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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

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BAKER'S DOZEN for 12/29/2004
Here There Be Wonders...
Thomas Yeates conducts a short tour of Al Williamson: Hidden Lands

While many regular readers of this column might know Thomas Yeates as the artist who assists Cary Nord in visualizing the untold tales of Conan in the monthly Dark Horse comic bearing that mythic barbarian's name, those of us with...uhm...longer memories might fondly recall his work on the "Saga of the Dragonsword" shorts which graced the back pages of DC's Warlord in the seventies, to the mid-eighties Epic mini-series Timespirites, Malibu's fine but abortive attempt to relaunch the Tarzan comics franchise in the early nineties, and Image's reprinting of his and Don McGregor's excellent version of Zorro. What might surprise a few folks is the fact that Thomas Yeates is also an editor. The story of how he discovered these hidden talents within his own strange interiors begins with his quest for a chimera every hardcore fan of this medium will recognize...his own version of The Holy Grail. In this case, it revolved around a twenty-plus year search for those lost, forgotten and even criminally-neglected tales created by a true giant of the field, Al Williamson--someone whose work is largely celebrated and typically easily found...or so most folks thought.

Yeates' decades-long search for those nigh-legendary "missing yearns" by Williamson, and how that search become the basis for Al Williamson: Hidden Lands, recently released by Dark Horse, makes for quite an epic tale in itself.

Hidden Land

Bill Baker: How would you describe Al Williamson: Hidden Lands? Is it a reprint collection, an art book, a biography, or perhaps something else entirely?

Thomas Yeates: All three in one. It's basically Williamson in the fifties. Reprints as in complete stories, so you can actually read them, which those of us who get a kick out of old comics will appreciate. And the vast majority of these we got from good black and white stats shot from the original art in the fifties. Both these aspects make the project fairly unique: complete stories and good quality reproduction. With Williamson's delicate line this is what really made the whole thing worthwhile.

The "Art" you could say is all the single illustrations, many previously unpublished, and the great sketches Williamson is known for that we included.

Biographically there's a terrific piece on Al's youth growing up in Bogotá Columbia written by Mark Schultz, as well as an overview of his career up to 1960. The book only covers that period, his youth and up to 1960. I had to draw the line somewhere if I was going to cover what I wanted to cover the way I wanted to cover it. And ending there made sense for lots of reasons. I think another book on his work in the sixties would be nice.

Al Williamson

BB: Does the title, Hidden Lands, have any special significance?

TY: We were thinking of "The worlds of Williamson" or something like that but nobody was happy with it. The title wasn't that easy to come up with. Then, late one dark night..."Hidden Lands" just came to me. Everyone seemed to agree it was the best choice. Al approved, and Chris Warner who worked very close with me at Dark Horse liked it because it highlights the fact that this is material that most fans aren't familiar with. Al is known for science fiction, but here we've got romance, war, Roman stories, jungle stories, fantasy, lots of westerns and of course science fiction too. Plus of course the previously unpublished work could be thought of as having been "hidden".

BB: It's my understanding that this has been something of a long-term project for you. So how did this all begin? What sparked the initial idea, what was it originally and how did it develop into the form it's taking on today... and what took so long?

TY: What took so long indeed! This book is on it's third publisher, first Eclipse, then Kitchen Sink, last Dark Horse. Much of the delay is due to publishers wanting to do the book because they love Al and his art, but not being in a hurry because this isn't gong to be their bread and butter, and that has to come first. Initially the delay was just me taking the time it takes to do it right, and only working in my spare time. It was definitely a labor of love. I dig the material and I seem to be compelled to play Sherlock Holmes and try to track it down.

It all started, as mention in the book, when I attended comics conventions back in the late seventies and looked for comics with art by [Wally] Wood, [Reed] Crandall, [Bernie] Wrightson, Williamson--I was always in the "W" section--and other's I was collecting. It was tedious wading through all the other stuff to find a book I wanted, with just four pages of, for example good Williamson art. In the early part of his career, Al was not generally associated with one book or character who he'd do a long run with, it was a short story here and a short story there. So I thought, "All these great short stories should be collected together." Thus began the quest for this material.

The project evolved through too many changes to go into. I had spent a lot of time with Williamson in the late seventies and early eighties, and saw his amazing collection, and lots of his own unused and unfinished art. So I kind of knew what was there. Al said that he wanted a book named after the Beatles song "With a Little Help From My Friends", but with the "With a Little" crossed out, and "A LOT" written over it, so it read A LOT of Help From My Friends", and which would feature all the great artists he's known, worked with or admired. That morphed into the side bars in my book on [Angelo] Torres, [Roy] Krenkel, etc. Also the book was initially going to be 350 pages or so and span his whole career, but Dennis Kitchen convinced me that that would be impractical and I should break it up into volumes. So this is volume one. As it worked out it's still 220 something pages. Insight Studios put out Al Williamson Adventures last year which is most of what I would have put in a third volume, minus the biographical material and spot illos.

Al Williamson

BB: What are some of the surprises or highlights that the book might have presented to you, be they historical or otherwise?

TY: To elaborate on what I've already mentioned, I got incredible cooperation from Marvel. They are one company Al worked for in the fifties, aside form E.C., who still had a decent archive of old material, from the fifties when they were called Atlas. Al was one of their top inkers ten years ago when I went after them in earnest, and they came through with the stats shot from the original art way back when which make up the bulk of this book. Also there are three previously unpublished Jann of the Jungle stories Al did for Atlas in '57. That was a real find. Al told me to look for them, and a wonderful fellow named Paul Curtis, then on staff at Marvel cracked the code used to file old stats and found this long lost material.

BB: How did some of the other contributors get involved, and how difficult was it to convince them to participate?

TY: Not difficult at all, we all did it for the love of it. In addition to Schultz, Steve Ringgenberg did quite a bit of writing. Tom Roberts and Ken Feduniewicz also helped write it. Many many others like Jim Vadebonceour and Dave Justice were invaluable. Being under way for so long I would mention it to various people over the years, and folks just came together to help when I asked. James Van Hise graciously let us steal liberally from the Art of Al Williamson book he did in '83. Interviews with Al done over the years by Ringgenberg, Schultz and myself supplied more info and anecdotes.

BB: Were you able to get permission to use everything you wanted to...or did some stuff end up on "the cutting room floor" due to space considerations?

TY: So much stuff got left out due to space considerations, but I'm happy with what we ended up with. Actually there wasn't that much more that we could print well enough to make worthwhile. Budget was also a consideration, I couldn't use several stories because they belong to people who wanted too much money for the rights to use them, even if I could find something decent to shoot from. Chris Warner also put a limit on the page count due to cover price versus cost considerations.

Al Williamson

BB: How did Dark Horse get involved as publisher, and what made them the company to put this book out?

TY: Kitchen Sink folded around the time I got to know Mike Richardson of Dark Horse. Turned out he's a big Williamson fan, so he agreed to publish the book. Thanks, Mike. Some say I should have self published but I'm too lazy and don't have the time or resources to deal with all that. They have a real live production department, designers, distribution, I was working for them on Tarzan at the time they came on as publisher, so it just made sense.

BB: Now correct me if I'm wrong, but you're typically cited for your work as a artist rather than your editorial efforts. What new or unexpected demands might this new role have placed upon you, and how did this new station push you in ways obvious or not? And did you gain a new appreciation for what these folks behind the scenes do...and does this foreshadow a possible new career path for you?

TY: Drawing comics may be how I make a living--if you can call it that--but there are lots of things I'm interested in. Editing is like making tapes of music, you don't create the source material, but you try and present it in an appealing way. And I have edited before. The four issue World of Wood series at Eclipse, and Roy Krenkel's Swordsmen and Saurians, which Roy put together basically but which I got finished up and published, also with Eclipse. So editing is not foreign to me. I really dig it actually. But I don't see going into it full time or anything. Working with Chris Warner was great because he would bring me down to earth without compromising the quality of the book. Yes, I appreciate the work those folks do. Of course, there's always something you wish had been done differently, I wish I could have micro-managed the design a little more in spots, but I'm not complaining.

Al Williamson

BB: All of this begs one important question, which is: Why do a book focusing on Al Williamson? What do you hope to accomplish with this book, realistically or ideally? Is there something aspect of his work in particular that sets it apart from that of his contemporaries? Also, does Williamson's body of work, and perhaps the stories and illustrations in this book, have anything special to offer today's readers that they might not find elsewhere?

TY: I address this in the Afterward of the book. Basically, to put all that different material into one book, so if I want to look at this stuff I can get a good satisfying chunk of it without wading through a lot of old brittle comics full of other stories I'm not so interested in. Hopefully others will feel the same way and enjoy this big gooey ice cream sundae of great stuff like I do. I think I've already said what sets it apart form other "art of" books. What sets his work apart? Flip through one of those old Atlas or ACG comics that have decent Williamson work and see for yourself. More than one collector has described coming across a job by Al as "a breath of fresh air". His good stuff just stands alone in those books. Why? Maybe because he loved comics and wasn't ashamed to be doing them. Sometimes it seems a lot of his contemporaries looked down on comics and wished they could get better work, but couldn't, not the main guys everybody knows today, but that legion of other less known laborers in the field. Al wanted to be doing what he did. Not all his work is stellar, but that just makes him more human in some ways, and he's such a kick, such a big kid. What he has to offer today is the same as in yesteryear, terrific art and solid story telling. Let me quote Krenkel on this; Hey Roy, tell the folks about Al; "You know, Al would do doodles back then. He would just whip the stuff out and that stuff was incredible. Nobody ever drew better. To me, one of the most unfortunate things to the whole art world is that Al made little sketches and doodles for use and didn't expand them into pictures, as they were concepts and little scenes and little studies and things like that. He'd have a fragment of a hand and shoulder, an arm, an indication of a belt buckle or something like that, and that was it. But the way he drew the stuff! Oh my god! Nobody, and I've been collecting pen work for years, but nobody ever topped that stuff, and damn few guys ever even matched it. After a while the stuff became a little stiffer and more accurate but less, I don't know, less sheer whiz! But in those days, again it was sheer accident. The guy didn't really know what the hell he was doing except that he could do it - but could he ever do it!" *

This book contains the art with the "sheer whiz!"

[*another swipe from the Van Hise book.]

BB: I was wondering, what do you get from doing this kind of work, be it personally or professionally -- and how does it compare with what making art gives you?

TY: I just do it because I want to. I think the stuff deserves to be collected in a good book. And as I said, it's fun, and I learn a lot.

BB: What would you like your audience to get from Al Williamson: Hidden Land, be it today or in the far future?

TY: Entertainment. And a solid representation of this period of work from a major artist in the comics field.

BB: Where would folks go to find out more information on this book? How about your own artistic endeavors on Conan and elsewhere?

TY: Go to www.darkhorse.com and search for Hidden Lands. You should find info and links to how to purchase the book.

My regular work right now is helping Cary Nord pencil Conan for Dark Horse. I'm also penciling and inking an Escapist story for them.

Conan

BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to the drawing board?

TY: I think that's enough.

******

Just in case it needs to be said, this book has BB's highest recommendation. It's not just a labor of love, but a stirring document of the life and times of a truly great man...and his art. Worth the price of admission, and then some. It makes a great holiday season gift--for yourself, if no one else!

Oh, and if you haven't tried it yet, Dark Horse's new version of everyone's favorite Cimmerian is a thing of harsh beauty and a truly worthy addition to Robert E. Howard's mythos. The first trade of that series should be out any day now...

The Coming of Conan: The Cimmerian (Book 1)

Finally, best wishes from BB and the entire WFC gang, we hope you have a happy holiday season and may your New Year be filled with joy, peace and wonders aplenty.

<< 12/15/2004 | 12/29/2004 | 01/05/2005 >>

Discuss this column with me in World Famous Comics' General Forum.
Read my weekly blog, Speculative Friction, on my website BloodintheGutters.com.


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