Dave Gibbons, the artist behind Watchmen (and author of Watching the Watchmen), was gracious enough to take time out of his busy working and promotional schedule to answer some of our questions.
Do you have a favorite assignment that you’ve done in the past year (aside from the Watchmen-related stuff)?
Well frankly, in the past year, it has really all been Watchmen-related stuff! The only one thing I can think of is that I wrote a short Hellblazer story for the 250th issue of that comic, and Sean Phillips has beautifully drawn that. Apart from that, I really can’t think of anything else, so you can see it has been a pretty intensive year of being involved with the movie, travelling around, writing Watching the Watchmen and doing licensing art. So it has been a Watchmen year!
Your generation of comics creators are famous for being some of the first in Britain to not be simply refugees from other fields—you guys came from fandom. Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist? What are some of the works that most influenced you?
I think probably the first time I wanted to be an artist was when I was about six or seven years old. I used to get British comics and I clearly remember seeing my first American comic: an issue of Action Comics, with Superman on the cover with a treasure horde in a cave, and Lois saying something like ‘I don’t believe Superman is a miser!’ From seeing that, I thought ‘Wow! This is great! I’d love to draw these pictures all the time!’ I used to copy whole stories from comic books, and that’s how I learnt to draw. So really those early Superman Family books were very influential, along with others as more and more were being imported. A particular title was Race For The Moon, which was drawn by Jack Kirby and largely inked by Al Williamson. That had a large effect on me because it was drawn in the superhero style but was science fiction, which was another love of mine. And again, I remember reproducing them and doing my own versions of things that Kirby had drawn in there. I also loved reprints of MAD Magazine comics that were reprinted in paperbacks when I was young. Particularly Wally Wood and Will Elder and the amount of manic detail that they put into things. And British comics like Dan Dare: the work of Frank Hampson and another artist called Frank Bellamy.
Who are the artists that have your attention these days?
It’s very hard to say…there is so much good stuff coming out and when I list people, I miss out the person that I meant to mention! I’ve been lucky to enough to meet and know as friends, many of the leading artists working today. I love anything that Mike Mignola does or Steve Rude, Frank Miller, Kevin Nolan, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon…whole rafts of people. European artists as well such as Mobius and so many other people.
Do you have any embarrassing art-related moments?
It’s quite hard to get embarrassed with art as you let people see whatever you want them to see. I can’t really think of anything. I don’t think I’ve been caught swiping or drawn anything embarrassingly bad, though I’m sure some things could have been drawn better!
What are you working on now?
It’s more Watchmen stuff! I’m actually doing a MAD Magazine cover featuring Watchmen. I’ve done some posters for different magazines featuring Watchmen…largely stuff for licensing. I’m going to be writing a series for DC, but that’s under wraps…so many of the things I could mention, are things I can’t mention! But I think this year and into next year, is going to be filled with Watchmen stuff and then hopefully after that I will have some new things coming out. I’m looking forward to a collaboration with a writer who I haven’t worked with before but who is very well known and popular, and again I can’t really say anything about that but I’m really looking forward to it in the later part of next year.
What are your biggest influences?
I think I mentioned a lot of them already. I’m always looking at comic books and have got a fairly mainstream taste, but I look at some independent things to generally try and see what’s going on. I think the influences you get in those formative years are often your strongest ones, which are deepest imbedded.
What was the hardest part about establishing yourself in the field?
It didn’t happen overnight. I started by doing stuff for fanzines and for underground comics, which either didn’t pay at all, or paid quite poorly. I then spent six months, getting on for a year, doing balloon lettering. I got to know people at comic publishers, where every week I would be sent a big roll of drawings…that was sort of my real education with comics because I’d get a dozen or more pages a week to stick word balloons on. This would be fully finished art, unlike American comics where you letter on pencils, this was fully finished inked art that you would stick word balloons onto. So I did that for a while and then I drew joke cartoons for comic books and eventually I got work ghosting another artist. And then work of my own while I got another job because I hadn’t quite got enough money to keep going. And then after another few months of that, I started work professionally again and that time it seemed to stick. So it took a while to get going, but once it got rolling, I’ve been employed consistently ever since.
Did you have any formal schooling in art?
Not really. A lot of it as I say was copying out of comic books. I’ve done a little bit of life drawing…woefully little…you could probably count the hours on the fingers of your hand. As I say, looking at artwork that I was sent was a great education. I also worked for a publisher called D.C. Thompson who was based in Scotland. I did lots of work anonymously for them as they never put your name on the artwork and wouldn’t release it until the whole series had been done. You’d send them the pencil drawings and they would comment on them, giving you really good basic storytelling feedback. So that was a wonderful education about what comic books are basically all about.
If so, how do you feel your schooling prepared you for real life? What was lacking?
Well I don’t think schooling of any sort really prepares you for real life. I don’t know if art school would have prepared me to draw comics. Half of the people I know in comics went to art school, half of them didn’t. Some of them went and dropped out. Comics are a particularly esoteric field where you really learn how to do it, by doing it or by learning from other practitioners. I can’t imagine art school would have prepared me for a life in comics…it might have distracted me even. I certainly might have learnt different techniques and done a lot more life drawing which might have been beneficial. But I don’t know if that would have prepared me for real life. I think other things that have happened to me outside of education have prepared me for real life…life itself!
Do you have any advice to a young artist?
Well if you want to draw comics, you really have to love to draw as you will be spending many hours sitting down with a pencil or pen in your hand. I’ve just been on a big signing tour for Watching the Watchmen and people say to me after a couple of hours ‘Are you ok Dave? Do you have writer’s cramp?’ Well compared to sitting in a chair for 8-10 hours a day drawing, signing for a couple of hours is pretty unchallenging from a physical point of view! Some advice that I heard was that there are three qualities that you could have as a comic book artist or as a commercial artist and if you possess any two of these, you’ll probably be able to make a go of it. The three qualities are: you must be a really nice guy, you must be very talented, and you must be very reliable. I was reliable and I’d like to think I’m a nice guy. My work got better so now I’d like to think I’m all three. But generally speaking, if you’ve got any two of those three, you’ve got a good chance of making it in comics