In 1986, Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons gave readers a comic that would forever alter what the medium could achieve as art, literature and social commentary. Even those who haven’t read Watchmen or seen Zach Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation are likely to recognize the iconic symbol made famous by the graphic novel: a yellow smiley face with a splatter of blood. That smiley face was the opening image of the first issue, as well as a cover image, and has come to represent a dark and introspective realism in comic book storytelling. Now Dave Gibbons has revealed new details behind Watchmen’s iconic smiley face and how a wayward idea came to represent the heart of a game-changing tale.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gibbons discussed at length his creative process for designing the Comedian, the character who wears the yellow smiley face pin in the series and who’s mysterious death instigates the regrouping of former, aging superheroes living in real-world 1985 America. Gibbons said initially the Comedian, otherwise known as Edward Blake, had a camouflage style outfit to go with his military pursuits, but it blended too much with the dark background colors of the comic. So Gibbons decided to go a darker route and added the pin as a silly accessory.
“So I drew this black character and he had a star on one shoulder and red and white stripes on the other. But he looked very serious so I thought, ‘I wonder what would lighten it up a bit?’ So on the sketch that I did, I drew a tiny little yellow smiley faced badge, almost as a throwaway, because I thought that’s a really interesting contrast. This big hulking dark character, with this little splash of bright, silly color.”
It is, of course, crazy to consider that this well known image was a throwaway idea to Gibbons at the time. As luck would have it, when he showed the illustration to Moore the writer loved it and wrote it into the script for the opening scene. Once placed within the story, not just as a costume accessory, both Moore and Gibbons realized how perfect the pin was for the story.
“But then we realized that what we had in that smiley face badge was really the ultimate cartoon. The simplest cartoon. A black and yellow smiley face, with a splash of really realistic blood on it. It was like the real world imposing itself on a cartoon, which is what we were trying to do by treating comic book characters as if they were living in a real world.”
It’s an example of how a well-paired comic team can enhance each other’s work. Another detail readers have long suspected was confirmed by Gibbons around the exact placement of the blood splash. The other large, yellow, round image in the novel is the Doomsday clock, ever ticking toward midnight. Gibbons said they decided to have the smiley face “echo the clock” which, when first seen, is at five minutes to midnight. He says, “…we knew the blood splatter had to be kind of linear rather than just a blob, so I gave it a direction of five minutes before 12.”