Drawing from experience: Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons talks to Your Move


Posted by Mark Iddon in Art, Celebrities, Featured, Festivals, Liverpool Life 

Renowned comic illustrator Dave Gibbons has worked on some of the biggest and best known graphic novels and comic characters of all time. Having created the iconic ‘Watchmen’ with writer Alan Moore to drawing the likes of ‘Batman’, ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘Doctor Who’, it’s no wonder he’s been hailed as one of the best in the genre and is also currently serving as the UK’s first Comics Laureate. Ahead of an appearance at Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival (WoWFest 2016), Dave chats to Your Move about his successful career and the power of the comic medium.
Interview by Natasha Young

You’re the first Comics Laureate. What has that two-year role involved so far?

I’ve done some interesting things. I gave a talk to a Liverpool infant school recently and I had a really attentive audience. Children instinctively like comics and drawing stories in pictures and, although it had to be pitched at an appropriate level, they seemed to enjoy it.

I’ve also done some appearances with school librarians and they seem receptive to the idea of comics, in huge contrast to when I was at school. I’ve been really heartened. Comics can do things that other forms of pictorial storytelling can’t so I’m always promoting those.

I’m also working on books with a major educational book publisher which will use the comic strip medium to encourage children to read and teach them about science and history.

Why has it taken so long for people to come around to the genre?

Particularly in this country, the idea used to be that comics were exclusively for children so on the cultural totem pole they were near the bottom.

The medium, to me, is as mature and capable of expressing the wide range of human experiences and emotions as prose, film, theatre and poetry. Traditionally though, it was only used in this country to entertain children so the range of content now has given comics a cultural significance on a par with what they’ve always had in European countries like France and Spain, and in Japan where comics are read by commuters every morning.

Which comics drew you in and inspired your love of the genre?

I’m sure I’d get nursery comics with stuff like talking rabbits, but I vividly remember the first ‘Superman’ comic I saw in Woolworths. I was with my granddad and he bought it for me more than 50 years ago, and I’ve still got that comic.

There was something about the excitement of those kinds of comics and the colour. I was fascinated by telling stories and as a kid it’s a thing you can do – you only need paper and a pen and you can do something like you’d read in a published comic.

One of your most famous projects is ‘Watchmen’, one of the most successful comics of all time. Why is it such a landmark piece of work that’s still so relevant?

It hit the audience at the right time because many people had grown up reading superhero comics and still loved them, but they were stuck in a set way of doing things. What [writer] Alan Moore and I tried to do was say ‘if superheroes were real, what would they be like?’

Once you think of that you question why would somebody put on a costume? Why would they fight crime? Why would they have a secret identity? Why would they risk their lives?

Once you explore the answers to those questions, and also start to draw them in a way which is like superhero comics but has a lot of important differences, you can give that older audience something they want to read.

In a way it was quite sophisticated but it sprung from our primal instincts of telling stories that we’d like to read. The fact it was a substantial read and arguably was a graphic novel – it had the amount of incident, character and subtext you’d expect from a novel – made it very satisfying to read.

Some of Gibbons' comic books

Gibbons has illustrated a range of popular titles throughout his career, with ‘Watchmen’ amongst his highlights

When you’re working on an original project, how much of the character is there before you visually create it?

The best collaborations are true collaborations where you both throw stuff into the pot.

With ‘Watchmen’ the plot was very much ours and Alan first came up with the idea when he was 12 or 13 years old. He wrote an initial outline which we discussed and which I designed for, and each time we worked on monthly issues we’d talk on the phone.

I can talk a lot but Alan can talk even more and we’d have five-hour phone calls to discuss everything and throw ideas in! Alan would write a more detailed script and then I’d draw it but it was always very much a joint creation and from both the story and art point of view, we were giving it the best we could. It was very organic.

For instance I created the look of the character The Comedian and he just dressed in black leather. To lighten him up I gave him a smiley face badge. I thought that was the limit of its importance but when Alan saw the badge he thought we could have it at the beginning of the story to show there had been something funny that had turned very dark. That eventually became the trademark graphic symbol of the whole series.

You’ve also worked on existing comics with popular characters already in place when you’ve come on board. Is it challenging to retain what the fans love?

I’ve been lucky because I started as a comic fan so to draw one of your favourite characters from when you were a kid, like ‘Superman’, ‘Batman’, ‘Dan Dare’ or ‘Doctor Who’ – all of which I’ve done – is a tremendous thrill. It’s like playing on stage with the Stones or the Beatles, or football with Beckham or Pele. All you want to do if it’s a character you love is the best job you possibly can.

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

‘Watchmen’ was so much fun and it was great to collaborate with Alan. Obviously we’ve done quite well from it and it’s helped me get other work that I’ve enjoyed too.

I also really enjoyed drawing and writing my own graphic novel, ‘The Originals’. I was a mod when I was growing up and that very much encapsulates, expands on and fantasises about my experience so it was very personal to me.

I’ve been lucky to work on so many characters I’ve loved and to work with so many of my favourite creators – Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Mike Mignola. It’s almost like trying to pick one of your favourite children!

What do you think about your projects being adapted into films?

I didn’t feel that ‘Watchmen’ becoming a movie meant it had finally arrived. I always thought ‘Watchmen’ was conceived as a graphic novel and works best as one because Alan and I were able to use all the storytelling powers of the comic strip medium, but I was happy to see it as a film and it’s flattering that all this money was spent and incredibly talented people poured their hard work into it.

If they’re done well, films can be a great way of experiencing the stories. They’re also bringing people into comics who think ‘this is a cool character, where can I see more?’

Even adaptations into games and the way you can now read comics digitally; there was a fear it would hurt the basic publication of comics but it’s had the opposite effect. It’s served as a great introduction.

Liverpool recently hosted its first Comic Con and WoWFest has comic themes too, plus superhero films are continuing to be released. Is there a renewed popularity in the genre?

When I was growing up I had a couple of friends who I swapped comics with, but by the time I was 14 or 15 I was the only person I knew who was interested in them. If you go to the San Diego Comic Con now there are 150,000 people there so that’s our nation. We’ve finally become part of mass culture and it isn’t an oddball thing to be a comic fan anymore.

If I was to look upon this as that kid who first got a ‘Superman’ comic from his granddad, it’s more incredible, fantastic and unbelievable than anything I’ve ever dreamt up! It’s a great time for comics and I’m pleased to be part of it.

Dave Gibbons comes to Liverpool's WoWfest 2016 on 5th May