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Catching Up With...Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons

March 5, 2009  |  8:00am
Catching Up With...<em>Watchmen</em> illustrator Dave Gibbons
There's a tiny detail in one of the scenes from Watchmen that's indicative of the graphic novel's larger complexity and the play between word and image within it. A locksmith with "Gordian Knot Lock, Co." on his back arrives to replace a door lock that has been broken several times, each replacement more elaborate than the last. That a graphic novel makes a reference to the Gordian Knot is in itself mind-blowing, but then consider that ultimately this minor reference becomes a metaphor for the entire conflict in Watchmen.

The knotted story created by Alan Moore offers many threads for eager readers to explore, and sometimes critics overlook the artwork that synthesized with Moore's words to create the graphic novel. The drawings and designs of Dave Gibbons will likely become more apparent as the mood, characters and locales of the comic are brought to the big screen this week by director Zack Snyder (who is reported to have remained very faithful to the original imagery). The movie as well as new editions of —including the first hardcover edition of the graphic novel and a behind the scenes look at the creation of it called Watching the Watchmen—will make it hard to not revisit the source material created 25 years ago by Moore and Gibbons. Paste caught up with Gibbons recently and he told us how his original profession aided in the development of his illustrations for Watchmen, the role that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in not getting Watchmen made, and much more. 

Paste: We’ve heard that there were early talks with Joel Silver, who wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Dr. Manhattan? We seem to recall mixed results with Schwarzenegger in Joel Schumacher’s campy Batman and Robin. Were you comfortable with Silver’s ideas about Watchmen and ultimately did you have any veto power?
Dave Gibbons: I think you’re very kind in saying there were mixed results in Batman and Robin. We met Joel Silver (Alan and I both) very early in the history of Watchmen sort of becoming a movie, shortly after we’d finished doing the comic book, and I suppose he filled our prototype of what a Hollywood movie producer would be like: very loud, very brash, very energetic. At that point, I think he wanted Arnold in everything including Sergeant Rock. I don’t think we took it quite seriously. We were amazed that Watchmen had even become a graphic novel, let alone a movie. I suppose it all just seemed a bit strange and unlikely, and amusing more than anything. As for veto power, we haven’t got any veto power at all over what happens with Watchmen, because of the contract that we signed back before we started work. Really, DC has the rights to control the property and basically they’re free to do whatever they like. However, they are aware of, I think, the opinion of the fans, and certainly I’ve always thought they do in some way value the relationship that Alan and I have in our varying degrees with them. And to their credit, they haven’t done anything with Watchmen that I find distasteful. They haven’t added on sequels or prequels or spin-offs, although they have been tempted. But fortunately good sense has prevailed.

Paste: Alan Moore has been upset with Hollywood’s adaptations of his comics before, and not without reason. Do you think he’ll be pleased with the final edit of Watchmen
Gibbons: Alan hasn’t been pleased with his Hollywood experience to the degree that he’s decided that he doesn’t want any credit or any money from adaptations of his work in the future. I think that started with V for Vendetta and certainly includes Watchmen. In a recent conversation Alan asked me, by all means to speak to him, he’s always happy to speak to me, but not to mention Watchmen to him anymore. My feeling is given that, that it’s very unlikely that he’ll even see Watchmen. I know he hasn’t seen movie versions of some of his other works, so whether he’ll be pleased with it or not that’s conditioned on him seeing it and I think that seems unlikely from my understanding.

Paste: What was the largest creative disagreement between you and Moore while you were working on Watchmen and how did you resolve it?
Gibbons: Well, really Alan and I have never had a creative disagreement. I think we both enjoy collaborating, we both realize the rules of collaborating, which is you adopt the best ideas for the good of the project. You have to park your ego at the door. I mean Alan and I both do have egos, perhaps considerable egos, but we’ve never had an ego-driven creative disagreement. We talk things over and come to a solution, sometimes a creative compromise. But by and large we’ve always been able to find our way through and come to an agreement and both be happy with what we’re doing. With reference to my answer to the previous question, Alan Moore isn’t a difficult person. He’s a very affable person. He’s a very kind and helpful person; he just doesn’t like it when people are less than that towards him. 

Paste: What’s your favorite scene from the movie, or the one that is most rewarding to see translated to the big screen?
Gibbons: There’s lots of favorite scenes in the movie. Always one of my favorite issues of the comic book was the Dr. Manhattan on Mars issue, which was a very complex thing to draw (and I imagine to write as well), and I think translates to the big screen well. I think you could have heard a pin drop when that scene was on. Certainly it’s a wonderful marriage of movie storytelling, computer generated effects and a wonderful performance by Billy Krudup, who plays Dr. Manhattan. 

Paste: Film effects have certainly come a long way since 1985. Do you think this story could have been translated to film prior to Computer Generated Imagery or even pre-Sin City/300
Gibbons: I think it could have been translated to film; I don’t think it would have been as satisfying, as well done or as seamless as this production is. A lot of Watchmen actually exists, or existed (it was built as hard sets, and real props), and there’s a real tactile sense to everything. I think it’s very important because Watchmen does deal with what super heroes would really be like. I think that’s a trick that has been pulled off in this movie. And probably with a lot of things, with Watchmen, timing is everything. I think this is probably the right time.

Paste: Watchmen has had a lot of influence since its inception. You mentioned in an interview the influences that you spotted in The Incredibles. Do you think it’s had any influence on the resurgence of the Batman franchise with its more realistic approach?  
Gibbons: No, I can’t really see a connection with Watchmen and Batman other than the weird coincidence that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were out in the same year back in the '80s and now The Dark Knight, which leans very heavily on Frank’s vision of the caped-crusader, is out around the same time as the Watchmen movie. I think The Dark Knight movie really wasn’t looking over its shoulder at Watchmen at all. I think it’s very much the vision of Christopher Nolan and the people who worked on that. In The Incredibles they obviously had read the Watchmen and it was kind of taking those ideas of the retired hero in a certain direction just as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight did, although that was a strange kind of coincidence that Frank was dealing with those issues at the same time that Alan and I were. He developed the Dark Knight Returns completely independently, but there obviously must have been something in the air that we both on our different sides of the ocean focused on the same thing at the same time. 

There is in The Incredibles one particular little scene that is very reminiscent of another thing that I did. I drew a comic strip, three or four pages, for a European book about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a silent strip about an exaggerated Superman character going to the East and bringing them the fruits of the American way of life in the shape of McDonald’s and Levi Jeans and Coca-Cola. I did actually draw a scene of this big hulking super hero guy crammed into one of these tiny little Eastern European sedan cars. And there’s a scene in The Incredibles which is very much like that. I don’t know whether they saw that rather obscure comic book. As a movie I really loved The Incredibles and I suppose I’m more flattered than anything that they made reference to things that I’d worked on.
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