CCI: Watching the Watchmen

Last Saturday morning at Comic-Con International in San Diego, "Watchmen" co-creator Dave Gibbons joined book designers Chip Kidd and Mike Essl to discuss the upcoming "Watching the Watchmen" book with Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jenson.

"Watching the Watchmen," a 250+ page book showcasing Gibbons's production art from the 1980s and plenty of never-before-seen material created to use while drawing the landmark "Watchmen," will be released this October. Included in the book, in addition to Gibbons's early sketches and behind-the-scenes material, will be original breakdowns from almost every original issue, documents detailing the conflicts between the creators and the publisher DC Comics, and every thumbnail drawing Dave Gibbons made in the production of the graphic novel.

Before presenting a slideshow about the "Watching the Watchmen" book, Jensen asked Gibbons to speak a bit about his early career. Gibbons described how he was one of the first generation of creators who actually wanted to create comics. "Prior to that," said Gibbons, "the guys who became comic creators were failed illustrators or failed novelists," both in America and in Britain. "But we really wanted to do it," he said, speaking of his generation of comic creators.

Gibbons recalled his early experiences with DC, when he submitted samples and was rejected by future "Batman" movie producer Michael Uslan. Gibbons said, "Uslan gave me my portfolio back with a thanks but no thanks," but soon after that DC Comics came over to England looking to recruit Gibbons and other British creators, after seeing their work in magazines like "Warrior" and "2000 AD."

According to Gibbons, the rumor in those days was that DC was recruiting British talent as back-up in case the American creators formed a union. Although, as Gibbons pointed out, that plan would have been doomed to failure, for "if they looked at any labor dispute, they'd find a Brit right in the center."

Gibbons then described his first meeting with Alan Moore, at a convention. "Steve Moore approached me with a tall, gangly, bearded guy," said Gibbons. Steve Moore introduced him to "Alan Moore--no relation," said Gibbons. After that, Gibbons started seeing Moore's work in "2000 AD" short stories and began working with Moore on a "Dragnet"-in-the-future series called "Chronocops" for "2000 AD." After working for a short while together on British comics, Moore and Gibbons tried to pitch some series ideas to DC Comics.

"Alan and I were trying to get something going," said Gibbons, "and Alan wrote a treatment of 'Challengers of the Unknown,'" which Gibbons described as a "Crisis kind of story," with plenty of characters from the DC Universe. That proposal was rejected by DC, and their next pitch: J'onn J'onzz done as a 1950s paranoia series was not picked up by DC either.

Then, DC came to Gibbons, looking to get in touch with Alan Moore for something else entirely. Len Wein, DC editor, who'd worked with Gibbons on "Green Lantern," called Gibbons and asked if he knew a fellow named Alan Moore. Wein wanted to see if Moore was interested in taking over the "Swamp Thing" series. Gibbons recounted how Moore thought it was a joke at first. He couldn't believe he was offered a book for DC.

The panel discussion then moved to the pre-production of the "Watchmen" series, which was originally a pitch for the Charlton characters like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and the Question. Once DC read the proposal, and saw what Moore and Gibbons had planned for the characters, they instructed the team to create their own characters instead. "It completely liberated us," said Gibbons, "because if we kept with the Charlton characters we would have felt some obligation to them." Instead, they had the freedom to do what they wanted, while still using the basic archetypes each one represented.

Once they moved away from the Charlton characters, Moore and Gibbons were able to think of the series in a completely different way. Gibbons described thinking about it "not as a superhero story but as an alternate world science fiction story."

Gibbons was asked about the touchstones for the series. What inspired them? "Both Alan and I loved American comic books," said Gibbons. Although some readers still see "Watchmen" as a dark story, for Gibbons "it was kind of an act of love--looking at these cherished things and looking at the psychological levels and seeing how they connected with you." One particular inspiration cited by Gibbons was the Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood "Superduperman" strip from "Mad." Gibbons specifically cited the typical Kurtzman effect of a stationary point of view with action moving around it. He acknowledged how important that technique was in "Watchmen."

Gibbons then spoke about his use of the nine-panel grid, which Steve Ditko had used in the Silver Age. Gibbon's recounted that Moore appreciated the nine-panel grid because it gave him more "control over the pacing."

Jensen asked about "Watchmen" #5, "Fearful Symmetry," which is considered one of the most technically virtuous superhero comics in history. Moore came up with the idea of basing it off William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" poem and making the entire issue symmetrical. The problem, said Gibbons, is that Moore didn't have the entire script done all at once, and would send him the final batches of script pages two at a time. Gibbons had to draw layouts on the first pages that would match the layouts of the last pages, but he didn't know what the last pages would be. "The fact that we did it in a fragmentary way," said Gibbons, "really kept the adrenaline levels up."

The discussion then turned to "Watching the Watchmen." "I'm a bit of a hoarder," said Gibbons. "I'd actually kept every piece of paper that was related to 'Watchmen.'" "I've even got the envelopes the scripts came in," he added.

Gibbons even said, "I've got a fan letter Archie Goodwin wrote us on a supermarket plastic bag."

Chip Kidd and Mike Essl then took over the panel, describing the contents of the book and giving a slideshow presentation to accompany their discussion. Regarding the cover and the endpapers, Kidd said, "I'm a big believer in the idea that the cover is the beginning of the book," which is something Gibbons did with "Watchmen."

Kidd explained the layout of the book: "We wanted to introduce the characters in the book the way they were introduced in the comic." So readers will see some of each character separately before the assembled team ever shows up on the page.

The slideshow revealed some interesting artifacts from "Watchmen" history, such as the tissue and ink Rorschach blots made by Gibbons to develop realistic patterns for the character's mask along with a Night Owl drawing Gibbons made when he was 15-years-old. That drawing would prove to be the inspiration for the Hollis Mason character's costume in the comic book.

Because so much of the Gibbons art is in black and white, Kidd wanted to introduce more color so many pages contain enlargements of the printed comic panels or blown-up sections of them. Kidd mentioned how much he loved seeing the dots from the old coloring process, and didn't want to lose any of that effect by re-coloring anything.

Kidd also showed a photo of Gibbon's "prison chart," which was a series of boxes filled with X's. Gibbons said, "You find yourself in the middle of [the series] thinking, am I even going to get this done?" So he used the chart to keep track of his progress, using one slash for each penciled page and a cross-slash for each inked page." It helped him see that an end was in sight, although Gibbons admits that he didn't really want it to end.

Kidd finished up his slideshow as he went through a few images showing the progression of covers for "Watching the Watchmen." Alan Moore rejected Kidd's original cover because it featured an actual watch. Kidd's second attempt was a photographic reenactment of Rorschach picking up the smiley face button, showing a close-up on the character's hand. That, too, was rejected.

Ultimately, the finished book cover will feature a close-up of Dr. Manhattan's face, as drawn by Dave Gibbons.

Kidd ended his comments by saying, "It was such and honor for us to work on this book."

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