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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
Paste: What are a few of the subtle design elements that someone viewing this comic likely wouldn’t find on first glance? What similarities will the audience notice between the comics and the movie? 
Gibbons: I always tried to make the design of the panels and the design of the pages very clear and straightforward so that you look at what I want you to look at and you read the story in the way that we wanted it to unfold. I did put a lot of background detail in, but I always made that subservient and secondary to the narrative drive of it. You know, it’s easy to cram a thing with details and then it becomes confusion really, rather than any sort of detailed order. I think the same thing happens in the movie as well. The drama is pretty straight forwardly expressed, and you can follow the storyline very clearly, but there is a lot of background detail. I think as with the comic book, there isn’t anything in there that isn’t in there for a reason. There are a lot of things I think will only be noticed on a second or third viewing.

Paste: You’ve said that there was an early treatment for the movie that seemed to make the good versus evil more black and white. Will the resolution to the adaptation of Watchmen still provide the moral ambiguity that was present in the graphic novel?
Gibbons: Yes, the ending has been changed and I think it has been changed very intelligently and it doesn’t in any way change the ambiguity, or the resolution, or the basic thrust of the ideas behind the story. I’m very happy with it. There was in an early treatment an ending that was more along the lines of good guy kills bad guy and gets girl. That isn’t exactly what we have in the movie now. That was the first thing that Zack told me when I walked on set. He told me that that ending had been dispensed and that he’d gotten an ending that was much more sympathetic to the graphic novel. And it is, and the moral ambiguity is still there just as it was in the graphic novel. 

Paste: How is Watchmen still relevant today as it was in the '80s?
Gibbons: I think it’s interesting that Zack Snyder has chosen to set the movie in the 80s. I think that gives a sort of timeless feel, it makes it a period piece and we can look back on it and look at it as almost, not a parable, but some sort of myth. The threat of imminent nuclear destruction was very, very real in the '80s and the conflict between the two sides was much more clear-cut than it is say today with the so-called “War on Terror.”  So, I think it has a relevance and a timelessness to the story, and certainly it deals with concerns that have always been present in the history of human civilization and human conflict.

Paste: It seems that there was a constant pressure over the years while Watchmen was being worked on. Did you and Alan Moore have the story elements hashed out before you started or was the script written as you went along?
Gibbons: Well the constant pressure was only really while we were doing the book, which was a span of two years; two years and a couple of months was the time I spent drawing it. Alan was obviously writing over that period, but it took him considerably less time to write it than it did for me to draw it just because drawing is more labor intensive. But in Alan’s initial outline, which again you can read all of it in the back of Absolute Watchmen (and there’s a photo of the particular document in Watching the Watchmen), it was pretty much worked out. All of the main beats of the story were there. Obviously, as with everything, it evolved as we went along. But we did have the luxury of seeing the whole story before we started really developing it, and also having plenty of time to design the characters and think carefully about the culture of the alternate world that we were depicting. So, yeah, the script was obviously written as we went along; it was drawn as we went along but we had the road map before we started.

Paste: You mention the extensive, some would say "obsessive," notes that you took for the graphic novel. Did you see any of that translate to the actual movie?
Gibbons: I don’t think it’s obsessive. I think if you want to do a thing properly you have to take a lot of care. I’ve always found it’s easier to draw comics if you know clearly in your head what you’re drawing, rather than if you try and make it up as you go along. I always start drawing any job by planning out to some degree the locales and trying to nail the characters. If they’re existing characters, I’ll draw them several times on rough paper just to get a feeling for them. The ideal when you’re drawing a comic is to have everything in your head, not to have to refer to notes. In fact, it’s a bit deceptive because although there are notes and sketches, by the act of drawing them I’ve actually internalized them and it means that I can sit there and draw only having to refer back to the sketches with specific details and not for the general feeling of a locale, or the body shape, or general head shape of the things that I‘m drawing. It’s a good idea to plan these things out beforehand, I’ve found.

Did any of this translate to the actual movie? Oh, yeah. The movie is very faithful to the locales and the characters, costumes and the bits and pieces. You know, people say to me, "Did you do any drawings for the movie?" and I say, "Oh yeah, I’ve done thousands, but I did them 25 years ago." I think my drawings are so comprehensively three-dimensional, and I mean that descriptively, not boastfully, that you could have built the movie sets from the comic book. My background is in building construction; that’s what I trained in rather than art. So I do have an understanding of structure in three-dimensional space. I think I did before I learned about building, it’s something that’s always been innate. I always liked construction toys and plastic-model kits and things like that. 

Paste: Can you describe the experience of stepping inside the Nite Owl’s ship?
Gibbons: That’s something that I always loved: three-dimensional spaces and models and everything like that. I took a particular pleasure in designing the Owl ship. That probably was the most surreal and amazing experience, to actually go onto the set and actually step inside the Nite Owl’s ship. Even more so when they took the completed, tricked-out thing to the San Diego Comic-Con and had it on display in the middle of the convention floor. I got to sit in the command chair and move the joystick and press the buttons on the console and that was like a dream come true. I’m kind of working on them to give me the Owl ship. I don’t think they will. I’d like to think it’ll go on exhibit somewhere, because it is an incredible artifact. 

Paste: Has there ever been the temptation to revisit the Watchmen characters in another comic? We’ve read that you and Alan Moore were talking about collaborating again. 
Gibbons: Very near the time that we finished Watchmen we did kick around the idea of maybe doing Minute Men. You know, who were the precursors of the characters that were concerned in Watchmen. We sort of considered doing that in a really innocent, kind of crude sort of Golden Age comics style. Quite innocent and wide-eyed, but of course with a dramatic twist that we all knew it was going to end very badly. To be able to foreshadow some of those events might have been amusing. But in the end we decided we should leave well enough alone. DC was tempted to have spin-off titles from the comic book, The Comedian's Vietnam War Diary and Rorschach’s Journals as an on-going series, but we were very frosty with our reception to that, and I think wiser accounts have prevailed and they decided not to do it. And that has remained the case to the present day with DC. I don’t know if there will be a huge temptation to make a sequel to the movie, but I think any attempt to add to Watchmen would dilute it rather than enrich it. Alan and I may well collaborate again. As I say, we are still friends. We’ve always enjoyed collaboration. Alan is writing a 21st century guide to magic. You know, not conjuring, not card tricks, but magic. He’s spoken to me about doing some illustrations for that, which I’d be happy to do; it sounds like a wonderful book. I don’t think it’d be a comic-strip collaboration, but certainly to provide some illustration to Alan’s work is something I’d be happy to do. 

Paste: We’ve heard about bonus materials that are going to go along with the movie including an animated pirate story. Does that mean the pirate comic within the Watchmen graphic novel has been excised from the film? 
Gibbons: I saw the actual release cut last night as it happens, and there is no pirate material in it, but my understanding—I haven’t heard this explicitly from Zack or somebody—from what I’ve heard is that the DVD version of the Watchmen will include a version that does have all of the pirate comic stuff in it integrated with the main story. That will obviously run quite a bit longer than the theatrical release of the movie. I think something had to go to make the movie of a practical length to show in the cinema. The pirate comic is a wonderful parallel thread and a kind of a metaphor for the kind of psychological pain that Veidt is going through, but it’s not essential to the narrative so I’m not surprised that’s been cut. It’ll be real interesting for the real purists to watch the movie with that intercut with it again and I’m certainly looking forward to that.

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