How a throwaway sketch resulted in Watchmen's most iconic symbol
What if superheroes were real? When Watchmen, a comic book series from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, asked that question in 1986, it changed comics forever.
The comic tale of a group of retired superheroes gathering to solve the murder of one of their own explored themes never before seen in the superhero genre. Over the course of its 12 issues, the series deconstructed the idea of the superhero, superimposing them into real-life historical events to both examine their effect on the world and vice versa. Watchmen‘s realism is best illustrated in the form of the blood-splattered smiley face that graced the cover of the first issue. Here, Gibbons discusses how his work has since become pop culture iconography.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for the smiley face to be the symbol for the Comedian?
GIBBONS: It’s funny. It was sort of typical of the way most things in the series worked out. [Alan Moore and I] talked for hours and hours about what we wanted to do. He had an outline of the story and I went away and did loads and loads of sketches as to how I thought the different characters and elements would work. The one thing we knew about the character of the Comedian was he couldn’t look like the Joker. He couldn’t look like a deranged clown. So I thought, “Who else would be a comedian? Who could I think of?” The one that leaped to mind was Groucho Marx because he had the mustache and the cigar and the kind of slicked back hair. So he was very much a toughened-up version of Groucho Marx, which was what I had in mind.
The character of the Comedian was supposed to be a government agent who worked undercover in foreign countries to stabilize them. So my first attempt at designing him was to give him a military uniform, like a khaki-green-brown military uniform, camouflage uniform. But of course, that looked kind of dull because camouflage by definition syncs into the background. So I thought, “How about if he was dressed in black? If he wore this really dark kind of costume and it was very functional with lots of ammunition belts and straps and pouches and things like that with just a hint of the stars and stripes?” So I drew this black character and he had a star on one shoulder and red and white stripes on the other. But he looked very serious so I thought, “I wonder what would lighten it up a bit?” So on the sketch that I did, I drew a tiny little yellow smiley faced badge, almost as a throwaway, because I thought that’s a really interesting contrast. This big hulking dark character, with this little splash of bright, silly color.
Alan saw that and he liked it. And when he wrote the first issue it had to start with the death of the comedian. So he thought, “How about the comedian’s been thrown out the window [and] the first thing we see is just that badge with some blood on it? And then we pull back and see more?” So he wrote that into the first script. But then we realized that what we had in that smiley face badge was really the ultimate cartoon. The simplest cartoon. A black and yellow smiley face, with a splash of really realistic blood on it. It was like the real world imposing itself on a cartoon, which is what we were trying to do by treating comic book characters as if they were living in a real world.
It’s crazy that it was almost a throwaway.
Oh sure. When I came up with that I had no idea what Alan would do with it. So he turned it into what it was. But if it hadn’t been for the symbol in the first place that just popped up in my head, then we wouldn’t have gone that route. It’s like all things in the creative process. You just throw as much stuff out as you can and sometimes something just fits.
Within Watchmen, the Comedian also has that purple buckle before the smiley face. Did you and Alan talk about why he made that transition to using the smiley face as his symbol?
Well, the first time you see the Comedian is when he’s really a teenager. A lot of those old style superhero costumes, Golden Age of comics costumes, looked a bit clunky. They were much too brightly colored and they didn’t fit quite properly, and they looked like fake, fancy dress. So we knew when we first saw him he had to be a much more gaudy, over-the-top version of what he became. So what he’s actually wearing is a Pierrot costume. One of the classic clowns is called the Pierrot. He’s the one with the ruffle around his neck and the big buttons. So I designed that to look a bit like that. But to keep the kind of yellow in it, to act as an echo or a precursor of the yellow badge. And then when we see him later, he’s now wearing the black leather because he’s become much more serious. The world’s become much darker. And it’s a more functional costume than a dressing up fancy dress kind of costume.
For the blood splatter on the badge, did you go through different iterations, or did you know right away how you wanted that to look?
That’s interesting because what we decided we wanted to do is have it echo the clock. You know we also have the [Doomsday] clock face which is also bright yellow with the black numerals and hands. When we first see it it’s five minutes before 12, so we knew the blood splatter had to be kind of linear rather than just a blob, so I gave it a direction of five minutes before 12. Although it’s interesting when they did the movie badge – I’m actually looking at one of the actual props that they used in the movie. I’ve actually got that framed on my wall – they have the blood splat a bit different. It’s like it’s hit the side of the badge and then a piece of it has run across. But that’s really why I designed it the way it was. That was pretty much the first shape I came up with. That looked good enough to me.
That’s so cool because people have talked about it referencing the Doomsday Clock but I don’t think it’s been said definitively that that’s what it was referencing.
Yes. That is definitively what it was. [Laughs]
Considering that icon has become such a symbol for Watchmen, what do you think it is about it that has made it such a calling card for the series? Is it like you said, reality infringing on the cartoon?
Well, I think it’s a subversive thing. It’s taking that really familiar smiley face which has been around for god knows how long – though there is a French gentleman that’s unsuccessfully claimed that it is intellectual property – and subverting, with a blood splash, which makes you take notice. It’s something familiar that now has a different meaning. I’ve always loved symbols and I’ve used them quite a lot in my work. After Watchmen, I went on to do a thing with Frank Miller about a character called Martha Washington. And she’s in the U.S. Army which has now been rebranded as “Pax,” in other words “Peace.” It’s the Peace Force. And their symbol is a peace symbol, you know the upside down Y shape symbol on the background of the stars and stripes. It’s got a star and it’s got some stripes. It’s like, “I’ve seen that peace symbol, but now it’s got an American flag. What’s that about?” So I’ve always liked that idea of taking disparate or discordant elements and combining them into a symbol that somehow does say something thematically about the story that it’s in.
Going back to the Doomsday Clock, now that it’s moved recently, a lot of people are drawing parallels between that and Watchmen. What did you think of that?
I do have a very unsettling feeling that that clock is closer to midnight than it has been for a long, long time. When we did Watchmen, the Doomsday Clock was about an imminent nuclear war between the United States of America and Soviet Russia. And it was a very real fear at the time and there had been things like the Bay of Pigs invasion during John. F. Kennedy’s presidency where it was a very real and scary thing. I think it’s becoming a real and scary thing now. It’s more likely to be one of the rogue nations of the world that versus one of the superpowers and the world is in a way a much messier and more complicated place than it was back in the ’80s. So I don’t know if any of us truly know now because there was an element of surprise or an element of action from an unexpected direction. I don’t think we can predict so accurately how close we are to that midnight, but obviously one would hope that midnight never comes. But I think it’s getting closer to midnight. And I, like everybody else, am very worried about that.
For you as a creator, how does it feel that not only are people still referencing what you drew 31 years ago, but they’re also drawing parallels to the real world?
It’s interesting. We never had any clue that it would last as long as it did. We thought we’d do a comic book series and it would hopefully sell okay, and then it would go in the back issue bins and then it would never be heard of again, or other people might remember it. So we were utterly surprised. I think DC comics were completely surprised it lasted so long. But I think it’s so interesting because although it is set in the ’80s, it still addresses universal concerns. Basically, the story of Watchmen is, “If the world was faced with an external threat, it might bring us together and unite mankind.” That was what the scheme was behind it. And stories were told about that even back in classical times, in the days of the Greeks and the Romans. It seems to be a common theme. And indeed, rather strangely when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland – I think it was for a peace summit – the first thing Reagan said to Gorbachev was, “If we got invaded by Mars, that would make us become friends wouldn’t it?” That echoed what’s in Watchmen. It’s as resonant today as it was then. Although the political climate is different, I think it addresses one of the basic notions of conflict and shared humanity. I’m thrilled and delighted, but completely surprised that it does still have relevance today.
What do fans tend to ask you about the series?
They say to me, “What was it like working with Alan Moore?” Because somehow this idea has gotten around for some time now that Alan is some kind of a bizarre reclusive hermit. But working with him he was a complete professional. He put so much work into his script, he really made me want to put all the effort I could into my scripts. So that’s one of the questions I get asked, and that’s how I answer it. That is the most common question I think. There’s also the kind of question that you asked, “Did we ever think that it was going to be so successful?” And of course, we didn’t. People ask individual questions about details in the panels like, “In the background of that scene in Issue 6, what was the meaning of that thing?” And interesting enough, DC Comics are going to publish a book called, The Annotated Watchmen, which goes into the symbolism and the details we had in the story. And I think maybe a lot of readers’ questions will be answered by a lot of the questions in that book. I also did a book called Watching Watchmen, which was my personal view of what it was like to create the series and I address a lot of the creative or artistic questions there. That’s the kind of thing I ask.
And what are you reading right now? Are you reading any comics or graphic novels?
It’s funny. I tend to get a lot of comics sent to me free. I really enjoy this series called Sheriff of Babylon which DC published recently. There was another book they did called Unfollowed, which is a really interesting book in the way that it’s based on the ramifications of social media. I tend to read anything that friends of mine do. Anything that Mark Millar does, or Alan does, or Frank Miller does. Those are the kind of books I read.