Watching the Watchmen with Dave Gibbons: An InterviewA comics interview article by: Thom Young
Thom Young: I recently finished going through Watching the Watchmen. It's a hefty, oversized hardback book measuring 12 inches by 9.25 inches. I know the book was designed by Chip Kidd and Mike Essl for Titan Books, but I was wondering if you could speak to the design concept and the perceived market for the volume?
Dave Gibbons: I wanted it to be something that had enough space to do the artwork justice and be a satisfying book to put on the shelf. I personally love the design.
When I first suggested to Paul Levitz at DC Comics that we should do a book based on the sketches and notes that I had kept, I demanded that Chip Kidd design it because I think he does this kind of book absolutely brilliantly: the way that he makes pieces of paper seem so tactile, almost giving the reader the impression that they are actually looking through the collection itself.
Mike Essl, I know, did a lot of the grunt work on this and added a lot conceptually to it.
I don't know exactly what their design concept was, other than to show the work in a logical kind of way. You'll notice that the structure of the book goes from the very beginnings with all the notes and sketches that are attached to that, through the work process, and then into the actual issue-by-issue work on the book. This is punctuated with an essay by John Higgins on coloring, and an essay by me on the sort of weirdness that happened along the way--concluding with what happened after the books. So I think those were the basic design concepts.
One of the things I really like with what Chip does, is the way that he plays around with scale. Sometimes he will take a tiny pencil scribble and blow it up to a full page, showing it in a way that has never been seen before. Conversely, he will take a very detailed illustration and reproduce it very small. Those are the kinds of things that I like with what he does and I think it gives it a lot of visual excitement.
Thom Young: At one point in the book, you commented that after discussing ideas with Alan Moore for several months you had an epiphany in which you realized that Watchmen wasn't going to be a super-hero story as much as it was a science fiction story of alternate history. You decided at that point to make the series look different from the superhero comics of the time. Thus, you chose the nine-panel grid for the page layout that harkened back to Steve Ditko's work on Spider-Man, and Harvey Kurtzman's work at EC Comics in the 1950s.
What I noticed is that Ditko used that nine-panel grid almost exclusively in The Question stories that he did for Charlton in 1967 and 1968--as well as on several pages of his Mr. A stories.
I was wondering to what extent you were consciously attempting to evoke Ditko?
Dave Gibbons: I wanted Watchmen to look different to any other superhero comic book. Super-hero comic books of that time had splashy poster-type page layouts--like one big scene or one big character shot and then lots of smaller panels arranged around it--which makes you very conscious of the artist's hand and I think pulls the reader out of the story to a large degree.
So, to go to the nine-panel grid, which had been used as you say by Ditko, Kurtzman, and by a lot of European artists, immediately made that difference. It immediately gave it a kind of documentary look almost--and Alan liked it as it gave him great control over exactly where images would appear on the page and exactly what size they would be presented in context.
Thom Young: Could you speak to any ideological insights you might have had to Ditko's approach to comics while you were working in that nine-panel grid structure? For instance, to what extent do you see the nine-panel grid factoring into Ditko's obvious approach with The Question and Mr. A in attempting to impose order and structure?
Also, what (if any) ideological effect do you think that structure had on Watchmen?
Dave Gibbons: I never really thought about the question of imposing order on Mr. A or The Question. I think that was just where Ditko was at in 1967 and 1968, that in order to get the amount of story he wanted into those pages, it dictated a nine-panel grid.
I don't know if I had an ideological insight. I think I have an idea of Ditko's ideology and it isn't necessarily one that Alan or I would share. However I am aware of the appeal of characters that are ideologically clear-cut in their morality. I think in a world that kind of tends to be grey and shifting, that to have somebody that sees something clearly in black and white has always been attractive to the masses. I refer you to Adolf Hitler or Margaret Thatcher!
Thom Young: You also mentioned in your book that there was very little editorial involvement on the part of DC while you and Alan were working on Watchmen--only what you referred to as "traffic management" on the part of the editors.
Just before you began work on Watchmen, though, you and Alan also did Superman Annual #11 for Julius Schwartz, whom I consider to be the best pure editor that DC has ever had. Schwartz was known in the 1960s and 70s for having a strong editorial hand. Was that your experience working for him, or did he also give you and Alan a lot of leeway in that story ("For the Man Who Has Everything")?
Dave Gibbons: I agree with you, I think Julius Schwartz is one of the best comic editors ever. I certainly grew up on and loved all of his comics from Justice League right through to Strange Sports Stories. It was a great thrill for Alan and me to be working with him for that reason, and I think he was also very excited to be working with us because at that point we seemed to be a couple of the "young turks" who had found their way into comics. He was very friendly to us both, and he gave us old and rare comics from his file drawer.
As far as the Superman Annual was concerned, I believe hardly any editorial direction occurred. I believe Alan presented Julie with the plot outline and then went ahead and just turned that into the script--and I think I sent pencils or Xeroxes to Julie, but I might not even have done that. I think I might have just presented him with the finished inked and lettered artwork.
I can't recall him asking me to change anything. There might have been one or two edits of the lettering. I don't know whether he asked Alan to make any changes on the synopsis. I don't think I've seen a story synopsis of it, I think Alan pretty much proceeded straight to script.
I know it wasn't the Schwartz "story cooked up from a cover drawing," which I know he did a lot on his comic books. I think he trusted Alan's unique vision and trusted me to translate it pretty faithfully to comics. We did the Superman Annual in much the same way as we did the Watchmen series.
Thom Young: It seems that the vast majority of contemporary comics have very little editorial involvement nowadays--that the role of the editor has largely been made into one of a project manager or, as you indicated in your book, a "traffic manager" whose job it is to make sure everything gets to its destination on time.
Jack Kirby sort of initiated this freedom from editorial constraints in his early 1970s work for DC, but you and Alan seem to be the ones who led the way to the current situation. What effect do you think the lack of editorial involvement in the creative process has had in comics, or do you think there is as much editorial involvement now as there was in the days of Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, and Stan Lee?
Dave Gibbons: I think the face of comics has changed. I think in the hey day of Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, and Stan Lee that comics were a consistent product for a mainstream audience. As such, they were driven by the character, and it was very important that the editors kept the writers' and artists' interpretations close to that of the established character so that children would be reading a consistent product.
I think what happened was that when the direct sales comic stores and the whole direct market started up--which essentially was pandering to fans rather than mainstream readers--then the fans wanted different approaches and were beginning to follow creators rather than characters. They would read an Alan Moore or a Dave Gibbons comics for the particular approach that those creators and others brought. Consistency wasn't so much the keyword anymore.
Arguably, variety was the keyword. Frank Miller's reworking of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns was a radical departure from the editorially-led stories of previous years--and it was hugely successful, so I think at that point the companies could see the advantages of letting creators who had proved that they could write and draw interesting stories have their head and give their own vision of these characters. But I don't think it always works.
I don't think every creator has the visionary approach for it to be successful. Quite often, the editors know the characters as well as or better than some of the creators. I worked recently on the Green Lantern Corps series that was editorially managed to a degree--it had to fit into a huge crossover--and I found that a little frustrating. I think I might have been happier doing some Green Lantern Corps stories that allowed me to go off and give my own take on the characters and didn't feel bound so much towards continuity.
I think continuity is a double-edged sword. I think sometimes it can lead to very focused, very strong work which is centered on a company's vision or a character or on an established market for a character--but, on the other hand, you can get a lot of enrichment to character by letting creators do what they do best without a lot of interference.
Thom Young: I guess what I'm getting at is, aside from working stories into company-wide events (such as your experience on Green Lantern Corps), it seems to me that editors don't actually address the nuts and bolts of storytelling. Thus, rather than an editorial hand regarding continuity and how a series might tie into some sort of company-wide event, I was wondering more about what you referred to as creators who haven't necessarily proven themselves.
For instance, based on everything I've read about Julius Schwartz, I've come away with the impression that he helped to develop the craftsmanship of the creators with whom he worked. Consequently, I was more curious about your impression of whether there might be a need in the industry for editors to get back into the business of focusing on the craft of storytelling by either making or requesting revisions to the script, dialog, illustrations, et cetera in order to make the stories work more effectively.
Dave Gibbons: Certainly editors have a pretty difficult time, and it isn't an easy thing to do. I think the Julie Schwartz generation were the people who had kind of written the book and grown comics from nothing. They were responsible for the whole system of publishing comic books. That was true in England.
Although I'm not saying it's so in Julie's case, but certainly in Britain some of the editorial people were stuck in the past and needed an injection of new talent. Whilst that new talent wasn't quite as grounded in the nuts & bolts of storytelling and the deep history of comics, they certainly brought a freshness of approach. I think the best editors have always been people like Archie Goodwin and Pat Mills. I don't want to exclude anybody--they are not the only two good editors in the universe, but they had a knack of inspiring people by example.
By being good comic creators themselves, then picking people whose work they liked and whose judgment they trusted, and then (to a large degree) leaving them to do what they want to do.
It comes back to the whole question of how do you learn how to do comics? I learnt how to do it by doing lettering and general menial art things. Then gradually working my way up through doing anonymous back-up stuff to having a higher profile.
It's very difficult to know where you get the education. I know some schools do provide it, but there were very experienced editors in the past who could bring their huge wealth and depth of experience to bare. A lot of editors nowadays are a lot fresher to comics and perhaps have come in from some other kind of field--or perhaps don't have time to teach people what to do. I just think it's part of the general evolution of comics, and I think for every skilled craftsman that you lose you get someone who has an exciting new approach and can learn the craft quickly.
Thom Young: In your book, you wrote that when you received the script from Alan you might sometimes have to clarify details with him on the phone, but there was one time when you actually suggested that something in the script be revised. You mentioned that Alan was happy to oblige because he, too, had felt that it wasn't quite right. Could you speak to what it was that needed to be revised in the script and what the problem was with the original version?
Dave Gibbons: The problem I had in mind was, I think, in issue 11 where Rorschach and Nite Owl are fighting Ozymandias in Karnak and, in the midst of this fight, Ozymandias is expounding on who he is and how he came to be. There's a particular scene where Rorschach is trying to stab him with a fork and Ozymandias is blocking it with a table mat and spinning around and grabbing Rorschach's mask so he can't see, and then beating him up.
I felt the amount of dialogue that was being said couldn't possible fit with that action, and I raised that point with Alan. He agreed that it was too much and proceeded to re-write it in half as many words, but saying exactly the same thing--which only increased my admiration for him as a writer because, in many ways, the art of comics is writing briefly and to the point. Alan proved that, when he had to, he could very much be brief and to the point.
Thom Young: Alan is known for his meticulously detailed scripts, and at least one big-name illustrator found the scripts too confining and so stopped working on a high-profile project after only two issues. However, Alan is also known to try to tailor his stories to play to the strengths and preferences of the illustrators with whom he works. In terms of your own artistic vision and freedom, could you speak to the detriments and benefits of working on projects with a writer such as Alan who is very detail oriented in his scripts?
Dave Gibbons: I've never been intimidated by a script. I think there's always a way to draw it, though it can be a challenge at times. I think one of the things that is important as an artist is to know that a writer has put as much thought into writing it as you have into drawing it. There's nothing more demoralizing than to be presented with a script that a writer has knocked off in an afternoon and that you then have to spend the next month drawing.
Certainly, Alan put huge amounts of thought and work into his scripts, and that shows in the length and the detail of them. Alan's approach, as I understand it, has always been not to say, "You must do this and add this into the background and so on." Rather, his approach is more, "This is how I see it, here some suggestions, things you might include, take it or leave it, you're drawing it, if you can think of a better way, it's up to you."
That's the way I've always taken his scripts, and he's usually pretty much on the money. Certainly, what I would do after my first couple of read-throughs of the script would be to condense it in a way--to highlight what was absolutely necessary to draw whether a long shot, a close up, who the main protagonists were in the panel, what they were doing, what had to be shown and what was optional to be shown.
At that stage, I would then get on with doing some thumbnails so that I could draw the final artwork without having to really refer to the script too much. I do the thumbnails, lay them out on the larger board, I put all the lettering in and I can then draw without too much reference to the script. As an artist, your job is very much to take control of the script.
I've also worked with writers who do very terse descriptions--people like John Wagner. I refer to his scripts as "exciting telegrams." He puts a lot of thought into the story structure--and the words that are said are absolutely brilliant--but he doesn't feel the need, because of the kind of stories he writes, to tie the artist down too much.
I'm happy with either approach, and working with different writers does keep one's interest going because it flexes different mental muscles.
Thom Young: Near the end of Watching the Watchmen, you mentioned that in the years since the publication of Watchmen the industry has turned toward trade paperback collections of the continuing narratives that run in ongoing monthly comics. You then stated, "Whether such collections qualify as graphic novels is debatable."
Could you expand on what you see as the elements in these collected narratives that might prevent them from being as effective as Watchmen was as a "novel"?
Dave Gibbons: I don't think there is anything missing in them, or anything that prevents them from becoming a novel. I think the companies have seen the sales potential of the comic book collection that can be sold in a book or comic store as a complete story. It has many advantages over buying an episodic comic--first and foremost, the cost.
The average monthly comic is quite an expensive commodity now, and it can be unsatisfying if you haven't read the issue before or are unable to get hold of the issue afterwards. I think it's a very good idea commercially to package things in book collections. However, I think sometimes story arcs are written with an eye to filling a graphic novel--as in just collecting five or six issues together rather than something being novelistic.
Because, more often than not, the characters are going to continue after the "novel" (and have done so before unchanged), they are like collected episodes in many ways rather than things that are novelistic in intent and scope. They are sometimes very good despite that.
Watchmen stands alone as a novel does. You don't have to read anything before or afterwards. It's completely self-contained. Although I think that "graphic novel" sounds a little pretentious, I think Watchmen could be described as that, but I don't think six issues of Hellblazer, or whatever, collected together necessarily constitutes a "graphic novel." It's a big fat comic book--and none-the less worthy for that--but perhaps it isn't a novel. I'm not trying to take any intellectual high ground, I'm just talking about the intent when the thing is first created.
Thom Young: I was looking through the interview you did with Bhob Stewart that was published in The Comics Journal #116, which came out around the time that Watchmen was being completed. In that interview you said that the two separate sex scenes between Dan and Laurie in chapter seven were intended to show the difference between the mundane (awkward sex on Dan's couch) and the romantic (idealized sex in the OwlShip).
That same dichotomy between the mundane and the romantic (or the mundane and the divine) can be found in the contrasts between Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, respectively. How conscious were you and Alan in creating the mundane vs. the divine as a theme or motif in Watchmen?
Dave Gibbons: I don't think we were going for a conscious illustration of the dichotomy between the mundane and the romantic. I just think it's quite interesting with human beings there's always that gap between our aspirations and our abilities--which I think is the basis of drama and humor.
Not being able to have sex when you have your mundane clothes on but being able to when you have your exciting clothes on is an illustration of that. By relinquishing his heroic aspect, Dan has become impotent. I think that was an interesting way of showing that.
I'm not aware of the contrast between Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. I think everyone is in contrast to Dr. Manhattan--the whole of humanity. I don't think the divine vs. the mundane was one of the themes that we had running in Watchmen. I think it's just mainly about the human condition.
Thom Young: You also indicated in that interview that you and Alan considered doing an adjunct Tales of the Black Freighter series as well as a Minutemen project that would, I suppose, have been a prequel to Watchmen.
Obviously, neither of those projects will ever come to fruition, but I was wondering how seriously you and Alan had discussed them, and whether the two of you had actually discussed specific story details?
Dave Gibbons: As far as the prequel was concerned, that was the only possible way that we could see it going. It had been proposed that there could be spin-offs--such as "Rorschach's Journal" or "The Comedian's Vietnam War Diary"--and it may have been in a response to that, that Alan and I thought, "Is there anywhere that we could creatively and respectively go with this?"
The attraction of a Minutemen project would have been to pay homage to the simplicity and unsophisticated nature of Golden Age comic books--with the added dramatic interest that it would be a story whose conclusion is already known. It would be, perhaps, interesting to see how we got to the conclusion. On reflection I don't think either of those projects would have been a good idea.
Thom Young: At the end of your book, you remarked that you consciously avoided referring to disagreements that you and Alan have had with DC following the publication of Watchmen. Without going into the issues that you purposely avoided, was it difficult to write an objective account of the creation of Watchmen, or can you easily separate the book itself from the circumstances of its creation and the disputes that have followed?
Dave Gibbons: I think I wrote very objectively about the creation. I mean, it is from my viewpoint, but I tried to be fair and even-handed in my description. It's just that I chose not to describe the disagreements.
I refer to them obliquely in the section about merchandising--and there is something to be told there, and something that might be illuminating for students of comics and historians of Alan's career and mine. Maybe at some point I will find a venue in which it feels appropriate to talk about those. I just felt those issues would have detracted from the tone of Watching the Watchmen.
It wasn't difficult to separate them out at all as most of them happened after the creative process, so they were not actually relevant to creating it. If we had been creating it under duress or less than satisfied with what we were doing, that might have muddied the account. As it is, I think all the problems came after all the things I'm detailing in Watching the Watchmen.
Thom Young:Finally, let's talk about the upcoming film. How involved have you been with the designs for the Hollywood version? Did some of your original visual references demand to be updated?
Dave Gibbons: I haven't had anything to do with the designs for the film version--other than the three hundred and some pages of the book itself, which have been pretty heavily referenced! I'm quite happy that those involved with the film should tailor the designs to suit what they're going to do.
The Comedian has remained virtually unchanged, as has Rorschach. The changes with Nite Owl I think are completely acceptable as those kind of cloth suits do actually fit more with the Silver Age and Golden Age characters rather than characters from the 1980s, which is when the first Batman movie was being made.
The Owlship is pretty accurate to what I drew, and a lot of the incidental character designs are very true to what was in the comic book. Also, the color schemes that John Higgins created have been very faithfully followed. So no, I haven't been involved in the actual designs, but I think that my blueprints were pretty much used, and the changes have been pretty minimal.
Thom Young: It looks as though the film contains allusions to the aesthetic choices made by other super-hero movies in the same way that the comic contained allusions to the aesthetic of other superhero comics. For instance, Zack Snyder has mentioned that Ozymandias's costume in the film alludes to the costume designs that were used in Joel Schumacher's 1997 Batman and Robin film. Were you consulted on these types of changes in your original designs?
Dave Gibbons: No I wasn't and I wouldn't expect to be. I do think that it does reference other superhero movies in the way that we reference other superhero comics--and, for that reason, I think now is the ideal time for the movie because all those other superhero movies are in existence ready to be alluded to.
Thom Young: Thank you. I greatly appreciate the time you've taken to answer these questions.
Dave Gibbons: You're welcome, and I hope these answers are of interest. Thank you, goodnight.