Today we’d like to introduce you to Jason Williams.
Jason, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
Oh man, how do you sum up a life of cartoons, science fantasy drawings and mesh it all into growing up in a Baptist Family that wouldn’t allow Rice Krispies in the house due to pagan images of elves being the mascot?
I remember watching Three’s Company as a kid and seeing the mountains, and beaches by the ocean in the background while Jack, Janet, and Cindy were having a classic misunderstanding at the comical expense of Mr. Furley. I’d ask my mother why don’t we have mountains and beaches here? She responded, “That’s because they’re in California. We’re in Louisiana. We don’t have beaches; we have swamps.” Obviously, this did not sit well with a child who was too young to go anywhere in New Orleans besides KiddieLand and the Audubon Zoo. Not to mention that California was the home of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and of course, Hanna Barbera Studios – the home of all what was then known as ‘Saturday Morning Cartoons.’ It was from thereon in I set my goal to someday live in California.
Growing up in Louisiana was no picnic of crawfish, gumbo, beignets and Zatarain’s. Not everyone spoke in rhyme or said, “Laissez bon temps rouler!” every five minutes as they do in romanticized versions of Louisiana in the movies. I grew up in a town twenty minutes outside of New Orleans – and one thing people have failed to realize about New Orleans is that NOLA is a blue dot in a reeeeally red sea. While New Orleans is known all over the world for Mardi Gras, the food and its incredibly diverse culture, anywhere eight miles outside of the French Quarter, you could easily be taking a chance traveling to the wrong side of the tracks.
My dad was a Minister of Music at two churches in our Parish, which basically meant he played the organ, but man could he sing and play that organ. If you could blend Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder’s voice and soul for music and gospel, you still couldn’t touch my dad. He had a voice that was like a mix of rasp followed by honey and cinnamon. If you’ve ever been to a Baptist church in the south, you know they have a knack for extending service way past regular hours on a Sunday. At the age of thirty-seven, my mother decided to become a minister, meaning she was from then on at church almost every day and Sundays all day long – and that usually meant I had to come along too.
So at four, I quickly grew bored with sitting on a hard wooden bench for four hours at a time. My attention span was no longer than any average kid my age, and these were long before the days of iPads and Angry Birds. To be honest (and here’s how old I am), this was at least five years before the first Gameboy was even a thing. At that time, I had to come up with my own version of entertainment.
Thankfully I had an overactive imagination. At our local Baptist pre-school, I can remember being bored while everyone colored pictures of Winnie the Pooh; I was drawing posters on the back in crayon while making up little animated sitcoms like, “The Thumbkin Show,” with his teen brother Indy, mom, and dad (Ring and Mid) and little brother Pinky. From there, I’d go on and would later teach myself to draw Fred Flintstone at four using the front of a box of Fruity Pebbles. At that time, I could see the basic shapes of things and would translate them to paper putting them all together until they became the cartoon in black and white, like Popeye, Scooby Doo or my all time favorite, Yogi Bear. I was really into Hanna Barbera at the time.
As I reached on in years doing more of my own drawings, I’d create stories out of my cartoons and comics. But at the time, being a kid of the late seventies/early eighties generation, I noticed then there weren’t a lot of animated shows with diversity. The most we had were Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and a few wretched attempts and throwaways that were more cringe-worthy than diverse. If you ever get the chance, YouTube Rickety Rocket – the pitch was basically, imagine Norman Lear’s Good Times, but in space, and in the future, and we’re still broke.
So, I went about creating my own.
By the time I was thirteen, I rediscovered comic books and started reading annuals of Spider-man and X-Men anthologies, catching up on 30-year histories and realizing that comics had come a long way from the onomatopoeia days of “Splash,” “Bam” and “Ker-punch!” By that time, Gwen Stacy was the first and only comic character who died accidentally at the attempted rescue of her hero, X-Men and Batman were premiering with Emmy-award winning animated series, and Deadpool was just a supervillain who hadn’t even discovered there was a fourth wall. Meanwhile, I was all about the fourth wall. I was into Princess Bride, Spaceballs and Star Wars and was on my way to making my own comic that satirized science fiction and all the popular fantasy movies we grew up with in the ’80s; and remember we had some dark and sometimes traumatizing kid movies. Remember the Wheelers from Return to Oz? They still give me the shivers.
But truth be told, I needed to feel connected to a childhood I felt robbed of.
I was a skinny fifteen- year old black male in the South who people loved picking on. I wasn’t great at sports, sucked at basketball, was prohibited from listening to FM music (I barely knew who Prince was until three years after Purple Rain). All these things and more were enough to get my black card taken away for life. I hadn’t even discovered what a geek was and in short, I hadn’t found my tribe.
In the eighties, we knew about nerds, but I did not know about geeks. There was a vast difference back then. Nerds according to 1980’s slang, were people like Steve Urkel and Screech from Saved By the Bell who were socially and physically awkward. Geeks, on the other hand, were people who focused on one thing in particular and became knowledgeable about that one thing: comics, DC vs. Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. In all that time everyone was out getting into teenagery shenanigans, I was home watching Turner Classic Movies or AMC and boning up on all things Spielberg and Lucas related.
It was lonely being me, and Saturday Mornings now had a bigger place in my life than Sundays.
And while it didn’t inhibit my faith – my religion went by the wayside. One evening my mom was listening to the radio, and the minister was preaching about how the only entrance into Heaven was through Christ. So I asked her, “He’s saying the only way to get into Heaven is if you believe in Jesus?” and my mom responded with an adamant yes. I asked her, “so all the people who died in the Holocaust… they didn’t get into Heaven for being Jewish?”
She stopped what she was doing and stared at me, unable to give me an answer.
That’s when I realized something wasn’t right.
So basically, I’m Christian, but you won’t see me protesting outside of a comic-con anytime soon. I believe that if you say you love everyone unconditionally (everyone – Muslim, Gay, Caucasian, Christian, Catholic, Trans, Black, Islamic, Jewish, Latino, Native American, Lesbian, Hindu, etc.), then LOVE EVERYONE unconditionally. Everyone has the right to peace and happiness in this short little lifetime. We have enough hate in this world. So when I vote yes on trans rights, women’s equal pay and full-paid maternity leave, I fight for everyone. As Captain America said, “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
Maybe that’s why I stuck with teaching for so long.
I don’t want to see a child go through the pain and loneliness I felt. I want them to know they are safe and they are protected. And they can be heard.
When you raise a child in a household ruled by fear instead of love, they’ll come out a broken mess of a grownup that has to somehow figure out how to gather up all the pieces and put them together with their own set of glue.
So I had a burden of hurt and carried it for years out of my teens and into my young adult years. During which time, I’d pull out my old stories and resurrect them, restructuring comics to novels and adding illustrations, all the while making what were once innocent and campy comics into deeper and intimate portraits that carried each a piece of my story.
In the summer of 2000, my mother died of a stroke. She was on a thirty-day fast as the church had instructed members of the congregation to follow what Jesus had done in the Bible. Granted our diets are different now, my mother thought she could fast from eating anything for thirty days. On the ninth day, she passed out, and my dad took her to the hospital. By the next day, she didn’t recognize me or my sister. The following day she fell into a coma which she would not wake from. She died three days later. You might as well had told me she was in a fatal car accident. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of my mother. So it was a huge blessing that only two months before all that happened, she got a hold of my manuscript the first book of my science fantasy series (a genre she abhorred), and she read it. She told me this while driving a twenty-two-year-old me from the mall one day, and as I stared down at the door latch thinking, ‘If this car is moving at a rate of fifty-five miles per hour, if I do a tuck-and-roll, I may be able to get out of this alright,’ my mother said, “Don’t get antsy, I liked it.”
What was that?
“I read what you wrote and your style, for some reason, it pulled me in. I normally hate those kinds of stories, but your writing made me sit down and read the whole thing.
You’re a good writer.”
She liked it.
I couldn’t believe it.
I’ll never forget that day.
It made me feel a little less lonely.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
I’m the author and illustrator of a science-fantasy series called, “KnightWatchers.”
What started out as a series intended for public access (this was localized YouTube before the internet was even a thing) later turned into a comic book I scripted and illustrated and later turned into a series of short stories that would, in turn, become a series of Fantasy novels. It’s been a labor of love since 1993 that I could escape into.
While it tells the stories of three boys in the year 2265 (a pirate, a clone and an alien), it also carries the weight of what adolescence is and the harsh and sometimes unheard trials of growing up.
As a kid, I loved Saturday Morning cartoons. One minute you’d be following along with the Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks, then later in the day you could be elbows deep into Jem’s soap opera or learning the dramatic origins of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. I wanted to hold onto that feeling of nostalgia while creating colorful characters in a genre that is notorious for taking itself too seriously.
It tells the tales of a ragtag trio of scrappy teenage underdogs who came together to protect a plucky princess against all odds of alien criminals and villains in this quirky, and action-packed adventure series.
In the forefront, you have Alabam – the scrappy teenage space-pirate with a funny name whose appetite for fighting is only outmatched by his love for food. Wheeler-2 Maverick, a young and cocky ‘Ace’ pilot who has a penchant for gambling with danger as well as flirting with girls. Flahs’bextris Flutia, aka ‘Flash’ – the quiet and stoic Neutronian boy whose extraterrestrial powers of fire-sight and electromagnetic radiation rival that of a neutron star. All the while keeping tabs on the three spaceketeers is Princess Alayna, the headstrong fourteen-year-old warrior-maiden with a tongue as sharp as a laser-blast.
It also proves that even though there are finally flying cars in the future, not everything is as shiny and slick as we hoped it would be.
Spaceships that barely work.
Computers that freeze and get kicked by their maintenance robots.
Malevolent swashbuckling bad guys that are neurotic neat freaks.
And faulty heroes who are constantly hungry, overly confident or just trying to fit in.
In a world where every Sci-Fi story is for young adults and drenched in Dystopian themes, gray costumes, and stark political subject matter, we all could use a fun adventure for all ages with all the fun of Saturday Morning Cartoons and Comic Book Movies.
Eat your hearts out, Guardians of the Galaxy. They’ve been making quips and finding intergalactic MacGuffins long before Baby Groot was a sapling.
My hope is that audiences can not only relate to but also see a bit of themselves in my work. Every piece of artwork I do whether its made in humor as a comic strip or a script or even a simple character design, you’re still seeing a piece of me.
All the injustices, the joys, the heartbreaks and rejections, the quieted and stifled anger I’m either not allowed to speak or verbalize as a black man in a marginalized and sometimes policed world, all of my emotions I was not allowed to articulate as a boy in the south – all of that plays out in my artwork.
Sometimes through KnightWatchers, sometimes through other works. Whatever the medium, everyone deserves to be seen and heard.
What do you know now that you wished you had learned earlier?
Start a website.
Embrace your weird.
Journal your stories – whether it’s your progress in a project or something interesting that happened that day – every moment is a story worth telling, and every artist has a story to be told.
Post and date your work, childhood drawings; you name it.
Watermark EVERYTHING. Your work is worth protecting.
Years ago, when I was in college, a teacher came to see me about freelancing a character design for a thousand dollars. It was my first job. I drew it up and gave it to her to take into the agency she was commissioned by. A week later, I discovered that she resigned. I never saw a check and never heard from her. Three months later, I’m driving down the highway and see a billboard – a billboard that held the character which I designed.
I still kick myself that I never gave her a contract, an invoice or anything.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
They can go to my website at knightwatchersbooks.com.
There are links to my books at amazon.com.
There are galleries, posters, a store where you can buy artwork, illustrations and even links to my blog and comics from my college years. Please share and support not only me but other artists that I speak of in the site and the blog series.
They can also read my blogs that detail episodes in my adult life (some comical, some not so much) of the trials that don’t go published about what artists go through – especially black artists in the south and on the west coast.
I also highly recommend the art of the late great Dwayne McDuffie. While many may know of Stan Lee, very few know of Mr. McDuffie and his contributions to the world of modern-day mythology of graphic novels.
- Website: http://www.knightwatchersbooks.com/
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @knightwatchersbooks
- Other: https://knightwatchers.wordpress.com/
Jason D Williams