INTERVIEW: Dave Gibbons on his earliest exposure to comics and the experience of having his work adapted by Hollywood

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This past weekend, on the floor of Long Beach Comic Con, we caught up with the legendary co-creator of Watchmen and Rogue Trooper, Dave Gibbons. During his panel, he told stories about his first rejection from DC and wanting to draw Superman along with loving when people ask him to draw Rorschach because of the character simply being a hat and ink blots. We spoke with Dave about some of his history in the business, earliest memories of reading comics, and how Hollywood has been treating him for a few years now.


COMICS BEAT: Your career has seen some of the biggest evolutions in the comic book business. What would you say, in your opinion, have been the most significant changes to the industry during your tenure?

DAVE GIBBONS: On one level you could say it’s been the sort of digital revolution in comics production. Originally it was just coloring, then it brought in lettering and evolved to where many artists draw digitally now. The quality of the printing has improved as well. It’s an increased fidelity; like when mono went over to stereo, you know, that kind of thing.

I think also, it’s been great to see comics go from… I mean they were mass medium in the 40’s, huge selling items. Then the whole field went down and came back as a niche interest. Now with the comic book movies, they’ve become main stream interest again, so you’re seeing all these huge TV shows and people who’ve never read a comic book know these characters. The broadening of the audience is different from the old boom of the 1940’s.

COMICS BEAT: Even comics can’t get away from the circular nature of history or maybe it’s just meant to be a roller coaster. 

You’ve told the Dave Gibbons breaking into comics story a few times. Originally being rejected by DC and later being brought over during the British invasion of comic artists/writers. I’ve always been curious, how and what comics were your earliest exposures to the medium?

DAVE GIBBONS: When I was really young I was exposed to kind of nursery comics with the funny animals in it. In England, there’s a couple of comics called The Beano and The Dandy which are kind of fairly juvenile humor magazines. The first time I saw an American comic, it opened the idea of having a complete story in one issue. When I say I first saw an American comic in England, in fact, the weird thing was the American comics I saw in England were Australian reprints of American comics because due to the horror comics and everything in that period, American comics had been banned from importation into Brittan but Australian comics weren’t banned.

[Laughs] It seemed the real long way around. From the moment I saw those comics I thought, wow they’re such good characters and so exciting; it’s in color, which a lot of British comics weren’t. When they started to import American comics again in late 1959, it opened a whole world. Cause what was fascinating wasn’t just the characters and the stories but it was the window into a whole different culture. Schwinn Bicycles, Tootsie Rolls, and the whole Daisy BB guns; comics to me were like artifacts of an amazing civilization on the other side of the world.

CB: Were you under the impression all Americans put on costumes to fight crime at night?

DG:[Laughs] No. We used to get American TV in England. American toys seemed soo much better; cars, toys, comics. We would go on a summer vacation in a part of England called Norfolk where there were a lot of U.S Air Force bases since World War II and I got to know some American kids whose dad’s worked in the air force bases and they had all those things. [laughs] I even had my hair cut in a crew cut so I could be just like them on vacation. I just fell in love with the whole idea of American culture especially Motown music. Comics were the gateway to all of it because they were the most accessible path.

CB: It always fascinates me how people from one country can be enamored with the culture of another. Speaking of alien wars, one thing coming out this year is the remastering of the Rogue Trooper game based on the 2000A.D character. Tell me a bit about how you and Gerry Finley-Day came up with that character? 

DG: Well, it’s reasonably mundane because what actually happened was they did a reader survey asking what sort of story you’d like to see in 2000A.D. The overwhelming response was future war. Gerry was a quite popular writer for the comic and I was one of the popular artists. They [the publisher] said would you want to create a new future war character? So I came up with some ideas and Gerry came up with some ideas. They weren’t quite meshing, each had a few little things in common.

Then we had a big “we’re not leaving this room till we figure this thing out” with Steve MacManus the editor, who actually came up with the name Rogue Trooper. There was a book out at the time called Rogue Male and that’s where that came from. So we sat in a room and thrashed the whole thing out. Gerry wrote the initial script then I changed it a bit and we came out with the first episode. I only actually did the first handful of them. I was always a little disappointed with it, because I was hoping it would be more like Dredd. To me, the model for the character was David Caradine in Kung Fu, the monk who never wanted to fight but would have to in order to save someone every episode. That was my vision of what Rogue Trooper could be. But it has been a very popular character. Gerry continued with it for a lot longer and it now is one of the top 2000A.D characters, which is great.

COMICS BEAT: That’s actually a fascinating story, Dave. It was obviously not one of the things you’re best known for but really became a part of 2000A.D’s DNA. 

In the later parts of your career, you transitioned solely into writing. Was that always the goal or something you got an itch for while drawing comics?

DAVE GIBBONS: Growing up in England, I had no idea that comics weren’t just done by the same person. Drawn, lettered, colored by the same person. It wasn’t till later that I found out they were separate disciplines. So my aspiration had always been to write and draw comics, but it became obvious that it was much easier to get work on the basis of your art samples than on story samples. It really wasn’t until Watchmen became successful and my name had a kind of marquee value, will sell comics no matter what, that I was given a chance to write a few things at DC by Mike Carlin. I wrote Rogue Trooper in England, and I wrote my own graphic novel, The Originals.

I rather enjoy writing. Maybe because I’ve done so much drawing that I’m more attracted to the writing than the drawing. The other part of it is I find it hard to write and draw my own stuff because I love the collaborative element of comics. In the future, I’m more likely to write stuff than to draw it but you know…who knows.

CB: Out of all the creators I’ve interviewed who’ve made the transition from artist to writer, that’s by far the most poignant answer. Most boil it down to the simplicity of being able to hit a few keys versus hours drawing something.

DG: With drawing, it’s sort of infinitely adjustable and in the end you sort of abandon it. Whereas with writing it’s modular and if you get the right word… it is THE right word.

COMICS BEAT: You’ve been involved with two Hollywood adaptations of your work now, I always recall something you said during the SDCC Watchmen movie panel about you having a good experience and wishing Alan [Moore] had a good one with movies before. What would you say makes “a good experience” is it during the process or more to do with the end result?

DAVE GIBBONS: With Watchmen it was taking something which was conceived to exploit all the strengths of comics and translating it into a different medium. Inherently, that’s quite a difficult thing to do because so much of what makes Watchmen attractive are the things Alan and I did with the storytelling, the meta quality of it. But certainly what Zack [Snyder] did was stick as closely and faithfully to what Alan and I done as he could. It became clear from my first conversation with him [Snyder] he had tremendous respect for the property and understanding as well. When people online were getting their tights in a twist about “they changed the ending” and all this, he understood the comic and what needed to be on film.

I think my approval meant a lot to him, above and beyond the commercial aspects of my approval, whatever they might be. I was treated with great respect throughout, they flew my wife and I all over the planet, put us up in lovely hotels, involved us with the promotion, invited us to go on set. We had a really good experience. As for the finished product; it’s not perfect, there are possibly ways in which it could be better, but I really don’t think, overall, you could have asked for a better adaptation of it. He [Zack Snyder] was in a damned if you did, damned if you didn’t. If you’d made a wonderful movie people would have been in outcry because it wasn’t faithful to the comic. If you’d made it [a] completely faithful thing the general audience wouldn’t understand it. I think he walked a very difficult line and I just take my hat off to him and I’m absolutely satisfied that he did it the best way he knew how.

CB: My own opinion, I agree. It’s actually one of my favorite DC movies from the opening sequence alone.

DG: On the back of that movie, we sold something like a million copies of the trade paperback. Obviously, Alan and I benefited from that. It also means a million people got to read Alan’s words and see my pictures [laughs] so even as a promotional tool for the comic book it would have to have been a good experience.

CB: I think that’s really the Watchmen film’s true legacy. It’s one of the only comic book movies to have actually significantly sold comic books.

DG: You have to take your hat off to DC Comics’ Bob Wayne who made sure there were enough copies of the book in print to satisfy the demand even when his projections might have seemed outrageous to other people. He was right and those copies did sell.

Secret Service/ Kingsman is a different thing because with Watchmen the comic was the father and the movie was its son. You know the chip off the ol’ block, is he like his dad? With the Kingsman, it’s more like brothers who share the same DNA, similar but not exactly alike. Both grew individually and sharing certain tropes or aspects. Which is why I can watch the Kingsman movie and not be concerned about how faithful it is to the comic cause that isn’t the point of the movie.

Let me tell you, it is a great movie, such an entertaining movie. I don’t know anybody who’s seen it who hasn’t enjoyed it. I’ve seen previews of Kingsman: [the] Golden Circle. If you like the first one, you’ll love the second one. So that’s been a good experience throughout. I’ve been much less involved than I was with Watchmen, but again I’ve been shown great respect and great friendship.

CB: Is it fair to say respect for the creator is the most important thing in the adaptation process?

DG: With Alan, I completely respect his stance on all these things and I would never say he was wrong or he should have done it differently but I sort of get the idea with Watchmen he was kicking the wrong dog. It was actually the movies before where he’d be treated less than well and soured him on the whole thing so Watchmen didn’t stand a chance, but I completely respect the way he feels and he respected the way I felt about it.

I think understanding and appreciation of what it means to create something and how close you kind of get to it should be the goal of anyone adapting comics. Feeling like you’re in a joint creative exercise, and my experience has been exactly that. You also have to accept that you [the creator] did the comic and you know about comics and how to do the comic, but you don’t know how to do movies. So I wouldn’t want to be on set or look over the director’s shoulder and second guess it. Even if I was invited, that would be completely wrong. You have to say to people; just like the writer writes his scripts and trust the artist, if you’re going to have a good relationship you have to trust the movie maker.

CB: I think there’s an alternate universe where Alan Moore had that “good” experience and we all got the League and V for Vendetta films fans deserve. For now, we’ll have to settle for getting another great movie out of the Millarworld.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle hits theaters September 22, while the new Kingsman: The Red Diamond by Rob Williams and Simon Fraser is in comic book shops September 6. Thank you for your time, Dave, it’s been a true privilege for me. Note to everyone, if you ever see a sign that says Dave Gibbons will appear, go stand in that line. You won’t be disappointed one bit. 

For more information on Long Beach Comic Con including future show dates check out their website.

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