Since debuting in 1986, the Watchmen limited series, later collected into trade paperback, has gone onto become perhaps the most important and influential comic story in history. While there had been comic stories that dealt with more mature themes and ideas, The Watchmen is the title that kicked comic books into adulthood. Then as now, even people who are not comic book fans picked up the book. The Watchmen took comic books off spinner racks and put them into retail book stores and even libraries. The collected book even won a Hugo award in 1988.
With writer Alan Moore’s densely plotted deconstruction of the superhero theme and Dave Gibbons’ distinctive visuals and page layouts, the story remains as vital and enthralling today as it was over twenty years ago, a tremendous achievement considering the overall rubbish that the comic industry was in the mid-1980s.
Gibbons has just written a new book entitled “Watching the Watchmen”. Published by Titan Books, the nearly 300 page hardcover sheds new light on this seminal work. Gibbons provides his account of the creation of the series and reveals for the first time original design sketches, excised pages of the story, early versions of the script and much more. Dave recently shared his thoughts on his book in an exclusive for Mania readers.
1. To what do you attribute the Watchmen's continuing popularity and influence?
I think that it’s very accessible in the way it’s written and the way it’s drawn. Although we’re dealing with a pretty complex story and complex ideas, it’s put over very palatably. There is nothing off putting about the drawing as it’s straightforwardly laid out on the page and people speak and answer one another, without any fancy work going on. Also there is the fact that it’s complete in itself, as you don’t have to have read 20 years of X-Men continuity for example, and you’re not left hanging at the end. You come in, read the story, and have the experience, as it were, of reading the novel. And hopefully you’re satisfied at the end that you’ve read something interesting and you’re prepared to recommend it to other people.
I think also the themes that it deals with are still relevant, like paranoia. Although it has kind of moved on from the prospect of imminent nuclear apocalypse to concerns about terrorist atrocities, and now seems to be moving back towards nuclear apocalypse, I think there has always been paranoia about what’s going to happen in the world…so that’s a continuing concern. And also in as much as we questioned ‘what is the nature of a hero?’ There will always be heroes in popular fiction, particularly in comic books, and that continues to fascinate people.
2. What was the most difficult part in putting together Watching the Watchmen?
I suppose it was marshalling all the material together. I had most of it in a filling cabinet draw, but other bits and pieces scattered elsewhere throughout my ‘archives’, if you could call them that: my room full of books, papers, filling cabinets and boxes…so I had to track everything down. Then we had to catalogue it, all which meant a day spent photographing everything and then I had to describe what everything was. Then of course there was the question of what was left in and what was left out. That was kind of Chip Kidd’s decision. I mean I very much trust his ability to pick what is interesting and what looks good in juxtaposition. Then I went through it again and told him if he missed anything out I thought really should have been in there. So it was really just getting a handle on the wealth of material. I don’t know how many images are in the book, but somebody told me there were about 600 photographs taken. So there is probably enough for Watching the Watchmen 2! But I think what we have ended up with in the book is probably the most interesting stuff and what is most worthy of being in the public view.
3. What do you want fans to get out of the book?
I’m a fan myself, and I‘ve got several books like this, some of which Chip Kidd has actually designed. I love looking behind the scenes; I love to see roughs; I love to see altered pages; I love the way things are being rethought and the way significant things are put down in a casual way, not knowing the importance they will have in the future. So I think there is that ‘looking behind the curtain’ element to it. I think also perhaps, it’ll give aspiring creators an idea of the kind of level of work that goes on behind the scenes. And if you want to produce something that has got the kind of visual and dramatic intensity and consistently of Watchmen, there is a lot of stuff that you don’t ever suspect goes on. I also think the kind of drawings and notes, because they are uninhibited and not designed to be seen, are sometimes more lively and interesting than really finished polished artwork. Certainly amongst my very small original art collection, it’s the sketches that people have done that I value more than the pages of finished artwork. They are never designed to be seen, so it’s a real thrill to see them.
4. Looking at the material in the book, are there designs/scenes you'd wish were kept in the final book?
It was quite a rigorous process of selection. We talked things over quite extensively before Alan wrote his script, so I certainly got my chance to make sure what I wanted to be in there would be included. Because we did a lot of preparative work, by the time we got to the finished pages, we were pretty clear on what we had to have. I can’t think of anything that we discarded, which I think should have made it in the book. For a long time, if you look at Watching the Watchmen and some of the early sketches, we had this idea of Rorschach being in this full body suit. It took a long time for us to let go of that, but I’m really glad we did because I don’t think it would have worked half as well dramatically and would have been a nightmare to draw. So, no I don’t really have any regrets and I think it’s pretty much the way we wanted it to be.
Special Thanks to Tom Green of Titan Books for transcribing the audio file.