Despite the worldwide phenomenon that “Watchmen” has transformed into over the last year, the two-thirds of the original creative team behind the masterpiece, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, present at this month’s Bristol Comic Expo, presented a very relaxed and down-to-earth panel discussing the original work and their experiences with the 2009 film version directed by Zack Snyder.
To kick things off, Higgins took us back 23 years and explained how the production process worked in the comics and publishing industry when “Watchmen” was first released. While showing one of his original color guide sheets supplied by DC Comics, he explained how each color he used was manually translated into a color code for printing, with every page marked with codes by hand for every single colored area. This was due to the limitations of the color printing process at the time, but also allowed him as an artist to ensure consistency throughout the book. The complex storyline, which involved extensive flashback sequences, made the coloring an extremely detailed process which required a lot of planning on his part.
Even before Higgins was brought in, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons had discussed the use of color in the story, as certain elements, such as how Dr. Manhattan interacted with the world, required extensive discussion and understanding of aspects as such lighting and shade even before the color was added. Higgins was recruited after Dave Gibbons saw a piece he had drawn for a “2000 AD” annual, which demonstrated that John’s talents would be well suited to “Watchmen”. Gibbons and Higgins also lived close to each other, which made the initial collaboration very easy.
Gibbons said the color palette of a comic book can sometimes be very surprising. As a pencil and ink artist, his work can sometimes be lost under a bad colorist, and having been immersed in the black and white art for so long, Gibbons was initially shocked at what appeared to be garish tones applied by Higgins! However, Gibbons decided to take his own advice – “There’s no point in having a dog and barking yourself” – and let Higgins do what he wanted, confident that the colorist had the understanding and talent needed for the project. The philosophy behind the art was that every page had to be a distinctive page of “Watchmen”, and Higgins’ careful selection of a muted color palette delivered this aim admirably. The idea was to make “Watchmen” feel like a European comic rather than an American superhero comic, with a color palette reminiscent of French art that Higgins had seen.
Additionally, the color palette was limited by the printing process itself. When it came to preparing the Absolute edition of “Watchmen,” which Higgins recolored, there was a discussion between he and Gibbons as to whether anything should be changed. But while the Absolute recoloring allowed Higgins to explore some of the tonal variation he had wanted to do for the original but couldn’t (due to printing limitations), they decided that because “Watchmen” had such a unique, almost timeless quality about the color, that nothing should be altered.
For Gibbons, creating the Absolute edition was akin to digitally remastering and old piece of music. “It’s fair enough to clean up the scratches and pops and the hisses, but if there’s a bum note in there, you should really leave it in. And believe me, when you’ve looked at the drawings as many times as me, there are plenty of bum notes!”
Gibbons admitted that if he let himself start fixing things, it could well be a never-ending processes and the book would never be published! As a result, the Absolute edition is a smooth, clean version of “Watchmen,” much closer to the vision of what Higgins and Gibbons originally had in 1986. Gibbons suggested that Higgins’ work on the Absolute edition was like watching a swan paddling serenely on a lake, so much work went on behind the scenes to get it right.
Turning to the 2009 film adaptation, Gibbons expressed his pleasure at how much of Higgins’ color palette was translated onto the silver screen. Given that the colors and hues, in particular the purples, greens and yellows, of “Watchmen” are so distinctive, to see large advertising hoardings in Hollywood using Higgins’ colors was a delightful experience.
As part of the film’s publicity, director Zack Synder took the original DC in-house advertising images, as drawn in black and white by Gibbons, and turned them into live action images. It was at this point that DC’s VP of Sales, Bob Wayne, realized that the project was in the hands of a crazed genius! Gibbons said it was a surreal experience to see these photographic images taken almost exactly from his original drawings as if they were real events that might have happened at some point. The illustrations were done almost as a warm-up for the “Watchmen” comic itself, with Gibbons seeing how densely detailed he could make the world. Higgins recolored them in 2008 for the film, and said it was a very pleasurable experience to go back and work with Gibbons’ original black and white art, just as he had done more than twenty years ago.
While most of the characters survived the transition from comic to film intact, some changes were made. Dr Manhattan’s penis, which had been based originally on Leonardo Da Vinci’s idealized Vitruvian Man, was made more anatomically correct after lengthy committee meetings at the studio to decide the most appropriate size and shape for the film. Nite Owl also underwent some significant redesign, as the original blue and brown cloth costume would not have looked right in comparison with the cloth-costumed Minutemen featured in the film’s flashback sequences. Gibbons was very happy with the new Nite Owl design, as he felt it kept the spirit of the original, and also harkened to the “Batman and Robin” film era.
Gibbons also mentioned that sitting in Nite Owl’s actual airship was surreal, as indeed most of the film was. “It was the movie I had run in my head as I drew it!” Gibbons, who said he has seen the film seven times now, it still finding new things in it that he hadn’t noticed before, and commented that a frame-by-frame comparison of certain scenes, such as Ozymandias’s wall of televisions, will be fascinating. Indeed, Bob Wayne, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins and others have all seen members of the movie audience with copies of the graphic novel at hand, comparing the comic with the film as they watch it in a darkened theater.
“The movie isn’t perfect, but then neither is the book,” said Gibbons, but remarked that never before has there been such effort to be true to the original source material as this. “I’m absolutely gobsmacked.”
Speaking of the cast, Dave Gibbons gave the well-received opinion that Jackie Earle Haley absolutely nailed his portrayal of Rorschach, remarking that his attention to detail was such that during the filming, he would come to Gibbons to discuss things like that shape of the word balloons in the graphic novel, and whether their shape reflected the deteriorating mental state of the character as the story progressed.
The new ending to the film has been a bone of contention among fans of the original graphic novel, but when questioned Gibbons said that he had no problem with Zack Snyder’s decision, as the original was always just a MacGuffin anyway. If the original had been used instead, the story of the artists on the island would have needed to be included, and Gibbons wasn’t convinced it would have worked. “The new ending works very well as it ties back with the theme of the film. Zack was very aware of the original ending and the kind of reaction it was going to elicit from fans when he changed it.” And at Gibbons’ suggestion, calamari were served at the premier party!
Gibbons drew three extra pages for Zack Snyder, to see how the new ending might have been depicted originally. For this, Gibbons found some original DC art boards and used the same pens to draw with, and John Higgins colored them exactly as he would have done in the mid-’80s. As a result, they look just like missing “Watchmen” pages, and of the three, the shot of Laurie and Dr. Manhattan standing on the rim of the crater was used almost exactly in the film. Gibbons gave the originals to Zack Snyder as a gift when the production had finished, but they are reproduced for fans to see in one of the film tie-in art books.
Bob Wayne hinted at a Christmas release for the final extended director’s cut of the film, a three-and-a-half-hour version that features full integration of “Tales of the Black Freighter.” Dave Gibbons confirmed that the extended cut did include this, which he described as coming alive on the screen as the kid reads it. The extended version also features the murder of Hollis Mason, more interaction between Laurie and Jon, as well as all of the scenes of the two Bernies at the newsstand. “It’s a completely different movie, there is a completely different weight about it” said Gibbons, explaining that the pace is slower.
Looking back, for Dave Gibbons, John Higgins and Alan Moore, “Watchmen” was really just a little fun project they worked on. “This is how comics can be at their best, having fun with your mates doing something together,” said Gibbons. He also said that collaboration with people who know what their doing is the most rewarding part of his work, and is far more satisfying than solo work.
At the time “Watchmen” was released as a 12-issue series, there was no such thing as graphic novel collections, but 23 years later, it has never been out of print. The first inkling that they had created something special occurred during their first UK tour when the graphic novel came out, when they had people queuing around the block in London to meet the creators. Gibbons reflected that with “Watchmen” they had done something new with superheroes that had never been seen before, something which allowed people who had read comics as children pick up the graphic novel as adults to enjoy.
Twenty-three years later, Gibbons recalled how on his fifth viewing of the film, at the London IMAX, he saw a young couple seated nearby who clearly were not familiar with the story. At the end of the film, when Rorschach’s journal is found in the newspaper sorting basket, the girl gasped in shock. “She had followed it through right to the end, and got it! That’s a real thrill!”