Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Interview: Dave Gibbons on Watchmen

Although I had met Dave Gibbons several times in the early 1980s, most memorably with a group of 2000 AD artists on the top deck of a bus on the way to a comic convention in Birmingham, we had never actually sat down and had a proper chinwag about his work. Then, when he began producing such extraordinary work with writer Alan Moore on the Watchmen series, I knew the time was right for an interview.

Dave suggested that he send me black and white copies of the last issue of Watchmen so that I would be properly prepared for our meeting at the Camden Comic Mart (in London) on 11 July 1987, the first day Watchmen 12 went on sale. Dave was mobbed by the appreciative fans, and happily signed copies of the comics before we escaped to a quiet spot nearby on a glorious, sunny afternoon.

Reading this interview now, more than 20 years later, I’m surprised at how mean I must have sounded to Dave. I give him quite a tough time. I come across as picky, critical and not very appreciative of his achievement. Still, gentleman and professional that he is, he persevered with me, made corrections to the transcript, supplied me with nice artwork to illustrate the interview, and a great painting for the cover of ARKEN SWORD 22 (one I have not seen reproduced since).

Below is an extract from the interview. If you are interested in reading the rest of the interview - the full version runs to over 8,000 words, and includes the cover and all 10 pages of artwork and text - then send $2 to my PayPal account (duncan821@btinternet.com), label it 'Gibbons' and I'll email it to you as a PDF file.


Dave: Alan Moore was asked by Dick Giordano at DC to prepare a treatment for the Charlton characters, which DC had just acquired. When they saw what Alan proposed to do they didn’t want this to happen to the Charlton heroes, and so they suggested that Alan & I come up with some alternative characters to go with the plot.

Let me explain how I got involved. I’d been working for DC before Alan started for them on Swamp Thing, and we’d often talked about doing something together. In fact, Alan had prepared synopses for Challengers of the Unknown and Martian Manhunter, which we’d intended to submit to DC, but for various reasons we couldn’t. The Martian Manhunter had already been assigned for instance.

Paul: That was the Greg Potter story that turned into Jemm, Son of Saturn.

Dave: Yeah. Well, Alan mentioned this Charlton heroes synopsis, and I was interested because I was a little dissatisfied about the way the Green Lantern series had been going. I went to the Chicago Con in 1984, and I got Dick Giordano in a corner and told him I wasn’t going to do Green Lantern anymore, but I’d really like to do what we later called Watchmen - I don’t think it had a name at that point. Dick said it was fine if Alan agreed, and I actually phoned Alan up from the DC offices and told him I’d be drawing Watchmen, and also asked if he wanted to do the Superman Annual with Julie Schwartz. So our DC collaboration started from that trip.

Paul: You’d collaborated before on short stories for 2000 AD – ‘The Clone Ranger,’ and ‘Chrono Cops’ for instance.

Dave: I’m a little older than Alan, but we’re of a similar age and background in comics, and I’ve certainly felt on his wavelength when I’ve had his scripts. I think ‘Chrono Cops’ is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and would certainly be among my personal Top Ten strips. It wasn’t easy to draw - Alan’s scripts are NEVER easy to draw - but he bends over backwards to make it suitable for the artist they’re going to go to. One of the things I like about them is that they’re always very challenging.

Paul: How did you develop the Watchmen characters?

Dave: The first time I read the script I visualized them as the Charlton heroes in their last costumes, so I had quite a difficult time at first devisualizing Captain Atom. Because there was no time pressure at the beginning, I didn’t just come up with costumes one Monday morning. I talked the characters through with Alan and he came up with most of the names, though I came up with Nite Owl, who was a character I drew as a kid. He seemed to fit the Blue Beetle position quite nicely. Then over a period of 7 months, I drew sketches of various things when the inspiration struck me, and the characters just fell into place. The Comedian didn’t have black leather at first. He was dressed in khaki and webbing - more military. But it’s very difficult for me to say with any confidence when I actually designed any particular character. I do remember a weekend after the October 1984 Westminister Comic Mart, when Alan came to my place and we went over the character sketches, ideas, how to do the adverts and covers. Quite a lot of it got settled then, as indeed did the Superman Annual. That Annual is also part of what I consider to be my Top Ten strips.

To diversify a bit, it was great to do Superman after loving him as a kid, but the real kick was to work with Julie Schwartz, who’s a real gentleman and probably one of the best and most helpful editors I’ve ever worked for. The whole thing was a joy.

Anyway, after the brainstorming, I did more sketches and Alan had more thoughts, which led to me getting the first script on March 27th 1985. Watchmen wasn’t scheduled at all until about a year later.

Paul: Did the characters go through a lot of changes?

Dave: What we found with the Charlton characters was that, with all due respect to their creators, they were very much generic heroes. They weren’t the most original concepts in the world. So we found we had a generic stable of heroes. We had the Batman-type character, the super-heroic nuclear hero, the avenger/Mr A character, the glamorous superheroine, the militaristic Judge Dredd/American Flagg! kind of character. So we found ourselves in the position to make our definitive statements about the well-known genres of heroic characters. So although we may have changed bits of dress and character, in broad terms they always fell into those archetypal roles.

I think the one that was the most fully-formed when he came about was Rorschach. Apart from him originally having a full-body costume, which was later changed to just a mask because having a blot over your body was hard to draw with any focus, his character sprang fully formed almost from the very first time Alan mentioned him.

We were afraid that Silk Spectre, who was based on Nightshade - she was just someone to be Captain Atom’s girlfriend - would turn out to be a non-entity, but strangely enough throughout the series they all seemed to get an equal share of the spotlight, and they all became equally interesting.

Paul: You could certainly influence the art, because you were drawing it, but how much influence did you have on the storyline?

Dave: The storyline was largely set, and the plot was sufficient to the purpose, so I didn’t really have any effect on changing the plot, but I certainly think a lot of my visualizations and details changed the emphasis. I wouldn’t presume to tell Alan what to write, but what I would do is talk in general areas like “I’ve always wanted to see a character do...” or “One of the things I’ve never liked about this kind of character is...” So when Alan & I talk on the phone we talk in a non-sequitor kind of way, about what’s on our minds at the time: books, music, etc, and a lot of things in Watchmen have come from that. There’s been a lot of serendipity in it where things haven’t come from Alan or I, but from the general atmosphere around us. Alan’s very perceptive, and I like to think that I am as well, and you can tell from knowing another person’s work what their strengths are, what they want to do, and the general feel they’re after. A lot of it is unstated. At one stage we were spending perhaps 8 hours a week on the phone.

We still respected each other’s area though. I’d never dream of telling Alan what to do. There again, if I saw a line which was a little off, or Alan saw a panel that wasn’t quite what he had in mind, then we’d tell each other. Comics is a collaborative medium after all, and although it may be a cliché, I think we’ve drawn each other out and there’s a sense that the sum is greater than the parts on Watchmen. So I think I’ve had a general influence rather than a specific one on the storyline.

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