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Watchmen artist remembers "twisted" vision



As seminal comic book Watchmen hits the big screen, The Wharf talks to artist and co-creator Dave Gibbons about the real reasons why "masked heroes" fight crime, the British approach to comics and the secret shame under Rorschach's leather coat.

The Superman exists, and he's American.

But the British hero is far more interesting, and much, much more disturbing.

The stateside comic book pin-up once dominated the world with his chiselled jaw and billowing cloak of primary colours. But it was a collection of writers and artists from a small island tacked onto Europe that chewed up the caped crusader and spat out a far darker creature.

Artist Dave Gibbons was once just one of thousands of young fans that devoured the regular exploits of characters such as Superman and the Green Lantern. But when he and Alan Moore created cult comic book Watchmen in 1986, they shone a torch at the black heart of the genre and created one of the most critically-acclaimed comic books of all time.

Set in a dystopian 1985, Watchmen follows a group of outlawed "masked heroes" coping with the arrival of a super-being created in a botched experiment, the threat of nuclear war with the Russians, and a mysterious killer seemingly targeting lawmen who prefer hoods and right hooks to handcuffs.

Watchmen is ranked as one of Time magazine's 100 greatest novels of all time, and is now a Warner Brothers movie directed by 300's Zack Snyder.

Dave, 59, said: "We tried to ask the questions that hadn't been asked in comics before.

"I think that at that time comics had become rather formulaic and there were certain things you'd just accept. If someone got powers they'd just become a superhero and go off and fight crime. We were asking 'If costumed heroes were real, why would they really do it?'.

"It might be that they had a fetish, or their mother made them do it. The only real superhero in the book - Dr Manhattan - is a pretty passive guy who is more interested in studying sub-atomic particles than fighting crime."


While it's true that Spiderman's job-juggling and Batman's bubbling vat of vengeance were hardly a slice of Mom's Apple Pie, Watchmen embraced the darkness with tales of child murder, rape and a sprinkling of malignant crimefighters that couldn't be further away from the dictionary definition of the word "hero" if you filed them under "Z".


But was there something oddly British about this visceral disembowelment of the virtuous, invulnerable hero?

Dave said: "I think the characters were the same but we saw them in a slightly twisted way.

"There was something about the artefact of the American comic book that was a thing of wonder. Everything seemed like something from a wonderful, distant, alien universe.

"It was that sense of otherworldliness that enabled us to step back and see them more clearly. Things that a lot of American kids took for granted, we saw as quite exotic.

"I remember when I first went to New York, I didn't want to see things like the Statue of Liberty. I wanted to see the red fire hydrants on the street.

"There's also a certain British distrust of authority that's endemic in the British middle class culture. Alan was eventually expelled from his school, and like me he went somewhere that was quite old fashioned. I never felt entirely comfortable there.

"I have a strong visual memory of the prefects doing a big raid of American comic books, taking them out and burning them in the yard. I cared for my comic books too much to bring them into school, but I remember that at the top of the pile was an issue of the Green Lantern that I hadn't got, and I recall thinking that they were just destroying something that I would have paid money for. I got a very strong feeling at that point of 'If you don't like this, I don't like you'.

"Years later, my son ended up going to the same school, and when word got out that his dad drew comics, they asked me back to the school to give a lecture. I got a big round of applause, and it did feel like comics had become more acceptable by then."


Dave became a building surveyor in his early twenties before breaking into comic books through British companies such as IPC and DC Thomson.

He was later a prolific artist for the much-loved 2000AD series, which birthed legendary characters such as Judge Dredd and Dan Dare.

He had already collaborated with a young writer named Alan Moore several times when Watchmen began to take shape.

He said: "Alan and I were asked by DC Comics to put something together with these characters they'd just bought from Charlton Comics.

"Alan sent me a synopsis with the bare bones of the plot of Watchmen in it, and DC said that if we wanted to kill some of the characters we should really come up with some of our own. Alan had the story worked out and I tried to come up with what the world of this story would look like.

"I wanted to draw it in a very blocky format, in a documentary style with a hard and unyielding pen. It was important to me that it looked unlike any other American comic book.

"Before Alan sat down to write each issue we'd talk for four to five hours on the phone. He'd tell me the way he saw the story breaking down, and we'd talk about seemingly-unconnected things like films, music and childhood memories before coming back to the comic book. He'd write a script, I'd draw it, John Higgins would colour it, and we'd send it to DC.

"It was kind of a cottage industry, and we were more or less left to do our own thing without interference."


With the long-mooted Watchmen movie finally out of the doldrums, Gibbons recently revisited his old material for a volume cataloguing the making of the graphic novel, entitled Watching the Watchmen.

Dave said: "Over the years I've been asked questions about Watchmen, and I've thought about it a lot, but I've never gone through my archives.

"It didn't take me long to find the material. It's like any time you go up to the loft. You can spend hours having misty-eyed reminiscences about things in boxes, and I did something like that with these. I was amazed at how much I'd kept and how diverse the material was.

"It's given me a sense that I could do something more extensive about the rest of my career. I know that everyone thinks that their memoirs would be fascinating, but I've been around comics for a while and worked with many of the key players, and I think I've got an interesting tale to tell."


But as with any trip down memory lane, there were a few creative "mullets" which sprung up and made Dave question what on earth they were thinking.

He said: "For a long time we seemed to be obsessed with the idea of putting Rorschach in a full body ink blot suit. I don't know what we were thinking of. It would not have been a good idea and it would have been terribly difficult to draw. It worked okay with the head but it would have been a nightmare with the full body."

While Alan Moore is notoriously frosty on adaptations of his works, Dave admits that he has seen Watchmen fan Snyder's movie five times, and is even providing commentary for the upcoming DVD.

He said: "I'm still enjoying it and finding new things in it. It's a wonderful tribute to the graphic novel. It's a different beast, but it pushes many of the same buttons.

"I don't think that it's an easy movie, but I've always enjoyed movies that make you work a little bit."

Watchmen's influence has seeped into numerous comic books in the last three decades, and its jagged approach is even in vogue in Hollywood, with heroes such as Batman and Spiderman increasingly embracing the dark side on the big screen.

But Dave said: "We were a little disappointed by that. We were just showing a possible flavour for comic books and not the only flavour.

"I suppose it happened because Watchmen was successful and a lot of writers wanted to write about more relevant things than those normally covered in superhero comics. But a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon blindly.

"Movies are a darker medium than comic books generally, and being an adult we tend to go for darker things. But I'd love to see more bright and exciting but well-told adventures for young children.


"The easiest way to do something different to a character is to turn them on their heads and make them dark. It depends on the character, but it is an easy out.

"Batman's origin story is pretty creepy anyway, as his parents die and he seeks revenge by going out and fighting crime. But Superman is much more optimistic. He knows his parents have been killed but maybe they're not dead after all, maybe they're somewhere floating around on an asteroid, and the best way to honour their memory is to help people."

Dave's four decade career has seen him tackle classic American heroes such as Superman and British icons like Doctor Who, pick up a pen himself for projects such as Batman vs Predator, and even design the album cover for psychedelic rock act Kulashaker's debut album K.

But he remains committed to the medium he first hungrily devoured over half a century ago.

He said: "There's something elemental about the comic book. In many other storytelling media, it's quite difficult to get your vision across.

"For example, in movies you have to have the technical equipment and get someone to put money in. But when I was seven I knew that the only thing standing between me and the best comic book in the world was my talent.

"You just need a piece of paper and a pen, you can print them very cheaply and now with the advent of the internet you can distribute them very easily online.

"It's a very direct and personal experience and because there's not a lot of money in the comics industry there aren't a lot of money men about telling you what to do.

"I've never wanted to have the biggest selling comic or be the richest man in comics. I've been lucky enough to work with some great contemporary writers and artists. I've been able to work with characters in the industry that are legendary to me.

"I've enjoyed making comics, and I'd just love to be able to keep making them."


Watching the Watchmen is published by Titan Books, priced at £24.99. Watchmen is out in cinemas now.

SOURCE

Sorry for forgetting the tags all the time mods!
Cannot wait to see it again on Sunday.
Tags: interview, watchmen
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