There are only a handful of contemporary British illustrators to whom the term groundbreaking can accurately be applied. Dave Gibbons is one of them. His CV reads like a roll call of the great and the good within the world of comic books: co-creator of the revered Watchmen series with the legendary Alan Moore, collaborator on US comic giant Frank Miller’s Martha Washington projects, lead artist during 2000 AD’s UK heyday and scriptwriter in his own right on Batman Versus Predator and his own creation, The Originals. These are just a few projects to which Dave has turned his inimitable style towards, not to mention his pioneering digital technique, which hauled comic book illustration from the sketchpad and pencil into the computer age.
For a man who’s been working on comic books for several decades, Dave remains exceptionally enthusiastic about the medium. “It’s only ever been comics that I’ve wanted to do,” he admits. “Not general illustration or artwork, but storytelling through pictures.”
The formative years
For as long as he can remember, Dave has sketched out characters and scenes. As a trained architect his father would work into the evenings under the glow of an angle-poised lamp, with the tools of his trade scattered across a drawing board. Accordingly, Dave was well stocked with drawing paper, Indian inks and watercolours, and would often help his father colour his designs. But while his artistic leaning was no doubt nurtured by his dad’s profession, it was the world of comic books that struck him deeply.
“I have a crystal-clear memory of picking up my first Superman comic when I was in Woolworths with my granddad,” recalls Dave. “After all these years I’ve still got it. It’s got Superman on the cover in a cave with a big chest of diamonds and gems and Lois Lane saying, ‘Superman, you’re also a super-miser.’ I remember thinking, ‘Well, being Superman and having all the girls after you and all that money is the kind of thing I could be interested in.’
“It was the combination of the storytelling and the drama that I loved. It went beyond being a single picture and there was a narrative – something where you’d have an experience and see something unfold in front of you, whether that was a joke or a story. It was the nexus of the writing and the pictures that grabbed me and that’s still very much my thing.”Career path
After training as a building surveyor, Dave soon tired of the daily grind of a ‘proper’ career. His sole highlight was time spent away from the office, during which he’d visit as many comic book shops as possible. After approaching an old friend who worked at IPC Publishing, Dave managed to acquire some lettering work for a Beano-style comic called Cor!! This led to more and more regular lettering work for IPC, and during that time he was careful to take on board all the little nuances of comic book style.
Dave got himself an agent through his IPC work, who set him up with the seminal DC Thompson in Dundee. The work didn’t pay that much, but importantly was regular and, according to Dave, imperative in his artistic training.
“I used to send DC my roughs and they’d send them back with very practical changes and comments – things like, ‘Make sure you show the character’s reaction’ or ‘We need to see the key going in the lock’ and so I soon realised these seemingly minor things were actually incredibly important. That was really my formal education in comic drawing.”
With a portfolio of work under his belt and a growing connection with IPC, Dave’s agent put him in touch with the formative 2000 AD. Editor Pat Mills was searching for a new talent that didn’t rely on the heavy European influences that were permeating comic work of the time. Stumbling upon Dave’s style, he offered him a job.
“I’d learned the ropes and was young, hungry and ready to go,” recalls Dave. “People like Mick McMahon and Kevin O’Neill who I’d known from fandom were about to work there and it was very much a case of right place, right time.
“It really was a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum. What you had prior to 2000 AD were people working in the comic book industry who’d ended up there; people who had aspirations to be illustrators or painters. But what we had at 2000 AD was people who’d grown up, like me, solely wanting to work in comics, so it had that mix of influences and a tremendous enthusiasm.”
This heralded the golden age of the UK comic industry, which Dave readily admits was aided by the growing mainstream influence of sci-fi – particularly in wake of the first Star Wars film – and the influence of punk, with adult themes and the anti-authoritarian leanings of the likes of Judge Dredd drawing on punk’s pop culture. Watchmen cometh
In late 1985 Dave teamed up with Alan Moore, the writer who he’d first worked with during a spell drawing Superman. They both set about creating a comic that they, as comic fans themselves, would want to read. Published in 12 single-issue magazines over the 1986 and 1987 period, Watchmen was a revelation, both in terms of sales and structure.
By taking a modernist approach to
the traditional comic book hero, Dave and Alan were widely credited with shifting the comic book genre into the realms of high art. The publication of the complete 12 issues as a single volume heralded the birth of the graphic novel. Stan Lee described it as his “all-time favourite comic book outside of Marvel,” while in 2005, Time Magazine added Watchmen to its list of the 100 greatest novels in the English language.
“I can remember the day that Alan came to my house and we kicked ideas about and started thinking, ‘Well, this is unlike anything we’ve ever worked on before, this really could be something…’” Dave reminisces. “Not in an arrogant sense, but we felt it was very interesting and I suppose we knew that, as comic book fans ourselves, we were on to something that could be a little bit special.”From sketch to script
Following the incredible success of Watchmen and a stint as lead artist on Doctor Who Magazine, Dave turned his hand to a number of projects, including a collaboration with the legendary Frank Miller on Give Me Liberty and the ensuing Martha Washington series.
But Dave is a creative soul, and his interest in scriptwriting led him to penning storylines for artist Andy Kubert on Batman vs Predator, as well as for Steve Rude on World’s Finest.
His move into scripting culminated in Dave’s self-written and drawn series, The Originals. Published in 2004 by Vertigo, The Originals is set in a Judge Dredd-style future, drawing on the imagery of the mods and rockers’ pitched battles of the 1960s.
“I think of myself as a storytelling artist as well as a scriptwriter,” says Dave. “It’s where the two intersect that my interest really lies. In a way I’ve only ever wanted to draw well enough to tell the story, so that I can convince people what’s going on.”History repeating
With the cinematic adaptation of Watchmen currently in production – directed by Zack Snyder, the man responsible for Frank Miller’s 300 adaptation – Watchmen and Dave in particular look set to enjoy a popular renaissance. While Alan has distanced himself quite publicly from the film (a move Dave is keen to stress he fully appreciates) Dave has been taking something of a role in the picture’s development. Having just returned from visiting the film’s set in Vancouver, he’s both enthusiastic and proud of what he
and Alan achieved.
“I’m amazed, and I am sure Alan is as well, at the longevity and the status that Watchmen has achieved,” he admits.
“I look back on it very, very fondly. As a life-long fan of comics, I’m just really pleased to have been involved in something that’s had such an influence on the development of comic books.”