Interview with Dave Gibbons
Written by Dan Collacott
Damon Lindelof's adaptation of Watchmen into a TV series loosely based on the source material, impressively proved there was credible artistic life left in the franchise. In 2009 we sat down with co-creator of the original graphic novel, Dave Gibbons, to talk about the book and even Snyder's film adaptation.
In 1986, writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins made history when they created ‘The Watchmen’. The twelve comic series followed an alternate cold war reality storyline containing outlawed costumed heroes, brought together again when one of their number is mysteriously killed. The collected graphic novel won worldwide critical acclaim including being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels of all time. Over twenty years later and following a deluge of failed attempts, director Zach Snyder has finally succeeded in bringing a work described by director Terry Gilliam as ‘unfilmable’ to the big screen. Even a last minute dispute over rights between Fox and Warner Bros couldn’t prevent the most highly anticipated comic to film adaptation since ‘Dark Knight’. We had the honour of talking to legendary co-creator Dave Gibbons about the film adaptation, his new book ‘Watching The Watchmen’, and the graphic novel itself.
We asked Dave why he thought ‘The Watchmen’ had remained so successful for so long?
“I think we had timing very much on our side. We came along when the superhero comic was ready to be deconstructed, pulled apart and have its workings looked at. It was good timing for Alan and I personally as we had both been working in the field for quite a few years, we were both technically able to do what we wanted, and still young and energetic enough to give it the time that it took. We thought we would do the twelve monthly issues of Watchmen and it would go into the back issue boxes to become just a memory. But as it happened it was one of the first comic series to be collected together in a book, which could then be sold in both comic stores and mainstream book-shops.”
‘The Watchmen’ is arguably one of the first comics to truly humanise the role of the superhero in a more realistic context. Dave enthusiastically discussed the validity of that statement.
“When I was a kid I thought some of the comic characters were human, I really liked Superman - he really felt like a kindly uncle for some reason. The kind of emotional range of costumed superheroes was rather narrow and inhabited its own little fantasy world. I think what Alan and I did was ask the question, if superheroes were real what would they be like? In other words why would someone put a costume on? You could be mad, it could be a wonderful hobby going out in the evenings fighting crime, it could be that you were trying to keep your parents happy because it was the family career. Those things make it rather more interesting than just ‘Oh I’ve been given powers, I must go and fight crime,’ and then we had the character of Dr Manhattan who had been given amazing God like powers, yet wasn’t really interested in crime fighting. It was because he had these powers he became detached from humanity in a way that Superman and the other powerful superheroes never had. The other side of the coin was how the world would be changed by the presence of these costumed characters. We concluded that people at large would be suspicious of them; they would see them as evil rather than good. There was also something demotivating about having a being on the planet like Dr Manhatten, whereby no matter what you do, how fast or clever you are, he would always still be better than you. These were the questions we were asking.
I think in a true sense it did humanise them as we had a cast of characters with all the flaws of the people we knew, rather than these idealised perfect beings who we would all aspire to be.”
One of the most layered and memorable characters in ‘The Watchmen’, is the troubled vigilante Rorschach, his name taken from the psychological personality test and his mask adorned with the changing ink blot shapes that cover the pages of that test. We asked Dave, does Rorschach embody the truth of how a superhero would exist in the real world?
“Rorschach is clearly psychotic! But like a lot of people who have extreme black and white polarized views, people like Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, there is something attractive about them. I think Rorschach is a very heightened version of how you might turn out if you did decide to be a vigilante and you were exposed to the true humanity of people. In fact I think those who have to deal with the dark side of people, policemen, soldiers etc. are easily tipped over the edge if unsupported or unprepared. In a way Rorschach has very clearly gone over the edge...”
Having had sole responsibility for drawing how ‘The Watchmen’ comics looked, we discussed with David his proudest piece of Watchmen artwork.
“Some of my favourite pages in Watchmen from an art point of view, and this is no slight on Alan, but they are the pages with little or no words on them. I think there is the one where we first see Rorschach and he is investigating Blake’s murder, he looks up at the building and fires his gun up before he scrambles up the outside. That is one page I have always been fond off. And the one where Dan Dreiberg wanders round his house in the middle of the night naked in a trance, those have always been favourites of mine, rather than individual illustrations. Watchmen isn’t a thing where you have splashy pictures of superheroes, there aren’t many money shots, it’s more an accumulative affect of all the detail and relationship between the sequences.”
Dave has been involved with almost every stage of ‘The Watchmen’s’ adaptation to film.
There is real hope then that this should ensure the movie’s faithfulness to the source material is maintained.
“I heard that Zach was going to be directing and introduced myself at the UK premiere of ‘300’. I know a little bit about the genesis of ‘300’ as I’ve been friends with the creator Frank Miller a long time. When he was doing his tour of Europe researching 300, I spent a lot of time with him then so knew what his plans were for the series, and I knew that Zach exactly nailed what Frank was after! I asked Zach if there was anything I could do to help with Watchmen.
Shortly after that I was sent a copy of the screen play and asked for feedback, which I gave, all of which was gratefully received and I believe acted upon. I then drew three pages of scenes that were in the screenplay but not in the graphic novel as Zach wanted to know how I would visualise them. Then I visited the set and gave more advice. I’ve been to a screening of a rough-cut of the movie and again was really encouraged to give feedback and criticism so they could hone it the best they could. I’ve been involved in the publicity also and I’m completely behind it. Everything I have seen has only enhanced my gut belief that Zach would do everything in his power to do it properly, and as far as I am concerned that is the case.”
Some fans have been outraged by the prospect, so we asked Dave what he knew and thought about this?
“The ending the script had when I first saw it was that the bad guy was killed by the hero and ended up going off into the sunset with the girl. Which I didn’t like and obviously isn’t the ambiguous ending from the graphic novel, it basically had a typical Hollywood ending. Later on, when I visited the movie set, Zach said to me the character who had initially died at the end didn’t die, which was fantastic as it meant it was true to the graphic novel - as long as that is the case I don’t really mind what the Macguffin is. So to me whether there is a squid or not is unimportant as long as what the film means and the moral ambiguity is left. I am perfectly happy to accept Zach’s judgement as to what works best as a movie, and I am perfectly happy with the ending I have seen so far.”
As a deeply personal piece of work it was clear Dave would be cautious about seeing his progeny brought to life in celluloid form.
“Of all the characters, I think the one that was absolutely imperative to get right was Rorschach, and I did have some notes from the original script where I felt he hadn’t been handled quite right. He’s a difficult character and perhaps the hardest one of the lot to bring to life in a true way, but I think in this film it has been done very successfully. I think Nite Owl is also very close to me, as probably if I was a costumed hero then he is the one I would be. The name of the character is something I actually dreamt up when I was just a kid and has stayed with me ever since. He’s been wonderfully portrayed as this over the hill superhero who can only get it up when he’s in his costume. All the actors turn in fantastic performances and they all successfully bring the characters to life. They’ve treated them all with great care and reverence as far as I can see.”
In addition to the film Dave has released the companion book ‘Watching the Watchmen’ a veritable treasure trove of rare sketches and background work that allows fans to see how the characters and scenes were created and developed. So has releasing such a large body of past work give the award wining artist closure?
“I suppose it did in as much as I had kept the things for all those years. Originally I kept them as Watchmen was such a complicated process that I was always having to refer back to what I had drawn earlier, or make sure that things were consistent over the issues; which is why I kept things as a reference. At the end of it I could have chucked it all away but I didn’t, and I think in the back of my mind I thought, ‘you know someone might be interested one day in such a finite archive covering all the twelve issues contained in the graphic novel’. As it turns out my hoarders instinct was right I think.”
The popularity of ‘The Watchmen’ has continued to grow for every year that has passed. We asked at what stage the creators knew they were creating something special?
“When you are actually working on a comic you don’t ever get the chance to stand back and say, ‘we are doing the Citizen Kane of comics’, I think if you have those sorts of thoughts you are going the wrong way. It wasn’t until three or four issues in Alan and I went to the states that people were coming out of the offices at DC to pat us on the back, and other artists and writers were seeking us out and shaking our hands. Only then did we think we have got something here that our colleagues in the profession think is well done. It wasn’t until about seven issues that it was clear the fan reaction was huge! Which was quite daunting when you are only halfway through something and you’re being told it’s the best thing ever, yet you still have to pull another six issues out of the can! So even then we didn’t have the chance to sit back and contemplate our navels, we just had to crack on and get through it as fast as we could.”