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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 11/20/2008

The Interview: "Watchmen's" Dave Gibbons

By Michael Cavna

Whenever some backward-thinking cultural dinosaur questions the literary merit of graphic novels, the comic fan's most effective rebuttal can be a simple act:

The "Watchmen" franchise heats up. (Dave Gibbons / DC Comics)Enlarge Comic

Just hand the pitiable cretin a copy of "Watchmen," the 12-part series that cracked Time magazine's list of "all-time" top-100 novels.

In 1986, illustrator DAVE GIBBONS -- working with writer Alan Moore -- helped create one of the greatest graphic novels ever, setting the comic-book world on fire with their literary fiction. Two decades later, Gibbons is now working with Hollywood, as "Watchmen" the film -- and the franchise -- is hotly awaited for a spring release (provided it clears current legal hurdles involving copyright infringement).

The trailer for the film -- starring Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson -- began to generate serious heat last summer when shown at San Diego Comic-Con and at "Dark Knight" screenings. But the movie also faces enormous expectations, because for at least one generation of fans, the Hugo Award-winning "Watchmen" is the "Citizen Kane" of comic books.

(Dave Gibbons)Enlarge Comic

The 59-year-old British artist took time to talk to 'Riffs contributor David Betancourt during a recent visit to the United States to promote his new book, "Watching the Watchmen," a collection of many of the previously unseen designs and ideas that led to the creation of the book.

DAVID BETANCOURT: Is "Watching the Watchmen" an attempt to reach a brand-new generation of fans, which seemed to pop up out of nowhere because of the movie and its popular trailer?
DAVE GIBBONS: I kept so many of the old notes and sketches and old scripts and unprinted pages from way back in the day. When I became aware that the movie was imminent -- and when I spoke to [DC Comics president] Paul Levitz about some other movie-related things -- I suggested to him, almost as a fan: I'd really love to see a book about the making of "Watchmen." Paul could see we had the makings of a really interesting book.

DB: Was it fun to go down memory lane, looking at all the things that contributed to create this universe?
DG: I was aware that I had this drawer full of decaying paper and stuff and I never really dragged it out into the light of day. I was amazed at the stuff that I kept. There were broken leg figurines, clippings from old newspapers, fan letters, sketches other people had done. We've really got the best of it in the book. Alan and I had an absolute ball when we were creating the book. It was a real joy.

(Dave Gibbons)Enlarge Comic

DB: Alan Moore keeps his distance when his work is being produced in another medium, but you seem to take a different stance. Is there a reason for that?
DG: Alan has had some very unhappy experiences with Hollywood, who've already made several of his books into movies: "From Hell," "V for Vendetta" and "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." I think he's had such bad experiences that he really doesn't want to repeat them. So he's completely distanced himself from this production. And he's asked to be told nothing about it. ... I'd probably be the same if I'd had his experience.
My actual experience of Hollywood so far is limited to the "Watchmen" movie and Zack Snyder's production. And I've been extremely well-treated. I've been consulted at every stage.

DB: The movie looks to be very closely based off of your artwork. What's the experience been like, watching your artwork come to life?
DG: It is dreamlike. It's really bizarre. When my wife and I went to see the movie being filmed in Vancouver -- to walk in a room and to be in the presence of the [characters] Comedian and Rorschach, who looked practically identical to the way they looked in the book, and Night Owl and Silk Spectre -- it was so strange. There before me were the three-dimensional figures that I had seen in my mind when I boiled them down to comic-book images.
The weirdest thing was to actually be inside the owl ship. ... To find that it was now a real object in the world, and I was standing inside it, was very much a dreamlike pinch-me moment.

DB: Do you have a favorite character?
DG: Well, the one who's closest to my heart is Night Owl because, as I describe in the book, he was based on a character that I created when I was a fan growing up. He was one of my pet characters. The fact that I was able to get him into the book because he fitted a slot that Alan didn't have anything for, that was a great joy to me.

DB: So how did "Watchmen's" iconic smiley-face image come about?

(Dave Gibbons)Enlarge Comic

DG: The Comedian was one of the characters we kind of wrestled with. We tried to make him look sort of military. Then the idea came: Let's make him dark with black leather. I drew a sketch like that and I said it looked good, but it didn't say Comedian. ... So I said: I know, I'll just give him one of those yellow smiley badges, that'll be a nice little accent against all that blackness. So I stuck that on his chest and when Alan saw that, he realized that that was the perfect way to symbolize the comedian being killed: to show this badge covered in blood. From there, it developed into the iconic trademark of the whole series. Things evolved in that kind of organic way.

DB: In your interpretation of "Watchmen," does the bad guy win?
DG: As Dr. Manhattan says at the end: "Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends." I think we deliberately leave it ambiguous. It does leave the reader to think: I wonder ... was it worth it, was killing all those people worth it?
Even [the character] Adrian Veidt is left to reflect upon that. It's a bit simple to say he's a bad guy. I was appalled in the very first Hollywood treatment that I read: the conclusion was that Night Owl as the good guy kills Adrian as the bad guy. That would be the Hollywood version of it.
While I can't tell you what the ending of the movie is, that isn't going to be the ending of the movie. It couldn't be the ending of the comic book because the whole point of the comic book is about the moral ambiguity about taking it upon yourself to do things to make it better for the rest of humanity.

By Michael Cavna  | November 20, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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