Q&A: Watchmen's Dave Gibbons On Comics, Tablets And His 'Super Secret' New Project
Dave Gibbons is a British illustrator and writer best known for his work on Watchmen, which as one of the most influential and best-selling graphic novels in history - and the only one to feature on Time's "Top 100 Novels' list - you should really have read already.
Gibbons began his career in 1973 as a contributor for 2000 AD. Since then he has worked on comics featuring Superman, Batman, Dr Who, Dan Dare and Green Lantern, and won an Eisner award for his semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Originals.
He is now working on a "super secret" project with Kick Ass writer Mark Millar, among a range of other new work including Treatment with Dark Horse Presents.
The Huffington Post UK caught up with Dave ahead of his appearance at the Institut Francais' BD & Comics Festival in London (Oct 7-9) to ask him about comics, graphic novels and the prospect of a Watchmen sequel.
HuffPost: There is a certain narrative about graphic novels that's been around pretty much since Watchmen was released, that says they are comics for "grown ups". Where do you think that narrative is now?
Dave: I think with something like Watchmen you can genuinely call that a graphic novel because it has the weight and the intent of a proper novel and it also is the complete story. You start reading on page 1 with no prior knowledge necessary and you read through till the end, and you have the sense of being told, I hope, a complete and satisfying story.
I think also there's a question of audience, that comics have traditionally been aimed at kind of a juvenile audience, and I think still in Britain, if you say to anybody, or they discover more likely that you draw comics, they say “Oh the Beano and the Dandy I loved those when I was a kid,” and when you say “Well no I did this thing called Watchmen and it's about this and that,” they're a bit scared because that's not the kind of subject matter they associate with comics.
I think the problem with the term graphic novel is it sounds pompous, it sounds pretentious, whereas on the continent, they call it an album, which to me sounds, it's got more much of a connotation of a kind of a music single and an album collection.
HuffPost: I'm still personally waiting for the first Dennis the Menace graphic novel...
Dave: [laughs] Well, you know you could, if you approached it with that intent, I'm sure there could be something that was really fascinating there, but I think the character has truly only been conceived in enough depth to ensure that he's got a dad and a school teacher and a weedy mate, you know…
HuffPost: Do you think there's also a danger that graphic novels can become more like coffee table books than something you read?
Dave: I think the kind of thing that's happening actually, and this ties into what you might call the 'digital revolution', in that economically comics are in a really difficult place because the monthly American comic books which are maybe 22 pages of story, now can cost $4, which is £3, and that is a lot of money for really such a small amount of entertainment when you think what you can get on the app store or you know the several hours of entertainment you can get at the movies or whatever for not dissimilar sums of money.
So, I think what happens nowadays is actually people ‘as they say,' wait for the trade collection. But the way I can see it polarising even more is that you'll then want is something that is more than just the reading experience, you'll want something that is a beautiful object in it's own right that has extras, that has maybe artist notes or writers' notes, backup material, is really nicely bound, is beautifully printed, so you know I can see those two kind of commodities diverging even further in the future.
HuffPost: Traditional comics also have a high barrier to entry - some of those stories have been spiralling out of control for decades. Do you think graphic novels are attractive to general readers for the old-fashioned reason that they have a beginning and an end?
Dave: I think that's one of the problems with comics, is that in the 60's, 70's, certainly since then in American comic books, the continuity has been everything. Continuity is great because as a marketing tool it means that people will buy titles they wouldn't normally buy so they can see how the story continues in another part of a shared universe; and it does suggest stories as well that after a while you've built up such a kind of tapestry of incident that you can actually make some kind of a cohesive thing out of it. You can slot stories in where they seem to suggest themselves, so creatively it's very useful.
But, it does alienate the general reader, and I've always been a DC comics guy, and whenever I've tried to get into Marvel comics I've never been able to do it because I feel like I'm at a party where I don't know anybody, and nobody's going to introduce themselves to me.
What DC have done with the new 52 is to say, ok, let's try and reset everything to zero. But you never truly can. And even a thing like Watchmen does rely on a degree of cultural awareness. It's sort of what superheroes are.
(Above, From Gibbons' new project 'Treatment')
HuffPost: When it comes to digital comics are we still waiting for someone to really use that medium in a new way?
Dave: Well I think we are sort of groping towards what is perhaps a new kind of medium. ... I think there is a new grammar that we're groping towards. I've been very involved with a company called Madefire who I think have got quite a revolutionary new approach to this. They've kind of come up with an authoring tool, and a way of distributing this material which I think is going to be really interesting, and I'm involved with them to the degree that my other commitments let me be, and I've always been a great proponent of that technology.
HuffPost: Are you comfortable with the fact that Watchmen is always going to be held up as part of the graphic novel canon? That when people try to convince their friends to read them they'll say ‘you should probably start with Watchmen.'
Dave: Well I mean that's what traditionally has happened, and I think because it has got such a reputation it is going to be on the basic comics or graphic novel reading list and of course, from my point of view, given that we get a royalty, well then, that can only be a good thing.
Of course, it's been a rather overshadowing thing in my career but, hey, I mean I can't really complain about having done something that's been amazingly successful. So yeah, I'm perfectly happy with the position that Watchmen has.
I think the fact that it stands alone is such an important thing that I hope DC can resist any temptation to expand it beyond that. I don't think that would be a good thing. I think the unique selling proposition of Watchmen is that it is complete and entire and self-contained and that's the only thing I fear, I say fear, the only thing I'm apprehensive about is perhaps that they might not be able to resist the lure of kind of burning the furniture, as it were.
HuffPost: Are there plans for DC to revisit Watchmen?
Dave: Well it did come up a year or so ago, and the matter was investigated quite fully and I think Alan [Moore, writer of Watchmen and many other graphic novels and comics] very publicly and vocally expressed his dislike for the idea. I expressed to DC more privately my dislike for the idea, but there are always rumblings. I can see why it is an attractive thing for a publisher to do. I do think on all sorts of levels that it would be a mistake, but at the end of the day, I don't have, I don't believe, there's any contractual way of stopping such a thing happening. I just would be very very distanced from it.
HuffPost: Do you think the UK truly has a graphic novel "scene" of its own?
Dave: Well I think the whole thing has become global, but I do think that each country has its own particular voice and I think maybe if you looked at the numbers then perhaps the British are you know over represented as it were in the graphic novel field. Although as I say, the real prize is to actually get through to the general reading public. The bigger presence in bookstores, and the fact that many people are being drawn towards the medium through an exposure to the characters and themes in movies, I think that's kind of moving in the right direction.
I've always felt that the comic strip medium stands equally beside all the other story telling mediums: novels, movies, stage plays, opera, you know, you name it.In France that always has been the case, and it always has been something that's been culturally celebrated, and I look forward to the day when that cultural aspect of the comic strip medium is more celebrated in England.
HuffPost: We're looking forward to the BD & Comics Passion festival at the Institut Francais on October 7-9 which will explore some of those themes. What do you think the highlights will be?
Dave Gibbons: The highlights of it for me are basically that I'm going to get to meet Jean-Claude Mézières again, and compare notes, because you know we work in a similar kind of field and we actually met up with each other probably four, five years ago now and got on like a house on fire. I know we'll have lots to talk about, especially how the similarities and the differences between the French comic book scene and the English and American comic book scene, and the way the market is and the kind of audience that we have.
HuffPost: What are you working on right now?
Dave: Well I'm working on a top secret project with Mark Millar who's the guy behind Kick Ass and Wanted and so on. This has been bubbling away in the background for a long time, and we're finally at the point where we are working hard on it, and the kind of onslaught is about to begin, but at the moment…
HuffPost: Do you have any hints to give us…
Dave: Well we've decided, as you'll know if you know Mark's work or Mark's approach at all, he is the king of marketing, and the king of teasing the audience, and we've got a kind of a promotional campaign which means I cannot tell you anything at the moment, but when the time is right, we will unleash it.
So that's something that I'm very excited about, and I've also been developing a property of my own which is called ‘Treatment' which has appeared in Dark Horse Presents which is an anthology comic and again, I'm exploring different outlets for that with the people from Madefire to develop it as a tablet based app.
Also I've had some interesting conversations with movie and games people as well, and so that's kind of going on at the same time, but at the moment really I'm completely focused on the thing with Mark, and that will be out next year, and we're looking forward to having some fun with that.