It is not an exaggeration to say that Watchmen is one of the most iconic graphic novels of the 20th century. Since it was first published as a collection in 1987 by DC, Watchmen has been recognized in Time ’s List of the 100 Best Novels as one of the best English language novels published since 1923. Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons and coloured by John Higgins, the story follows the personal development and moral struggles of retired superheroes as an investigation into the murder of a government sponsored superhero leads them to become active again.
With these credentials it was no wonder that the audience that stopped by Comic Creators Day 2 were eager to hear about this comic from the two artists involved in the project: Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. With an original page from the comic next to the colour guide and final print in the background, the format for their presentation took the form of a conversation between two old friends reminiscing about the time when they worked together on this comic.
Dave started the conversation telling us how he got involved in the project. He had heard that Alan Moore was doing a treatment for a new miniseries for DC and he rang Alan up and said that he wanted to be involved in the project. Both of them knew each other since they had already collaborated in other projects. Alan agreed and soon after Dave requested that John Higgins be brought on board as a colourist because he liked Higgins’ unusual style. The three of them lived in the same area, so they could have actual face to face conversations regarding the miniseries instead of communicating through letters or telephone calls overseas (it was the 80s after all!).
Gibbons’s artistic innovation was to use a nine-panel grid layout throughout the series, to which he added recurring symbols such as the blood-stained smiley face. He then mentioned how in many occasions, after he had finished with several pages, he would call a taxi and ask the driver to deliver the artwork to Higgins’s house in a nearby town. Higgins would then start the process of colouring. John started to explain this process and how his work was dependent on the means of reproduction of the time period. Still, he deliberately chose muted pastel shades to set this comic a part from the typical superhero comics. Each one of the colours that he chose had a code for accurate matching at the printer. Such was the pre-digital process of the day! When they finally decided to digitize Watchmen, Gibbons and Higgins were presented with the opportunity to change things. Nevertheless, except for fixing some minor mistakes, both left the comic as it was first published since by then the artwork and the colours had become part of what made it so iconic.
Watchmen created a turning point in the history of comic books with its unabashed realism and darkness, but Dave and John reminded us that there was also hope in the story brought by their handling of Nite Owl. Yet, this part of the narrative seems to have been lost on some readers between the angst and grittiness of the main story line. It is interesting to note, as Dave and John mentioned, that after all this time people are still talking about Watchmen. And it is true that we are still discussing it and still surprised by the new things that we find in its pages. This just comes to demonstrate the continuous relevance that this comic has even today.
The Cartoon Museum is lucky to own the only page that is on public display in the world. Dave Gibbons sold the artwork soon after it was completed not realizing how important his work would later on become. Most of the artwork is now in the hands of private collectors. The Comic Creators Project was able to purchase this page with its Collecting Cultures grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Cartoon Museum purchased Dave Gibbons’s response to Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!, now in Tate Modern. Dave took the time to introduce his piece to the audience. With the title ‘Whaat? I pressed the irony control and around me halftone dots filled the sky…, Dave Gibbons after Irv Novick’, the diptych was meant to be a parody of Lichtenstein’s work. Whaam! has been regarded by many as one of Lichtenstein’s greatest and best known works. This piece was adapted from a panel drawn by Irv Novick from a story called Star Jockey in DC’s All-American Men of War #89 (Jan.-Feb. 1962). Gibbons mentioned how Novick and Lichtenstein had met during WWII, and that the former had sent his comics to the latter, who then decided to appropriate them for his own work without acknowledging the source. Lichtenstein made millions, but he never offered any credit, nor money, to Novick or any of the other artists whose work he copied. The halftone dots in the background of Gibbon’s diptych are actually dollar signs as a reference to this rip off. In addition, Gibbons mentioned how he tried to accentuate the dynamic composition and raw energy of the original, giving it a more three dimensional aspect, as opposed to the flat and abstracted quality that Lichtenstein achieved with his means of reproduction. Gibbons considered Lichtenstein a plagiarist at best and a crappy artist at worst.
After Gibbons and Higgins’s presentation, they generously sat down with several aspiring artists to discuss their portfolios and to sign copies of Watchmen.
This second open day at the Cartoon Museum came to a close with the last presentation by our guest speaker Tim Pilcher. Tim is best known as a writer, editor, raconteur, and UK liaison for the French comics publisher Les Humanoides. He introduced the audience to his job as a comic editor and led a very interesting discussion on the future of comics. This was a different side of the world of comics that the audience had the chance to appreciate. Pilcher emphasized the importance of collaboration with the artists and writers in the editorial process. Many people believe that the relationship between editor and artist/writer is an antagonistic one, but Pilcher disagreed. Editing requires the willing collaboration of all the parties involved and it can only make a comic better by making sure that everything is logical, that there are no repetitions nor grammatical errors in the image as well as in the text.
He also amused the audience with some anecdotes about how editing was done back in the day. He mentioned how the means of communication sometimes were used to the artist’s advantage (overseas shipping and telephones were as far as technology went back then). One time an artist, trying to gain some time to finish his work, shipped his trousers instead of the artwork. After he received a puzzled call from his editor, he answered saying that then he must have sent his artwork to the dry-cleaners. This ruse gave the artist time to finish his work. No such luck anymore! The internet has changed all that!
Later on the discussion moved towards the future of comics as a medium. As the author of many books on comics, for example The Essential Guide to World Comics, and the head of the Comic Alliance, Tim was in a good position to comment. He mentioned that with an increase in the number of people that have high visual literacy due to the internet, comics have a bright future. He considers this to be a new golden age of comic books and graphic novels with the amount and scope of topics increasing every day. The medium can only move forward, he mentioned, and become even more popular. He emphasized the importance of tv series and movies based on comics in helping bring the medium to a new audience.
With Tim Pilcher’s presentation the day came to an end.
During the course of the event more than 200 visitors were in attendance. There is another Comic Creator’s open day tentatively scheduled for Spring 2016. Watch this space for updates!