Batwoman artist J.H. Williams III readies ‘The Sandman: Overture’

For the past several years, the epic art of J.H. Williams III has taken DC Comics’ New 52 series “Batwoman” in a powerful direction. Williams has collaborated with amazing talent such as writer Greg Rucka during Batwoman’s “Detective Comics” run, “Batwoman” co-writer W. Haden Blackman, guest artist Trevor McCarthy and, most recently, Francesco Francavilla, to construct a haunting, beautiful world for the dark heroine. Now, Williams is on the cusp of his biggest artistic collaboration yet, “The Sandman: Overture,” a prequel to the classic series written by Neil Gaiman debuting from Vertigo Comics in October. He has taken a hiatus from the interior art in “Batwoman” and is now focused solely on co-writing the story with Blackman, though the series is still stamped with his blood-red bat signature style as it continues into its fourth story arc.

CBR News sat down with Williams to find out his plans for the legacy of “Batwoman,” how daunting it is to work with Neil Gaiman on “Sandman” and figure out exactly how he finds the time to keep turning out such stunning artwork.

CBR News: You’ve transitioned away from writing and drawing “Batwoman” and are now focusing just on the writing — has that been a difficult change? Was there an aesthetic style that was important for you to maintain in the artwork? Do you have any plans to resume doing the artwork?

“Batwoman” co-writer J.H. Williams III has stepped away from art chores on the DC Comics title to focus on illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman: Overture” prequel at Vertigo Comics

J.H. Williams III: Yeah, it has been difficult to just focus on the writing side. I’m a visual thinker and therefore a visual writer. I do my best to convey the images in my head in the scripts; I even did that when I was drawing the scripts myself. But ultimately the artists Haden [Blackman] and I are working with are tremendously talented, and seeing their interpretations of the described visuals in our scripts is always exciting. The key things for me is making sure the visual storytelling is clear, that the emotional beats come through, that the visual narrative carries through. As for returning to art on “Batwoman,” I’m still doing cover work, but only time will tell for the interior pages. “Sandman” is going to take a while to finish; it’s a daunting task. Besides, we like what Trevor McCarthy is bringing to the table.

What can readers expect with this newest “Batwoman” story arc?

That is a loaded question. I try to avoid voicing what others may expect from something Haden and I write, each reader needs to experience the story in their own way. It’s subjective. The plot for the arc, though, is about family, even at its highest intrigue moments it boils down to family bonds, be they by blood or by choice.

The family bonds theme definitely resonates. We have seen Kate grow considerably in her relationships — from proposing to Maggie in issue #17, to agreeing to team up with her estranged father recently in issue #20, which I found quite surprising. Did one lead to the other? Has Kate’s emotional growth with Mags allowed her to take steps toward rebuilding a relationship with her father?

I suppose you could say that is true. Haden and I feel like for characters and story to move forward there has to be some form of emotional evolution that integrates with the plot evolutions. However, Kate allowing her father in a little bit has less to do with emotions about him right now, it’s about the necessity of needing his help and expertise and the connections he has. We’re going to get into some interesting stuff as the people who Jacob works with; the people that trained Kate come into the story in concrete ways. But as for her feelings on Jacob’s behavior and lies, it’s far from over. Right now the most important thing to her is Beth, to save her sister from the clutches of the DEO, to bring Beth home finally after all these years.

How does “Batwoman” fit in with the other Bat books? She’s appeared in issues of “Batman, Inc.,” but wasn’t part of “Death of the Family.” It seems that she’s thematically connected to Batman, but exists outside of the other titles. Is she going to play a larger role in future “Batman” books?

Batwoman from the outset has never been really a sanctioned by Batman figure. Nor should she have to be. We felt it supremely important to build Kate and Batwoman up as independently as possible, otherwise the series has no legs. In this current arc four storyline we are seeing more of what you’d expect from a series taking place in Gotham: some typically known Batman-esque characters including Batman himself. Her differences with Batman are going to come to a head. The problem with so many Gotham-related titles crossing over all of the time is that they easily fall into the trap of becoming Batman’s story and no longer that title character’s own story. So we felt it very important that if Batman and others were to appear in “Batwoman,” that it had to be a Batwoman story, no one else’s. Batwoman has to hold her own, build her own legacy and mythos; it would be a disservice to her to handle it any other way. And ultimately it has made the series stronger for it. Y

Your page layouts are fascinating — specifically in issue #16 where very few pages even have traditional panels. It’s almost as if you’re creating a new visual language for comics on each page. What considerations go into this? It feels very right for “Batwoman,” but is this style something you feel like could work with most books?

Language is just the right word to use. Comics are indeed a form of language and all language can be manipulated and stretched into new variations. So in my opinion what gets done in “Batwoman” can be applied to any story, as long as the intentions of the story are clearly understood in order to bring out key elements, to look at it beyond the surface. I think if you look at my body of work, you’ll note that I’ve taken this approach with many of the projects I’ve done, and they are all quite different from each other. That makes for good evidence that any story can be approached with this mindset. The real trick is finding what is going to work best for the story that needs to be told. Ultimately I try to always keep in mind what is the story telling me it needs, and go from there. It has to feel right. If it feels forced then something is off.

You’ve done quite a few series with female leads, including “Batwoman.” The women you draw are sensual and powerful, but never come across as overtly sexualized. What do you think sets your work apart from other mainstream comics in that regard? Is this a conscious decision?

What I feel sets the work apart is exactly the way you’ve just described it. Is it a conscious choice to not oversexualize the female form? Yes and no. Yes in that I find sexualization distasteful if there is no story purpose. And no in that I just naturally don’t do that with the art. I feel it’s a matter of respect for the reader and for the characters. I like to do my best to present characters you can believe in. Not just in who they are in personality, but also in physical ways as well.

Before “Batwoman,” you were primarily known as a penciller who worked with some amazing writers like Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. Did those collaborations shape the way you are writing now?

Of course those collaborations impacted me as a writer. Those writers, Greg Rucka among them, and now Neil Gaiman, challenged me in numerous ways and I relished that. They pushed me into new territories. Of course I was willing to go, so that made a huge difference. But the thing I’ve learned the most is to be extremely thorough in what we’re asking for, while also do our best to challenge the artists in interesting ways, to challenge their own expectations. Usually the results are something pretty damn cool.

I know you can’t say much about your current collaboration on “The Sandman: Overture,” but can you talk about how you came to work on the book? And was this part of the decision-making process to step away from art on “Batwoman?”

It was very simple, really: Karen Berger approached me for it. Neil has always been someone I’ve wanted to work with ever since getting into comics. He’s by far one of the most profoundly talented writers this medium has ever seen. So it was one of those dream come true situations that I just couldn’t say no to. As for it playing a role in stepping off of art duties for “Batwoman?” Not really. I adore “Batwoman,” clearly, but the increasing difficulties of the schedule would have dictated some form of departure anyway. I easily would have had to take a long break no matter what. It takes me a long time to do the pages, so my pace versus the publishing schedule was inevitably going to clash at some point. But that’s okay; we’ve got some good talented people working on the art side. Trevor McCarthy is continually doing great work, and only gets better with each issue. Francesco Francavilla doing a guest spot was tremendous as well, and we’ll have Jeremy Haun doing a special sequence coming up in a few issues. All of these guys are really great at what they do. They add something new to the mix.

“Batwoman” #17 by J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman and Trevor McCarthy is on sale July 17. “The Sandman: Overture” is on sale in October.