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From Page to Screen

Illustrator Dave Gibbons discusses a new 'Watchmen' book and movie

By Jay B. Kalagayan · March 4th, 2009 · Movies

Director Zack Snyder’s reputation from box-office smash 300 and a much-publicized court skirmish over the rights to his latest film, Watchmen, has generated a lot of hype, getting mainstream moviegoers interested and whipping comic-book fanboys into a frenzy.

Watchmen surfaced in the mid-1980s as a 12-part monthly comic book from creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published by DC Comics. Little did they know that it would become one of the most famous graphic novels ever: Time magazine lists Watchmen as one of the All-Time 100 Novels of the last century, and it’s the only graphic novel to be granted a Hugo Award.

Gibbons has been an illustrator since the 1970s, working on everything from 2000 AD and Doctor Who to iconic staples Batman, Superman and Green Lantern. He continues to write and illustrate — his latest work is a new graphic novel called The Originals.

He recently released a behind-the-scenes book titled Watching the Watchmen: The Definitive Companion to the Ultimate Graphic Novel. CityBeat interviewed him about both the new book and the film version of Watchmen, which opens Friday.

CityBeat: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I would love to hear, in your own words, what is Watchmen about?
Dave Gibbons:
It’s about 335 pages (laughs). Watchmen is the deconstruction of the superhero. It asks the question, “If superheroes were real, what would they really be like?” What would possess someone to put on a costume and go and fight crime? You could be psychotic, you’re mom really wanted you to or you could be a rich kid looking for a hobby. We also wanted to ask the question, “How would the world be changed if such characters existed in it?” We thought that probably the world would be pretty suspicious of these characters rather than applauding them.

CB: Are you excited about the release of the film, especially having influence from the beginning?
DG: I am excited. Everything I have seen over the last year has built my anticipation. I compare the depth and details of the film I’ve seen so far as someone’s first experience with the graphic novel. Upon reading it the second or third time, more meaning is revealed.

I believe many will have the same experience with the film. Also, I am really interested in the final director’s cut of the film on DVD.

CB: What do you think of the plethora of comic-based movies released in the last few decades?
I think that powerful individuals, your Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, have always been taking on evil. Now readers of comics are the ones that are seeing the movies and even making the movies. Also, the technology has made it believable to add super-human powers and costumes. Current movie audiences are now used to how superheroes work and they are ready for a film like Watchmen to see them deconstructed.

CB: How has your experience with Hollywood been? Were you apprehensive with Alan Moore’s past (troubled) experiences?
DG: My actual experience has just been with director Zack Snyder and the Watchmen movie. I’ve been well cared for and conferred with atevery phase. I think that adaptations of Alan’s work like From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have left him more than disappointed. He has shut himself off from this production, which I probably would too if I had the same experiences.

CB: Director Zack Snyder is known for his direct panel-to-storyboard technique with films like Frank Miller’s 300. What’s it like seeing your illustrations on the big screen?
DG: We visited the set in Vancouver and it was uncanny to see characters like The Comedian and Rorschach lifted right out of the book. Plus I got to go into the Nite Owl’s ship. To see what was in my mind illustrated on the page then become three-dimensional was surreal.

CB: You have recently released a book titled Watching the Watchmen. How do you think this book would enhance a moviegoer’s experience?
DG: Watching the Watchmen shows the thinking behind putting the comic book together. It’s for anyone that loves the behind-the-scenes perspective working on the series, revealing the care and intense details Alan and I put into it. Because the characters will become so well known it’s interesting to show the false starts and discarded possibilities. For instance, Alan and I had the initial idea of (the character of) Rorschach having a full body suit of the inkblots, revealing them by opening his trench coat, “flasher” style (laughs).

CB: How was it putting Watching the Watchmen together?
DG: When the movie became a certainty, Paul Levitz (the president of DC Comics) came to me with the idea. I saw we did have the makings of an interesting book, especially after adding designer Chip Wood, who is a fantastic designer, to the process. Going through filing cabinets of notes and sketches reminded me of the almost insane level of work we put into it. We were putting together Watchmen the old-fashioned way without all the luxuries of today’s digital technology. We didn’t even have fax machines — we had to mail sketches or, in the case of an extreme emergency, put it in a taxicab, at a huge expense, to be delivered.
One example is the panel-to-panel of the falling perfume bottle. I had to construct an animation breakdown with the set of stars in the background. This was before Photoshop, so I had to map the progress of the stars with the falling bottle. On a subliminal level I achieved the constancy required.

CB: Time magazine said, “Watchmen is a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read and a watershed in the evolution of a young medium.” What do you think of the future of the comic-book industry?
DG: I would not call comics a “young” medium, but for decades it has been stagnant with the same superhero storytelling. Books like Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight showed the industry that a new direction could have appeal and acclaim. Unfortunately, I was disappointed that everyone thought that comics should be dark.
Also, Watchmen has had more effect in trade paperback then in single issue. I think that the single issue is reducing in importance. A long time ago the printed, pamphlet-style comic stopped being mass-market entertainment and more specialized in comic book stores. I’m glad that the graphic novel has brought the medium to mainstream bookstores.

WATCHMEN opens March 6. Read tt stern-enzi's review here. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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