WATCHMEN QUESTIONS FOR DAVE GIBBONS
For those unfortunate folks who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you personally describe your art style?
That’s so difficult. I mean, how would you describe yourself? I think the things I always like in art are clarity and economy and I think those probably are the qualities that I admire and I think I try and bring to my own work. I like the kind of artwork that’s had a lot of work put into it, but it doesn’t necessarily show. And I think the purpose of comic art is to take you through the story and not draw attention to itself. So I’ve always tried to tailor my art to do that.
That actually seems like the most important thing to focus on.
Now for your origin story – how did you get started in comics?
[Laughs] This is a long one. It goes back to being a fan. I mean, I remember getting my first Superman comic when I was 7 and being absolutely in love with it. And from that point on, copying out of comics and making up my own characters and drawing cartoons when I was at school to amuse my schoolmates. Then contributing to fanzines and underground comics and then breaking into professional comics – first of all through doing balloon lettering. I used to work in London just down the road from the biggest publishers in the UK and I used to hang out there at lunch times and look over people’s shoulders and see how everything was done. Eventually I got some lettering work and then that led on to doing comic strip art and then I got an agent and he fixed me up with some rather anonymous work. But work where I sort of learned my craft. And then I suppose I really came to prominence with the launch of [British comics publisher] 2000 A.D. in the mid ’70s. That’s it in a nutshell.
So how did you go from 2000 A.D. to Watchmen? Even back in the mid ‘80s, a project like this stood out.
Well, I go into this in a lot of depth in the “Watching the Watchmen” book that I have out at the moment, but, again, I’ll give you a brief version of it. Alan [Moore] and I had known each other for about 5 or 6 years when Watchmen came about and we worked together for 2000 A.D. doing shorter stories and we were really keen to do something bigger; something more extensive and ambitious. And I’d been working for DC and Alan had done some proposals for DC characters – notably Challengers of the Unknown and Martian Manhunter – which I was going to submit to DC and we were going to do together. But unfortunately, they’d already promised these characters to other creators, so that came to nothing. And then I got a phone call from [DC editor] Len Wein asking if I knew Alan Moore, who’d been writing Miracleman – or Marvelman, in fact – in Britain’s Warrior Magazine, because they thought that Alan could revitalize Swamp Thing. I put them in touch. And then I heard through the grapevine that DC was looking for Alan to do something with their [recently acquired] Charlton characters. And I got in touch with Alan and said, “Oh, you know, I think this could be the thing – I’d really like to draw this and I think I can get out of my other commitments.” And he said, “Great,” sent me the treatment and I loved it. Then I went to a convention in the states and said to Dick Giordano, who was then the [DC] Managing Editor, that I’d like to draw this thing that Alan was doing. Dick said, “How does Alan feel?” And I said, “He’d like me to do it.” And Dick said, “Well, it’s yours.” And that’s how it came about.
I guess having Alan on your side wasn’t shabby. So, when you first became a part of the project, what was your initial reaction? Not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of working with Alan and in terms of what you thought the series would ultimately accomplish.
I knew the story would be great because I’d loved all of Alan’s stories that I’d read up until that point. And personally, Alan and I got on very well. And although we’re very, very different people, we are on the same wavelength for a lot of our tastes in comics. I knew it’d be great fun and I knew we’d enjoy it.
And I knew we stood a chance of doing something that was good.
That’s what we thought it would accomplish.
What we really wanted to do was to work on something that we would like to read. To really have the most fun and do the best job we could on making some kind of comment about superheroes and perhaps looking at them in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Watchmen comes out of love for the superhero tradition. Sure, we took it to bits and took it places people sort of hadn’t been with it before, but we really only wanted to get to know it better. There was really no element of destructiveness or disdain in it. It really was a labor of love.
Now, along those lines, Watchmen obviously wound up changing the way comics were created and read. Within the same year, Frank Miller had done The Dark Knight Returns and it had a similar effect on comics. Miller has since expressed some disappointment that the rest of comicdom didn’t take the creative ball and run with it. Instead, they kind of co-opted the “grim and gritty” idea and went in that direction.
What are your feelings on the legacy Watchmen cultivated in terms of creativity?
Yeah, I completely agree with Frank, and I know this is Alan’s view, as well. Watchmen and Dark Knight just showed other possible ways of doing superhero comics. If Alan and I had gone on to do anything more, the thing we talked about was doing The Minutemen, which would have been like a prequel to WATCHMEN which would have been quite an innocent-seeming kind of comic book – it would have been set in the times before all the bad things happened when the world was ostensibly bright and new and cheerful and optimistic. Although, [Laughs] we would know that it all had a very bad end coming down the line. And the other thing we talked about was doing something like Captain Marvel that had a kind of joy and an innocence that, again, was missing from comics at the time. Alan went on to, I think, kind of cover that ground a bit with the Supreme character that he did [from Image Comics], which was essentially his take on the Silver Age Superman-type characters.
But I think it was a complete dead-end that superheroes became grim and gritty. I mean, even Captain Marvel became grim and gritty and dark, which was an absolute travesty, I think. Hopefully things have changed a bit since then. But as I said earlier, Alan and I loved the comic strip medium. We loved superheroes and we wanted to celebrate them and enrich them rather than tear them down and make them seem worthless or dark. So, yeah, I do think there was a bit of a failure of imagination.
Now, back to what your own imagination wrought on Watchmen – are you especially proud of a specific issue or scene?
[Laughs] See, when you ask an artist for favorite things, quite often, the favorites are the things that they had the most enjoyment drawing, or perhaps was the easiest to draw. I loved [issue #4,] the Dr. Manhattan issue. That was really interesting to do that backwards-and-forwards-in-time narrative. And the “Fearful Symmetry” issue [issue #5,] was interesting, as well. But it’s very hard to just break down any particular scene, they all contributed in the same amount to the final story.
Really, to me, the whole this series is one big scene.
By the mid-‘80s, the idea of creator rights was gaining more and more steam, especially in terms of the rights to own original art.
Do you still have much of that from Watchmen in your personal collection?
Well, [Laughs] you really should read my new book called Watching the Watchmen published by Titan Books because there’s a whole section in there about the original art. Yeah, I did get the original art returned to me. I did sell all of it. I didn’t sell it for very much money. I wish I’d held on to it. I gave a few pages away as gifts. I don’t really wish I had it back – perhaps I wish I had the money.
The artwork that I have still got is everything that’s in the Watching the Watchmen book, so I guess I’ll just have to make a good deal when I come to sell that [Laughs].
During the creation of the book, did you do signing tours and hit up the convention circuits? What was that interaction with fandom like back then, and how has it changed in comparison to the “geek-heavy” culture today that’s made shows like San Diego Comic-Con so immense?
Yeah, we did do a signing tour around the UK. We were driven around the major comic book-reading areas of Britain, which tend to be places that have universities. You know, where there’s a pretty high proportion of youngsters who like to read, I guess you could say. I know Alan did one US convention at San Diego, and I certainly did one after Watchmen and I’ve done many, many conventions since. And we did a lot of conventions in England.
Conventions in England used to be very, very informal. There was no demarcation between fans and pros. We used to all meet up at the bar and have a chat. So, professionals tend to get held in less of a reverent awe, which I think is a healthy thing. But Alan, because of his immense talent and his kind of increasing disappearance from the convention scene, although he still does do public appearances for things he’s interested in, but certainly by the end of his appearance at comic conventions, he was getting mobbed and pushed into corners and followed into the men’s room. And he decided that he didn’t want anymore of it. So, that’s why you never see him at a convention these days, and I don’t blame him. And I don’t think that people have ever been quite so in awe of me. Perhaps I’m also more comfortable with crowds, as well. And although I like to think I’m a nice guy, perhaps I’m more not reticent to let people know when they’ve overstepped the mark.
Watchmen is now available in a number of formats including soft cover, single issues, hardcovers, over-sized hardcovers and even as a video collage on iTunes.
What’s your favorite way to read the series?
Well, it’s nice to have the high-quality versions because it does showcase the artwork and the coloring to their absolute best. But there is something, I think, about the regular comic book series – it being episodic, it appearing in a slim 32-page format month-after-month, which is how it was designed to be read. Although, it works perfectly well as a collection.
It’s a bit like in music. If you have singles and they’ve been collected into a greatest hits, there’s just something about having the singles that’s different from having the greatest hits. Because maybe only you have the singles, but anybody can get the greatest hits. I don’t know [Laughs].
Have you found yourself reading it more or less as the years have gone by?
Most creative people will tell you that with any work, there’s a kind of path. You start off thrilled because you’re convinced this is the going to be best thing you’ve ever done. You then get to work on it and you realize that you’re going to have to do a lot of hard work. So, what becomes a wonderful ideal becomes hard work. And, of course, because of the limitations of your abilities, you can never do it quite as well as you saw it in your head.
By the time you finish doing it, you probably don’t like the look of it. When you see it in print, you see all the mistakes you’ve missed and all the editorial things that have been done to it. And you put it away and really don’t want to look at it. And then years go by and you maybe just pull it out of a drawer and flip through it and you can then look at it as if it’s got nothing to do with you and think, “Eh, it’s okay. It’s not so bad. That’s clever. I don’t remember doing that…” So I think with distance comes dispassion.
I obviously read all the scripts when Watchmen was coming out, and I remember that I did sit down and read it when Alan and I were going on the signing tour. But I think that’s the only time I’ve actually read it from cover to cover. I’ve looked at it a lot since, particularly with the Absolute Edition. I had to look at every page to make sure that the art and the coloring were ok. So, I mean, I have gone through it, but it’s been a long time since I actually sat down and read it. And actually, I was a little surprised when I saw the movie at some of the themes in it, which I kind of forgot were in it.
Don’t let the fans hear that.
[Laughs] I hope that doesn’t sound like heresy or amnesia or some senile dementia. But I probably will have to reread it soon.
The real joke was when we went to see the film being made, that my wife at that point hadn’t actually read Watchmen – much to her shame [Laughs]. And she read it before we left and on the plane going over, and when we got on the se, the actors were asking me quite detailed questions about things that were in the graphic novel. And I was “um-ing” and “er-ing,” but my wife was unerringly able to give them the correct answers. So, yeah, maybe I should read it again.
-In the years since Watchmen, you’ve grown as a creator and gone on to do many other successful projects as both writer and artist that are completely separate from Watchmen such as Martha Washington, The Originals and Green Lantern Corps.
What’s it been like being a part of the media blitz surrounding the movie that’s thrown you into the public spotlight as the artist on Watchmen? Has it been easy or difficult dealing with the sudden rush of publicity?
No, I suppose on a low-level comic book star kind of plane, I’ve become used to appearing in public and giving my opinion and being interviewed and everything that goes with that, so this isn’t much different. I mean, I’m really happy to be a part of it. Mainly because I do think it is going to be a very good movie. Frankly, I’m enjoying it. I like meeting new people and I like to travel. I like staying in nice hotels. I’m quite a gregarious, talkative person by nature, so it’s been good fun. I mean, it does get tiring, and when it’s over it’s over. And of course, there’s that to it, that this isn’t the character of my whole life. This is like the circus is in town for a bit. You know, I’ll be performing with the acrobats, but once the circus leaves town, everything goes back to normal. And possibly by then, that will be a relief, but right now, I’m enjoying it.
And certainly for my career at large, Watchmen has been a very beneficial thing. It’s given me a certain degree of what I think they call “marquee value.” There are certain directors and actors who can open a movie, and I think my connection with Watchmen certainly helped me when I wanted to break into writing.
What do your family members make of the sudden Watchmen pop culture fascination? Do your children think it’s cool you’re on TV and that your characters are on the big screen?
I’m guessing you maybe don’t have semi-grown up children [Laughs] because, I’m just their dad, you know? They’re kind of amazed and it strikes them as frankly surreal that the guy who takes out the garbage and who grumbles about the mess in the kitchen is in this kind of media spotlight. I mean, it’s really interesting to speak to Alan Moore’s daughter, Leah, as well, to hear her talk about her dad in a very dismissive, albeit loving, way. But in the way that children do talk about their parents. I think the fact that they’re going to be going to a Hollywood movie premiere, they think, is pretty cool. And, of course, my son, who’s now nearly 30, he can remember when I was actually drawing WATCHMEN, so that’s always been an element in his life.
What comics are you reading nowadays? Any favorite creators or books fans should watch out for?
I tend to read things done by my friends, so, [anything by] Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Mike Mignola…I love José Luis García-López. I always read his stuff.
I just read a really good graphic novel called Alan’s War by a guy called Emmanuel Guibert. I’ve got fairly mainstream tastes, but I try and keep abreast of what’s happening.
Speaking of what’s happening, what do you have coming up next? Any comic projects on the horizon?
Well, a lot of my time is being taken up by the Watchmen circus in its various forms. I wrote a Hellblazer story recently, and I’m currently writing another project for DC, which is sort of hush-hush, and I can’t really say anything about that. But it’s in rather an unusual format and I’m working with a really good artist I haven’t worked with before. I’m also hoping later in the year to be working on a creator-owned series with a very well-known writer, again, who I haven’t worked with before. And I’m really looking forward to that. Again, can’t really say anything.
I’ve been doing some work for an old friend of mine who works in computer games for a company called Revolution and it’s a game called Broken Sword, which is a reissue – an upgrade – into new platforms of a very successful game.