Studio Space: Dave Gibbons Part Two
•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 second part running today…
AC: I think we’d better discuss a particularly important work of yours, and I know you can see it coming – Watchmen. You’ve been asked every question under the sun regarding this book, so I’ll try to be careful not to rehash any old chestnuts. I get the impression with the Watchmen, that this was a book where everything had been leading up to it. All your influences, the American, the English, your science-fiction influences, where your goal is to create a very believable, very credible world, which is quite similar to ours, with the odd thing being tweaked here and there. Plus the discipline involved, with all the clean, precise lines, to make everything look gritty and real. It comes across as a very academic approach to story-telling. It’s also quite schematic – did you ever feel constrained when you were drafting these art pages?
DG: No – that was the way, in fact, that I wanted to draw it. I looked at this title and my main aim was for it not to look like any other American comic book, because if it did, it would get lost with all the other American comic books, especially the super-hero ones. So very early on, I was thinking about how the book would look, and I kind of knew what the plot was because Alan (Moore) had been nursing this thing since he was a kid. I sort of knew the plot, but more than that, that it was basically a deconstruction of super-heroes – so it had to look as if it “stood outside” of the regular hero books. I was always impressed with what European artists’ frameworks, using a very strict grid, plus what Steve Ditko did with Spider-Man, and what Harvey Kurtzman achieved with the E.C. war books. Plus there’s a power of doing something in a regular grid – it’s almost a hypnotic feel. It also stops you from any temptation to kind of have any American poster-type page layouts. So I proposed that it was done on that grid system – very early on I did a charity book, and thought that this was the chance to –that’s the thing about charity books, it gives you the chance to try out new ideas, it’s kind of a win-win situation – so I did a 9 panel grid in it and showed it to Alan Moore and he thought it worked really well. Of course he also realized, when it came to the Watchmen, that it would give him tremendous control over the pacing of the story, a predictability of how big things would be, where they’d appear on the page, etc. Also, with the covers, I wanted them to look completely different – I didn’t want to have posed super-hero characters. Again, because it was a direct market thing I thought that “well, you don’t have to have the logo across the top” people know the new Watchmen’s out, and they don’t have to concern themselves with the logo. I proposed that as well, and that seemed to go down well too. Actually all the constraints I put on myself, and I was very happy and comfortable drawing Watchmen like that. It simplifies things from the point of view of storytelling to have the shape and number of panels of a page preset, and also you become very expert as a result of composing a picture in a very familiar space. You know where the hotspots are, and how much detail it can take, and the exact effect it’s going to have in context. I think most artists would tell you that restrictions enhance creativity. You can be told that the art can be any size, any format, and then be told that “it’s got to be this size, now do it” – that’s what really gets the juices flowing.
AC: In a way it’s a slight reversal of the experimentation that had been going on around that time, such as dispensing with the format – there are many reasons why you did it, but as far as this story is concerned, it was extremely apt. It reminded me, when I reread it (yet again!) recently of comic-strip art, where everything has to adhere to a rigid format and panel structure.
DG: Yes, and I also wanted to do it with a different kind of line – I mean if you look at a lot of the stuff I did for 2000AD, it’s got a brush line or flexible pen line. I wanted Watchmen to be very kind of documentary-like, so it was drawn with a very hard pen, with a bit of hatching put in afterwards, but basically a stark kind of art-style, with the characters not so well –rounded, and the feel of being, I suppose for want of a better term, “grittier” – it’s kind of a cliché word for it – maybe “harder” with no soft curves or edges and balloons – giving it more of an edge and a bite to it. And in actual fact, in colour I wanted it to look like a European album rather than a traditional American comic book. I was lucky enough to know John Higgins quite well and we worked out the colouring job that I wanted, too.
AC: As a brief aside I would have to say that the Watchmen was the very first comic book that I’d read where blood looked like blood. It wasn’t gore for the sake of it, but when people were beaten up or attacked it wasn’t hidden – it was there, in your face, presented naturalistically, and such a thing had never been seen (at least as far as I was aware) in comic books before.
DG: Well, you know, people get punched in the face regularly in American comic books and they very rarely bleed. When you get punched in the nose, you bleed a lot. So this was very much part of the effect we were trying to achieve. In fact, and this relates back to an earlier question you gave me, when I stopped thinking of it as a super-hero comic and started thinking of it as a science-fiction comic, and realized that this wasn’t about traditional super-heroes who could defy gravity, with sprayed on tights, I then wanted it to be a documentary science-fiction story set in an alternative universe.
AC: I always thought it was basically that. I mean, obviously it’s not a parody of super-heroes, it’s a take on them. It’s also a take on the history of comic books. Was that more Alan Moore’s input, or was it yours?
DG: What it turned into was, when we realized that we could use the language of comics, we could use the kind of things that Will Eisner could do, or even Harvey Kurtzman. You could use a fixed viewpoint, with stuff marching past it, or echoing compositions from panel to panel, and so on. It was probably three or four issues into it that we realized that “it’s a super-hero comic about super-heroes”, or about comics, so it is a metafiction, or a sort of self-referential work.
AC: That is basically the consensual opinion. Ironically enough it’s also very cinematic for that reason too.
DG: Yes, and that’s what happens when you don’t muddy the water by doing graphic narrative tricks. We did as much as possible to keep the reader in the moment of what was happening. I hate when I read a comic or watch a movie and I think “what a great bit of cinematography, or what a clever caption, etc.” because you’re yanked out of the story. Something about having rigid panels, and I’ve said this before in interviews, is about the proscenium arch – you’re watching T.V. , and you’re engrossed enough that you forget there’s an armchair and curtains and a duck on the wall behind you that you forget that. I wanted people to concentrate on the story and what was in front of them, and the effect is cinematic because in movies they don’t change the size of the screen, unless of course you go to Imax, so you don’t drop out of the story. And that was another reason to draw it not as well as I could, but without clever artistic flourishes. It yanks people out of the story. I think it was Samuel Goldwyn, the movie producer, who whenever he got a cleverly written script he’d look down his nose at it and say, “I smell a writer”. And that’s the last thing I want anybody to do – smell a writer, or smell an artist.
AC: Yes, and at the same time, Alan Moore did add a lot of post-modern touches – he was constantly giving you the back-story of each character, through various means, which you adapted as well. Did you think the section at the end of the story should’ve been a coda to the rest of it?
DG: I liked to think that the most cinematic moments, such as the parts that had no dialogue, was where Alan gave me free rein to make it clear what the characters were doing, such as what Rorschach is doing with the back of the wardrobe, or what he and Nite-Owl are doing creeping through the night streets.
AC: That is something I distinctly remember thinking about – such as the pages that show Rorschach before he’s captured by the police, didn’t need dialogue. Another thing about the pages being so rigidly formatted was that you feel that the characters themselves are constrained – it’s that claustrophobic, noirish feel, I guess.
DG: Yes, that’s what we wanted it to have. And that’s why I think that the few times that it does open out such as when Rorschach and Nite Owl moor the Owl Ship in the harbour in New York and they climb out, I’d hope that there’s a huge sense of space. Also when they’re going to the South Pole, there’s one little sequence when above the clouds, there’s a tiny little Owl Ship, with a rolling field of clouds underneath it – it’s kind of the pressure of the story, there’s a definite sense of enclosure and space. So it’s interesting that you should pick that up, because that was something that was definitely going on there.
AC: Even in Veidt’s fortress, in Antarctica, he is alone in a very cavernous place. We still feel reasonably enclosed – and it’s not just the way you drew the place, it’s the way you drew him. Everything is completely internalized, which is a word that Alan Moore used to describe it.
DG: Well, I mean, in a philosophical way Veidt may be the most powerful man in the world, but he’s still in the world – he hasn’t transcended it. He may be in a bigger house, but it’s still a house.
AC: Yes, and that is touched upon in various ways. You answered a question I was going to ask already, which was to do with the background reading – such as what Golden Age and E.C. comics you read. You already mentioned Kurtzman and Eisner. Were there any other E.C. comic artists who were an influence? The pirate comic – Tales From The Black Freighter – did you read any of the Piracy comics?
DG: At that point I’m not sure that I’d seen them – I’d gotten all the Russ Cochran E.C. reprints, I got all the E.C. box sets, and I now have all the Piracy comics, but I can’t remember if I actually had those at that time. But certainly the Pirate thing was something I threw into the mix – Alan was thinking about the story and the philosophical ramifications of it, and I was more interested in how I could make the world real. I made a list of things such as what kind of fast food they would have, what kind of comics would they read, and I said to Alan, “they wouldn’t read super-hero comics, what would they read?” – and I thought, pirate comics – that would be good. And of course Alan picked that up and absolutely ran with it and turned it into something that I’d never in a million years dreamed of. Just a person reading pirate comics in the background, and indeed in the very first issue that there is a kid reading a pirate comic – Alan turned it into a subtextual device. But no, I had possibly seen some of the E.C. comic covers, and maybe odd stories, and I’d seen bits of Golden Age stuff, and I’d read anything from E.C. that I could get my hands on, and again particularly the Kurtzman stuff rather than the Feldstein stuff which was rather prolix I thought. If there was a God of the Watchmen, in my mind it would be Harvey Kurtzman. With Kurtzman, all those satires, I mean, even Superduperman, which would be one of my all-time favourite comic-book stories, it was a spoof and it was funny, but more importantly it made you think of super-heroes in a way that you’d never thought of before. Lois Lane, when she discovers that Clark Kent is Superman, she still thinks he’s a creep! A fantastic bit of work, so you know. I was also familiar with the style of Golden Age comics – when I looked at all the reprints I realized they were actually rather crude and sort of flat.
AC: There’s one sequence where you’ve got a flashback of a Golden Age – style character, the old man who’s about to be beaten up, when he’s ironically struck over the head with his own statuette. There’s the flashback picture of him which looks very Schomburg-esque – it’s properly done, it just looks right. You must’ve looked at a few covers and noticed that the hero’s always grinning whilst he’s whacking the Nazi in the face, saying “take that” and all that stuff.
DG: Yes, and that was the kind of cheesy aspect of super-heroes that I really liked. Arguably it’s the kind of milieu in which the heroes work best, I mean you know, people say “Ah, the Watchmen, it’s grim and gritty, it turns all these icons into these psychopaths and murderers” and everything like that, well, no it hasn’t. The super-hero notion or concept has been treated in a number of different ways, and this was another idea about people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime. But if Alan and I had done something after Watchmen, the thing we wanted to do was Captain Marvel, but to do Captain Marvel right, to do him in the vein that C.C. Beck did it, you know, it would have to be as a fable, as a fairy tale, as an allegory, as it was not trying to be based in the real world. And I think a lot of the Golden Age stuff is like that. It doesn’t attempt to be literal, it doesn’t attempt to say it’s real, and I think that’s the real quality of Golden Age comics, which is something that I love and was familiar with. And what’s really interesting is that I see a lot of that in the work of Grant Morrison. He’s got a wonderful feel, albeit in a very modern way, and an understanding of that essential ludicrousness of super-hero concepts, but saying “it’s crazy, it doesn’t make sense, it’s childish, but, hey, it is a lot of fun.” You know?
AC: Absolutely. One of his titles – Animal Man – I still rate that so highly.
DG: Yes, and I think that you can go too far down the road to make things seem real. I mean take Alex Ross – I’ve got great respect for his work, and he’s a great technician and artist, but it’s kind of going the wrong way for me. I want to go the way Darwyn Cooke went in The New Frontier – that is the essence of super-hero comics. That’s a matter of taste, certainly, but I’m quite happy, and with a medium like super-heroes, which is essentially a fairly narrow genre, I think it benefits from a whole variety of different approaches. I’m not saying that there’s one way it should be done, but I do think there’s a great charm in doing comics in an innocent and fabulous way.
AC: I could ask you many more questions about the Watchmen, but I better proceed to the next thing you did of importance, which was…
DG: Give Me Liberty?
AC: Yes (laughter). Actually there is one last question I have to ask about the Watchmen. Did you feel at the time that you were creating something that would have such lasting importance? I mean, people forget that at the time, something of this nature that you did had never been thought about before, let alone published. Did you ever think that this was something that was going to be groundbreaking?
DG: No, I mean, all we set out to do – firstly Alan and I wanted to do was to work together, as we’d done shorter stuff, and we knew we had a sympathy, with each other, and when I first came across Watchmen, when Alan first sent me the storyline I remember that I imagined it to be like just an ordinary super-hero comic. But when we came to talk about it we realized “Oh, we can make it something more”. And it was only when we got to issue three that – well the first issue was well received at DC, and we’d done it completely on our own, Alan sent me the script, I drew, lettered and inked it, and John Higgins coloured it, so there was very little editorial interference in it. So DC were more or less presented with a fait accompli. Obviously the editor, who was originally Len Wein, read it, and sort of liked it, but there was no editorial interference on the first issue, and the reaction was rather strange but they really liked it. And round about when issue three came out, Alan and I had figured out that “Ah, it’s about comics – we can use all these things that we’ve learnt about comics and we can pull the whole thing to bits”. That was when the pirate comic came in – we could have a pirate comic in the story which is kind of a commentary on the story. And it was only when we went to New York and people were coming up to us, particularly other artists, and patting us on the back and saying “this is amazing, this is fantastic”. And we would say, “that’s very nice, really?? Do you think so?” You know.
AC: You were given carte blanche at the time to do what you wanted. And basically, and I’m not just saying this because you’re English, but it is that way with an English person taking a foreign medium (or rather genre) and doing it in a very different way, having a detached perspective. Also the comic itself is quite a detached work.
DG: That’s right, and I do think the other thing about it is that for me, I remember the first time I went to New York in 1973 or whatever and the impact it had on me – even a fire hydrant, a car, or whatever, was such a wonderful artefact. And I know Alan felt the same as well, that you were talking about some fabulous foreign land, and of course for that reason you were detached. You were like the sailor on shore leave. And of course you had a different take on all these things that seemed mundane to New Yorkers. These things had a tremendous graphic and cultural significance. We undoubtedly just by the nature of our geography had a unusual view of it. Anyway, from issue three on, that was when we realized we had the tiger by the tail and we started to really fly as well, and we thought that we had to keep this quality up. We did it, and I’m quite precious about my work, in a very off-the-cuff, hand-to-mouth way, and I can recall, especially in the later issues getting two pages of script and then calling Alan just as I was getting to the end of it and then calling Alan and asking him if he’d written any more. And then immediately sending it off – it was quite amazing that we got it done. And I don’t think at the time that we thought it would ever have the longevity that it’s had, or that it would remain in print all these years, along with all the continuing critical responses. I suppose you know, as a fan of the medium, that the one thing I did have on my checklist was draw Green Lantern, meet Jack Kirby, meet Stan Lee, etc. but not write, draw, or co-create “the best comic ever in the history of the world” you know (laughter). I don’t think that’s so. It’s certainly something that’s differentiated from the masses, I’ll say that. And I’m just so pleased to have done something that which has drawn people into the medium, and that people became more aware of some of the possibilities of the medium, and that it’s always mentioned whenever the history of comics is discussed. I do hope, and I am a modest man, that I don’t sound boastful, but I do get a warm glow when I think “well, you know, I’m so glad we did that, something really good”. You know?
AC: One very brief question – did you think that the scheduling, that you were on these deadlines, was a help rather than a hindrance?
DG: Absolutely – I think that the worst thing is when you get all the time in the world and you become a bit dilettante and you fiddle and mess about with things. Whereas when you’re on a deadline – all my best work has been done under a pretty strong deadline, it concentrates the mind, and you go with your instinct, and you don’t get clever and you don’t get artsy-fartsy, and you don’t get worried to death, and you just do it. And you know, that’s accepted, and I think that we being under the gun was a really good thing.
AC: It forces you to make decisions, I think that’s at least partly to do with it. The stumbling block in the creative process is making decisions. In Give Me Liberty, you switched your writing partner to another slightly important chap, namely Frank Miller. Now obviously, it was a very different project, but certain elements were the same – a dystopian future setting, the use of media satire in T.V. and magazines. You had a very different art-style in this, it was a more fluid, more ersatz art-style. Would you agree with that?
DG: Yeah, it was different – Give Me Liberty went through a few changes at the beginning – if you read the first couple of chapters it’s pretty serious, it’s pretty heavy-going. I actually got cold feet about it and I think that Frank did as well and we almost stopped doing it – we almost packed it in because it didn’t have the feel that we really liked. Then we thought “well, it’s about the future, things are going to go mad then, it’s got to be hilarious and scary all at the same time, things are going to develop much quicker than we can anticipate, you know, let’s try and get a flavour of that, let’s try and make it a case of “My God, what’s she doing now? It was only a month ago we saw her and there she is on Mars” I suppose with this, if you’re talking about Watchmen being about enclosure, Give Me Liberty – even the title suggests this, is about space, and breaking free. So I suppose that’s the only thing that in retrospect that occurs to me. Certainly Frank’s scripts were a lot less enclosed, than Alan’s. The original scripts I got from Frank were this stream-of-consciousness springboard, with loads of ideas, and I drew lots of sketches, and chucked stuff off, and it went backwards and forwards like that. His scripts were much terser and looser than Alan’s, and he would say when he got to look at my artwork – “let’s do another 4 pages of that” and so on – he was a really interesting contrast to the way Alan had worked with me. Not to say that he was better or worse, just that it was a real contrast, and a very nice change of scenery.
Part Three Coming tomorrow