On November 14, 2008, Erik Henriksen interviewed comic book artist Dave Gibbons about Gibbons' new book, Watching the Watchmen. The published interview can be found here; the complete text of the interview, edited for clarity, is below.
MERCURY: How did the idea for the book come about, and where has all this stuff been sitting for so long?
GIBBONS: What happened was, [with] this Watchmen movie going on, I had a conversation with Paul Levitz, who's the big guy at DC Comics and is as big a comics fan as I am—in fact, I've known Paul for more than 30 years now, back from when we were both fans. And I happened to mention to him in this meeting that I kept all my sketches and roughs and bits of memorabilia and stuff from the days when I was doing the book, and I thought it might make for a book that fans would be quite interested in, and I think Paul said, "Oh yeah, I'd be interested in that book, let's try to get that going." And my first insistence was that Chip Kidd be the designer, because I have a few books on my shelves that he's actually designed and he excels at this kind of scrapbook thing—he's got a way of presenting them so that you're looking at the actual objects, [he has a way] to photograph drawings as objects rather than pieces of artwork, if you know what I mean—so you can see the texture and all the smudges and everything like that. And so I went through my drawer where I just stuffed everything when I was doing the book, and made an inventory of it, and it became clear that there was enough stuff to support quite a lavish book, and we were in business.
So did you just have this stuff in a box in your attic? Where were you keeping it?
I've got several filing cabinets full of all kinds of junk or scrap. But all the Watchmen stuff—because it was such an elaborate undertaking when we did it, and I had to constantly refer back to what I'd done in the previous issue or 10 issues or something—I kept everything quite carefully just for those purposes. So when I put everything all away, it was in reasonable order anyway. It was just in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinets. And I dug it out, and there was some stuff—remember, we're going back 20 years or so—that I'd forgotten I'd kept! I knew I had the thumbnails and the script, but there were things like that plastic bag that [Marvel Comics editor] Archie Goodwin wrote us a fan letter on, and all kinds of stuff that anybody in their right mind would've just thrown away. But I was quite surprised myself at what I had kept all those years, and I'm kind of pleased I did. They used to say something like, "You should keep a diary, and one day your diary will keep you," but I suppose it's more like, "You should keep all your old junk, and if you're lucky one day your old junk will keep you!"
What are your feelings as you look back at Watchmen, at the themes and the story and the artwork—how do you feel all those things hold up? Are there things that you wish were different, or are you still very happy with it?
I don't know—I can almost look back at those days as if it was happening to somebody else. There is a thing with artists and their artwork that right after you've done it, it's a little bit raw, and you feel kind of sensitive about it. But it's been so long since I did this stuff I can just look upon it as if I'm someone else. But certainly what does come back from those days and what was evident was the enjoyment that we had doing it. [Writer] Alan [Moore] and [colorist] John Higgins and myself [were] off in a little bubble in England, really being completely left alone by DC just to do our pet project, so there's a wonderful sort of enthusiasm there, and the fact that we'd worked in the field long enough to know exactly what we were doing but not long enough to get tired. So there's a tremendous sort of enthusiasm about it, and I think that comes over really very, very clearly. One of the reasons I wanted to do the book was, with the hype about the movie, to show people where it all came from, and show how we first did it. These amazing images that I see today projected on a huge screen, they just started as little scribbles on scraps of paper.
That's actually the next thing I wanted to ask you. I don't have the numbers on me, but I think Watchmen has sold a bajillion copies just since the trailer came out.
Just less than a bajillion.
Oh, it's going to hit a bajillion sometime soon.
Yes. It's about three quarters of a bajillion.
The sales have been astounding among people who have never read the book and are just picking it up in anticipation of this movie. I wanted to ask you how you felt about that, and how you felt about people who hadn't read Watchmen—and maybe hadn't read a comic book before—who are now reacting to something that is 20 years old, something that's huge in comic book circles, but is just hitting the mainstream now.
I think it's always been the book that kind of introduced people to comics. I think when people first discover comic books or graphic novels, they find a comic book store and say, "What should I be reading?" And Watchmen is always right near the top of the list of what they will be recommended to read. It's always, over the years, chugged along as a fairly respectable, standard book, and as you said, the sales have absolutely gone through the roof with the trailers, and I'm obviously pleased about that because it gets people reading the book, which was how Alan and I originally conceived it, how it was designed to be seen in its purest form. And hopefully it will get people reading other books of Alan's and mine and comics in general. To me, that's a wonderful kind of spin-off of it. Someone at DC Comics said that first trailer was one of the best adverts for a comic that's ever been made, which is one way to look at it.
And one thing about Watchmen is that it's drawn particularly and written I think as well—although it deals with complex themes—in quite an easy to understand way. If you'd ever read a comic as a kid, even if it was years ago, you can make sense of Watchmen. It doesn't require a very comics-sophisticated approach to it. I expect people who have seen the trailer and buy the book will be able to get into it fairly quickly and see it as an experience that is a different experience from seeing the movie.
In the book, you talk about that initial excitement from DC Comics when you and Mr. Moore started turning in issues—you thought that DC was just being polite, and then gradually, you came to realize how big of a deal the book was. Does that still strike you off-guard, how fanatical people are about the book, and how respected this book is?
I think I've gotten used to it. Obviously, I've greatly appreciated over the years the enthusiasm and the praise and the things that people have said to me about the book. I mean, obviously with anything, it's almost a bit like religion: The more you can adhere to the basic holy writ, the more genuine a fan you are, and I think people do feel very strongly about things like this. And I think people can relate to this in many fields, like in music for instance, you have a favorite band that no one has ever heard, and once everyone hears of it, they've kind of sold out. And I mean, I'm a fan of comics, I've always been a huge comic fan, and I can completely understand—people do become possessive about a thing like Watchmen, and when there's a movie being made, they get really worried that it's going to be trashed or going to be misrepresented. And I completely get that. But my feeling is that the people that are making the movie are fans themselves and are very much aware of those feelings. And my feeling is that none but the most rigid fans will be disappointed by the movie, and maybe the most fundamentalist rigid fans will find something to like in it as well.
I saw you at San Diego Comic-Con on the Watchmen panel with director Zack Snyder and the film's cast, and everyone seemed to be very passionate about it. Everyone on stage, but I'd also never seen a crowd react like they did to the film footage Snyder showed. Everyone in the audience was stoked, and those are the hardcore fans.
I am very aware of that—and it's almost if you can please that audience, you can please any audience. And we saw more footage today in London! There was a presentation with Zack Snyder and the opening minutes of the movie and couple of scenes from it, and these were kind of hardcore journalists [watching], and they were absolutely enthralled by it. So we've had a very good audience reaction to it.
How would you describe your involvement with the film?
I have been involved, and they don't have to have involved me at all. Alan and I sold our rights to it in the original comic book. So it's a great courtesy, and it's very flattering that they do want my input into it. So I gave comments on an early version of the script, and I saw a rough cut of the whole movie back in the summer and I gave them feedback on that, and I actually got to go to the set. And on the set, all the actors had their own personal copies of the graphic novel, and obviously Zack and all the technicians—there were copies of Watchmen everywhere.
This is pretty geeky, but I've gotta ask you: I've read Watchmen I don't know how many times, but the last time I read it was the first time I noticed that some of the last panels on one page are echoed visually in the next panel on the following page. I couldn't believe I didn't notice it before—and then I got obsessed with it. How did that technique come about?
One of the things Alan and I tried to do with the book was to use all the tricks in the comic book armory of ways to execute scenes. One of the problems in comics is transitions—how you get from one scene to the next, [and] whether you make it abrupt or make it smooth. You relate two episodes in some way, and what you're talking about is just that—going from one episode to the next, easing the reader from one into another. So that was something, if we got the opportunity to do, we often did, and that was something we did in the comic book itself, having the cover be the first panel of the story, which again is an unusual thing to do. So that was an example of us flexing our comic book muscles and using every cool trick we could think of.
Noticing it the first time was a cool discovery.
Yes! Noticing something for the first time that you've looked at many times is a great feeling.
I can't think of any comic book that has been this pored over and picked apart and analyzed. Is there anything that you or Mr. Moore put in there that's still hidden, or that people haven't picked up on, or that you're surprised people don't make a bigger deal of?
Well, that would be giving the game away, wouldn't it! I'm happy to take credit for anything that people find! I do have things pointed out to me that I had forgotten drawing. There is something that I kind of give away in Watching the Watchmen that people hadn't noticed, and that's the cover of Issue Three, is it, with the radiation symbol and there's the smoke going up? It actually forms the profile of a screaming human skull. A lot people are rocked when I point that out to them. But I can't think of any [other] specific things. I think over the years, people have scraped the surface and trolled it so well that there isn't much left in there—but people have pointed out things to me that even I haven't seen, [so] I wouldn't be surprised. When you reach a certain level of complexity with something, you can always find patterns in it, whether it's intentional or not.