Sunday, September 3, 2017. It was high noon at the Long Beach Convention Center as the final day of Long Beach Comic Con was well under way. Arriving on time and chatting jovially with attendees, legendary artist/writer Dave Gibbons was easygoing and happy as he settled down for panel spotlight on his career. Director of Programming Ivan Cohen, who had been conducting spotlights throughout the weekend – including William Shatner and Howard Chaykin – sat down to discuss Gibbons’ career in comics that began approximately 40 years ago.
But before getting started with the retrospective, there were two announcements: Gibbons’ series, The Originals, will be re-released next year, and just next month, How Comics Work, which he co-wrote with Tim Pilcher, will be released. Gibbons explained that he and Pilcher went through his extensive archives and from that exercise, they conceptualized an outline to describe how comics work. Gibbons segued and noted that in his book, he explains that working in comics is “fairly systematic,” because there is consistency in the components of comics: the story, the page count, and the deadline. Using the theme as the central circle, Gibbons utilizes a mind map approach to generating ideas. Then, he draws thumbnails (the size of a postage stamp) first, so he can identify whether he is organizing the spacing to the best advantage. He added that he can easily see his progress as well as minimize his rework. With those two announcements done, Gibbons started talking about his own origin story into comics.
Gibbons did not attend art school. Rather, he read books on art, such as Stan Lee and John Buscema’s seminal instructional guide, How to Draw the Marvel Way. At the formative age of 12 or 13, Gibbons was attending an academically focused school, but his folks were cognizant of his artistic interests. His dad arranged for Gibbons to meet the local artist, and the artist asked to see samples of what Gibbons was working on. He was working on copying an issue of World’s Finest, so that’s what Gibbons showed the artist. The artist pulled Gibbons’ dad aside and stated that Gibbons did not have the type of talent needed to be an artist. It should be noted that the artist was evaluating Gibbons on traditional art techniques, which was/is different from sequential art techniques. Thankfully, Gibbons was not deterred.
It was the Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. issue in which Gibbons looked at the art and thought to himself, “I can do better than that guy.” When he read Stan’s Soapbox column in that issue, Gibbons learned through Lee’s introduction of the artist that Barry Windsor-Smith was an up-and-coming British artist. That factoid sealed the deal in Gibbons’ mind that he wanted to illustrate comics. Gibbons re-copied the issue and tweaked the story a bit, as well. The issue went into his portfolio and little did he know at the time – the latter 1960s – that the British comics industry was small and incestuous; British writers and artists worked with each other regularly, so at some point, he was bound to run into someone associated with Windsor-Smith.
With portfolio in hand, Gibbons showed examples of his work and that issue was seen by the one of Windsor-Smith’s colleagues. Thankfully, the changes Gibbons made in the art and writing were taken in stride. Gibbons said he learned balloon lettering from Steve Parkhouse, which led to ghosting work for other artists. (It is interesting to note that Gibbons’ method of learning really isn’t any different from the young artists during the Renaissance period; the aspiring artist copied masterpieces to learn their style. Then, they would emulate the master’s style and complete the preliminary work or even complete substantiate parts of work under the tutelage of the master until they established a name for themselves.) He saved his money and eventually moved to full-time employment – pencils, inks, and lettering – in British comics that were tabloid sized and usually incorporated a layout of 16 panels per page.
At DC Thompson, Gibbons received the “nuts and bolts” knowledge. He said he was fortunate because his learning process was out of the public eye, meaning he was submitting pencils for review and notes, so he had the benefit of having polished artwork on the newsstands. In the mid-1970s, Gibbons worked at 2000 AD and worked on titles such as Harlem Heroes, Dan Dare, and Tharg’s Future Shocks, short scripts that paired Gibbons with writer Alan Moore. The two were just a few of the writers and creators that would meet at the pub, Westminster Arms, for a weekly “Westminster Comic Mart.”
Another DC came along in Gibbons life: DC Comics. By that time, he had approximately 10 years of experience. The money and opportunities the American comic book publisher could offer was too great to pass up. It was a pull that many British writers and artists would also experience. Gibbons interjected that Moore had “knocked it out of the park” with The Sage of the Swamp Thing. He then went on to describe that he, Moore, and editor Julius Schwartz were part of the “perfect storm” with the Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything” (1985). Moore and Gibbons then worked together on one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful comic book series of all time: Watchmen, colored by John Higgins and edited by Len Wein and Barbara Kesel. (In the “Howard Chaykin Spotlight” LBCC panel, Chaykin mentioned being impressed by the Watchmen pages).
Gibbons chuckled as he shared that as he posted off the last pages of the series, he claimed the pages as “no value” on the postal form and to this day, he avoids looking at the value of the original pages. (He did say he heard one page was going for $12,000 on eBay.) Afterwards, he headed over to Comic Showcase, a comic book shop in London. He described having a spring in his step and a smile on his face and when asked why he was happy, he explained he had just finished Watchmen. They immediately responded with one of the truisms of the comic book industry: “What are you working on next?”
It was at this point, that Gibbons expressed the need to clarify that Watchmen came in on time throughout its run except for the last two issues. He stated that he and Moore had communicated the deadlines for the issues; however, the publisher sped up the timeline. At most, those two issues were “late” by three months, not by the many more months that are often rumored.
So, where do you go after Watchmen? Why, to one of the other giants in the industry: Frank Miller. Working between other projects, the two collaborated on the underrated series, Give Me Liberty: An American Dream. Gibbons said it was a comic book without a genre, and he sincerely hoped that more readers will find this series, which obviously means a great deal to him.
With the hour surprisingly almost over, Gibbons answered a few questions from the audience. While most of the attention had been on his art, he did say that as a kid, he had wanted to write comics too, so he could do everything. It’s part of the reason why he titled his forthcoming book, How Comics Work. He added that he felt he had an advantage of stepping into writing after developing his visual competency first.
It was asked what he was up to next (See!), and he said he was going to the New York premiere of Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (Gibbons illustrated Mark Millar’s The Secret Service, the original story arc comic book title and well worth reading if you haven’t.) later this month. He said that if you liked the first film, then you would love the sequel. He also mentioned that the Watchmen: The Annotated Edition by Leslie Klinger, Moore, and himself will be out at the end of this year.
And Gibbons’ young fan, Jacob, got to ask the last question: What’s your favorite Watchmen character? Gibbons asked the young man who he thought. Jacob responded confidently, “Rorschach!” Gibbons elaborated that many fans like that character for what he represents; however, Gibbons admitted sheepishly that he liked him, too, because he was so easy to draw and he didn’t have to worry about the eyes being skewed.
Panel photograph courtesy of Michele Brittany