Today we bring you an exclusive interview with UK Artist Simon Williams by our resident Hulk expert, Gary Miller of Delusional Honesty. Miller talks with Williams about his upcoming story in Marvel Heroes #33 continuing the grand tradition of Marvel UK stories featuring the character Death's Head.
Across the Atlantic, unbeknownst to many of us American comics fans, the European company Panini specializes in bringing Marvel's heroes to audiences abroad. The UK licensee for Marvel's properties publishes a small variety of titles, collecting classic and new stories from the US market as well as new stories by UK creators. As Marvel fans from earlier generations know, Marvel UK has been responsible for a host of interesting stories, from the Claremont/Trimpe and Moore/Davis Captain Britain, to the Parkhouse/Stokes Black Knight series, David Lloyd's Night Raven, and Simon Furman and Geoff Senior's Hasbro-licensed Transformers adventures. Today, Marvel Heroes is the premier showcase of new UK material, with Furman returning alongside artist Simon Williams in this month's issue #33. Their job, nay, duty? To bring back Marvel UK's most intriguing cult hero, himself the star of his own series in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Death's Head. Oh, and they're teaming him with a certain Green Goliath. Recently, I had the chance to discuss the upcoming story with Williams.
In spite of sharing his name with one of Marvel's lesser-known heroes, Simon Williams has long considered the Hulk his favorite Marvel character, going back to his youth. "I've loved the Hulk ever since I was bought my first Marvel Comic back in 1977. The comic was a Marvel UK title, Mighty World Of Marvel, and reprinted Incredible Hulk #198 written by Len Wein, with art by Sal Buscema and Joe Staton. I can remember back then not only becoming a fan of the Hulk, but of Sal Buscema's art as well. Sal will always be the definitive Hulk artist for me, and when I draw Ol' Greenskin that's the version that always inspires me." He cites Sal, along with his brother John (who worked on Stan Lee's How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way), as major influences on his work. Dale Keown, Ron Frenz, John Romita Sr., John Byrne, Bob Layton and Geoff Senior also have their presences felt. "Mostly all the 'old-school' guys," says Williams.
What's the key draw of the Hulk? "The Hulk is a very multi-dimensional character," Williams explains. "The version of the Hulk that I grew up with, and that will always be my favourite is the classic 'savage' green Hulk." He's enjoyed both the Bill BIxby/Lou Ferrigno TV series and the comics of that era by Len Wein, Roger Stern and Bill Mantlo. "There were some absolute classic stories during that era, such as the ones set on Jarella's world. What I loved about these tales were that they would show different aspects of the character. Sure, everyone likes to see Ol' Greenskin smash stuff up, but it was also nice to see the kinder, gentle side to the Green Goliath as well (this was something I made sure to feature in my original Hulk/Death's Head strip). It was those moments that I loved in the classic TV show as well, where the Hulk, after Hulking-out and trashing the place would wander off into a forest, and rescue an injured animal from a trap. I know it sounds soppy, but that really appealed to me as a kid! I feel that that side of the character often gets overlooked by today's writers, which is a real shame." Elaborating further, Williams also likes the other, more popularized aspects of the character: "[W]ho on this Earth hasn't at some point in their lives wanted to Hulk-out, to possess that incredible strength be able to defend themselves from someone bullying them, or right some wrong? As has been said many times before, we all have a 'Hulk' inside of us. I can really identify with that."
Eventually Williams began his art career, and started drawing the legends he read about for years. "I broke into the comics business back in 2003. Panini editor Alan O'Keefe spotted my work online, and emailed me asking if I'd like to work on their new Transformers: Armada title, which is where I got my break [drawing a story written by Transformers scribe Furman]. I then moved onto their Spectacular Spider-Man and Marvel Heroes books where I have been lucky enough to draw my favourite Marvel characters including Spidey, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and of course the Hulk." He also provided cover artwork for several Marvel animated series that recently made their way to DVD, including the 60s and 90s Spider-Man series and all three Incredible Hulk series. "I can't put into words how proud I am of that. I never would have believed watching those shows as a kid that I'd be drawing covers for the official releases someday!" While the Hulk is more well-known, Williams also has affection for the Hulk's co-star in this new story. "Death's Head is a time-travelling robotic bounty hunter (or as he prefers to be known, a freelance peacekeeping agent) created by writer Simon Furman and artist Geoff Senior. He can be a hero or villain [...] although he often ends up doing the right thing somehow! [He] first appeared in Marvel UK's Transformers comic wayyyy back in 1987. Now, [Furman] will be the first to say that Death's Head was originally intended to be a throw-away character, a bounty hunter foil for the Transformers who would be killed off at the end of the story arc. But after seeing Geoff's awesome character design, [he] knew the character was destined for greater things! Death's Head appeared in [...] Transformers, then moved on…to the Marvel Universe via, of all characters Doctor Who (who Marvel UK had the license for at the time)!" After appearing in his own series, he also appeared in American comics like Sensational She-Hulk and Fantastic Four before being revamped by Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp in 1992, and again by original creator Simon Furman in 2005. However, Williams notes, "[E]ach revamp moved further and further away from what made the original such a great character: gone were the quirky personality and mannerisms (Death's Head would often end sentences with "yes?"), and much of the dark humour was lost as well."
How did the team-up come to be? "I've been pushing for a Death's Head return ever since I broke into the comics business," says Williams. "I was always asking editors Tom O'Malley and Ed Hammond to do a team-up story. I even sneaked Death's Head into the background of a Spidey/Doctor Strange team-up, where they were trapped in Nightmare's realm!" He explains that unlike the Hulk, Death's Head hasn't gotten much love in recent years. "Death's Head is one of the most underused characters in comics, and I know for a fact that there is a fan-base out there who [wants] to see him return, both from fans who remember his appearances in the original Transformers comics, to his adventures in the Marvel Universe. I'm a regular guest at the UK Transformers Auto Assembly convention and fans are always asking either me or Simon Furman when the character will make a come back. And while each different version of the character has been popular, it's more often than not the original that people want to see."
Williams' own love for the characters gave birth to a fan-made battle between the two characters that he wrote and drew in 2009. "A few years back I took a break from comics, and was working in a local comic shop. I used to arrive a good hour before the shop opened, so I would sit in a cafe and just sketch stuff. One morning, I drew some images of the Hulk fighting Death's Head, which of course is a story I'd always wanted to see. Upon looking at them, I thought it would be fun to put them together as a comic strip. So I compiled them as a comic strip page, lettered them up and posted them onto my Deviant Art page, again, just for fun. Then all of a sudden I had people asking me what was going to happen next, and when the next page would be posted…the strip literally took a life of it's own! It was then I decided to complete the strip as part of my convention sketchbook." He designed the story in his Soulman Inc. Sketchbook to fit in the characters' histories, with the Hulk mourning the recent loss of his alien love Jarella, and Death's Head enjoying a cameo by The Doctor. "I've had fans and fellow professionals alike tell me they consider the book 'canon,' which I'm very proud of."
Death's Head's return to comics started to become reality a few months ago, "when [Panini editor] Ed Hammond and writer Ferg Handley were looking for a suitable opponent for the Hulk to go up against, and Ed, knowing I've always wanted to draw Death's Head, suggested the robotic freelance peacekeeping agent." Not content to get a new Death's Head story out in the public eye, Marvel UK drafted original creator Simon Furman to write the adventure. Says Williams of his partner-in-crime Furman: "Honestly, it's a dream come true! I've been a big fan of Simon's work for years (I always make him feel old when I tell him that!), and to get to draw a Death's Head story written by him is honestly the pinnacle of my career so far." And, not to worry, classic Marvel fans: According to Williams, "[I]t's the classic savage Green Hulk that will be going one-on-one with Death's Head!"
When asked what other projects he has in the works, Williams says, "Aside from the Marvel UK stuff, I have two creator-owned projects I'd like to get published. One of them is the Discotronic Funk Commandos, a parody comic set in the 1970's featuring a group of superheroes inspired by 70's Disco bands! The characters would fight villains based on other eras of music.. for example, the maniacal Metalhead, who is a parody of the Hulk, Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy from Motorhead! It's a mad idea I had back in my uni days, which has had a very positive response from fans and pros alike. The other is a vampire story that I've been writing since 1998/99. I want to bring vampires back to [their] old school roots, and throw some original ideas in there as well. I've always been a big horror fan [and] I want to make vampires scary again!"
Williams also has other established characters he'd love to tackle in the future. "Even though I've worked on several Transformers titles, I've never drawn the original Generation One versions for a comic. That is something I would love to do. However, I am incredibly fortunate in that I've gotten to draw most of the characters I've ever wanted to do! Another all-time favourite of mine is the Thing from the Fantastic Four. I just love drawing him! Saying that, I'd love to have a go at drawing Skaar, and a certain Red-skinned Goliath!"
Although the eight-page Hulk vs. Death's Head story is currently only being released in the UK, Panini, Furman and Williams all have high hopes that the story just might gain enough visibility to enable it to be published at Marvel US, where the artist hopes he too might soon land. "[T]he only work I have ever produced for them was a cover for the Hero Initiative Hulk 100 Project," he says. "[My dream gig] would be to draw the Incredible Hulk for Marvel US, that's always been an ambition of mine. I'd love to work with current Hulk scribe Greg Pak or Jeff Parker, as I love the work they are doing on the Hulk titles. And of course, I'd love to draw a story written by Stan 'The Man' Lee. That would be a dream come true!"
Who are we to keep Simon Williams from achieving his dreams?
Marvel Heroes #33 is on sale in the United Kingdom on March 24th. If you want to see it on this side of the Atlantic, let Marvel know!
You can find more of Gary Miller and his thoughts on the Hulk and other things at his site, Delusional Honesty