Pop!: -- Meet Dave Gibbons

Sun, October 12th, 2008 at 10:29pm PDT | Updated: October 13th, 2008 at 10:00pm

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

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MEET DAVE GIBBONS

"Watching the Watchmen" by Dave Gibbons comes out at the end of this month.The book is being promoted as "the book" about "Watchmen."

David Chester Gibbons was born at Forest Gate Hospital in London, England, on April 14th of 1949 to Chester, a town planner with architectural training, and Gladys, a secretary. At the age of seven he discovered Superman and was completely enraptured by the romanticism of the comic book, both British and American, like “Mad” and “Eagle.” Among those that whet his artistic eye from childhood were the elegant styles of Wally Wood, Will Elder, Frank Bellamy, Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. This self-taught artist spent much of his youth emulating the comics he cherished by often illustrating his own personal humor strips before eventually breaking into the world of comics fandom for fanzines like “Rock & Roll Madness.”

In his early 20s Gibbons became a building surveyor but managed gradually to break into the UK comics scene lettering mostly humor books for IPC. In time he scored more illustration work at DC Thomson where he would do adventure and sci-fi strips. By 1975, together with Brian Bolland, Dave worked on “Powerman,” a book designed and illustrated by both, for the Nigerian marketplace. Shortly after, Gibbons put aside his surveyor job to solely focus on his career as a comic book artist which was just beginning to take-off for the better.

With the arrival of “2000 AD” a new exciting breed of comics were about to commence — and Gibbons was there for the inception of the important anthology comic. At “2000 AD,” he illustrated and wrote stories for characters like Harlem Heroes, Dan Dare, Ro-Busters, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, and a ton of one-shot short stories. With his growing reputation and professionalism, his work became sought after by most comic book companies including Marvel UK where he helmed a fondly remembered Doctor Who for many years.

2004 photograph of writer/artist Dave Gibbons.

Gibbons’ art finally made waves in the United States when DC recruited him in 1982 to the art helm of “Green Lantern,” pairing him with writer Len Wein. He continued to work at “2000 AD” while exploring the rest of the DC universe doing covers and stories for almost every DC character, from Batman and Wonder Woman, at some point or another. A major career highlight — and one of his best experiences at DC — was the tale, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” a quintessential Superman story written by Alan Moore and edited by the legendary Julius Schwartz, the editor of many of the very comics the artist adored as a child. The arrival and success of Gibbons’ efforts in the States — alongside those of Moore and Bolland — helped open the doors for the avalanche of British talent that would follow in the coming years. Now triumphant on both sides of the Atlantic, the artist would soon confront his biggest challenge in another book with Alan Moore that would shake the foundation of the comics industry.

“Watchmen” was the twelve-part maxi-series that transformed the art form and captured unprecedented accolades from critics, comic fans, skeptics, and the mainstream reading public. For the project ,the artist liberated himself from second-guessing what the American reading public wanted to see and constructed pages much the way he did for “2000 AD.” The series collected many awards and prizes from many literary circles including a prestigious Hugo Award in 1988. With “Watchmen” Gibbons was able to push his storytelling abilities by experimenting with the design and mood of this highly expressive work. From the unique symbolic covers to the intricate layout of his pages, the artist was able to tell a bold story with complete and utter mastery of composition. The title remains fondly remembered because it will forever stand as a testimony to the craftsmanship that series writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons injected into this complex super-hero epic.

The iconic cover of "Watchmen" #1.

As if being one of comics most influential artists wasn’t enough, Gibbons has demonstrated that he’s a fabulous writer, having written “World’s Finest” (with artist Steve Rude), “Captain America” (with artist Lee Weeks), and “Batman versus Predator” (with artist Andy Kubert). And on the art front he has continued to collaborate with the finest writers in the field like Frank Miller (on the “Martha Washington” series), Stan Lee (on DC’s “Just Imagine: Green Lantern”) and Harvey Kurtzman (on “Strange Adventures”).

To this day Dave Gibbons remains one of the most prominent names within his field. The virtuoso continues to be a part of the kind of comics that are always adventurous and fun. In 2004 the artist completed his largest and most ambitious project since “Watchmen”: an original graphic novel named “The Originals” which is also written by him. Having spent two years producing “The Originals,” it delivered as his most personal and most thought-provoking work, utilizing all of his storytelling and design skills to make it a truly unique effort.

Outside of comics, Gibbons has provided art for advertising clients, educational companies, and designed record covers. He continues to live in England with his family.

Gibbons’ new “Watching the Watchmen” book invades America on the twenty-first of October. The highly anticipated tome documents the genesis of the only super-hero comic to be ranked amongst the All-Time greatest 100 novels by “Time Magazine.”

Story continues below

An autobiographical strip by Gibbons for "Heartbreak Hotel."

George Khoury: We know how important of an influence American artists like Wally Wood and Will Eisner were to your career, so how much of an impact were the works of British artist like Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy early on? Were there any other English artists who’ve inspired you as a professional?

Dave Gibbons: Most British comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s were in black-and-white on really cheap paper, so the beautiful “Eagle,” where Hampson and Bellamy’s full-color work was mainly seen, was an object of wonder. I loved the precision and detail of their work and their powerful storytelling.

Other artists whose work influenced me were Joe Colquhoun who drew World War II strips (and whose work I later ghosted at the beginning of my career); Ron Embleton, whose beautiful full-color work appeared in many places and who ended up drawing “Wicked Wanda;” Don Lawrence, of “Trigan Empire” and “Storm” fame; Ian Kennedy, who drew great aircraft strips; and Ron Turner, who drew “Rick Random, Space Detective.” Turner was heavily influenced by American pulp illustrators like Ed Cartier and drew the best aliens and spaceships ever!

I also loved a lot of artists who turned out to be Italian, rather than British, notably Tacconi and Gino D’Antonio, who drew for the monthly “War Picture Library” series.

This "Powerman" page is a very early effort in the careers of Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. The panels are numbered so Nigerian childern could follow the story.

Did you passionately pursue and collect the strips? Did your parents encourage your comics passion?

I’ve mentioned a few of my favorites above. Hampson and, later, Bellamy drew “Dan Dare.” Bellamy was also responsible for “Hero, the Spartan” and, later, “Thunderbirds.” As for newspaper strips, I loved “Jeff Hawke,” a science-fiction strip by Syd Jordan and Willie Patterson; I persuaded my parents to get the daily newspaper it appeared in and would clip the strips out.

My dad had been a reader and collector of American SF pulps in the ‘30s and drew cartoons himself as a boy. His parents had a lodger in their house when my father was young, who drew illustrations for DC Thomson, the big Scottish comics publisher. I still have his paintbox, given to my dad, and inherited by me.

I remember my dad bringing home the first British edition of “Mad,” ostensibly for me, but I think he read every page, too! I have fond memories of him driving me around the local newsstands to buy comics. My parents were a little less supportive of me drawing comics for a living, with good reason, given the alternatives that were open to me!

Was it difficult for you to break into the comics industry?

At the time that I broke in, there were only two British comics publishers: Fleetway, in London, and DC Thomson, in Scotland. I worked in London and got to know other comic fans who worked editorially at Fleetway. I’d hang around there and eventually got some lettering work and then spot drawings and ghosting. An art agent noticed my work and got me commissions from DC Thomson, where I essentially learnt my craft.

This illo was for a British convention in 1971.

Does the storytelling differ from country to country?

I think good storytelling is universal, although art styles and publications formats vary from country to country.

How did you become involved with “2000 AD?”

I’ve hard rumors of “2000 AD” and was keen to get on board. My agent introduced me to Pat Mills, who was very much the driving force behind the paper. I drew a sample episode of “The Harlem Heroes.” Four or five other artists had tried out for it, but Pat liked the cleaner, super-hero feel I gave it, and I was set.

Did being an artist influenced by American comics help to change the way you and other artists told these “2000 AD” stories?

“2000 AD’s” art was much closer to the American style, with longer episodes allowing for splashy “break-out” artwork. Several of us had grown up as fans of American comics and could give them what they wanted. There was also a great “esprit de corps” amongst us, as we were very friendly with each other and felt like the lunatics who had taken over the asylum.

In your opinion what was the secret of their success?

The secret of “2000 AD’s” success comes down to two men: Pat Mills and John Wagner. Pat’s enormous drive and iconoclastic editorial tendencies shot the thing into orbit and John’s punchy scripting, particularly on Judge Dredd, kept it there.

Was working in American comics your goal when you started your career? Do you remember how you were discovered?

Drawing American comics had always been my goal, impossible though it seemed, even just given the geography of the situation. There was no internet, FedEx or even fax machines back then. Even calling another country on the phone was a hugely expensive idea.

I made a trip to New York in 1973, and took my samples around the publishers. DC gave them back with a “thanks, but no thanks.” However I did meet Paul Levitz (when he was still Joe Orlando’s gofer); Carmine Infantino, an artist hero and, at that time, publisher of DC Comics; and Michael Uslan, then a intern, but later producer of the “Batman” movies. Roy Thomas, at Marvel, was more encouraging, but never came through with any work for me.

Here's an illustration featuring many of the lead characters from Gibbons' British comics.

Eventually, my samples got me work with Fleetway back in England. However, I did get to draw a two-pager for “The Monsters Times” out of going to the States. Later, my agent got me one job for a Marvel black-and-white magazine. (This was finally told in color and looked dreadful!)

I was happily working away in British comics, in 1981, when DC sent over Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando to recruit British talent. They offered me a much better deal than I was getting so, flattered, I started work of DC.

Can you pinpoint what makes the collaborations between yourself and Alan Moore so unique? And what have you learned from working together?

Alan and I grew up in similar circumstances and are of similar age, so there’s a lot of shared culture and reference points. There’s also quite a lot of overlap, in that he’s a very picture-oriented writer and I’m a very story-oriented artist. We seem to be able to join seamlessly when we work together and greatly enjoy collaborating. It’s most important when working together to have the work uppermost and not one’s own ego and we’re both happy to accommodate each other in this respect.

What was the appeal of “The Originals?” How would you describe it — and what do you want readers to get from the experience?

Gibbons and Jerry Ordway teamed up to create this outstanding cover for "The Adventures of Superman" #440.

It is a huge project and has taken almost all my attention for a couple of years. In essence, I wanted to say something about growing up and about my own experiences. Having said that, “The Originals” is not autographical, although it does mix versions of things that really happened with things that never did in a setting that’s not quite this reality. I wanted to get the feel of my experience rather than the actuality.

I wanted to tell a fast-moving, graphically engaging story that was dramatically satisfying, and that has been the challenge. I’ve enjoyed the experience and am looking forward to getting it out there. The rest is up to the readers. There’s plenty of violence and bad language, so they should enjoy that, at least!

Describe a typical work day: When do you write and/or draw? What tools do you use? When did you do the switch to computers for your artwork?

I usually get in to my office around 9:00 a.m. and fiddle about with e-mail for a while. Then I’ll start drawing, whether penciling or inking. I take an hour for lunch, then, with sporadic computer breaks, will finish around 5:30 p.m. I prefer not work evenings or weekends, but it occasionally happens. If I’m writing, I like to do the thinking in the morning and the typing in the afternoon.

This early Watchmen art now graces the cover of a recent Watchmen collection.

In the case of “The Originals,” I print out grids in non-repro blue on Bristol board, pencil in blue, and ink with Pentel and Faber Castell disposable pens. I scan the papers in to the computer where I add rules and lettering prepared in Adobe Illustrator and add gray tones in Photoshop. I’ve been using a Mac since 1993 and it’s now a vital part of my work, from gathering references to preparing and sending art files.

Could you elaborate on why the American comics market is so super-hero driven? Is this a healthy thing?

I think super-heroes were ideal for the crudely printed color comics of the ‘40s — plenty of movement, incredible “special effects” only easily achievable in such a medium, and bright, simple colors. Since then, they’ve become a vehicle for all sorts of stories and treatments while still appealing to the adolescent fantasies of their predominantly male readers.

Is there anything about comics that continues to fascinate you?

I just love the idea of telling stories in pictures!

[This interview originally appeared in “True Brit,” a book about the history of British comic edited by George Khoury.]

Rorschach illustration for a UKAC convention portfolio by Editions Deese. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings the Comedian to life. In 2004 Gibbons completed his "The Originals" graphic novel.
The cover to the latest chapter to Martha Washington's saga by Frank Miller and Gibbons.

TAGS:  dave gibbons, watchmen, watchmen movie, watchmen2009

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