From his legendary work with the worn down superhero world of “Watchmen” to the sci-fi street punks of “The Originals,” Dave Gibbons’ work has always had style. And now this spring, the creator is adding a bit more brutal class to his repertoire in his collaboration with Mark Millar. Shipping this April from Millarworld via Marvel’s Icon imprint, “The Secret Service” tells the story of a veteran operative at the highest levels of British Intelligence who takes it upon himself to train one exceptional (and exceptionally difficult) new recruit as a gentleman spy.
After announcing that he and Millar would be giving away the original art for the six covers to the series to the retailers who ordered the most copies of issue #1, today Gibbons is back to delve into the particulars of “The Secret Service” with his first full-length interview. Below, the artist explains how he and Millar’s collaboration has gone since the writer first pitched him on working together at 16, why director Matthew Vaughn’s involvement in the story and its possible film finish doesn’t impact his work, how actor Mark Hammil plays into the whole story, what classic spy stories influence him and much more. Plus, Gibbons shares an exclusive first look at the final covers for “The Secret Service” issues #1 through 3.
CBR News: Dave, at this point we’ve all heard about (and seen!) this letter that Mark wrote to you when he was young pitching you on a Shazam comic. Did you remember that at all when you met Mark as a professional? What was it like when he pulled out this response you’d written him?
Dave Gibbons: Well, you know, I don’t know if it’s age or just the sheer volume of stuff that comes by, but I had absolutely no memory of ever getting a letter from Mark. I was very pleased to see that I answered it with my usual charm. It really seemed to be a sincere letter. You wouldn’t have thought it was from a school boy, and obviously, one thing Mark has never lost is his desire to do comics and his ability to promote himself -Â which I take to be a very positive thing.
I actually can’t remember when I met Mark as a professional. I know that I’d been aware of his work and had seen his stuff on the “Superman Adventures” comic. And I was also actually offered “Red Son” – the Superman Elseworlds story he wrote about Superman coming to earth in Russia rather than the U.S.A. For some reason, I turned that down. It was an excellent story, and it turned out to be a fantastic book, but for some reason, there was a chance I missed there to collaborate with Mark at an earlier stage. But I’m pleased I’ve made the wee lads dreams come true.
As an artist you’ve worked with a great many amazing comic writers and written a lot of fine work to boot. I think it’s safe to say that fans think you could take your pick on collaborators. What is it about Mark’s writing in general that made you want to create something with him from the ground up?
Yes, I suppose I am fortunate in that I can pick and choose. I think it’s kind of the “Watchmen halo” effect. But starting with “Red Son” and continuing on, I’ve always loved Mark’s writing. I must say, when I saw Mark’s work with Bryan Hitch on “The Ultimates,” it kind of turned me into a young fanboy again because it was so well done and had such an excitement about it. It was one of the few comics where I would phone up my local comic shop to say, “Hey, is the new ‘Ultimates’ in yet?” and actually make a special trip to go get it. So when we met and as people do talk in sort of “We must do something together” terms, it was an absolute no brainer to want to work with Mark.
As I mentioned before, Mark does have an enthusiasm about him and I think a sense of the entertainment value of comics, which I find very appealing. It’s a little easy for comics to get a bit worthy and a bit pompous, but I wanted to do something with Mark that would be a good yarn and perhaps challenge me a bit. And so, what Mark actually gave me to draw has proven to be challenging and tremendously entertaining. So I’m thrilled to finally be working with him.
We know that the concept Mark brought to you at the start of all this was developed with Matthew Vaughn. Have you been interacting with Matt as well during the whole process? What’s the collaboration between the three of you like, and what do you think that’s done to strengthen the final product?
The collaboration really is between me and Mark and then separately between Mark and Matthew. I’ve met Matthew briefly, but I haven’t really had any to-ing and fro-ing with him. As always happens with comics, I’ve got a script to draw, and that script has been written by Mark in collaboration with Matthew. I think Matthew put a lot of ideas in at a very early stage that Mark brought to me, and that I really loved.
There were a few changes. Originally, it was going to be set in the U.S.A., but I think perhaps based on what I’d done in “The Originals” – which was very much about British youth culture -Â and the sense of authenticity we’d be able to bring to it, we decided to set it in England. And that’s opened the whole thing up and given it a completely different tone. And to reference “Watchmen,” I think there was a moment there when I realized that it wasn’t a superhero story, it was a science fiction/alternate reality story, and that changed my whole outlook on that. The minute we decided to set “Secret Service” in England with English characters, it immediately became clear to me that it was a bit of a social document where we could have fun with things we see in our society rather than trying to ape what we’ve seen of American culture. And I think that very quickly gave it a whole extra sense of authenticity. Certainly, Mark and I have both grown up in the kind of environs that we see in “The Secret Service,” and we’ve got younger relatives we look at sometimes with concern, so I think this has also given us a personal investment in the whole thing.
With the pages themselves, we’ve seen you doing a lot of character design work and other kinds of “pre-vis” layouts. What’s the visual style you’re hoping to bring to “Secret Service,” both in terms of storytelling techniques and the feel of the cast and their world?
As I say, it’s set very much in what for us is the real world. And there’s a temptation when you’re in the real world to use a lot of photo reference and try and draw in a very “drawn from life” style. But I have my own style, and I think what I’ve always loved about really good comic art is that it translates reality into an understandable and consistent code. If you look at any of the really great comic artists – Kirby or Ditko or anybody like that -Â their style is completely unrealistic, but it has the crackle of reality because it’s reality filtered through them. That’s what I tried to bring to “Secret Service.” Obviously, if you’re drawing an English street scene, it’s got to look like an English street. Cars have to be authentic, and guns and clothes have to be the same. But given that, I try to do the story in my kind of classic style and bring to it the strengths that I feel I work with.
One of my most important areas when it comes to drawing a comic is not exactly the line I use or the particular technique. It’s actually got much more to do with the storytelling. I really like to put the story across clearly. That’s what I feel my job is, and that’s the fun I’ve really, really been having with “The Secret Service” because Mark and Matthew write very strong scenes and very good characters, and my job is to get that across. That’s what I enjoy most about this.
I usually do a lot of layouts before I draw something. It’s always good to have a degree of confidence in what you’re drawing. And if it doesn’t already exist, you have to make it exist in your head. And it’s also very helpful to have model sheets you can refer back to and keep everything on model.
Overall, this is an espionage piece, albeit with some strange twists. What are your biggest influences from that genre? That final logo seems to be very much inspired by one of the classic mod spy movies.
Yeah, that’s right. I’ve always liked espionage fiction. I remember as a school kid absolutely devouring James Bond. That was something completely unlike anything anybody have ever seen before. And I guess in a way everything sort of goes downstream from Bond. I suspect even people who work in the intelligence services are somewhat influenced by the Bond books. I also used to like Len Deighton who had a much more gritty, down to earth, mundane kind of feel about his espionage fiction. I love the Bourne movies as well. They’ve given a tremendous reboot to the whole espionage genre, and in a sort of synergistic way they’ve had an effect on making the more modern Bond movies more gritty and engaging than some of the more ludicrous extremes the previous ones had gone to. I mean, invisible cars? I don’t think so.
We have tried to give a twist to the whole thing, I think by relating it very much to real life. And I also think one of the influences was things Mark had read about when they developed Sean Connery into James Bond -Â this thing where they took an essentially working class guy and showed him how to dress and how to behave and how to talk. There’s a little bit of that element that I find interesting in it.
As far as the logo is concerned, we initially had a logo based on the Impact font, which is kind of the default font for the books. But at a very late stage, we felt that it was maybe a little bit samey, and I looked around at some fonts and happened upon the particular one we’re using for “Secret Service.” And we both immediately felt “Yes, that’s it” because it has got that slightly mod feel to it. It’s called Britannic Bold. So given that all British passports say on them “Her Britannic Majesty requests…” that again seemed very, very appropriate. It was another one of those nice bits of synchronicity that always gives me a buzz when it happens.
Mark has joked about the book’s “Veteran takes on a mentee” hook as being subconsciously inspired by his working with you. While I’m sure you’re not bringing that exact level of metaphor to your work here, what’s your take on our two leads? Is there one you identify more with?
Well, it’s a funny thing. I’ve said before that if you work in comic books, you actually suffer a form of arrested development in that you become very involved with something that most people leave behind when they’re ten years old. [Laughs] And the other thing that happened to me when I was much younger, I actually went through school being a year younger than everyone in my class because I was clearly such a genius. So I’ve always been left with that feeling that I’m “the lad” although I think I may have to accept that at this point I’m more like “the dad” if not “the granddad.” So I suppose I can see the reference, especially since Mark grew up reading things that I’d written. Though I certainly don’t feel that kind of thing with Mark on a personal level. I’ve got huge respect for his skills and his abilities and his character, so I don’t look upon him as a kid at all. And I hope he doesn’t look upon me as too much of an older, wiser head. We certainly seem to be having as much fun as I’ve ever had collaborating with anybody at any age I’ve been. I think when you’re in a collaboration, the only way you can do it is to think of yourselves as equal partners. I think the minute one of you becomes “the governor” then things can go wrong. But there is an amusing sort of parallel, I suppose.
As far as our two leads are concerned, I just love them both as characters. I think you’ve got one who’s been through the mill and has arrived at a place where he’s very secure and very confident. The other one has yet to go through the mill and is displaying some real positive qualities as well as some rough edges he needs to get knocked off him. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how the relationship between the two develops as one becomes less of a callow youth and the other one becomes perhaps less of the hyper-confident older man. I think I can identify with both of the characters.
So we’ve seen in one preview panel in which the characters reference Mark Hamill and a another speaking about Hollywood film crews going missing. What’s the origin of that thread? You’ve not actually drawn the actual Mark Hamil into the strip, have you? …oh my word, does Mark Hamill not make it out alive?!?!
It is really Mark Hamill! I have drawn him into it, and we’ve had some e-mails back and forth with Mark, who as you know is a huge comic fan just as Mark and I are huge fans of what he did in the “Star Wars” movies. He and the film crews going missing are actually quite integral to the plot of the whole thing. As to whether Mark makes it out alive, you’ll have to read the first issue to find out, but he certainly has an exciting time of it. I think his inclusion in it is one of the things that really gave me a thrill when I read Mark’s script, and I think it’ll really thrill the readers. You’re going to see references in it that I think perhaps you wouldn’t have expect in a spy comic.
Speaking of Hollywood, with Mark and Matthew doing their thing, we know a film is part of the hoped for plan for the story overall. Does that at all impact what you’re doing on the pages themselves?
Well, not really. I’ve always been pretty clear that a comic book is a comic book and a movie is a movie. Also as I’ve said on several occasions when the “Watchmen” movie came around, to me to have a movie made of your work is not the final validation of it. Comics have a whole validity and a whole position of their own. I think that’s very valuable and should be maintained. If a movie is made of “Secret Service,” I would be very excited. And obviously, the fact that Matthew’s been involved with it at the plotting stage means I’m sure it would adapt very well into a movie. But I’m just concentrating on the comic book. Clearly, people will be cast in the movie, if it comes about, beyond any control I’ve got. So I’m just designing characters to look the way I want them to look for the sake of the comic book. How faithful the movie will be to the comic book, I don’t know. I think you always have to play to the strengths of the medium you’re working in and make whatever changes or compromises are necessary to make it work best in the form in which you’re expressing it. So really, no. Mark and I are quite clear:Â there’s the comic over here. There’s the movie, when it comes about, over there. The two are completely separate enterprises.
I think one effect that could be very good is just as with “Watchmen,” if people go and see the movie, then the comic book is going to be the complete story in a different medium told all in one place and not along the lines of, say, the “X-Men” movies where if you want to buy the comic you’re going to have to look all over for a book that replicates that storyline.