The Dave Gibbons Interviews: Watching the Watchmen in Book and Film

In Part 3 of our four-part series of interviews with Dave Gibbons, the legendary artist talks about his DC work, including, of course, Watchmen — plus the controversial Watchmen film.

Part 1, about working with Alan Moore, Frank Miller and other collaborators, is here. Part 2, about his current projects like Treatment and his origins, is here.

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Watchmen was obviously a huge career event but what was your favorite project to work on? Who did you enjoy collaborating with the most?

Well, Watchmen was probably the thing that would define my career and it is one of my very favorite things that I worked on. It was a tremendous challenge but we were at the right place at the right time and we were both at the right point in our careers and like lightning, it only usually strikes once. I think we were standing there when the lightning struck.

And most of the things I’ve done with Alan (Moore) I’ve really enjoyed. The Superman story that we got to do together was a great thrill. I set that up when Julius Schwartz asked me if I wanted to draw any Superman and I said, “Yeah, who’s gonna write it?” and he said, “Who do you want to write it?” and I said “Alan Moore.” He said, “Right. Fix it up.”

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So … you know … a nice big self-contained Superman story (“For the Man Who Has Everything” in Superman Annual #11, 1985). So to work on my favorite character with my favorite writer with my favorite editor, that was as good as it gets. But I just enjoy collaboration! I’ve collaborated with some wonderful talents and I’ve never collaborated with anybody who’s been a problem. I wouldn’t want to single anybody out.

What projects across your career would you like people to be more aware of?

I’d like people to be more aware of Martha Washington, which was the thing I did with Frank Miller. We quite recently had that all collected into a single volume called “The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century,” which is all the Martha Washington stuff together and I think it’s a stonking read!

Also, there’s The Originals, which was the kind of semi-autobiographical graphic novel I did about my youthful days as a Mod. That’s something that’s very dear to my heart but, again, I did a war story with Garth Ennis, I drew Doctor Who, as you know, for years! So I’d like to think there’s a little bit more to me than just those superhero comics, but I’m just happy that people are aware of any of my work.

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So now we’re going to talk about the Watchmen movie. How successful was it in translating yours and Alan Moore’s vision?

I think it was extremely successful. I think it was incredibly true to what we did and incredibly congruent with the whole thing. Some of the best dialogue comes straight from what Alan wrote and some of the setups and the iconic images are exactly what I drew. There are obviously a few changes to the detail, the costumes, but by and large it felt exactly like Watchmen should have felt.

Whether because of that it turned out to be the best possible movie, I don’t know, but I think Zack Snyder was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. If he deviated too much from the book, he’d be crucified, if he stuck exactly to the book, he’d be crucified, and I think he tried to strike a balance. I think it’s an unwieldy movie. I think it’s got some absolutely magical moments. I think the title montage, I think the Dr. Manhattan on Mars stuff, I think some of the action stuff is just sublime and I think as a movie it’s a tremendous tribute to Alan and myself because it is so faithful and the attention to detail is so exhaustive.

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Believe me, everybody on that set loved Watchmen! Everybody on that set did the best possible job they could. I lost count of the number of copies of Watchmen that I signed when I did the set visit. Everyone was absolutely into it. All the actors had their own annotated copies, which was extremely flattering. But it was an unwieldy movie. Whether it could have been a better movie and a less faithful adaptation, I really don’t know, but personally I think it was tremendously successful.

Do you think the movie got a fair shake?

The public’s always right. It did reasonably well. It was a hard battle. It was a long movie, which meant that they couldn’t show it as often. It was R-rated, which meant that the audience was drastically reduced, particularly in what was perceived to be a superhero movie, although I expect we all know there’s slightly more to it than that. And I think it’s done quite well on DVD and Blu-Ray and I do think it’s one of these movies that will continue to be popular and continue to be watched. I mean, I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, several of those as a contractual obligation, and I’m still seeing new things in it, just as people tell me they see new things every time they read the graphic novel. I think it had a very similar effect to the graphic novel. So I think it got a fair shake.

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What would you prefer they’d done differently?

I really don’t know there’s anything I’d have preferred they’d done differently. Really, it was their baby, you know? Somebody said to me, “Have you done any designs for the movie?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve done thousands of drawings but I did them 25 years ago.” So I really had all the input I would need to have into the movie then.

Then I was really happy just to leave it to the filmmakers because it’s their area of expertise. Maybe I’d have tweaked things but how that would work in terms of the overall movie I don’t really know. In a way, I didn’t really want to be involved with it. Would have been too much involvement. I did give them some script notes but they were reasonably minor. They took those on board so I was quite happy to stand back and let them do what they needed to do.

How did you feel about the changed ending? Was it an improvement or was it a mistake?

I thought the changed ending was absolutely fine. I could completely see why they did it because they didn’t have to go into all the stuff about what was happening on the island and also because it was a special effects movie and the MacGuffin in the comic book was really Adrian Veidt did an incredible special effect. I think the special effect being the MacGuffin for a special effect movie wouldn’t have felt quite right and I think the way they tied the kind of energy clock into both Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan actually made it cohere more successfully in terms of the movie.

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I think the comic book was actually fine but if anything, in terms of the movie, I think the ending they ame up with was a better ending. And it saved time in what was already a movie that was too, too long for the average cinemagoer so I think that was a wise decision. Not to say it’s an improvement! But I think it was the best way to go for the movie. It certainly wasn’t a mistake and nothing on that movie that Zack did was a mistake. If anybody knows his Watchmen, it’s Zack Snyder and he couldn’t do anything by mistake, let me tell you.

Which of the Watchmen characters is your favorite?

I dunno. … Rorschach tends to be everybody’s favorite because of his particular psychology. I suppose Nite Owl actually sprang both in name and in his design from a character I came up with when I was 12, 14 or whatever, so he’s kind of the one that’s closest to my heart. And he’s kind of the one that if I was one of those characters, I would probably be — the slightly overweight, over-the-hill guy sitting in his basement with his toys. And not particularly wracked by angst … just doing it for the fun of it.

But I really like all of them, mainly because I designed them and I made them characters that I’d like doing, from the sort of black leather effect of the Comedian to the other-worldly, slightly Moebius-esque — that’s not a word — Moebius-inspired Dr. Manhattan.

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Next week: A special wrap-up.

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Author: Dan Greenfield

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2 Comments

  1. I like the Watchmen movie quite a bit, I don’t think it exceeds the graphic novel and it isn’t supposed to. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation with an ending that makes sense for a movie. The whole Times Square special effect is more a commentary on writing that isn’t necessary to the movie, sort of like Tales of the Black Freighter has no place in the movie. I watch it on a pretty regular basis, myself.

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  2. Great interview! I absolutely love the movie, as I’m one of the people who actually watched the film first and then read. I love both and think the change in the ending was fine too. The special edition of Watchmen is extremely faithful to the comic book. I couldn’t ask for me as a fan, even if I did see the film first.

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