Studio Space: Dave Gibbons Part One
•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, kicking off today…
AC: Let’s start from the beginning. When you were growing up, did you read comics?
DG: I’d say it was reading comics that made me want to become a comic artist – I wouldn’t know any other way of wanting to be one. I can remember – my very earliest memories are of reading the Beano and the Dandy, and my Dad occasionally buying me an Eagle, which I suspect was something he wanted to look at himself. I have a most vivid memory of being seven years old – my Grandad bought me my first Superman comic at Woolworths – which I still have.
AC: An important item.
DG: Oh yes, and I can recall getting papers and sketchbooks with my version of Batman, unmasking in the Batcave, or Superman rescuing Lois Lane, all directly copied from the comic books. My very early efforts were just straight copies – I just copied everything and perhaps changed the chest emblem or something like that. I of course didn’t know at the time that comics were drawn much larger than they were printed, not actual size with miniscule lettering, etc. So, anyway, the moment I saw comics I was inspired to do them myself.
AC: You had certain favourite comics – were they generally English or American?
DG: Well, I think my taste is somewhere in the middle. I liked the English comics that were kind of American in their feel. I used to really like Frank Bellamy’s artwork, because that had a kind of a, not a Kirby feel, but a very slick, action packed feel to it. A little less for the kind of what I call the “hairy” British comic illustrators, the ones who used a lot of hatching, like the Conan stuff. I always liked a good kind of clear line. Early favourites were Frank Hampson, ‘cause he made Dan Dare absolutely believable and three dimensional, and kind of cross-referenced everything. Frank Bellamy, and also I used to like several anonymous artists, one of whom turned out to be Geno Antonio, who drew a lot of war comics. Also Ian Kennedy who drew wonderful air – war comics, with the best spitfires you’d ever see. And of the Americans, really early favourites would be people like Infantino, Wally Wood, all the kind of madcap artists. Mainly DC artists, but I also liked Kirby’s stuff. The Kirby stuff that I liked was the work he did in the ‘50s, which was non-superhero, things like Race For The Moon, science-fiction stuff.
AC: He did a lot of pre-code horror, like Black Magic, etc.
DG: Yes, as well as Black Cat Mystic, which I encountered in reprint. It was kind of confusing at the time, because Kirby was doing Race For The Moon, which was clearly an American comic-book, but he was also doing an English weekly comic called Rocket, or Ranger, which reprinted his SkyMasters newspaper strip. I was really confused as a kid, trying to work out what was English and what was American.
AC: Because of course everything was second-hand then…
DG: Well I mean the Superman comics we got were reprinted and published in Australia, and brought over here and there were our own British reprints, with non-Superman stuff. And then as I said there was stuff that was reprinted in the weekly comics, and remember Superman appearing in those, at one point. It was confusing, and there was no fandom – no contact betweenme and other people who loved comics. And so you had these mysteries that niggled away at you .
AC: It’s very interesting – you’re talking about the KG Murray stuff, and the Alan Class/Len Miller titles. And of course nothing was done in any specific order – it was just done for the casual reader and not the serious devotee.
DG: Yes – and occasionally you’d get really tantalizing things turn up in the reprints. Superboy, for instance was a regular – you’d normally just get that character, but sometimes you’d get Johnny Quick, Robotman, or Zatanna – something really just pulled from out of the cupboard, and you knew there was more out there. You’d wonder how you’d ever get to it.
AC: That’s vaguely similar to my experience, but a lot earlier. So basically speaking, at what point did you say, “I want to be an artist”? Where did you train?
DG: Well I didn’t train at all – from early on, as I said, I’d copy comics – apart from copying super-hero comics I used to copy Mad – I really liked that title, and used to do Mad type spoofs with things that were on British T.V., and British comic-books. I think what was probably a formative experience was – I must’ve been possibly about twelve, ‘cause all I wanted to do was draw comics – was at school, I don’t know if it’s the same now, but we used to have this thing called the eleven plus, where you could get a scholarship to go to a Grammar school, or a fee-paying school. And I remember getting my eleven plus results on my tenth birthday – I was always a bright kid – and I think my parents worried that all I really wanted to do was draw comics. They knew people who were artists, and they never had any money, and I had all these wonderful prospects – they sort of didn’t discourage my enthusiasm, but I remember being taken by my Dad to see this guy who was a local landscape painter, a typical kind of sandal-wearing, itchy polo-neck, goatee beard type of local artist. We brought around what I was drawing, as my Dad wanted get his opinion. What I was drawing was a page by page copy of a World’s Finest story, with Superman and Batman, and I’d change them to Atom man and so on. I remember being taken by my Dad to see this artist, and them going to have a confab in the corner, and I kind of suspect, I don’t know for certain, that he must’ve realized that what I was showing was good, with my Dad saying “I know it’s industrious, but…”
However when I got to be about 15, I’d kind of lost interest, and was a bit embarrassed to be collecting comics – a strong memory of mine is of going to the local newsagents and asking for some cigarettes, whilst standing right next to a spinner-rack of comics. I spotted a Green Lantern comic, I believe it was issue 45, with a fantastic Gil Kane cover, and I bought it, and even though I was embarrassed it kind of got me hooked back in again. At the time I’d kind of flunked out a bit at school, I didn’t really like it, and it was then that I thought that I did have a future working in the medium. When I qualified, I remember going to Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, which was a prototypical British comic shop, and picked up a magazine called Fantasy Advertiser, and in there it mentioned a guy I used to know and correspond with, and I rang him and asked whether it was possible to get into comics, even though his line of expertise was designing toothpaste packaging. He did put me in touch with (Warrior and Comics International editor) Dez Skinn, and things kind of took off from there. I think the other thing that happened was I was roaming around London going through second-hand book shops, and I came across an issue of Nick Fury, Agent Of Shield, drawn by Barry Smith and I thought well this guy’s an Englishman – so I thought “It’s possible you know, it’s possible to be a young Englishman and end up drawing American comics”. It’s not a case of he can do it and I can’t – there’s nothing to stop me and from making the effort. I took a lot of things to show Dez Skinn, mainly stuff of Barry Smith’s that I had redrawn to show that I could do as good a job as him.
AC: The art he was doing then would’ve been some of his earliest work…
DG: I look at it now and appreciate that I didn’t do a very good job. Nevertheless I took all these art pages up to Dez, who lined them all up on his desk. Sitting next to him was none other than Steve Parkhouse, who was one of the writers at IPC. That’s kind of how I started – writing stuff for fanzines, and then getting little bits of work. But apart from this I never had any formal training – I would basically read everything I could find about anatomy, perspective, whatever – and copying what I saw in comics of the time.
AC: So you were learning by osmosis, so to speak. So you went to IPC, where you did quite a lot of work for the nascent 2000 AD.
DG: That wasn’t the first port of call – the first port of call was, well, it was to do with when I was a kid I always assumed that whoever drew the strips did their own lettering – I got a lot of work doing lettering at Fleetway, and I got to see a lot of other peoples’ original artwork, up close and have a chance to study it for many hours. Also I managed to find a press agent – Bardon Press Features, who said they could find me professional work (and they did) first of all for DC Thomson where I did a variety of hopefully forgotten strips. They tended to stockpile stuff and not publish it until they had everything in house, when there wasn’t too much pressure. They also used to get your pencilled work and go over it, and then send it back to you with notes telling you how it could be improved. From a storytelling point of view it actually was fantastic training, and it allowed me to work at all the really basic mechanics of it. It was after I’d done that kind of stuff that I went to 2000AD.
AC: That was what Dez mentioned when he talked about his time there as an editor – you’d learn on the hoof by doing everything. So when you started doing strips, you were doing Dr. Who and Rogue Trooper. Did you find that you were quite confident in what you were doing, or were you still looking for your own personal style?
DG: Well the first stuff that I did for 2000AD was Harlem Heroes – they’d had lots of really good people trying out for this strip, some Spanish artists, and a couple of English ones, but they didn’t do it in a super-hero way. They gave it to me on spec, and the minute they saw the super-hero feel I’d given to it, it impressed them immensely. 2000AD was indeed a hybrid of American and British comics, but the stuff that they’d show us would be American – they’d say “this is the kind of look we want” when it came to the layouts. They wanted a big image with smaller images round it, or close-ups, that kind of stuff.
AC: It really was the first effort from British comics to mimic the Americans.
DG: Yes, and what it also encapsulated was what me and Steve and Kevin O’Neill and John Wagner wanted to do with comics. We were the first generation to grow up reading comics, and we didn’t see them as a stepping stone to doing other kinds of work like magazine illustration and “proper writing”. So when 2000AD came along we all gravitated towards that. It really was, if I may use this cliché, “the lunatics taking over the asylum”. There was this huge input of creative energy at 2000AD which even though it’s in freefall today, we put it into a very high orbit that lasted a very long time. It spanned much further than the average British comic.
AC: Yes, I think it’s partly to do with this huge influx of talent, this wave, with everybody arriving in a short space of time – you were there at such an important moment in British comic history.
DG: Everything was in place when I got there – I first really made my mark when I started doing Rogue Trooper, because that was my creation, or rather that I had a part in the creation of it. And also by that point I’d broadened my horizons a bit and was getting into a lot of European art, and really getting an idea of what the possibilities were. I think I’d kind of refined my brain, wherein I was no longer using a lot of “hairy lines” as I said to you before, so the art stood out without having to add colour. I think by the time I’d gotten to Dr. Who, especially the later work, I was giving the impression that I knew exactly what I was doing.
AC: You actually did Dan Dare as well.
DG: Yeah, I did – that came before Rogue Trooper. I was always a bit dissatisfied with the scripts I got on Dan Dare, and also Rogue Trooper, which was the reason that I didn’t stay with either for very long. I guess it was an indicator of my growing confidence that if I didn’t like the script, I’d stop.
AC: Later on of course, you were your own scriptwriter…
DG: Yeah – in that case, if the scripts are crap, then it’s completely your own fault!
AC: So there you were, working for IPC and Fleetway. At some point in the early 80s there was the move to DC, and the Tales Of The Green Lantern Corps. The question is, when was the big break – when was the moment that Len Wein spotted your talent?
DG: Well, you know, you’re conflating two things there. The way that the move to DC happened was almost by accident, sort of “pinch me, I must be dreaming”. I’d been to the States, back in the early 70s, and had tried to get work at Marvel and DC and not really got very far. It was “Thanks, but no thanks” from DC, and a “Maybe” from Marvel. And then they didn’t bother to contact me. But what happened in the early 80s was that a kind of deputation came over to England from DC, consisting of Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando, the senior editors, specifically to recruit British artists they’d seen in 2000AD and Warrior magazine and they approached me and Mick McMahon and Kevin O’Neill and Gary Leach and a few other people. And they said “Come and work for us, we’ll pay you more, we’ll give you your artwork back, we’ll even give you the boards to draw on” and it of course was the opportunity to work on characters that we knew since we were kids. That was amazing, and there was no effort on our part, all the effort came from them. It does remain something of a mystery to me – there were some cynical rumours that they were expecting trouble form some of their homegrown artists and that they thought it would be good to have some amenable and handy offshore people who could carry on the work if the artists went on strike.
Of course as history proved, when it came to any sort of unrest in the ranks, that the Brits would be at the front with the banners. Anyway, originally they wanted me for Star Trek because of my work on 2000AD – they knew I could draw sci-fi stuff, and likenesses of science-fiction people, like what I did on Dr. Who. But that didn’t come to pass, and I ended up doing Green Lantern Corps back-up strips, and then the lead strip in Green Lantern.
AC: Was Green Lantern always a character you had an affinity for?
DG: I always liked the idea of Green Lantern. I liked the idea of the Green Lantern Corps in particular because it was an intergalactic police force. Again, I was a little disappointed with the scripts that I got, some of which were from Len Wein. It was a time when they were concentrating more on soap-operas, rather than on out-there adventures. So I ended drawing a little bit of OA, and The Guardians, and some cool stuff, and a lot of Hal Jordan having arguments in car parks with his girlfriend. So I got a little bit tired of that after a year, although I did enjoy it – some of the scripts were pretty good. It was great exposure and it certainly got my name established at DC.
AC: Did you adapt to the house style quite easily?
DG: I wasn’t really aware of it that much – I think one of my strengths has always been clear and simple story-telling, which I honed and practiced at DC Thomson. I think as long as you tell the story clearly, which lines you put down and how you do things isn’t so important. I’d say I drew it in the way or style of American comics of the day. When I look back on it now it seems to be me being almost an ideal DC line artist – of the line of comics, not the ink-line.
AC: The archetypal artist.
DG: Yes, and I suppose that what you also have to remember is that I was and still am a fan, and I’ve been lucky enough that if there was a wish-list of things that I would want to do, it would be a DC artist on a DC mainstream book, and I’ve worked with Stan Lee – all kinds of things like that. In a way doing Green Lantern was like stating, “Right, we can tick that one off the list”.
AC: Plus it was a very science-fiction oriented character – you’ve said before that you were an SF fan. Did you bring any of this over to the way the story was told?
DG: I would say so, yes, if you mean input into the stories. There were a couple of GL stories that I really enjoyed doing, but really as an artist if you’ve got a decent writer that makes all the difference. I used to talk stuff over with Len Wein – we actually used to do things “Marvel style” – he would send me a synopsis for me to draw and I adapted quite well to that. But generally when it comes to drawing a page, I do make my own mind up as to what I’m going to draw and compose. I think as far as SF is concerned, yeah – I went through a phase of having a sense of wonder over the genre and I think bringing a feel of making the impossible real – that’s what I feel I tend to aim for – to draw impossible things in quite a literal way, and make them seem completely convincing.
AC: I have to say that that is a key hallmark of your work. You were very friendly with Brian Bolland at this time. You were working together with him, and both of you were the first super-hero artists working in the U.S. since Barry Smith a decade earlier. Did he kind of get into it with you, or did you help him get into comics?
DG: Brian and I first met in 1972. I was kind of about to turn professional, which I did in 1973. Brian I think was in his last year at art school. I was kind of a couple of steps ahead of him, and he and I both worked for the same agent. We alternated on a Nigerian strip –Power Comics – we’d ink each other’s work, and help each other out on deadlines. We’d known each other a long, long time. But Brian actually got into DC a little bit before I did, much to my great envy and jealousy, because he’d become friendly with Joe Staton, and thus managed to get to draw some Green Lantern covers. This was certainly a little before I arrived at DC. I think the dates get a little confusing here, but he also of course did Camelot 3000, which was the first direct market maxi-series.
We’ve always been on a par – although I’ve always been one for new tools and new gadgets, whereas Brian, well when I first met him he was drawing with a technical pen, and didn’t opt for a brush at first, which is how you get a good solid professional look. In my mind though he could completely surpass what I could do with a brush – it’s just amazing the lines that he can get with a brush. Then a little later I bought one of those opaque projectors, which is this thing that projects sketches, so you could trace over them, which was very handy for when I was doing Dr. Who. You could stick a reference photo in the machine, and that would be a good basis for a particular likeness. And I managed to get Brian into that, and thereafter everything he did in comics was drawn off a sketch from the projector – he was doing this long after I’d given it up. And then I got a computer and saw all the wonderful things you could do with that, but Brian had a lot of problems with that, him not being a natural kind of “techie”. But then he became the master of that too, and now everything he does is on the computer, from the sketch to the finished colour. I just dabble a bit on the side and scan a few things in. So I think I can take credit in pointing Brian in a few directions, but I certainly didn’t get him into comics or tell him how to do it.
AC: It’s interesting because you were constantly looking at each other’s work at the beginning, and influencing each other, not necessarily through your artwork, but the way you did the artwork, the tools, etc.
DG: Yes, and the other thing was that he was a huge DC fan, just as I was. I think our backgrounds and our tastes are quite similar. You have to be careful with Brian – his stuff can be very conventional but he’s a very strange man – I mean that in a good way!!
AC: I met him on one occasion, and used to attend his talks at various UKCACs (London Comic Conventions) where he would talk about his love for what he referred to as “pre-Marvel DC” – DC comics of the 1950s, before the Marvel Age of comics began in 1961.
DG: Perhaps strange isn’t the right word –eccentric would be better.
AC: I think that comes with the territory – there’s nothing wrong with being eccentric if you’re a comic artist.
Part Two Coming tomorrow