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Illustrating Watchmen

Last week we ran Part I of a three part exclusive interview with Watchmen co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons.

This week, in Part II, Dave answers fan submitted questions on creating planning and creating the Watchmen comic series.

Dave also gave us an exclusive image of some Watchmen concept art he drew back in the eighties. Dave explained to me that the drawing is a rough for just about the first group shot he ever drew and he considers it “very embryonic and significant.” Oooh.

Stay tuned next week for Part III where Dave will give answers to some of the most talked about Watchmen mysteries and secrets. We would like to thank the fans for submitting such great questions, and of course Dave Gibbons for answering them. Now on to the artwork and interview…

Watchmen concept art By Dave Gibbons

Tiffany Ngo: It is often noted that you and Alan Moore were among the first few interested in pursuing serious careers in the American comic book industry. What do you find attractive about the American comics industry that ultimately influenced your career choices as an artist and have you experienced conflicts and controversies within the industry similar to those Alan Moore has had?

Dave Gibbons: When I was growing up, I loved American comics. You used to get them over here in reprint form, but towards the end of the fifties, they were also imported direct from the U.S. The first ones of those that I saw just, as they say, blew me away because it wasn’t just the fact that they were in color and that they had the glossy covers, which a lot of the reprints didn’t. But also, they had these adverts for fabulous things like Tootsie Rolls and Palisades Amusement Park and Schwinn cycles and Daisy BB guns. So there was a real magical quality, this sense of being an artifact from a fabulous alien civilization that attracted me to them. I know that was so for colleagues of mine, like Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, and Alan Moore as well. And he, like me, grew up on a diet of American comics and British comics. Of course, a lot of the British comics were actually drawn by European artists — Spanish and Italians, in particular — so we were really exposed to quite a wide cross-section of comic art.

In the early seventies, 1973, I went to New York to one of the early comic book conventions and took my samples up to DC and Marvel, trying to get work. I met up with Roy Thomas at Marvel, who said “Yeah, you know, we might have something for you. We’ll send you a script.” They never did. At DC, my samples were returned by a guy called Michael Uslan, who later went on to produce the Batman movies, and I think The Spirit movie, and a few other Hollywood things. He was a DC intern at the time and he gave me my samples back with a “Thanks but no thanks.” Then I worked in British comics for ten years or so, eight or ten years. And then amazingly, America came calling. Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando from DC came over here and invited various others whose work they’d seen in 2000 AD and Warrior Magazine to come and meet them at their hotel and they offered us jobs freelancing for DC. Not only was it DC Comics, home of all my favorite characters from when I was a kid, but also they paid more money, they offered reprint money, royalties, they even supplied the board that you drew the stuff on and they returned your artwork afterwards. So it was an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse and I’ve worked for DC on and off probably ever since. More than 25 years now. So it’s funny how things happen. They came for me, rather than me coming for them. When you’re a freelancer, “career choice” isn’t quite the right word. It’s a lot of luck, it’s a bit of being in the right place at the right time, it’s a lot of inevitably gravitating toward something.

As far as Alan was concerned, he and I actually tried to do stuff with DC, after I’d been working for them. Actually, you can read this story in great detail in my forthcoming Watching the Watchmen book. But I’d been working for them for a while and Alan was still working for 2000 AD and Warrior in England. I actually got a call from [Watchmen editor] Len Wein asking me for Alan’s phone number because they thought he might be able to do something with Swamp Thing. So that was how Alan ended up working for DC. Again, they came looking for him.

“Have I experienced conflicts and controversies within the industry similar to those Alan Moore has had?” Well, probably not similar to those Alan has had. I think you have to respect the fact that Alan, Frank Miller and possibly very few other people are in possibly a different league than most of us who work in the comic book industry. A lot of us are lucky enough to enjoy a career with fame and popularity and critical acclaim, but I think Alan in particular stands aside and above from the normal run of people who work in comics. I think the pressures on him and the conflicts that he’s been put in have been in a slightly different league than a lot of the rest of us.

Having said that, to me, it’s just like another day at the office. I think no matter what job you do, you’re going to have conflicts and controversies and I try and deal with them as best I can. I try not to take things personally, I try to always communicate if I’m unhappy with something. I have had discussions with DC. Always polite, always to-the-point. [President of DC Comics] Paul Levitz, for instance, has always taken my phone calls and always responded to me in what I consider a businesslike fashion. So, that’s my way of dealing with it. But then, it’s to say that I haven’t the pressures put on me that I know Alan has from time to time.

Craig Baillie: Watchmen presents an extremely layered approach in the way it is illustrated. There were many hidden smiley faces, clocks approaching midnight, and other visual puns in the background of many of the comic’s panels. Was all of that preplanned, or did you go back to make adjustments to previous panels in order to get those things in there?

Dave Gibbons: There is a lot of layering and again, that’s great fun to do. If you can strike a chord or hit a rhythm, that’s quite a nice thing to do in a piece like Watchmen.

The similarity of the clock face and the smiley face became evident quite early on and indeed, the exact angle of the blood splash does relate to the clock ticking up to midnight. And then, various things would occur to me, where I think “Why not just make that into a smiley face motif? Why not have something hidden that the readers can get a kick out of when they see it?” Some of the covers, like the one that’s a big close-up of the Nite Owl goggle that’s got the distorted reflection of the Owlship, which kind of gives you the smiley face and where Laurie has run a finger across it to lift the dust off, that gives you the blood splash.

Actually, towards the end, in the scene where Dr. Manhattan vaporizes Rorschach, we’re looking at the end of the round tunnel that leads into Karnak and I thought “Oh, that’s a round shape, maybe we could have a smiley face there.” That would be appropriate, because that was the symbol of the Comedian’s murder and here we are, Rorschach had been investigating and it’s his murder. So if you look at that, you’ll find that the trail of smoke from the steaming puddle that was Rorschach kind of floats across that circular opening and there’s a couple of stalactites with some water or something dripping down that kind of are made into eyes and you can see the motif there again.

There’s one actual appearance of the smiley which until it was pointed out to me, at the very end of drawing the whole series, I didn’t even realize was there! That’s the plug on the spark hydrant, the electric hydrant, where if you look at it, the two slots where the plug goes into and the thickness of the thing at the bottom, the thickness of the recess actually makes itself into a smiley face as well. So, there’s stuff in there that even I didn’t plan that the Powers That Be put in there.

As for going back to make adjustments to previous panels, I’m afraid we didn’t have the luxury of doing that. Watchmen was done issue by issue, sometimes page by page. Once a thing was drawn, it was drawn and whatever came after had to respect that as being set in stone. When we came to do the Absolute Edition, I did make one adjustment to the artwork. There are also some continuity errors in there which not many people have noticed, but things that I’m aware of that were tempting to be changed, but I’ve resisted that temptation because once you start changing things, you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.

Will: How much Christian symbolism in the comic series was intentional? Is the back of Adrian’s chair at Karnak a Star of David, or just a stylized Masonic square and compass?

Dave Gibbons: I’m not really aware of there being any Christian symbolism in there. Certainly, I didn’t attempt to put any in there. I don’t think that Alan suggested any. I guess the thing with Dr. Manhattan in the canteen when he’s reassembled, I suppose there’s something vaguely messianic about his return there. But as I recall, he hasn’t got his arms outstretched in a crucifixion posture. I’m not really aware of any Christian symbolism.

As far as the back of Adrian’s chair — which I’ve had to go and look up, because I’d completely forgotten what was on there — that is a pyramid, which is one of Veidt’s companies or one of his interests, this whole Egyptian thing, with a capital letter V for Veidt superimposed on it. And yes, it is reminiscent of a Masonic symbol. I think, probably, things that Masons are into the same kind of things that Adrian Veidt was into. Yeah, I think that’s what we were looking for there.

Jeff Davidson: Which character from Watchmen was your favorite to draw and which was your least favorite? Have you ever redesigned or redrawn any of the characters or costumes in your private time?

Dave Gibbons: Wow. Well, I tried to design the characters so that they were all fun to draw. I’ve worked on some stuff where the characters are being designed by other people and I really haven’t liked the design. And it’s a real pain, day in and day out, to have to live with a character who you really detest the look of.

I went to some lengths to make these characters that I was going to have to draw repeatedly fun to draw. The Comedian’s good to draw because of all that black leather and he always looks imposing because of the amount of black on his costume and the fact that he’s a real heavy-set figure and he’s got all these buckles and belts and guns and everything. And Nite Owl’s got this nice sleek, kind of pointy, curvy look, which is a nice contrast. Rorschach, of course, you can’t go wrong with grime and dirt.

If I had a favorite character to draw, anybody out there who’s ever gotten me to sign their Watchmen trade paperback or whatever knows that if I have to draw a picture of a character -- I usually offer to do that -- the one that I’ll draw is Rorschach. Basically, you just have to draw a hat. If you can draw a hat, then you’ve drawn Rorschach, you just draw kind of a shape for his face and put some black blobs on it and you’re done. So he’s a favorite to draw in that circumstance.

“Have I ever redesigned or redrawn any of them in my private time?” Well, I’ve sort of drawn them enough that I have done odd little doodles where I’ve done funny versions of them, just to keep myself going. Sometimes if you draw a funny version of something, it helps you to bring the juice out of it a bit more. But no, I’m very happy with the designs that I spent time coming up with in the first place and I’m happy to stick with them.

Tony: Were there any panels or pages in Watchmen that were particularly tricky to draw?

Dave Gibbons: Many of them. Many of them were tricky to draw. I mean, if it’s not tricky, in a way, where’s the fun in it?

I certainly had to know what I was doing as far as composition was concerned, because there were a lot of elements in some of the pictures to put in a very small space. A lot of the pictures relied on being able to draw perspective properly, which isn’t a skill that necessarily everybody in comics is up to speed with. But I had to make sure that I could draw things in a three dimensional setting and in a correct relationship. So there was usually a lot of underdrawing that doesn’t even appear in the final thing. Rising lines, vanishing lines, stuff like that. Again, that’s where having model sketches of everything comes in handy, because if you’ve got to draw something in a setting, you’ve got to know how big it really is anyway. Hence with the intersection – which was often quite tricky to draw, because you do see down the side of the street and all the buildings – to know exactly how far it was across that street and how big the doorway was or how far the radioactive sign was or the radiation warning sign was above street level, all those things really mattered. So that was a test of classical drawing skills.

There were things like having static viewpoints or moving characters against them which posed similar kinds of problems. But basically, if you’ve got something that’s good to draw, something that’s interesting to draw, something you know is worth drawing properly, it’s worth it. If it’s tricky, that actually is part of the fun of doing it. And of course, when you’ve got something tricky to do and you pull it off, then that’s a great joy and pleasure. So I would say it was all tricky to draw, but I enjoyed doing it.

Coleman: Every time I read Watchmen, I’m always impressed by the consistency of the character art. No matter how many times you draw them or from how many angles, the characters look like themselves. My question is this: How do you keep their features and proportions straight in your mind? Are they based on real people or do you dream them up? If the latter, do you keep detailed reference sketches or is your memory just that good?

Dave Gibbons: Thanks, Coleman, first of all. One of the prime skills of drawing comic books is to keep them consistent from different angles and in different situations and particularly, with a cast and a number of locales like you have in Watchmen, it’s impossible to keep it straight in your head. Or what happens if you think you’ve got it straight in your head as time goes on, you alter what’s in your head and you get to the end of several hundred pages and you realize that you’re drawing something completely differently than you were at the beginning.

So I always draw character sheets. I’ll draw turnarounds, front and side, rearviews of people, draw their heads in a similar way. Actually, this is a good exercise because by the time you’ve done that, it makes it much easier to draw them in the story anyway. You also make sure that things work in three dimensions. There are a few character designs that work really well head-on, say, or in profile but really don’t work in the round. The character Mongul, that I drew in the Superman story I did with Alan, was a case in point. I actually went so far as to make a sculptee, or plasticene model, of him just to get his form straight in my head. Just of his head, not his whole body. Really, by the time I made the model, I’d figured out exactly what he looked like, anyway. So, yeah, I always do model sheets of characters and of machinery and of locales. It’s really useful to have these standards to refer back to, rather than referring back to the last picture you drew, which may be slightly different than the one you drew before that. So yes, I do keep detailed reference sketches.

“Are they based on real people or do you dream them up?” I don’t like to use photo references for characters. Sometimes, like when I was drawing Doctor Who, you have to use photo references because he’s a real actor. Not a real Time Lord, but a real actor.

But generally, I think of a type of person. If you read notes that I’ve done, or the notes that I did when I was designing the Watchmen characters, I referenced actors or people in real life really just to give a feel for the character, rather than to use their actual physical appearance as reference.

Again, more good stuff on this in the Watching the Watchmen book, available from Titan Books and DC Comics in October this year.

Eric: Watchmen had an interesting policy of having almost every panel drawn with a straight-on view of the characters and action, rather than having dramatic “camera angles” like most other comics at the time. What made you decide to illustrate it this way? Was it your idea originally, or Alan Moore’s?

Dave Gibbons: I don’t know if I’d call them “straight-on.” I mean, one thing that was important was important was because it was a very complex story and very complex images, that not everything could be complex. I realized that at the very beginning. We couldn’t have the kind of poster-style decorative layouts that were used in a lot of comics at that time. It had to be something that kind of held everything in a much more understandable form. I’ve been very struck by a lot of European comics that I’ve read that had very complex artwork but really quite simple page layouts. Also by the work of Steve Ditko, whose Spider-Man and Dr. Strange I used to love, who even at his most psychedelic with Dr. Strange would still keep a pretty straight page layout.

If you mess around with the page layout, you make people aware of the design of the page. You make people aware that there is an artist at work. If you make the page layout almost invisible or predictable, then you take the eye and the viewer within the picture and you make them far less aware that what they’re looking at is an artifact. And that’s the effect I wanted with Watchmen.

So, I proposed the nine-panel grid to Alan and drew up a sample to show how it could work. He really liked that. Of course, from his point of view, it gave him extreme control over what appeared on the page, the pacing of the page, what would be a big panel what would be a small panel… all of these things are very important when you’re telling a comic-book story.

The other thing that I wanted was for it to look different from any other comic. I think it’s true that you could look at any page of Watchmen and just know it’s a page from Watchmen. There’s no confusion, it’s not “Dave Gibbons drawing something else,” it is Watchmen. And that was something I really wanted, to give it a really clear visual identity apart from the style in which it was drawn.

Soupdragon: Could you run through the tools you use to produce comics? Is it all hands-on stuff or do you also work on computer these days? As an artist, I still find the direct eye-to-pencil-tip the “safest” approach for getting what I want, although the time I save with a digital pen is enormous.

Dave Gibbons: I think when you’re drawing anything, you want to use the tools that are best-suited to the job. Obviously, the computer is an incredible tool and a tool that’s only been available in a useful form for the past ten, fifteen years possibly. That’s as long as I’ve been using a computer, anyway.

Certain parts of the process, yes, are done on the computer. Obviously, I write scripts on the computer. I tend to do roughs on the computer as well. I’ve recently taken delivery of a Wacom Cintiq tablet, which is a pressure-sensitive tablet with an LCD screen inside it, so you feel you’re actually drawing on the screen. I have to tell you, that’s incredible for doing roughs on, because you can really size things, rotate them, change their opacity. I still tend to do the next stage of the drawing – as you say, Soupdragon – with a pencil, and then scan that back into the computer and then tweak that a little bit further, maybe print it out in a non-repro blue and ink over it. Maybe, occasionally, I’ll ink it on the Cintiq tablet.

I’ve used Photoshop a lot, but recently, I’ve been using Manga Studio, which is an incredible tool specially tailored to producing comics. It’s got some great inking tools in it. Wonderful perspective possibilities, importing 3D models and so on. I hope to get to grips with that a little bit more.

There are pros and cons for both traditional and digital media. I think, also, a thing that’s easy to overlook is that most of us who draw have taken many, many years mastering traditional, real-world, hard materials like pencils, brushes, pens. It would be surprising if it didn’t take us as long to master digital methods. I think some people expect they can plug in their computer and pick up a stylus and immediately keep drawing in the way that they draw in the old way, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s a lot of practice, but certainly, I enjoy using new tools and I’m greatly enjoying using my Cintiq tablet.

10.23.08 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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