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Where We Live: J.H. Williams III and Wendy-Wright Williams on the Las Vegas shooting, survivors, and gun violence

Comic Books

Where We Live: J.H. Williams III and Wendy-Wright Williams on the Las Vegas shooting, survivors, and gun violence

The creators of ‘Where We Live: Las Vegas Shooting Anthology’ on being compassionate, having perspective, and helping any way you can.

On October 1st, 2017, hundreds of concertgoers in the Las Vegas Strip were attacked by a single gunman named Stephen Paddock. 58 people were killed, and another 851 individuals were injured. It was deemed the deadliest mass shooting by a single individual in the history of the United States, a country with a particularly unfortunate relationship with gun violence.

It was a harrowing experience for countless people, including J.H. Williams III, who many comic book readers are familiar with thanks to his breathtakingly elaborate visual contributions to such titles as Promethea (written by Alan Moore) and Sandman: Overture (written by Neil Gaiman), as well as co-writing such titles as Batwoman and the upcoming Echolands (both with Hayden Blackman). He and his wife, Wendy Wright-Williams, live in Las Vegas, and were shaken by the terror in their home city, and decided to take action.

Where We Live: J.H. Williams III and Wendy-Wright Williams on the Las Vegas shooting, survivors, and gun violence

This was the genesis of Where We Live: Las Vegas Shooting Anthology, published by Image Comics and set for release on May 30, 2018, with all proceeds benefitting the survivors of the shooting. Contributors include some of the biggest names in comics today, including Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Jamie McKelvie, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Mike Mignola, as well as local authors, artists, and journalists with a particularly important relationship to the city for which the anthology is named.

It was all conceived and curated by Wendy Wright-Williams and J.H. Williams III, who contributed their own stories to the anthology as well. AiPT!’s Gregory Paul Silber was eager to speak to the Williams about the significance of the book, their own experiences the night of the shooting, and the ongoing discussion surrounding guns and gun violence in the United States.

AiPT!: This is a difficult thing for lot of people to talk about, even with it being all over the news, and really, all over the media sphere. The Las Vegas [shooting] was particularly heinous — what was it, aside from the tragedy itself, that made you say “okay, you know what, this is what we have to put together, an anthology to support the survivors?”

Wendy-Wright Williams: Well, I mean I think it’s like you said, it’s happening so often, and it’s yet another one in our own backyard. It’s personal. We knew just by where it was in the middle of the Strip that our friends… our people we consider family, were going to be affected. And we’re just, I think like many people, just sick of it. And the sheer amount of people, when the numbers started coming in, we knew that these people are going to need so much support. And you know, of course people raise money for these things, but the sheer amount of people involved in this… the need was going to be huge. So yeah, we had to do something. It was kind of a multiple level thing for us.

J.H. Williams III: Our initial reaction was… we were out of town that weekend for a friend’s wedding. That Sunday night, when the incident happened, we were still out of town and we were at a hotel when the news broke. We immediately started trying to get a hold of friends and people we know to make sure they were safe, and ended up being on the phone with a dear friend of ours for a while that night who was under lockdown, and was being told a shooter was in their building. And of course, there were the random bomb threats that happen when these incidents occur because it brings out more weirdos and things like that.

And you know, it was very emotionally tough because the person we were speaking to was of course terrified and wasn’t sure what was going to happen. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and we’re trying to reassure her she’ll be okay. None of us knew at the time knew what was going on [or] whether she would truly be okay. She ended up being okay, but at the time it was really tough. You have to hang up that phone eventually because that person you’re speaking to has to call other people they care about…and then when we got home, about a week passed, and I kept being… haunted by it all.

And in the middle of the night, probably, I think, that Friday night… 12 a.m. or later, I start randomly tweeting about “how do you put something like this together?” Because at that point, it didn’t seem like there was anybody else doing it. And I just was like “I don’t even know how you do it,” and I just went on a little rant, and by the time I got up the next morning I had people offering help and that’s how it got started. I talked to my wife, Wendy, and that’s sort of how it got started. It kind of was one of those things where circumstances lead you to make these kinds of decisions, and to try to help people.

Like Wendy was saying, the need was so great. Now recent numbers [of affected people] are saying it’s even much higher than that. The numbers, we quickly found out, were over 500… some of them probably for the rest of their lives, to some degree. And that need is going to be very prolonged. So we figured “if we can do what we do, which is art and stories, let’s try to do that and hopefully make some small difference to somebody.”

And we also decided that if we’re going to do it, let’s do it in a way that says something. It’s not just raising money. It’s getting the issues face forward and hopefully moving the conversation forward to get people to think about these problems and not just continue to dust them under the carpet.

WWW: Right, and it’s happening so often. With the news cycle, everybody just moves on. You get your 72-hour period, and then people move on… I can’t fathom living that way. We wanted to do something that actually honored the people that went through this. They’re not just a statistic. There is a person that is affected [for] the rest of their lives from this one incident, that’s behind that statistic that you hear on TV We just felt like it wouldn’t do them justice if we didn’t try to address why this happened. We didn’t have to try to have a civil conversation about what we can do. I refuse to believe we are helpless in this situation. And I think anything less than that is a cop out.

JHW: Wendy ended up naming the book, and on the surface level it’s referring to where we live here in Las Vegas… but it also speaks to where we live as a nation, as a society, in our minds and hearts. How long are we going to allow this problem to continue to reoccur? I don’t know if this would get national resonance or not, but I figure it’s one more voice adding to the growing voices that are speaking to the problem, such as the Parkland kids.

We decided that if we’re going to do it, let’s do it in a way that says something. It’s not just raising money.

AiPT!: Definitely. Wendy, you mentioned it existing psychically for us as a nation. And I think that’s one thing that is really coming to the forefront. It’s hard to keep up. More and more, whether we’re finding people who are affected by the Las Vegas shooting, or Parkland, and you mentioned wanting to get eyes on it and shedding a light on this issue.

But one thing that I think is unique about this is that it’s a comics anthology. And recently, it does seem that there have been some amazing efforts by the comics community to rally behind a cause with writing and drawing comics. So we’ve had the Planned Parenthood anthology recently, Mine!. There was Love is Love from the Pulse nightclub shooting. CBLDF [Comic Book Legal Defense Fund] does their Liberty Annual every year. There was the Puerto Rico anthology [Puerto Rico Strong]. What is it about either comics or the comics community that makes it uniquely suited for addressing these kinds of concerns?

JHW: Well I would say that, creatively, because you can have a lot in a small number of pages (or) short stories that speak to a particular point of view. Comics are really really good at that when they put their mind to it. I also think that, I don’t know, comics in a lot of ways have always been consciously aware, I guess you could say. There has always been social commentary, or social issues in comics, as long as there’s been comics, I think.

AiPT!: Right.

JHW: I think that more and more comics creators today realize that they can maybe have some sort of impact on an issue. To the broader context of that, we recently saw an interview with a guy–I don’t remember what position is–he has studied how changes happen in society. And the thing that he pointed out which I found very fascinating was that most change happens in society not through the dissemination of statistics and facts but through story. And that’s one thing that comics do, right? You tell stories.

AiPT!: Absolutely.

JHW: And so, it really made me think (about) what this guy was saying. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. A lot of big changes that have happened in society, in history, you know, comes from people telling their story or telling stories centered around a particular issue. I think through story, maybe different ideas can be conveyed and absorbed. More confrontationally, I guess you could say.

AiPT!: Right. With that in mind, for as much as you hear about “let’s give people time to mourn,” and as you said this is a very emotional thing for people–you know, we’re talking about lives–it’s difficult to talk about this without getting into the politics of it all. I’ve been reading information and reading other interviews, and it’s fairly clear where you and presumably the other contributors stand. Have you received any pushback from people who might feel a little bit differently about the whole gun control debate regarding this anthology?

WWW: Well, as far as where the creators stand, we made zero mandate on that, actually. We’re trying to seek people that, like myself… I grew up on a farm, I grew up with guns–we didn’t have the AR-15 and stuff–but, you know, we had guns for hunting… my experience, it didn’t seem, to me–

JHW: It didn’t involve assault weapons.

WWW: It didn’t involve assault weapons, and we also didn’t have the attitude of “the government is coming for our guns.” I didn’t really experience that. But I did grow up around guns… we tried to seek out people that had their own experience with guns, and really made no mandate of where they were going to come from. The only mandate that we put out was that we want thoughtful responses. We don’t want knee-jerk responses, we don’t want reactionary responses, you know, hyperbolic responses. We just want you to be thoughtful. And if you have some experience with guns and you have some opinion about guns that you want to talk about, and there are other issues. You know, there are other issues that surround this… like mental illness, and stuff like that. So whatever you felt like you could contribute to the conversation, that’s what we wanted you to talk about. If the book… kind of leans one way or the other, that’s not something that we tried to, you know, rudder one way or the other.

JHW: Regardless of our personal–

WWW: Right, regardless of our personal opinion. It kind of happened naturally. Out of the people that wanted to contribute, we certainly didn’t… you know, we wanted to have the conversation… I don’t think that kind of negating anyone who has an opposing opinion is an answer to the problem. We didn’t really mandate anything like that, but if people feel like the book leans one way or the other, then that’s just what we got back.

JHW: Right. We haven’t really gotten any pushback on any of the perspectives that have been shared so far.

WWW: We’re prepared… we might!

JHW: Yeah, we’ve made our own perspectives clear. That there needs to be some sort of common sense about this problem… like she said, there might be pushback, I don’t know, or it might even be received very positively. I mean, it’s hard to say at this point.

WWW: I mean, I hope that our intentions come forth, that we’re not trying to alienate anyone or villainize anyone.

JHW: Or take away anyone’s rights.

WWW: [Laughs] Right, we don’t want to take anyone’s rights away. But we can do better than this! We need to have a conversation about what that looks like.

Where We Live: J.H. Williams III and Wendy-Wright Williams on the Las Vegas shooting, survivors, and gun violence

JHW: Yeah.

AiPT!: With that in mind, when it happened, you mentioned that you reached out to various people about (whether) they’d be interested in contributing. And there is a really, just extraordinary list of creators on this book. I mean, Neil Gaiman, the Allreds, yourselves… I mean, I could keep going, but there are dozens of names. And I guess what I’m wondering is, how did you go about curating and choosing which creators themselves are going to be a part of this project?

JHW: That was very challenging, because… when I started having some people approach me that they’d be interested, particularly on the logistical side… that happened pretty quickly. But when it came down to conversing with them about who we should reach out to, ultimately boiled down to some really interesting factors because I actually don’t know that many people. There’s people that I know, that if I run into them at a convention I’ll say “hey, how are you doing?” But I don’t have her contact info, I don’t speak to them on a regular basis. I just don’t know that many people. Weirdly, out of the people that I do know, I seem to know more writers than I do artists. It kind of just boiled down to the resources between whose contact information we did have, who followed me on Twitter, to what contact info the editor had, to what contact info the assistant to the project had, Michael Pearlman. And so we all start sending emails saying “hey, this is what we’re doing.”

WWW: We basically put out a giant blanket [laughs]. Any which way we could. And not even necessarily knowing these people.

JHW: And so the curating process came more from who was willing to participate and what they wanted to say, and offering our feedback about it.

WWW: Yeah, and we knew early on that we wanted local voices.

JHW: Those were specific reach-outs.

WWW: Yeah, and we knew a lot of the locals. You know, I wouldn’t feel right doing this project about the Las Vegas shootings without including locals, so we started reaching out to local writers and artists and journalists as we could. And so that was kind of a cool thing too, I felt, because then we could match a local writer with someone from our industry. Matt Sorvillo did this great story, he’s a local writer.

JHW: Sean Phillips drew.

WWW: Yeah, Sean Phillips drew it. Josh Ellis, another local writer–Jeff Lemire did illustrations for his essay.

JHW: Yeah, those are just some examples there.

WWW: Yeah, and I just love that we got a lot of the local talent involved, as well as the witnesses. We have several witnesses that were there… and I’m really proud of the fact that we found a way for them to uniquely express their story… hopefully people will see the human being that was behind that statistic. But also, I’ve gotten feedback that it’s been cathartic for them, which is just overwhelming now. I can’t be more proud of that.

AiPT!: It really is remarkable, and on several levels, because on one hand I you can see there are a lot of Williams connections. You’ve worked with Dave Stewart, you’ve worked with Todd Klein, you’ve worked with Neil Gaiman. But in terms of the locals, whether they’re eyewitnesses or journalists, one thing I’m curious about now that you bring it up is that comics are very unique art form, and takes a unique kind of skill to develop and to know how to write them. Did anyone need kind of a guiding hand in terms of how to put their vision on the page? Or was everyone pretty much familiar with how to put together a comic?

JHW: Pretty much everyone decided to write a sequential story. We do have poetry and essays in there as well. We did want to do a book that didn’t have to be a comic if that person didn’t want to write comics.

WWW: We wanted the creators to express themselves.

JHW: But there were a few creators, local talent, that did want to work sequentially, and they all seemed to have some sort of basic understanding of comics, but when it came down to writing the script, [they] might need advice, or had questions.

WWW: Yeah, there was a little bit of guidance.

JHW: But not a lot. They pretty much got the hang of it quickly.

WWW: Matt Sorvillo, specifically, he’s a big comic collector as well, so he’s very familiar with comics.

JHW: Yeah, he’s a screenwriter guy. What he does is not too far off from what comics scripting is like. So when he wrote his thing, he and I got together just to make sure it was functioning like a comic book script for Sean Phillips. That sort of stuff. There was very little guidance… just required a little bit of advice here and there.

AiPT!: If there is anything that you think readers can do to support the victims of the shooting, and maybe prevent this kind of thing from happening again, aside from supporting Where We Live, what do you think they could do?

JHW: Well, first off, make their voices heard. If they want change, they need to contact their local representatives.

WWW: And be an informed voter.

JHW: And be an informed voter, on the nuances of various issues. That’s ultimately where it all boils down to, is through getting the people in government who control the legislation to listen and take what people are saying seriously.

WWW: And not just about guns, but how we take care of each other. There’s just so many people with mental illness that just can’t even get help. Proper help.

JHW: Some of it leads to homelessness, actually.

Where We Live: J.H. Williams III and Wendy-Wright Williams on the Las Vegas shooting, survivors, and gun violence

WWW: And that’s another thing. Just trying to… [sighs]. Be compassionate. Yeah, you may not have this in your family, you may not understand guns at all, or whatever the subject is… just try to slow down and consider someone else’s point of view. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. Try to be compassionate, and try to, you know, get involved! And do something to try to help someone that needs help. I mean, there are so many issues on America’s plate. Particularly right at this moment! [Laughs]

You know, whenever this happens, there are two subjects that always come to mind, and that’s gun control, or lack thereof, and mental illness. Let’s do something about that. Inform yourself, and hold your representatives accountable. And vote!

JHW: In small ways, there are things that you can do. Go to your local hospital, and offer to buy lunch for some of the first responders.

WWW: Yeah, we did that as well.

AiPT!: Oh, that’s great.

JHW: Yeah, those people, the things they see on a daily basis, let alone when it’s something horrific like this, on such a mass scale, I mean… those are people that should be considered as well. We have a couple of great stories in the book about that. One is from a local comedian and food blogger who knows all these restauranteurs and chefs, and was able to organize food trucks to help feed the first responders.

WWW: And all the people waiting in the emergency rooms.

JHW: And the people waiting in the emergency rooms.

WWW: I thought that was amazing, because it was this creative way of… you could help without the obvious of giving money or giving blood.

JHW: And the first responders, you know… people need to think about thanking them and consider what their families might go through in these instances. There’s a great story in there from a local author named Scott David Johnson about what it felt like to send his wife out there that night who is a first responder, having to let her go out that door and do what she does. So there are lots of ways people can engage.

WWW: Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s the main thing, just engage. And yeah, people argue and are ridiculous on the internet, but we can’t let that stop us, because then it’s just… we’re kind of devolved. [Laughs]

AiPT: Well, it’s certainly encouraging that for as horrible as a lot of this stuff is, that there really does seem to be an air of positivity surrounding this project, and again, I just think it’s so important, so great, that you’re doing this, and you’re getting so many people involved. I know you’re both very busy, but is there anything you’d like to add before we bring this to a close?

WWW: We just want to thank everybody that took the time, and took the effort, to help with this project… it’s such a huge list.

JHW: Editor Will Dennis, his assistant, Michael Pearlman–

WWW: I mean, they really have just gone above and beyond.

JHW: Image Comics for their complete generosity.

WWW: Yeah, I mean they have been unbelievably generous. Never–the amount that it’s probably going to cost them–they never questioned our page count, they’ve been on top of it. Kat Salazar… the P.R. person, she’s been so great, and we’re just overwhelmed…

JHW: All the creators on the book who put their hearts and minds into this–

WWW: And the witnesses. So brave.

JHW: So brave to be willing to do something like this, in a medium they might not be familiar with.

WWW: They don’t know us, so to recount probably the most harrowing night of their lives to strangers, and to trust us that we’re going to tell it properly… that’s unbelievably brave, and we so appreciate them working with us.

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