Studio Space: Dave Gibbons Part Three
•Back in 2006, Senior Writer Andrew Colman interviewed Dave Gibbons for Image’s Studio Space book. To commemorate Watchmen‘s 30th anniversary in 2016, we thought that we would unearth this classic article from our archives. Arguably the definitive Gibbons interview, it’s being posted in three parts on Tripwire, with the third and final part running today…
AC: Yes, Frank Miller’s writing style in this was very brutal, and laced with dark humour. And much more sledgehammer – less irony, and more in-your-face satire.
DG: Yes, and I recall when I looked at it the other day, (cause I knew there’d be questions about it!) that the thing I found interesting about it was when we were looking to finish the whole thing off (with a final instalment) , me and Frank, I saw that it holds up very well, and more importantly, holds up now. We’ve got the Pax Americana now, and look how the book mirrors current events.
AC: Yes, I’ve written down here “strangely prescient”.
DG: Precisely, and I think that things have gotten crazy, I mean it always gives me a very weird feeling when you see American troops in the Middle East, with their Ipods, and Homer Simpson stuck on the front of their Humvees. The feeling is that this is how we thought it would be. We’ve got a script, although I haven’t had a chance to draw it, in which we conclude the saga at which point we’ll put the whole thing out. If it does still tickle people’s funny bones, we hope.
AC: It, plus the sequel, Martha Washington goes To War, are very garish and hyper, and over the top. It is a very different story but at the same time there are similar elements – you could say that the Watchmen is prescient, although it is more reliant on the Cold war scenario.
DG: One of the downsides of doing something like the Watchmen is that you can become very precious, it’s kind of like the Lennon and McCartney thing “I was in the Beatles, you know”. At first you try and do something that’s going to be even, and then you think “that isn’t how arrived at what I did before. Then you do something that you think will appeal to you at the time, and that is how we came to do Give Me Liberty. Of course, Frank, Alan and I had been at the centre of the whirlwind that was Watchmen and Dark Knight, so we had a kind of shared perspective on that, but what was interesting was when Frank, many years later, came to do the sequel to Dark Knight, people were less than impressed with it, and said that that wasn’t they wanted, and I admired his balls to do what was in his head just at that time, in a very unfussy way, and he really went for it, you know. There will never be a sequel to Watchmen, and that might be because I may not be able to do it or want to do it due to being too precious about it. It was really good to do Give Me Liberty, and particularly Martha Washington, because it was a case of “let’s just do something mad”, or as Kyle Baker said, “a lot of people running around, firing guns and having a laugh”.
AC: And again, noticeably not entirely American, with the way it’s drawn. There’s definitely European influences. In a cartoony European way, if you will.
DG: The thing that European artists do, and I did a little bit of it in Watchmen, is, and this features rarely in American comics, is that they draw very realistically, and yet make the characters almost humorous, if not caricatures. And that’s something I’d like to think also differentiates The Watchmen, in that every character in there has a unique body shape and a unique head shape – unique features. You’re never going to mistake Nite Owl for Veidt, whereas in a lot of American comics it’s the same guy, but he’s got a moustache, or he’s got eyeglasses, or he’s bald, you know?
AC: Yes, I remember thinking that Nite Owl wasn’t particularly buff for a super-hero.
DG: Yes, and he is, out of all the characters, he is us. You and me. Well, you might be buff, but he’s me, anyway. (laughter).So I suppose I can’t help but bring myself to it – in a way that’s why so many British writers and artists in America have been so successful out of all proportion is because we have that slightly skewed edge, that outsider, analytical “hold on, a minute, what does this really mean” kind of approach.
AC: Yes, plus you were working with Mr. Miller who again did share that attitude in a way, he was trying to deconstruct things and look at them from a different angle.
DG: Well, I don’t think my and Frank’s politics are exactly parallel, but I’ve always enjoyed discussing politics with Frank, and as you know he’s not somebody who’s scared of getting hold of a philosophical idea and really running with it, you know. I think there’s a lot of bravery in the way Frank does things and that’s something that I really admire.
AC: That’s fair enough – he’s always been not just outspoken about politics but about the politics within the comics themselves. Anyway, it reads very well, especially considering that we’re now talking about something that was published twenty years ago.
DG: We started it around 1990 or thereabouts, and it was started mainly for professional reasons – we’d do a bit, and then do other things, and other things would happen, and then we’d come back and do a bit more. It’s a really kind of spotty publishing career, but it really does hold together, and who knows, if there comes a time to do an anthology with extra bits of artwork and sequences put in there – well it’s an interesting piece of work and in some ways it’s kind of a journal of where we were at various places throughout the 1990s.
AC: That’s an interesting point, I never thought of all the political outage coming from both of you and ending up in the book.
DG: Well, I mean I don’t think I’m an overtly political creature like Frank – I think I’ve got that English “not impressed” kind of attitude, and frankly I wouldn’t vote for anybody who’s in politics. I don’t like the kind of people who are in politics – it’s a rather self-defeating and negative view, but it is a satirist’s view.
AC: Yes, as you say, if you want to be a politician you are primarily interested in power as a means to an end, which of course is the wrong reason to go into the field.
DG: Well, I think that it is possible for someone to go into politics for other reasons than that, but such people are few and far between. I think the fact that they’re oblivious to their own absurdity is what makes them an irresistible target for humour.
AC: Yes, and that shows very well in Give Me Liberty. Moving onto, well, I wouldn’t necessarily say a labour of love, but it certainly was a pet project of yours that you completed more recently – a book that Joel (Meadows – editor) passed onto me as recommended reading – The Originals. I read it in one go.
DG: You can read it in one go! That’s the kind of story it is…
AC: First of all, in 1964, when you had what was the original wave of Mods, were you an aspiring Mod at that time?
DG: I think 1964 was a little early, even though that was when the wave went through. What you quite often find is that people on the tail end of waves such as that often become attached to it more heavily. Alan for example was a bit too young to have been a hippy during the Summer Of Love, but he to this day, I think it would be fair to say, and I think he would agree with me, you know, is the hippy ideal – the hair, the exotic tastes, the bohemian way of life that he has remained attached to. Probably the people who were a couple of years older had passed onto something else, and maybe that’s true of Mod. I didn’t get a scooter until later, and basically arrived late, although I did have all the clothes, I had a parka, I had a two –tone suit, the Ben Sherman shirt, the Dessert boots, and all of that stuff and the haircut, and as soon as I could drive a scooter I did, and I had a fantastic scooter – a TV175, the top end of the Lambretta range, and I had the chrome panels, mudguard, sports box, fly screen, and there it was – I was there, you know? And a lot of things that happened in The Originals actually happened, or slightly less dramatic versions of them happened. The whole sequence at the beginning where they turn up and ask him where they can find the Dirt, or in my case the Grease, happened to me – the only difference was that I didn’t go along for the ride and join in the fight. I certainly took great pleasure in telling thirty scooter boys exactly where they could find the local grease, and beat the shit out of them, which they did, and to this day, and I shouldn’t do, I take great pride in that.
AC: That’s what shows through more than anything else is this – despite the tragedy at the end of the book – celebration of a lifestyle.
DG: Yes, and I’ll just tell you something particularly interesting – truth can be stranger than fiction – there’s a little place in the town where that happened, and I was walking down the road one evening and all these scooters came over the brow of the hill, they were obviously out for trouble, they saw me and went “hello”. They didn’t know who I was, I did know who they were, but because I was wearing a parka I was immediately their mate. I was one of them, no question. And I had been messed around by the local grease, and I had a kind of grudge against them, so that was the truth of that situation. And years later, I was at my parents house telling some relatives of mine about this and I said that I had hated the grease, and what a terrible way to be, etc. and as we were driving out of town we passed by where it happened, and I pointed it out. And there, where I pointed, was an end wall of a building where somebody had sprayed the word “Mods”, with the arrow on the “O”. This must’ve been the revival in the ‘80s, when Mod came back. That happened, and those two things are confabulated together at the beginning of The Originals. The graffiti on the wall, and making sure the Dirt get a good hiding and there are other incidents in there, such as when the girl saves two guys from being beaten up, that actually happened. I had to change it in the book so that the police were coming round the corner, before anything can happen, but in real life, this girlfriend of mine, or rather this friend of mine who was a girl would be a more accurate way to put it, told the grease who were totally intent on beating me and my friend up, to “piss off ” and talked to them as if they were stupid little kids, and they walked away like lambs. If I’d written it that way, people might not have believed it, of course. There is a lot of autobiography and stuff that really happened in there, and I think the thing is I was very happy with it in that sense. I’d been tempted to sex it up, to “Kirby” it up, to make it a bit more sci-fi, a bit more “gosh wow”, not make it real but make it really action-packed, and I didn’t do that, and it does seem true to me now. A lot of people have read it and have said that it does have the ring of truth. My 17 year old step-daughter read it and she’s not easily impressed with anything I do, and I gave her a copy of it and I thought she wouldn’t read it, but it turned out that we had one of the best conversations we’d had for a long long time about it, and she could exactly relate to it and compare how things were nowadays with kids and so it connected with her. There are things I could’ve done with it to make it more commercially or critically successful, but I’m really glad that I stuck to my Mod ideals and could’ve given the book to those Mods I knew back then and I wouldn’t’ve been embarrassed by it.
AC: It is impressive as it does come across as this paean to that era. Logistically though you have made some changes, you’ve set it in the future, they’re riding hoverbikes, and hoverscooters.
DG: I can tell you why I did that if you like. Well, when I first saw these scooters coming over the hill, or even before that, when I saw a bunch of local Mods turn up at the local dance hall, it was for me like “Jeez, who are these people??” You know, ‘cause I’d never seen stuff like that before. It was like people landing from Mars. In fact if you draw somebody on a scooter now, and a friend of mine pointed this out, a big guy on a little scooter does look a bit silly. I could appreciate that and thought that it was so, so I knew I had to come up with something that had the same kind of visceral impact as the reality of it did then. I also really didn’t want to do a complete retelling, I didn’t want to make it all exactly accurate – “these are the kind of cigarettes, this is the kind of way people somked” I really didn’t want to get into that.
AC: One or two of the characters did remind me of one or two of the characters in Quadrophenia – the cowardly one who knifes the biker when he’s trapped, that one, for example.
DG: Well, that one is based on someone I really knew, he didn’t knife anyone or kill anyone but he did get us into big, big trouble. Obviously people have made the comparison with Quadrophenia, but I’d rather think they were both drawn from the same reality – it was never an attempt to swipe anything from that.
AC: Well, you were there, so you could say that Quadrophenia was based on someone with your experience, in fact.
DG: Well, I have to say that Quadrophenia is really a very accurate movie, and it was close enough to the era that it was capable of doing that. What I was really interested in showing was that this was the beginning of young people – this sounds a very middle-aged thing to say – being able to decide their own fate, and have control in their own world. So in some ways it did have the same message.
AC: The strange thing is that at the end of the Originals he says that he’s going to be 18. I have to say that he does look a bit older than that.
DG: I’d say he does look a bit older than that, and I’d say that it’s more how you feel at the time. I look at pictures of me when I was 18, and I was really kind of grown-up, really kind of moving, and stylish, and I looked like a kid, but I didn’t think of myself like that. I was fresh-faced, baby-faced, almost, but I didn’t think of myself like that – I suppose I was going for a sole reality, and I also wanted to bring home that this had happened at a very young age, and all these dreadful things, all these life-changing things, happened in a very short amount of time. Probably the entire story-arc in the Originals takes place in a six month period, less maybe, you know, and I wanted to emphasize that as well. At that age, you do pack a lot in in a very short amount of time and you do feel that you know everything. And you do feel like you’ve grown up. But really, you’re not.
AC: One other question about the Originals – it is idealized, and does stylistically remind me of Watchmen at least a little. I’m sure that’s probably deliberate…
DG: What d’you mean, probably? Of course it is! (laughter).
AC: Trying to hedge my bets there. It’s a very easy-flowing story, but it’s not something intertextual like Watchmen, it’s straightforward in its’ narrative.
DG: That’s how I wanted it to be, yeah. I did want it to run smoothly, which I mean if you knew how long it took me and how long I slaved over it – it always amazes me about comics, that people can read them in a single sitting, and this took me several hundred sittings to draw it. And I was amazed that it did run so smoothly. Again, like Watchmen, as you said, I wanted it to look unmistakably the Originals – to do it in black and white and to set it in that time period, and I did a very specific thing in it if you look that the only solid blacks in it were when black was used as a colour, rather than when black is used for light and shade. I wanted it to be a clear line outline with black and several tones of grey as kind of flat colours, because I wanted it to look like a lot of the black and white things they did in the Warren magazines. Again, black and white to me always feels more “documentary”, and more real, and not pretty, so yes, there were definite stylistic decisions made there. And I guess the smooth storytelling would have to be my harking back to my training at DC Thomson, along, he said with a finishing flourish, “the many years of experience!”
AC: Yes, and the fact that you’d decided to be your own writer as well.
DG: I always thought that comics were written and drawn by the same person. I had no idea that it was “many hands”, so I was disappointed when I got work just drawing stuff. I wanted to write as well and that always was my ambition – the plus points of The Watchmen was the marquee value, as the Americans would call it “he’s got billing, he’s Dave Gibbons – if he wants to write something, we’d better take notice”. I did start off, and you’ll realize that I’m quite rigorous in my approach, by writing for other people, because I wanted to convince myself that my writing had a value, divorced from my ability to draw. So I wanted to write for other people, and I was lucky because I got incredible artists like Garcia Lopez, and Mike Mignola and Steve Rude, a fantastic draughtsman who drew things exactly the way I would’ve drawn it, if I could’ve drawn as well as him. So that was a great opportunity and at the moment, I’ve actually done more writing recently than drawing – it’s a completely different set of challenges, but I am really enjoying that. At the moment I’m writing and drawing the Green Lantern Corps, so things have gone full circle.
AC: There’s a symmetry, not unlike Watchmen, there!
DG: Ah yes, there are patterns if you know where to look for them. So I’m really enjoying that at the moment, and I only qualified that because I should point out that it is extremely hard work, to do the script, and then three months later sit down and draw it – you know, you start thinking that “I should’ve written it like this, etc.” You have to say “That’s the script that’s been written and approved, that’s what I’m going to draw”. It’s an interesting experience, and this is in utter conclusion, and this may be some kind of summary, I did start off as a fan, and my ambition has always been to work in comics. I think I’ve been really lucky and persistent, kind of working in every area of comics that I’m capable of.SO I think that’s the thing to me. When you get something like Watchmen, because as you say it was a huge success, the temptation is that you do get seduced, and think, “How can I have another huge success?”. In fact the happiness comes in doing different things and working with different people, you know.
AC: Just a couple of questions about the studio environment that you work in. Do you prefer to be alone, or do you prefer to have people with you? Do you prefer to work from home as well?
DG: Well, you see, it’s true that for most of my career I have sat in a room on my own – at the start of the ‘80s, when I was about to do some of my best work I did share a room with Mick McMahon, who was one of the essential 2000AD artists. We had very different work methods and artistic styles but we both had a tremendously positive effect on each other’s approach. It’s really interesting to sit in a room with someone and see how they do it, and hear what they think of what you’re doing, and pick stuff up from each other. So I quite like to work in a studio but it has to be the right person. I talk a lot, Mick doesn’t talk very much, so that’s absolutely fine. If it’s two people like me, or like Mick, we might not get on so fine. I think it’s quite a delicate balance whether you can work in a creative environment with somebody. When I’m working I’ll always be listening to something, depending what phase I’m in – usually non-vocal dance music, or I’ll listen to people singing songs if I’m doing another bit of it, or if I’m inking I can actually listen to Radio 4 and catch up with Melvyn Bragg or Sue Lawley, all that kind of stuff.
AC: Does it help when you listen to certain types of music?
DG: The point when you’re planning everything out, you don’t want any kind of distraction, you know, because you’ve got to be in it, you’ve got to be there, and inhabiting the world of the story. When you come to pencil it, you need to feel relaxed and happy and “dancey” if you will, so that’s when I like something not particularly involving, but uplifting. A bit further on, when you’re inking, you’re really using the visual side of your brain and you’re not really thinking about words, so something with words works very well. Inking kind of requires a more casual relaxed way of working – you’ve got to stop all the critical thoughts in your head and listen to somebody waffle on about the Renaissance, or perhaps Desert Island Discs. You know, that’s quite beneficial as well. You also learn things like when you work well and when you don’t, such as whenever there’s a thunderstorm you might as well pack it in and watch the T.V. – or rather not, as you’d be struck by lightning, wouldn’t you (laughter). Or do a telephone interview, so you know…
AC: Is there a schedule, or do you generally work until you’ve finished?
DG: I’ve always worked on a schedule, to be honest, because I find that you can get past the point of being effective, and I usually work on weekdays, from 9 in the morning until, depending on the time of year, 8PM, if not a bit earlier – so 9-6. That isn’t to say I’m being productive all the time, you know, when you’re in the office, you do have the net, and shelves full of fascinating books, and we do have to put our comic collection in order, etc., but I certainly am here from 9-6. Very occasionally I’d come back later in the evening and work for a couple of hours, and equally rarely would I come in on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It’s frustrating sometimes to have to stop when you’re in full flow – there is a recognized phenomenon that they used to get in the Disney Studios, called “4 o’clock frenzy” where you sit there all day, screwing stuff up, erasing it, fiddling about, sharpening pencils, doing anything but the work and suddenly at 4 o’clock it all starts to fly out, and you’re absolutely white hot but it’s time to go home. And then the whole thing happens the next day, you know? However I think that if you’ve been doing it long enough you develop a kind of a method – I tend to have a routine, I tend to have a strategy for doing stuff, that those things tend to even themselves out, that the dull stuff is outweighed by the more exciting stuff. The stuff that flows well outweighs the stuff that doesn’t flow quite so easily. This does sound like the start of a whole new psychoanalytical interview to me, so moving on…
AC: That was one of the core questions, and you certainly answered it. Finally, archive books – do you have books that you use for reference, or do you not need them that much now?
DG: Well, nowadays with the internet everything is there at your fingertips. I mean I do, whenever there’s a new series that I’m doing, have a process that you have to get the characters in your head, the costumes, the locales, and things like that. After a while you do just internalize it, although you do use a bit of photo reference – for example the thing I’m drawing at the moment, there were poses I couldn’t quite get my head around, and actually I’ve got a thing on my computer called a poser where you’ve got a 3D map where you can pose thumbnails that you’ve drawn and I’ve just used that. So I’ve used that as a reference, and of course you could go the whole hog and trace it off and stuff. I remember when I was drawing one of the Star Wars comics that I used a video camera for poses – part of me thinks that it’s cheating, part of me thinks that – “you recall that old man in my room with sandals, obviously you traced off of that”, but then why do it the hard way when often there’s an easier and more effective way to do it? So I do tend to use aids if I need them, and of course I’ve got draws full of comic books and here’s another interesting point about artist’s studios – you will find that nearly all of them will have the same books on their shelves – they’ll have the E.C. box sets, they’ll have Hogarth albums, they’ll have Akira, they’ll have a whole wall of French albums, books on anatomy, books on famous artists. So instead of a formal artistic education I do have one of the biggest collections of art books on anatomy, composition, perspective, all those kind of books. I’ve got all that to hand, although it can be more of a distraction than a help. As can the bloody computer, as you will probably know. It’s so much easier to go and read somebody’s blog and find out what they’ve been saying about the last thing you drew, than to create something. One day when I move and get a bigger studio I will have my computer in a different room to the one I work in!
As for my taste in music for my work environment – I like all types of music, as somebody once said. I used to of course really love Motown, Stax, and Atlantic, all the soul stuff from that era. I do like a good song. I do like your Crowded House, and your Elvis Costello, that kind of thing, and I do like a lot of modern trancey, dancey Orbital kind of thing, zero 7, Roy Scott, that kind of uplifting music that gives you a bit of energy. And there’s some fantastic streaming radio stations that play that stuff all day long, to your heart’s content. That’s one really good thing about a computer!
Read the First Two Parts of The Interview