AL WILLIAMSON 1931-2010

After a long, grueling battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, the great Al Williamson has left us for a better, kinder world.

When I say “great”, I mean it. In Al’s case, he was triple great: a great artist, a great collector and as anyone who knew him can verify, he was also a great human being and loyal friend.

Al long had a reputation as being the nicest guy in the (comics) business (I have never, ever heard anyone utter a cross word in regards to Al; in this business, that speaks volumes about Al and how he was perceived and loved by people). I can attest that he was, as well as being generous to a fault. If he liked you (and Al liked most folks — except for businessmen and a few unscrupulous art dealers we both knew), you would almost never leave from a visit to Al’s house without his insisting you take an original strip of his (usually a Secret Agent X-9/Corrigan). And you always got to pick which strip you wanted from a stack of gorgeous originals!

Al had a phenomenal art collection. He loved to compete as a collector with his best friend Roy Krenkel. They played a constant friendly game of one-upmanship. Sometimes they would try to prank each other, claiming they had just found some fabulous old book at The Strand Bookshop, just chock full of magnificent color reproductions by one of their favorite artists. If Roy believed the tale about this imaginary collectible, then Al would begin to give it some fantastic embellishment. “…and you won’t believe how much I paid for it — FIVE BUCKS! And — it’s signed!” “Williamson — you bastard!”

I can’t recall the first work I ever saw by Al. It might have been the Edgar Rice Burroughs illustrations for Canaveral Press, collaborations with his pal Reed Crandall (whom Al helped and cared for when no one else would). It might have been his Flash Gordon comics from around the same time (mid 1960s). It might have been an old E. C. comic. Perhaps it was his work for Creepy and Eerie (most likely). Whatever it was, as soon as I saw his work I was hooked. His figures possessed an exotic grace and elegance that are still unmatched by any other comic artist.

Al loved movies and was deeply influenced by them. An expensive habit, he used to collect films in the pre-video days. He ran them at home on his 16mm projector. Al had a big movie still collection and often used the likenesses of his favorite movie stars in his comic book stories. He was especially fond of Stewart Granger, probably in part because Al looked like a handsome cross between Granger (Granger’s Scaramouche was one of Al’s favorite movies) and Bruce Dern. Al’s incandescent grin could light up a room — and often did.

Al, in turn, influenced the movies. When I first saw the end of Star Wars, I blurted out, “Those are Al Williamson guys!” Han and Luke looked as of they had stepped right out of one of Al’s E. C. science fiction stories. It was no coincidence that George Lucas chose Al to draw the Star Wars syndicated newspaper strips.

I first met Al in 1972 at the first E. C. Convention in New York City. We were instant friends upon meeting; it felt as if we’d known each other all our lives. We both loved to laugh and we were deeply passionate about the same things in life: great art, great comics, beautiful women, collecting, dinosaurs — if there was something Al loved, it was probably something I loved, too.

Al felt completely at home with guys from my generation. He truly lamented not being been born twenty years later. He felt isolated from his own group. He and his own generation did not share the same basic values. Al was a blue jeans kind of guy from a generation that wore suits. The 60s embracement of Peace and Love? That was Al. Even Al’s body type (lean) was at odds with what was attractive to most women his age (big, brawny and muscular). We took Al into our multi-cultural family with love and full acceptance. He thrived in our welcoming companionship.

Al almost immediately invited me to spend the weekend with his family out in the Norman Rockwell-like town of Calicoon. He invited legendary underground comix artist Jack Jaxon, too. I drove Jack and his girlfriend out to Al’s home where we all had a spectacular time.

I’ll never forget when I saw the Prince Valiant original on Al’s studio wall.

“Oh my god, Al!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got The Bridge!” Al beamed, knowing he owned the most famous Prince Valiant Sunday page of all time. Al always took great pleasure in sharing his incredible art collection. Any great artist I would name, Al would take out an amazing — if not perfect — example of their work and show it to me. He would always laugh at my shock.

As I mentioned, Al loved dinosaurs. It was Al who coined the term “good lizard man”. That term referred to an artist who was good at drawing dinosaurs. “Oh, Zdenek Burian, “ Al would say. “He’s a good lizard man.” We were both crazy about the work of paleoartist Charles R. Knight, the man whose paintings of dinosaurs inspired King Kong and Fantasia. Years later, I was happy to be able to give Al an original lithograph of a Brontotherium by Knight.

I organized a “Good Lizard Men World Tour” just so Al, Mark Schultz and I could get together more frequently on someone else’s dime. Al only made one or two of the conventions, however. He had fallen out of love with travel and mostly just wanted to spend time at home with his loving and devoted wife Cori.

The last time I saw Al was at the 2000 Comic-Con International that hosted the final big E. C. Reunion. Al and I used that opportunity to spend a lot of that week together. We sat together with his family at the Awards Banquet. Al was truly shocked and incredibly touched to receive a Hall of Fame Award. When I took Al aside later and privately told him that his son had tears in his eyes when Al was presented with his award, Al’s own eyes began to well up. That meant even more to Al than receiving the award.

It was at that Comic-Con that Al took me aside and confessed a fear that was beginning to dominate his thoughts.

“Bill; I’m starting to forget things.”

“Al — we’re ALL starting to forget things; we’re getting older!”

“No; I mean REALLY forget things…”

Al looked frightened. I tried to ease his mind by trying to make light of both our memories but I could see how troubled and upset he was.

Like his close friend Roy Krenkel, Al Williamson was one of the world’s greatest repositories of knowledge regarding representational art. How horribly ironic that Al would have that rare accumulation of knowledge slowly and insidiously plucked from his mind bit by bit, fact by fact, love by love. The living treasure that was Al’s memory was being looted on a daily basis by that awful disease.

I believe it was Al who introduced me to my friend Mark Schultz. Al had given Mark the official Al Williamson Seal of Approval. He had two phrases he used in this regard: “He’s one of the Good Guys!” or “You’ll love him; he’s a sweetheart!” Mark received both accolades.

Mark proved himself over and over to be worthy of Al’s assessment. Throughout the past several years Mark visited with Al nearly every month (partly to give Al’s wife Cori a much-needed break), even after Al had forgotten who Mark was. Mark and Al’s mutual friend, Steve Kammer usually came with Mark to visit Al and Cori, as well as showing up often on his own to assist Al and Cori, as did a fine network of good friends. Thank you, Mark, Steve and company, for your unflagging kindnesses and generosity toward Al and Cori.

With the passing of Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson, it feels to me as if an era has ended. Although the three of them have left us physically, their work will continue to serve as an inspiration for legions of artists and fans of good art for many decades to come.

And as much as I love Al’s fantastic work (which I do), I feel even more privileged to have known and loved the man himself. Al Williamson was both a sweetheart and one of the Good Guys.

I’ve missed you these past several years, Al. It gives me comfort, however, to know that you are finally at peace, my friend.

13 Responses to “AL WILLIAMSON 1931-2010”

  1. Oscar Solis says:

    That was a beautiful and loving tribute to a great artist and wonderful human being.

  2. Charles Edward Pogue says:

    A great tribute, Bill! We’ve lost another giant.

  3. Jim Bertrand says:

    As I type this the collected Star Wars work by Archie Goodwin and Al has been sitting next to my living room chair for over 5 years. If I ever need to refresh myself with comics excellence I just reach over and drink in Als’ mastery of the medium.
    I bet they have jet packs in Mr. Williams’ heaven.

  4. ed schatz says:

    Bill;
    You write some of the most beautiful, yet heart-wrenching stories about the artists and people you knew and know in your time. This piece about Al Williamson is no different. You are taking their place, not only with your art, but by your knowledge of art and their respective creators. Reading these memorials are some of the most enduring and enjoyable pieces to read, bar none. Thanks always for these.

  5. Jack Snider says:

    That was very moving, Bill.
    Thanks for sharing your memories of Al (and of Frank earlier).

  6. Alec Stevens says:

    A fine tribute to a great artist, from a great artist (meaning yourself). Nice work, Bill! I first met Al in late ’83 when Lee Weeks (my fellow Kubert School classmate) and I drove over to his Honesdale, PA studio. Very gracious host! He kept laughing because here I was, a green 18 year old, asking him if he’d ever heard of Daniel Vierge or Norman Lindsey. Then Al would proceed to pull out old volumes of their work to show us (as well as original art of his and others). This and a subsequent visit will always be a cherished memory for me.

  7. Benjamin says:

    Thank you for writing this. I always like to read your memories with the people who really meant something to you, Bill. I had no idea about the extent of Al’s Alzheimer’s.
    I was a little bummed when Frazetta died, but I was truly saddened when I heard about Al, and I think that’s mainly because I actually got to meet him a couple of times and he was so nice and actually seemed to enjoy my company. I was at the 1998 Dum Dum in Baltimore and he and Mark Schultz were there and I had brought some of my dinosaur drawings, including a book of imaginary (but plausible) prehistoric critters. Mark delighted in seeing that I had named an invented ankylosaur after Al. Al asked if he could have the book; I was so honored. (Of course, I gave it to him.) Later on I was invited to hang out with him and Mark and Frank Cho and I just listened to Al and Mark chat and swap stories and tease Cho for drawing “smut”. I was so in awe of hanging with two of my artistic heroes that I just sat and listened.
    I had always hoped I could meet him again, or send him a new book of false dinosaurs, but I’ll have to wait for another time and place to do that.

  8. Matt says:

    It does feel like the end of an Era.
    Hopefully we’ll all continue to be influenced by not only their art, but also their character.

  9. terry wilson says:

    A moving tribute to a great man and artist. I was one of his admires that tried to ape his work early on. When he came to San Diego I made it my mission to meet and speak with him. If not, all else would been considered a failure!

    A man that helped bring adult to American comics that, at that time, were still relegated to childres’ n cheap literature. His work still stands up as a model of how well visual story telling can still be done and his life as to how a good man can still live. He will be missed but we are fortunate he came along in an era when his likeness, voice, and works can b accurately preserved for all time to come.

  10. […] The late 60’s and 70’s saw the rise of a new generation of comics artists, and there are many stories of the extent Williamson would go to encourage, instruct, and find work for these young hopefuls who saw him not only as a mentor without equal, but also a friend. Bernie Wrightson, Bo Hampton, Michael Kaluta, Gerry Conway, Mark Schultz, and Thomas Yeates are only a small handful of the great talents he had helped realize their dreams in early stages of their careers. A particularly touching tribute in the wake of Williamson’s passing is by the brilliant William Stout and can be read here. […]

  11. Edward Summer says:

    Thank you for this. You nailed it.

  12. Pat Lee says:

    Another great tribute Bill. So sad to see these giants passing….

    Luckiliy I did get to meet Al a couple of times and can only agree–what a nice man and a wonderful artist.

  13. […] The late 60’s and 70’s saw the rise of a new generation of comics artists, and there are many stories of the extent Williamson would go to encourage, instruct, and find work for these young hopefuls who saw him not only as a mentor without equal, but also a friend. Bernie Wrightson, Bo Hampton, Michael Kaluta, Gerry Conway, Mark Schultz, and Thomas Yeates are only a small handful of the great talents he had helped realize their dreams in early stages of their careers. A particularly touching tribute in the wake of Williamson’s passing is by the brilliant William Stout and can be read here. […]

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