an irascible raconteur, and though a generous conversationalist, it was always a wise choice to concede the floor to him. He was full of wonderful stories and pearls of professional wisdom. One that always stuck with me (and I am paraphrasing from memory): "You editors, you think we're so stupid, and we let you. You think that when we draw a cover for you and we put a cool rocket ship in the top 1/3 where the logo goes, that we don't know you're going to cover it up. Of course we know! We just want to draw a cool rocket ship!"
In 1997, Bob Schreck left Dark Horse and ended up forming Oni Press with Joe Nozemack. I stayed behind and took over some of the titles I had assisted Bob with, including the anthology Dark Horse Presents. I had started working on the series with Bob in the early 100s, and I think one of the first issues that I took to completion without him was #119. That issue had a cover that was somewhat infamous around the office, as Troy Nixey had assembled a collage on wood, with raised panels and real buttons glued on. It was a challenge to print and deemed not very commercial. Much of my run with Bob was considered uncommercial, and there was pressure on me not to feature so many of the weird "indie" stories on the cover. (You can see most of our run here; I think I became his assistant somewhere around #105, and the last cover I commissioned on my own was #135.)
I hadn't yet gotten a cover for #120 because I hadn't yet commissioned my last feature for the issue. There was a hole in the roster. I had to think fast, get something no one could argue with.
So, I called Al. It was a long shot, but I thought maybe he'd have something I could use. A new story, an old story, whatever. Turns out, he had a short comic that had been intended for publication elsewhere, but had not been finished. Maybe he could polish that up for me, would that work? Hell, yeah, it would work. I was able to walk around the office crowing that I had gotten new Al Williamson comics. I was greeted with much disbelief. How had I done it? "I just asked him," I said. "He likes me." Not bad for a little gal from the typing pool.
In one fell swoop, Al Williamson had saved my issue and also made it look like I had game.
The story was a four-page EC-style sci-fi adventure piece called "One Last Job." It was written by Mark Schultz and dedicated to Wally Wood. It's a simple tale about an intergalactic bounty hunter and treasure seeker traversing a dangerous landscape in search of the final score so he can fulfill his promise of retiring and return to his lady love. Of course, the punchline is that he can't retire. The call comes through for more adventure, and he is off again for "one last job."
In his way, it was a story about Al Williamson, too. There was always more adventure to find on the comic book page, new worlds to explore, new sights to see.
The cover for the issue was another unused piece, and though it didn't exactly go with the story, it fit enough that we could get away with it. The illustration itself was heavily detailed. In the bottom half a man fought a pterodactyl, with a mysterious woman in the upper right seemingly orchestrating the whole thing. They were surrounded by a temple and its artifacts and the jungle beyond. There is even another dinosaur-like creature behind the woman. There's something happening on every inch of the paper. So much so that the art director at the time was distressed when he saw it. Didn't Al know there was a design to DHP? Hadn't I sent him the template?
Of course I sent him the template. Al just didn't care. He wanted to draw cool things.
Also, please read Jeff Parker's marvelous reminiscences about Al. Much more essential reading than my own.
Special thanks to Steven Gettis for the scan of Al Williamson's self-portrait.
Current Soundtrack: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Good Son; CocoRosie, Grey Oceans
Text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich; "One Last Job" (c) 1997 Mark Schultz & Al Williamson