Jun 6, 2012

Reclaiming History: Dave Gibbons and WATCHMEN

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

Regular readers of the Cube will know that WATCHMEN means a lot to me.  It's a technical masterpiece, a gripping narrative, and a true testament to the power of what comics can do. But one thing has always bugged me about it, and that's the fact that fans, casual and hardcore alike, tend to see it and speak about it as "Alan Moore's WATCHMEN." People who praise WATCHMEN point to it as proof of Alan Moore's genius. Those who don't point to it as a criticism of Moore's status, usually with the word "overrated" involved. When people discuss the controversies associated with WATCHMEN, it's as it relates to Moore.

Lost in the entire discussion is Dave Gibbons, the co-plotter, artist, letter, and designer of WATCHMEN. When people discuss WATCHMEN, they almost make it sound as if the vision is purely Moore's, while all Dave did was put it on paper. If it were true, it in itself is a difficult task and should be commended, but Dave's contributions were so much deeper.

Let's explore those contributions, shall we?

"Dave was somebody who was a dream to work with... The thing is that — the reason it seemed so smooth and eye-to-eye on WATCHMEN is the same reason it seemed so smooth and eye-to-eye on FROM HELL. It sort of — both of those works — or any ofthis stuff — these were works conceived with the artist in mind. I mean, I knew Dave's style, I knew Dave as a person, and as an artist. I had an idea of what Dave's interests were, what things he might like to try: I knew what Dave's capabilities were... The script has been written with me working very hard to fit it to the artist so that the end result will look as seamless as possible." -Alan Moore, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore
This is a key statement Moore makes here. WATCHMEN, like everything else he writes, is written to the strengths of his artists. In this case, he knew that Dave had a clean line and chose to take advantage of that. Moore understood that the project has to fit the artist, and so did Gibbons, who tried out for SWAMP THING a few years before.

Not very muck-monstery, is he? Gibbons didn't think so either, and wisely backed out of the project. And that's what's always set Moore apart for me from many other writers. More than anyone else except maybe Stan Lee, he recognizes the strengths of his artists and writes for those strengths. I've long thought Moore was the most versatile comics writer ever, but maybe that's not so true as the fact that he's just the best at figuring out his artists.

"It was just around about issue #3 when we suddenly noticed that something interesting was happening with the storyline. It was just borne out by the fact that Dave was capable of putting in all of this incidental detail and that I was capable of writing narratives that have more than one strand to them, and that this suddenly gave us both kind of increased capacity." -Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore

Moore has stated many times that he believes the story really took off in the first page of issue #3, when he realized just to what extent Gibbons can put in those incidental details.

There's lots of detail in this one panel alone about the WATCHMEN world,
most of which would be played on throughout the course of the series.

So there. We've established that WATCHMEN wouldn't have even been conceived by Moore the same way if his artist was, say, Steve Dillon or Brian Bolland or whomever else. It specifically had to be Dave Gibbons for us to get the story we got.

Another reason it absolutely had to be Dave is that, as Moore says, "Most of these were Dave's ideas, I think." In DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes, Les Daniels states:
"Moore has received so much of the credit for WATCHMEN that he is quick to point that 'a lot of the ideas were Dave's.' Artist Dave Gibbons created the look of the series, of course, but also added innumerable details like 'little electric hydrants on the corners' to fuel electric cars. One whimsical thought from Gibbons that proved especially fruitful was the suggestion that since masked heroes weren't special in this world, comic books might feature stories about pirates."

Indeed, a lot of the ideas came from Gibbons, talked over and refined by the two British creators over the phone, mail, and, at times, personal meetings at each other's houses. In his book Watching the Watchmen, about the production of the comic, Dave Gibbons says, "After meeting up with me again at one of the monthly comic marts, Alan stayed over at my house and we spent a Sunday morning sitting on the sofa talking about WATCHMEN, making notes and sketching together."

Gibbons is also quick to point out that Alan primarily worked out character motivations and backgrounds, while he figured out the nuances and little details of the world. Here are some of his musings, shown in the Absolute Edition of WATCHMEN.

Perhaps Gibbons' most important suggestion was the basic storytelling layout. He says, "I was particularly determined to make WATCHMEN look different from the superhero comics of the time and proposed the nine-panel grid that is the backbone of its visual narrative." He acknowledges that this gave Moore more control over the story, and as he did with the pirate comics and other details, Moore himself ran with that and took it to another level., with things like issue 4's nonlinear narrative and issue 5's symmetrical layout (the layouts are the same forward and backward). Even given Moore's legendarily comprehensive scripts, these are complex instructions, and Gibbons had to figure out ways to expedite the process and retain consistency, as there were many repeated shots. Watching the Watchmen is full of schematics penciled on transparent vellum so Gibbons could trace them as fast as he could without sacrificing detail.

Schematic for the prison scenes in issue 5.
These schematics also showcase Gibbons' clean lines
and his ability as a former surveyor.

Gibbons is pretty technical in his approach, with very comprehensive thumbnails (for the fourth issue with the repeating panels, he had a page-by-page breakdown and he'd mark all the repeated panels) and references for his figures. He actually made Rorschach inkblots so he'd have references for the various patterns on Rorschach's mask, a map of the pivotal intersection of New York City showcased in the story so he'd know where everything was at any given time, and schematics like the one above. Check out this two-page schematic of the Nostalgia bottle Laurie throws in issue 9, which Gibbons worked out just so it would retain that flow.

Apologies for the bad scan; it's four scans put together.
That is impressive.

And of course, it's Gibbons who is most responsible for the character designs, their costumes, their faces (it was his choice to base the Comedian off of Groucho Marx), and even their coloring (although John Higgins was the colorist for the book, it was Dave who decided on the colors of the costumes). In fact, one character in particular, the Golden Age Nite Owl, was a pre-existing Gibbons character. He drew this when he was 14.

It was also Gibbons who designed WATCHMEN's unusual trade dress — putting the logo on the side from the bottom left corner going to the top right, instead of putting it at the top of the cover, as is usual practice. This was because comic shops were really taking off, and this would make the comic pop out more in that setting.

So why is it that WATCHMEN is constantly seen as "Alan Moore's project"? In fact, why are most Alan Moore–penned books seen as "Alan Moore's project" with the artists more often than not being overlooked? Perhaps it has to do with Moore's scripts, known for being so comprehensive as to allow the artist little to no input? I don't want to say that though, as Moore always says that if the artist has a better approach visually, he should disregard Moore's instructions, as the artist, by virtue of being the artist, has a better visual sense. In fact, here's a revised sequence Gibbons did for WATCHMEN, showing that he moved things around and did not just adhere to the written instructions.

I certainly prefer the final panel in the bottom sequence,
but I keep vacillating for the first two panels.

I honestly think it has more to do with the organic feel of the book. In COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART, Will Eisner says that a comic needs to have one voice to truly work. Speaking of the interaction between words and pictures, he says:
"In view of this interdependence there is therefore no choice (in fairness to the art form itself) to recognize the primacy of the writing. In doing so, however, one must then immediately acknowledge that in a perfect (or pure) configuration the writer and artist should be embodied in the same person. The writing (or the writer) must be in control to the very end."
I don't think he's really saying it has to be done by one person, but he is saying there should just be one unified, focused vision. And that's what WATCHMEN has. The writing is more than the typing up of words and the scripting of dialogue; it's about pacing, nuance, and details, and Gibbons was a big part of that.

"...you could almost think of it as the work of one person," Moore says, "except that — actually in practical experience, I mean, there's no one person who could have ever done WATCHMEN."

As the artist, letterer, designer, and at least co-plotter and therefore not without his own "writing" duties, Dave Gibbons deserves at least half the credit for WATCHMEN. Let's remember that when we talk about it, okay?

1 comment:

Geoff Roberts said...

Excellent post, sir. Being an older reader (I was in my early 20's when Watchmen was released) I've had time over the last two decades to re-read Watchmen a time or three. This post does a great job of reminding me that without Gibbons, Moore would have been less (pun intended).

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