Dave Gibbons on the Harvey Hall of Fame and the continuing legacy of Watchmen
It might not be an exaggeration to say Dave Gibbons is one of the most widely-read comic artists of the modern age. The highlight of his decades-long in comics is undoubtedly Watchmen, the 1988 miniseries he illustrated alongside writer Alan Moore. The story of aging superheroes contending with serious adult problems, Watchmen has become a definitive statement on the superhero genre and has cast a long shadow on comics ever since. As the only graphic novel to make it on TIME’s list of 100 favorite novels, Watchmen’s literary import has made it accessible even to people who don’t usually read comics. That has been compounded by the fact that Zack Snyder directed a movie adaptation in 2009, and now Damon Lindelof is currently working on a TV show for HBO. 30 years on, the legacy of Gibbons’ art is very much alive.
Three decades ago, Watchmen swept the first annual Harvey Awards — a ceremony honoring high achievement in comics, named after Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman. This year, Gibbons will be inducted into the Harvey Fall of Fame alongside iconic cartoonist Roz Chast when the awards are presented at New York Comic Con. EW caught up with him to talk about the honor and how he feels about Watchmen‘s ongoing legacy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be granted an award like the Harvey Hall of Fame?
DAVE GIBBONS: It’s like a dream come true. I live in England, miles away from the heart of the comic industry in New York. As a kid who aspired to draw American comics, which was itself a very unlikely dream, it’s an honor to now be given this award after a lifetime in comics, particularly in the name of Harvey Kurtzman, who was responsible for so many of the comics I loved as a kid. I loved Mad and tried to emulate it as a 10-year-old. Eventually I was lucky enough to meet Harvey, and even did a story with him. To end up receiving an award with his name on it in New York is just brilliant.
Mad was willing to subvert or parody anything. Is there any of that spirit in Watchmen, and the way you guys radically interrogated these superhero tropes?
Oh sure. What I loved about Mad was that, beyond the wonderful stories and fantastic artwork, it had that subversive angle to it. For me, comics in general have always had that slightly underground culture feeling about them. Someone once said that when you think of the people who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, the letters M-A-D were probably as influential as L-S-D, in that it kind of expanded people’s consciousness and showed them an alternative view of society and consumer culture — mocked it, satirized it.
Certainly that is something that runs through Watchmen. It’s basically saying, “superhero comics don’t have to be the way you’ve always seen them, they could be like this.” We definitely subverted superheroes. We did it bc we love them. If it was just a purely cynical or dismissive thing, then it wouldn’t have had the success it did, and we wouldn’t have enjoyed doing it as much as we have. I’d also like to say that when it comes to the kind of storytelling we did in Watchmen, we used many of the tricks Harvey Kurtzman perfected in Mad. The thing for instance where you have a background that remains constant and have characters walk around in front of it. Or the inverse of that, where you have characters in the same place and move the background around. We quite mercilessly stole the wonderful techniques Harvey Kurtzman had invented in Mad. Outside of Watchmen, there was a Superman story that Alan and I did, called “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Again, we definitely referenced Kurtzman with that. To both me and Alan, the Mad comic spoof of Superman, which was called Superduperman, was so much better than the Superman comics themselves. We tried to inject a bit of that solidity into the Superman story we did together.
The first Harvey Award ceremony was tied to Watchmen‘s original release, and you guys won big. Does this Hall of Fame honor feel like coming full circle now?
There’s a certain circularity to things. When I was a kid and first saw Superman comics, I used to draw and copy my own figurative Superman. Very recently it turned out to be the 1000th issue of Action Comics, where Superman started. They asked me to do a variant cover for that, which I did. That felt like a circle closing as well. From being a kid who aspired to do this, to being an elder statesman who has sort of done it, that almost felt like the perfect thing to do, a Superman cover. It’s strange how things turn out, but certainly way back when we did Watchmen, we thought we just hit lucky once. To be asked back and to be given another award, it’s a wonderful reprise of what went before.
Next year is the 10th anniversary of Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Watchmen. How do you look back on that movie and your experience with it?
There was movie interest in Watchmen from the very beginning. Way back when, Alan and I had a meeting with Joel Silver, who’s produced a lot of high-grossing action movies in his time. There was even talk of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Dr. Manhattan. Alan also had a very brief discussion with Terry Gilliam, where I think they agreed Watchmen was unfilmable. It was actually Larry Gordon, who was a producer on the eventual movie when it was made, who said that the problem with Watchmen for a long time was that it was unfinanceable. It didn’t have any recognizable characters in it, and it didn’t have a clear star; it’s an ensemble piece with all these flawed minor characters in it. It was only after there had been a number of Batman and Superman movies that the general public would get the whole idea of superheroes, and perhaps be ready to have what they saw on screen be deconstructed, the way Watchmen had originally deconstructed Superman and Batman comic books. By the time it did come around Alan had unfortunately fallen out of love with Hollywood because of his experiences with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, so he didn’t want anything to do with it. He was perfectly happy with me being involved, though. Once I had a conversation with Zack Snyder I realized he got it, he felt like a safe pair of hands. I gave them notes on the screenplay, and went and saw some scenes being shot, which was a huge thrill to see these things blossom forth into three-dimensional reality. With Watchmen, Zack made a good movie, a flawed movie certainly, but with some moments of real genius and wonder.
Have you heard anything about the Watchmen TV show that Damon Lindelof is working on?
I do know a little about it. I’ve had conversations with Damon, and I’ve read the screenplay for the pilot. I don’t think it’s my place to say too much about it, other than I found Damon’s approach to be really refreshing and exciting and unexpected. I don’t think it’s gonna be what people think it’s going to be. It certainly wasn’t what I imagined it to be. I think it’s extremely fresh. I’m really looking forward to seeing it on the screen.
I’ve been resistant to the comic book prequels and sequels, but what Damon’s doing is not that at all, it’s very far away from that. While it’s very reverential and true to the source material (by which I mean the Watchmen graphic novel that Alan and I did), it’s not retreading the same ground, it’s not a reinterpretation of it. It approaches it in a completely unexpected way.
From what Damon has said publicly, it sounds like he and his team are maybe playing with the same themes or storytelling techniques that you guys made, without it necessarily being a 1-to-1 correlation?
That’s what we tried to do with Watchmen itself. Other people have done it with some success, coming to the basic material with a fresh approach. I feel like the comic prequels and sequels don’t really do that. They’re done by very talented people, but they don’t expand the scope of it at all. Grant Morrison did a thing with Multiversity, where he came up with some very fresh approaches to comic stories, and in one of them (Pax Americana, with Frank Quitely) they did something similar to Watchmen, but in a new way. I heartily applauded that. My feeling is that what Damon’s doing is like that, it’s not a retreading of something we already know, but it’s a fresh and unusual approach.
Do you have any closing thoughts about Watchmen’s legacy and how it’s influenced comics for better or worse over the years?
[Laughs] It is amazing to me that after all this time there is still interest in it. Alan and I thought we’d have a mildly successful series that would have its end and go into the remainder bin and that would be the end of it. The fact it’s kept on for so long and hasn’t been out of print is amazing. If it worked to the detriment of comics at all, it might be the “grim and gritty” approach was taken by other people in the business to mean “ah this is how you must make comics.” So there was a decade of grim, gritty, and nihilistic comics, which wasn’t what we intended at all. In fact, if we’d done anything after Watchmen, we would have done something like Shazam, something with a lighter, more humorous fable feeling to it rather than something dark and grim. I do apologize to the comic-reading public for all that misery.