Dave Gibbons bounds into the room with the justifiable swagger of a man whose work has been turned into a $150million dream come true.
He is instantly likeable, coming across as a thouroughly affable bloke, and I am delighted to have won a contest to meet him in person with 49 other geeks at an informal Q&A session in the staff-only section of Glasgow’s Borders, not least because the queue of people who didn’t win the contest has swelled to around 400 people, and it’ s still an hour before he is due to meet them, winding through a number of departments – and even floors – in the sprawling bookshop.
At first I’m actually slightly surprised at the turnout, but on reflection it makes perfect sense as he is the co-creator of arguably the most seminal work in comics, an unrelenting publishing sensation that recently became the top-selling book on Amazon just as the big-screen adaptation was going to number one at the box office.
Ask any comic fan and chances are Gibbon’s Watchmen collaborator Alan Moore will be in their top three writers of all time. But would Gibbons feature in their top three artists? Or even top ten? Few would place him alongside names like Kirby, Romita, Ditko, Buscema and Swan. Even contemporaries like Byrne and Miller are likely to top him in polls. Yet the fact remains he helped craft what many consider to be the finest comic ever.
Has he been overshadowed by Moore? Possibly. Is that one of the reasons he has written Watching the Watchmen, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the 12-issue series that revolutionised comics? Possibly. For me, the new book has made me aware of how much Gibbons contributed to Watchmen. Reading it, and hearing him talk, it has opened my eyes to his talent. Subliminal things that he did suddenly become clear. His obsessive attention to detail wasn’t evident to me, even though the end result brought me back to the book probably once a year. He would draw floor plans of restaurants, TV studios, laboratories, Antarctic retreats and many more locations in the book so that the artwork viewed from different angles would remain consistent. The trajectory of the bottle of perfume that Laurie tosses against Dr Manhattan’s Martian palace was painstakingly mapped out. Many more tricks of his trade are revealed in the book, which I enjoyed immensely and heartily recommend.
What follows is Gibbons’ own words from a slide presentation and question and answer session he did in Glasgow’s Borders last Saturday, March 14. Bear in mind that some of what he says will refer to images he was projecting on a wall. I’ll present some of them here, but not all of them. I’ll try to make it clear what he is talking about.
The projectionist flips to the first slide, a huge caption, and Gibbons starts the show: “This is the opening end papers of the book and as you can see it’s a blown up caption from the graphic novel, Who Makes The World. This was actually Chip Kidd who was the designer of the book, who I think is a wonderful book designer, I’ve got loads of books by him. I think he adds real class and artistic value to everything he does.
“He kind of accentuates, you see this printing defect, the way it goes over the lines, I think it gives it a really graphic value, which is the main reason I wanted him when I proposed the book. I wanted Chip to be the designer of it because not only does he give it that artistic value but when he photographs things you can almost touch it. Rather than flat artwork you feel you are going through my cabinet drawers.”
Next up is a picture of the first pages of Alan Moore’s script. It’s headed “The World” and the writer has scribbled: “Dave – This is uncorrected and possibly illegible in places. Hope you like it. Alan.”
Gibbons continues: “This is Alan Moore’s proposal for a thing he was asked to do with the Charlton characters. Charlton Comics was, it’s fair to say, a second-rate comic company. They used to print a load of magazines and they really only did comics to keep the presses running between magazines, so they used to pay a really low rate, but there was actually some really interesting characters, the Blue Beetle who had been around since the early 1940s and The Question, who was a Steve Ditko creation, and who Rorschach is a kind of close cousin too.
“Anyway, DC Comics acquired Charlton and they realised Alan had a way of taking uninteresting characters and really makjng them interesting, so they asked him to do something with the Charlton characters, and what he did was so groundbreaking that they said ‘Actually Alan, we don’t want to kill them or show they are insane, so we’ll keep the Charlton characters and you and Dave come up with some new characters.’
“So basically Alan’s synopsis was what became Watchmen. I read it and I was absolutely bowled over by the novel take on these characters. As you can see, that’s page one and it says ‘The World’ and that’s interesting because one of the questions we were asking on Watchmen was ‘Why would you really put a hero costume on?’ Comics up to that point, it had kind of been assumed that if you want to fight c rime then of course you put a costume on, and that’s it. We tried to think of a more interesting way, that it might be some kind of fetish, some kind of kick out of putting a costume on, that you were possibly psychotic, that you felt you had some mission from God, or it could be that your parents made you do it, it was the family tradition, it could be that you were a rich kid and wanted the adrenaline buzz, that was the kind of questions we asked.
“The other question we asked was how would the world be different if there actually were characters like this in the world, if there really was a Superman, if there really was someone with the powers of a god what would that do to the world? In the case of Superman he was just like a big uncle who would sort things out for us, but actually it’s a frightening thing to think there is someone in the world who could vapourise you; who, no matter what you did, if you could run a mile in four minutes he could do it in no time at all, he could go to the moon and back in that time; and we actually reasoned that the world would be a completely different place, so its really interesting that the first thing Alan went into was the world, not the characters.”
Then the projectionist brought up a page of artwork, with lines coming off the pages to annotations down the side panel like “Y2B2” and “Y3B3.” If you read Watching the Watchmen you will see a colour chart, much like one you might find in the paint section of B&Q, and each colour has a combination of letters and numbers assigned to it.
Gibbons continues: “This is an example of the actual production process. This is from a colouring guide that John Higgins did. In those pre-computer days what you used to have to do was get a Xerox photocopy of the artwork, shrink it to the size of the finished page, get your water colour paint and paint every colour in. It didn’t matter if you went over the lines a bit, it was only a guide.
“Then what you had to do was notate what each colour was, that’s what these lines are, they are arrows going off the page to the actual description of each colour and that would be something like ‘flesh colour is y2r2,’ which isn’t a robot out of Star Wars, it’s 25 per cent yellow, 25 per cent red, so every area of colour had to have a two or three letter and two or three number code, so you can imagine it was a really laborious thing to do. The pages would then be sent to ladies who worked at home on their kitchen tables, who had a sheet of acetate for every one of these tones of colour and who would use paint to paint in each area on each of these things, so they would go ‘r,2 go to r2 sheet,’ and you can just imagine, it’s like something out of the Dark Ages, so that was how colouring was done.
“It was great when much, much later, only a few years ago when they did the Absolute edition of Watchmen. because obviously in the complex process I outlined for you there was a lot of room for error, it was wonderful John got the chance on the computer to remaster it and get the colour exactly the way he wanted it to look.”
Next up we see some Rorschach blots, and Gibbons says: “As any student of zen art would know, the hardest thing to simulate is randomness. If you try to draw something random it’s very hard to do, you impose your own pattern, and of course the essence of a Rorschach blot is that it doesn’t have any pattern, so I actually got loads of little bits of layout paper and creased them and squashed them and the ones I quite liked the look of, I would slightly embellish a bit so they were more regular, and I had a whole stack of those, I probably had 40 or 50 of them and when I was drawing a scene with Rorschach in it I would look through them and think ‘Yeah, that’s what his blot would look like’ and I’d draw it on his face.
“And the amazing thing is that in the movie they actually used the very blots that I used in the comic book. When the DVD comes out, if you get it and look at the scene that corresponds with the comic book you will find that Rorschach has the exact same blot on his face. They actually mapped it on the computer so that it had that tiny detail.”
A roughly pencilled image of the Comedian pops up next, and Gibbons says: “This is a really early pencil drawing of the Comedian, who I kind of based on Grouch Marx because he’s a comedian in the sort of Graham Greene sense of the word, in that he’s someone who messes things up. So that’s why the cCmedian has the dark hair and moustache and smokse a cigar.”
Then we see the iconic symbol most associated with Watchmen, the smiley face splattered with blood. It’s a picture of a badge.
Gibbons says: “This is the original smiley face badge which actually turned out to be sort of a controversial object and was one of the first tremors of the eventual cataclysmic rupture of Alan and DC Comics, because basically DC sold these at a dollar each and they cost about 10 cents to make and we were told they were a self-liquidating promotion, in other words they weren’t making any money out of them. So I went in to bat and eventually got DC to pay us some money over them but Alan was never really happy about if ever after.”
Next up from the projectionist we have a thumbnail and corresponding finished art from a scene in the first chapter of the comic, where Dan sits slumped in his basement looking at the Comedian’s smiley badge, which Rorschach has left with him after his unannounced visit.
Gibbons says: “If you’ve seen the movie this is almost uncanny the way they replicated this. It’s exactly the same layout, the tubular bars of the staircase, everything, his costume hanging up in the cupboard, the way he’s slumped down. To me as I drew it, it’s just incredible.
“What you have here is two stages in the production. This is my thumbnail that was drawn a little bit bigger than a thumbnail and it’s blown up to show you the way I would draw it, and you can see there is no real attempt to draw real anatomy or perspective, because one of the things with comics is that your space is very limited, so it needs to be planned very, very carefully, so that is why I would always do that and you will find I did that for every single page of the comic book.”
An imposing lead statue of Ozymandias springs up on the screen next. It looks enormous, but then you realise it is in fact tiny.
“This always makes me smile,” says Gibbons. “This was another example of Watchmen merchandising. A company called Mayfair did a role playing game. I don’t actually know how role playing games work, I think you just had little figures, not to move round a board but just to put in front of you and show what character you were playing. In actuality he was only very small but what Chip Kidd has done is blow him up so he looks like an imposing statue. There’s also a little owl ship that is a beautiful little thing, you just want to get a catapult and break someone’ s greenhouse window with it.”
A very rough sketch of Dr Manhattan appears and Gibbons continues: “This is supposedly Dr Manhattan but I think it was me just drawing a superheroic figure as a warm-up because he does lack the hydrogen symbol, shoddy draftmanship obviously, but this is a representation of Dr Manhattan, who we always knew would end up being naked. It seems to have caused all kinds of excitement in the film but it’s there for an artistic purpose, which is it symbolises Dr Manhattan’s withdrawal from the world and lack of concern about how he appears to humanity, and it was something no-one in the comic ever remarked about. We always worried it was full frontal male nudity but no-one ever gave us a problem about it. I think a few people got concerned about it in the movie but it was there for the same reason.
“I tried to draw his junk in a way that kind of harked back to the idealised view of Renaissance sculpture like Michelangelo’s David. It’s slightly more realistic and imposing in the movie. I think they had six sizes to choose from. It’s not actually based on Billy Crudup, who is the actor who plays him in the film.
“I think Billy Crudup’s voice as Dr Manhattan is absolutely amazing, it just sends a shiver down my spine that sad, wistful way of talking. Despite the fact he had to act with a set of pajamas on with lights over it, which must have been difficult, he really pulled it off.”
An equally rough sketch of Silk Spectre is next, alongside a spinning bottle of Nostalgia perfume, and Gibbons says: “This is Laurie, the Silk Spectre, quite a tough girl and beautifully played by Malin Ackerman in the movie. I think she is supernaturally gorgeous in real life, and this is the perfume bottle which in the comic she throws at Dr Manhattan’s glass palace on Mars and it’s funny, it’s the little detail, it’s a Nostalgia bottle, but as you see later on it’s something I got obsessed with rendering absolutely correctly.”
The cover to issue nine of the comic pops up, a bottle of Nostalgia perfume. Gibbons says: “That’s a wonderful example of what John Higgins would do on the cover. If you look at that the line drawing I provided it was really just the bottle but if you look at the rest of it, the wonderful starscape and the liquid in the bottle, it’s all John Higgins.
“This was done a slightly different way, this wasn’t done by the laborious way of ladies doing it in their kitchen, it was done in what they call a blue line process where they get a very light blue copy of the original line artwork and then an acetate sheet with the black line artwork on it, then you paint the blue line and look at it through the black and you’d eventually end up with the colour with the black line on top of it again; quite laborious and something that could be done twice as quickly on the computer. We didn’t even have fax machines in those days.”
Artwork that was new to me until I bought Watching the Watchmen is next, with Gibbons saying: “This is the signature plate for a portfolio that a French company called Zenda put out and it was a portfolio that had all the covers from the comic books and it has the French and European covers, and this was the signature plate that Alan and myself and John Higgins signed. I kind of had the Beatles album, is it called With the Beatles, the one with them looking straight on and lit from the side, in mind and that’s actually a collectors’ item. If you look on ebay you will see they go for quite a hefty sum.”
An overhead pencil of a room flashes onto the screen. Alongside it is a black and white finished pencil of the Watchmen’s main characters. Rorschach is wearing an unusual costume.
Gibbons says: “This is the indicia page as it’s known in the trade and this is an overhead shot of the restaurant they end up in and the rooftop at the end of issue one, and again I do a definitive plan and an elevation of it. I was actually trained as a building surveyor so I find it easy to visualise things, and if you have a master shot of something it’s very easy to refer back to and isolate bits of it to know exactly the physical relationships and distances in the areas.”
“Again you can see there that we hadn’t quite refined things because Rorschach has a full body blot on which we seemed to be so fond of, sketch after sketch he has this full body blot. I don’t know what we were thinking about because it would have been a nightmare to draw and it would have been completely redundant because you would only be seeing his face anyway.”
The next artwork speaks for itself, and Gibbons says: “This was done for DC Who’s Who. Although the Watchmen aren’t actually a part of the DC Universe they wanted to have Watchmen in there and it does actually lead to an interesting story of disharmony between Alan, myself and DC.
“One of my ulterior motives in doing this Watchmen book, again talking about this disharmony between Alan and DC, Alan doesn’t have his name on the movie, he doesn’t want anything to do with it, so I thought at least Watching the Watchmen will establish that it wasn’t just me, you can’t be a sole co-creator in other worlds and I was happy to dedicate the book to him.”
A stone statue comes into view. It is a woman’s face. Gibbons says: “This is the rough of the cover to issue two which you can see harks back to what I said before in that if you are doing a very simple and abstract t design it is very much harder to do than a very complicated piece. There’s a saying in the trade – if you can’t wow them with art, baffle them with bullshit – which is the technique a lot of comic artists use but here I have gone to a lot of trouble to make sure these angles are harmonious and hold together.”
A charming drawing of what appears to be the original Nite-Owl pops up, but the character is called Night Owl. Gibbons explains: “I’m very fond of Nite-Owl. This is a drawing I did , maybe when I was 14, this is a character I made up as a kid and when we came to create our own characters to replace the Charlton characters we needed this Blue Beetle/Batman equivalent and I suggested to Alan that I had this character called Night Owl and instead of a Batcave and Batmobile we could have an Owlcave and Owl mobile, and Alan said yes, and with a slight change in the spelling to make it a bit more American and bit more trashy, we had Nite-Owl.”
Rorchach is next, leaning against a chimney in the first first issue. Gibbons says: “That’s one of my favourite pieces, the colour job John Higgins did is amazing, I never in a million years would have put those colours together but it is so rich and exciting.”
What appears to be a schedule is next, with Gibbons saying: “This is my so-called prison chart. For a huge project you need to know where you are. I will say in my defence that Watchmen did come out monthly and it was only the last issue that skipped a month, and if DC had stuck to the schedule that Alan and I proposed it would have come out exactly monthly, it’s just they moved it up.”
Shots of the front and back of a plastic carrier bag are next. On the front is a smiley face that says “Thankyou for your patronage” and has a red blotch drew on it, while on the back there is writing.
Gibbons explains: “Archie Goodwin was a fantastic guy, great editor, great writer and I got this in a Fede-Ex box one day and he had been to the local supermarket, Wall Mart have this symbol, and it says ‘7/22/87. Dear Dave…Okay I can live with a great series like Watchmen being done at a rival company. But do you and Alan have to rub it in by making my local supermarket give out these grocery bags thanking all your readers now that the damned thing”s finally done. Best, Archie.’ And he’s drawn himself on it, and he was a great guy Archie Goodwin, you ask anyone in comics, that’s a real treasure to have that.”
A rough sketch of a familiar cover pops up next. It’s a blood-spattered statue of the original Nite-Owl against a smashed picture of the Minutemen.
“This was the unused cover for chapter eight,” says Gibbons. “This is a bit more gory and bloody. I must tell you that in the movie you do actually see that statue and in the director’s cut you do see Nite-Owl beaten to death with the statue and they had several ones in the movie and I actually successfully asked them to send one of the props to me because Nite-Owl is the character closest to my heart, so to have that statue is very special.”
A picture of Laurie is next, saying “Oh shit. I’m on Mars.”
Gibbons goes on: “This is the palace on Mars and again you know in the movie they have an even more wonderfully elaborate one. This is the perfume bottle and this is the insane attention to detail I was telling you about. This bottle spins in front of the stars and hits the building, so each one of these is the panel it’s in, these are the fixed stars, this is how much it moves in each panel, and if you actually buy yourself another copy of the graphic novel, which I hope you will do, and cut the panels out and flip them you will see it spin against a fixed background, so again it’s a subliminal thing but it does make the reader think this really happened.”
Some altered pages of finished artwork are next, and Gibbons says: “When Watchmen was coming out they tended to get a bit excited at the DC offices. They would hang around the mail room and an inker called Al Milgrom used to ask if there was a new Watchmen and when the final issue came in Mike Carlin did a Xerox copy of it and had it relettered, that’s why it has Dr Manhattan saying ‘Where are you going?’ and Rorschach answers ‘Back to Marvel.’
“In the next page, and you’ll know if you see the movie the absolute emotional shiver point of the movie is when Rorschach takes his mask off and says ‘Do it,’ but in this doctored version he rips his mask off and says ‘Rosebud’ and I’ll spoil it for you because it’s been spoiled for me , there’s a scene at the end where Dan and Laurie make love in Karnak and he puts his cape down and he takes his goggles off and she’s very close and she says ‘Dan, what’s that smell?’ and he says ‘Nostalgia,’ which is really moving, but in the doctored version she says ‘Dan what’s that smell?’ and he says ‘Al shit.’
A rough crayon of the cover to the first issue is next, the smiley badge lying in a pool of blood. Gibbons says: “This is the cover of the first issue, which I’m amazed that DC let go through because it so much goes against perceived wisdom of comic book covers, which is you need a figure so big, you need to see their face, they have to be doing something interesting. This is as abstract as you can get and because it is abstract the design of it becomes very crucial.
“When what you have essentially got is a semi-circle and a line, computationally that’s all it is, the exact area it occupies becomes really, really crucial. So what I did was this little thumbnail, tiny thumbnail, in completely abstract terms to see does it work, is there enough highlighting between the areas. I think actually it could be improved but that’s what we went with and that’s my original line drawing that I coloured quite lightly with crayon to give John Higgins a kind of idea. I was always very happy to let John come up with his own colours because as they say why have a dog and bark? Why have a colourist and colour yourself?”
The slide presentation wraps up there and Gibbons cracks open a bottle of Diet Pepsi while he asks us if we have any questions, with no restrictions on what we want to know. It crosses my mind that he wants us to ask a really juicy question, possibly about Alan Moore and his row with DC, but it turns out we never get to the really cool shit because the woman from Borders only allows a few questions as the queue downstairs in the shop is getting restless.
A lad with a dodgy South American accent asks if anyone in the Soviet Union ever hit out at the comic, given that it was released during the Cold War.
Gibbons says: “I believe that there is finally a Russian edition of Watchmen, it’s been reprinted practically everywhere and in every language. I don’t think it was kind of anti-Russian but actually it could be anti-American, with Nixon and all these people as clowns, so I think what it’s turned into now, and I think it’s wonderful that they kept the movie set in this time period, it almost becomes an allegorical thing of two very powerful opponents and how you resolve the conflict between them. I don’t see it as propaganda, it’s rather a more philosophical thing.”
Next up a geek asks a rambling question about films like “the rather dodgy Hancock” and comics like Garth Ennis’ The Boys knocking superheroes off their pedestal and wants to know if Gibbons thinks Watchmen is responsible.
He replies: “I’m sure that Watchmen, I’m not being immodest, but quite obviously it had a huge effect on comics, but actually Alan and me loved superheroes and Watchmen isn’t trying to knock superheroes of their pedestals at all. We loved these characters and there was some fascinating stories and ideas but we wanted to look at them in a slightly different way, and it just so happened that the take of Watchmen was actually slightly bleak and slightly, you could say, cynical, but we weren’t being cynical about it.
“But unfortunately the American comic book industry seemed to think this was the way to do superhero comics, which we frankly were always rather depressed about, because if we did anything after Watchmen we would have liked to do something like Captain Marvel, one of these wonderf ul, bright, clear, fabulous kind of heroes and I suppose people like Garth Ennis, who I know has a great kind of contempt of superheroes, so actually he’s not someone who comes from a love of superheroes, he comes form a different angle, so perhaps he was prone to the influence, but I think it’s one of the possible flavours of superheroes that seems to be latched onto. Also i think movies tend to be darker than comics anyway, so that as the comic and movie get closer they tend to get darker anyway.”
Next up someone chimes up with a question about the origin of the smiley face and Gibbons says: “With the smiley face, that’s a really good of example of how people are fascinated by who did what. When you’re doing something creatively and it’s working well you don’t think of that. The analogy is say if you marry somebody and it’s all going well you don’t think about who paid for what, but when you come to the divorce it’s those are my CDs, I paid for that chair, so the case of the smiley face is interesting because when I came to draw the Comedian he looked really bleak and ominous in black leather and he didn’t look like a Comedian, so on one of the sketches I just drew a smiley face on him and I thought that’s kind of Sixties.
“Alan saw that and I remember him saying ‘That’s how we could start it Dave, we could symbolise the death of the Comedian, we could start with that smiley face in the gutter and there could maybe be some blood on it,’ so I drew it with some blood on it, so from there we then realised it was the actual symbol of the whole thing, that it was a cartoon that had reality splashed across it. So it was something I would never have gone that far with, but if I hadn’t done that then Alan wouldn’t have thought of it, but to me that was a throwaway detail, but Alan made it into something wonderful.”
The last question is something about technology catching up with the story of the book and when did Gibbons come to realise the comic could be adapted for the big screen.
He says; “I think it’s got something to do with technology and also with the receptivity of the audience. The way Watchmen stands to other superhero movies is the way the graphic novel stood to superhero comics. So people that grew up with Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man now undertsand Watchmen. But actually one of the producers said it wasn’t that Watchmen was unfilmable, it’s that it was unfinancable . It’s not like a normal movie, it’s long, it’s an 18, it hasn’t got the traditional three-act structure, so I think the problem was to get it financed or to get a studio convinced that it was worth doing, and part of that was that Watchmen has such a good pedigree, so that if people didn’t quite know what it was about, there’s still lots of people who did, it had sold for 20 years.”
And that was it. The chick from borders called an end to the Q&A, we all gave a hearty round of applause and then Gibbons signed our stuff.
He was a top guy, very entertaining and I had a cracking time. He kept me out the pub for a couple of hours, but it was worth it.