The other week I had the extreme good fortune to get 15 minutes chatting to Dave Gibbons, the thoroughly nice chap behind Watchmen, Martha Washington, Rogue Trooper and loads more. The interview appears at CNET UK: Crave meets Watchmen creator Dave Gibbons. This is the complete transcript:
You must be sick of talking about Watchmen…
No not at all. But I do feel that now the circus is leaving town.
Have you heard about the Judge Dredd movie?
Another one of these things that if it’s done right would be an absolute smash. The problem with the first one was that it was like Robocop had eaten Dredd’s lunch! And also the fact that there was a huge star who wanted to take the helmet off, and I really wish they could have done it without revealing that.
I think one of the successes of Watchmen is that the cast, although they’re wonderful actors, aren’t over-familiar. So you buy into the story, the scenario, without stopping to think “oh that’s that, y’know, the next Dustin Hoffman or Tom Cruise”. I wish the Judge Dredd movie well, I’d like to see it.
I think one of the keys to Dredd is that you never see his face, he’s like the Lone Ranger or something. He’s eternally masked and that’s the essence of his mystery
Are you pleased with how Watchmen turned out?
Very pleased. I feel so flattered that they stuck so closely to what Alan Moore and I did. I just think it’s wonderful. I’ve seen it a few times now. The first time I saw it I’m sure it would have been the experience of people much less close to it than me. It’s just “Oh my God — it’s really happening! It’s Rorschach! He’s gonna say that, this is the bit where this happens…” The second time I saw it I got over that. I saw it as a movie and for two-and-a-half hours I was lost in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I’d paid ten quid to see it on a Saturday night I’d have been just thrilled.
Do you think it has brought in non-comics people?
Undoubtedly. The thing that’s the key to that is the sales of the graphic novels. Sales of the graphic novel have gone through the roof, and those are people who’ve been intrigued by the trailers, intrigued by the movie, and then saw the graphic novel so I’m sure it brought a lot of people in. And it’s interesting, people seem quite divided on the movie: there are some true fans who like it, some who don’t like it. Some people had never heard of it and really really like it. Some don’t get it. But it’s those ones who weren’t aware of it and had seen it not knowing and got absolutely hooked on it, they’re the real victories.
You were involved with recolouring Watchmen for the Absolute Edition. Is that something you’d have considered before the digital age?
The way that the colour separation was done on Watchmen originally is almost like something out of the Victorian age. You had to do watercolour colour guides with every single area annotated, and it would be something like R2B2 — which isn’t a Star Wars reference, it’s 25 per cent red, 25 per cent blue: it’s a light purple. Every single area had to be coloured like that. It would then go to these ladies who would sit at their kitchen tables with sheets of acetate and they’d paint out all the areas. It was so inefficient.
Every page. Three tones of every colour, three tones of red, yellow, blue, so there’s 9 sheets of acetate for every page in a 30 page comic. That’s nearly 300 sheets of acetate. But now of course it’s done by computer, so what John Higgins the original colourist on Watchmen was able to do was go back and correct the mistakes that had inevitably crept in the process. Also of course in the old process you couldn’t do anything subtle; you had to paint up to a line and if there wasn’t a line there they’d just put an edge on the paper. So he was able to get digital files that were exact reproductions of the original colours and then tweak those so that they looked right.
We didn’t make huge changes because we didn’t want to do new work. We wanted to do the equivalent of a digital remastering of a favourite song, where you don’t correct the bum notes but you take the hiss and the scratch off it. You restore it to what it was always meant to be.
When did you start using digital technology in your work?
I first got a computer for my work… Well, I got one to do word processing, an Amstrad, in the mid-80s. But I invested in some serious stuff very early in the 90s. Originally I would do typographic sort of things. Mechanical elements. Then I started to do colouring myself, for which it was wonderful. And now I use it in all kind of ways: I write my scripts on the computer, I do a lot of my rough drawing on the computer because you can be so loose and free on it — you can re-size stuff and move stuff round. I’ve recently got onto a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet, which is one of these wonderful things where you literally draw on the screen, and that’s just… that’s magic.
So I’ve used a computer increasingly since then. Things that probably wouldn’t occur, things like getting photo reference. You have to have lots of reference when you’re drawing comics. It used to be a trip to the library. Now Google it, and you haven’t got one shot of the car you want, you’ve got 100 shots of the car you want. So, on every level.
One of the main challenges of comics is you have to draw things repeatedly from different angles so 3D modelling programs are very useful there — not making finished models, but models that are good enough to draw from. So there isn’t an area of what I do that hasn’t been improved by technology.
So in theory you can do a comic without putting pen to paper at all?
You can. I’ve done bits of artwork where nothing has ever been drawn. On the computer I’ll do the roughs, then the pencils, then the inks, then the colour, and, y’know, it feels strange to begin with… And of course, the one downside is you’re not left a piece of original artwork that you can sell! But it certainly saves a hell of a lot of time, particularly if you ever have to do any correction or any redrawing. I’m moving increasingly towards ‘the paperless studio’.
Did publishers embrace that kind of technology?
There was resistance, because I think in a sense publishers liked to see what they’d paid for. They liked to have a page of original artwork, and actually a physical object. I think it’s a thing that had to reach a critical mass: a friend of mine called Richard Starkings, who runs a company called Comicraft who do digital lettering, he had terrible trouble with DC Comics, trying to get them to accept digital lettering. What he used to have to do was do it digitally, then print it out and cut and paste it physically onto the artwork.
But then Marvel Comics embraced it, because of course in production it’s a huge time-saver. Someone can do the pencil drawings, and they can be lettered while somebody is inking the pencil drawings, and they can be coloured while they’re still being inked. So it absolutely streamlines the whole production process. And it actually means that there is no longer the liability if original artwork that it might get lost or damaged, the problems of storing it. I think all the publishers prefer digital now.
Were British and American attitudes different? Because they’re such different systems for making comics.
I think everything’s becoming kind of global, so many Brits work for American comics, and so many British comics like 2000AD are virtually exclusively coloured digitally, the lettering’s now done on computer so the fields are interchangeable. The other thing is you can quite happily live in England and work for America — or live in California and work for England, because transfer is instantaneous. I’m of an age where, when I first started making comics, there was no such thing as Fedex. There certainly wasn’t such a thing as a fax machine. So if you wanted to send a page of script then you had to get it physically delivered to the guy. Now, as you know, it’s the work of a moment: you write it, you send it. You draw it, you send it.
That must have been difficult with Alan Moore’s scripts being so famously dense — must have been some big packages arriving…
That’s true, and also what used to happen when Alan was really under a lot of deadline pressure he wasn’t able to do an entire script. I have had two sheets of typing paper delivered from Northampton where Alan lived, delivered to Hertfordshire where I live, in a taxi because there weren’t any fax machines
That must have made for a white knuckle experience…
Yeah! He said that the money he spent on taxis was god’s punishment for making him rich.
He could have been richer if he’d been more involved in the films, but obviously… (I tail off, wishing I hadn’t said that)
Well, that’s true, it’s… he’s had a real bad time with Hollywood and he didn’t want to repeat it with Watchmen. He does get royalties on the sales of the graphic novel which is right, but yeah… I’ve had a very good experience on the movie, I perfectly respect his decision not to be involved with it, and we’re still friends which is the most important thing to me. But I do think of all the movies that have been made of Alan’s work this is the one that comes closest to the spirit of the original.
You’ve worked with Frank Miller as well. What do you think it is about their work that makes them so attractive to Hollywood?
Well I think they’re wonderful writers. For a start, their characters and their stories are of huge interest. Y’know, Frank I think has always been directed at Hollywood, that’s always been part of his plan to end up in Hollywood. He’s a visual storyteller and he can write and draw both, so… I just think they’re very talented people. But their approach is completely different. Alan is like Mozart, everything’s like a symphony. Frank is like jazz, he kind of jumps about, it’s improvised.