Twenty-five years after “Watchmen” changed the comic book world, artist Dave Gibbons, colorist John Higgins and editor Len Wein reminisced about the groundbreaking DC Comics title work Sunday at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Moderated by Douglas Wolk, the panel began with the three men discussing their own feelings about “Watchmen” and the impact it made on the industry. “What Alan Moore and I set out to do was a comic that we would like to read,” Gibbons said. “We’d been asked by DC not to use Charlton characters after they saw what we wanted to do with them, so we came up with our own characters.” Gibbons says that he and Moore had no idea the reception their book was getting among those in the DC offices. They had been told that the issues were great, but assumed things were still business as usual. “By the time we’d done three issues, we both went back to New York and it was like Nelson Mandela visited,” Gibbons said. “There were people coming out of offices and slapping us on the back.”
According to Wein, the impact that “Watchmen” had on the comic book world is still hard to believe. “When we started the ‘Watchmen,’ we were just trying to get a 12 issue miniseries done on time,” said Wein. “That all of you are sitting here a quarter of a century later because we did what we did still boggles my mind.”
For Higgins, “Watchmen” started as just another job. “We never really got the sense of being pushed in the direction we didn’t want to go, it was very hands off,” said Higgins. “It was just great fun. It was just a social event. It didn’t seem like work at all.” The sentiment was shared by Wein, saying, “I always believed as an editor my credo was ‘I do my job best when it appears I do it the least.'”
The influence that “Watchmen” has had on the industry is undeniable, but it didn’t turn out exactly as Gibbons had hoped. “I think we were a bit depressed to begin with myself because it was kind of misunderstood. It was really a love letter about super hero comics. It certainly wasn’t in our minds to destroy or tarnish the notion of super heroes,” Gibbons said. “What Alan and I would have loved to do after Watchmen was something like Captain Marvel. Something about the wonder of comic book characters.”
Intentional or not, the grim and gritty influence that the book had on the industry is something Gibbons regrets. “It’s a shame it was such a depressing influence,” Gibbons said. “‘Watchmen’ wouldn’t be what it is if Alan and I didn’t love superheroes.”
Talking more about the art, Gibbon’s complimented Higgins for his contribution to the book through colors. “I chose John as the colorist because I really love his sense of color,” Gibbons said. “It was clear to me that he was putting as much thought into the coloring as Alan and me were putting into the drawing and the story.”
“I think for me it was a highly exciting cul-de-sac for an artist,” said Higgins. “It was a great opportunity. To have the opportunity to do ‘Watchmen’ gave me the opportunity to do many series for DC Comics. It’s great to know that I will be recognized as being part of one of the great books of the 20th century.”
The legacy of “Watchmen” has had a lasting effect on Gibbons as well. The success of “Watchmen” opened doors for him not just as an artist, but as a writer as well. “People would let me do just about anything because they could put ‘From the co-creator of ‘Watchmen,'” Gibbons said. “I absolutely know whatever I do for the rest of my life, the word ‘Watchmen’ will appear in the first two lines of my obituary.”
Reminiscing about the past, the panel talked about Alan Moore and the incredibly detailed scripts he wrote for the twelve-issue story. “We went through six mailmen over the project because of the collective hernias,” joked Wein, who continued to stay up-to-date on the project even after moving on to “Swamp Thing.” “I had a deal with the staff that whenever a script from Alan came in, I got a copy.”
Gibbons also remembered being enthralled by Moore’s scripts. “Alan’s scripts were so fantastic I couldn’t sloth them off,” Gibbons said. “Definitely within ‘Watchmen’ there is nothing that isn’t there for a reason.” Interestingly, for as elaborate and detailed as Moore’s scripts were, Gibbons says that he was not at all rigid about how it was to be put on the page. “Alan would go, ‘If you’ve got a better idea, forget all this,'” Gibbons said. “It was like he wanted to give me all the possibilities he could see, but was quite happy for me to do my thing my own way.”
If there’s any subject about “Watchmen” that can start a debate among fans, it’s Zack Snyder’s film adaptation. The first question about the movie wasn’t about its ending though, but instead which of the three DVD releases the panel felt was best. “I don’t think there’s ever a definitive version of a movie,” said Wein. “I’ve got all three versions. I’m waiting to break a leg so I have time to watch the five-hour version.”
Gibbons had a little more self-indulgent reason to appreciate the “Ultimate Cut” version of the film. “It’s far [and] away the best because that’s the one with my audio commentary on it,” Gibbons joked.
When asked about how much Gibbons collaborated with Snyder on the film, specifically about the ending, Gibbons revealed he was happy to stay uninvolved. “I really didn’t have much input in the movie. I don’t think I really wanted to because it was too precious to me.” Gibbons has been happy with Snyder’s direction of the film since Snyder revealed to him that he had reversed the studio decision to have the villain killed at the end of the movie. “The first thing Zack said to me was, ‘Dave, Adrian lives,'” Gibbons revealed. “When he said that, that gave me tremendous hope. Whether it’s a squid or an energy bomb, that’s the McGuffin really. I’m not just saying this. It’s the best possible movie of ‘Watchmen’ that could have been made.”
As for which version he really prefers, Gibbons actually favors the director’s cut version of the film. “It’s a compromise between giving the comic fans what they want and what movie fans want to sit through.”
The next question noted that 1986 was a particularly defining year for the comic book medium and asked the panelists if they thought the industry would ever see such a ground breaking period of time again. “In 1986 people were trying to do something to break the system that had worked for a long time,” said Higgins. “I think independent publishers are the best bet to a certain degree. I think that might be where the next ‘Watchmen,’ not that it will be ‘Watchmen,’ will come from.”
Wein agreed, saying that the corporate climate of today’s big publishers would prevent such a radical book to be created. “The odds of something like ‘Watchmen’ being allowed to happen, just with enough people keeping their hands off of it, is unlikely.”
“I suspect probably the economics today with the big companies, that couldn’t happen,” Gibbons agreed. “I don’t think there’s any obstacle to anybody else though.” Gibbons did have a request for the next person to shake up the comic world as Watchmen did: “Please, if you’re going to do it, don’t come up with grim and gritty super heroes. Come up with something new.”
Going back to the art of Watchmen, the next questioner asked if there was anything the artists could change about the book. Gibbons and Higgins stated that they had already been given that opportunity with the digital version. “When it came to drawing, if I started I never would have stopped. I only corrected one art mistake in it,” Gibbons said, who fixed a continuity issue with Ozymandias’ hair. “It bothered me for all those years.”
For Higgins, the digital version allowed him to replace the analog color and really go back to make it look how he really wanted it to look. “For me it was a great opportunity to revisit the coloring,” said Higgins. “I was definitely bitten by the continuity bug.”
Gibbons briefly discussed his relationship with Alan Moore when asked if they would ever collaborate again. “I did collaborate with Alan for several things after ‘Watchmen,'” Gibbons said. “We were hugely honored to do the first ‘Spirit’ stories that Will Eisner let anybody do. Alan came up with three beautiful little stories that I was thrilled to draw.” As for future collaborations, Gibbons doesn’t see the pair reuniting creatively any time soon. “Alan has gone in a different direction and I’m thrilled by the stuff he does, but I don’t think his plans include me.”
Finally, the panel ended on the controversial topic of whether the “Watchmen” characters should be integrated into the regular DC Universe. “I’m not in charge of any of the of the business aspects,” said Wein. “It all comes down to Dan DiDio and what the business guys want to do with it.”
Gibbons asked the audience if they wanted to see the characters crossover into the DCU and was answered with mostly silence.
“I have no comments made,” Gibbons said.