Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons on how comics can educate

Dave Gibbons on being comics laureate, London Super Comic Con & Watchmen’s influence

Dave Gibbons picture by Melinda Seckington
Dave Gibbons picture by Melinda Seckington

As co-creator of Watchmen with Alan Moore and a veteran artist whose work takes in everything from 2000 AD and Doctor Who Weekly to Superman and The Flash, Dave Gibbons is one of the elder statesmen of British comics.

All of which makes him a perfect fit for the newly created role of comics laureate, raising awareness of the role that comics can play in promoting literacy. We spoke to Gibbons ahead of his appearance at London Super Comic Convention, held 14 and 15 March 2015 at London Excel Centre, to find out more…

Dave Gibbons on London Super Comic Convention

LSCC2015logoWhat are you looking forward to the most about London Super Comic Convention?

Well, I think what I like the best about conventions is just meeting people, you know? Meeting my fellow professionals because it’s like a floating crap game where you roam about the world bumping into different people and spending time unexpectedly with those you’ve seen a lot of or those you haven’t seen much of, so that’s always really really interesting.

I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve got lots of friends in the business. I also like to meet the public, meet the fans and chat to them to find out what they like and what they don’t like. They ask really interesting questions and I’ve had some really really enjoyable conversations with people so I encourage everybody to come to the convention and come and say hi.

I mean, one of the things about the London Super Comic-Con is they seem to get a lot of American guests over and obviously I don’t see my American friends quite as often as my British friends but this year I think they’ve got John Romita Jr and Bill Sienkiewicz and Neal Adams and Paul Levitz, all of whom I’ve got to know quite well over the years. So I’m really looking forward to catching up with them.

Also I think this con is much more than just a comic convention, there’s a huge movie/TV presence and cosplay as well so I’m really looking forward to seeing all the sights there.

One of Gibbons' iconic panels from 1986's Watchmen
One of Gibbons’ iconic panels from 1986’s Watchmen

Dave Gibbons on the role of comics laureate

How did the comics laureate role come about and what does it entail?

Well, a friend of mine called Paul Register is a school librarian up in Sheffield and I went to his school and they bussed lots of kids in from neighbouring schools and I did a presentation to them about my life in comics and doing comics and that seemed to go down very well and Paul was very happy with the way I put it across. And he started up with some other people a charity called CLAw, which is Comics Literacy Awareness, and he came up to see me, very mysteriously, and offered me the post of being comics laureate.

I’m not actually sure what it involves but it sounds very grand and obviously there’s a laureate for poetry and there’s a laureate for children’s books so it seemed sort of appropriate that we did something in comics.

Basically I think what they wanted was somebody who was well known in comics and perhaps was known to the public as well and also somebody who’s happy to show up and show off which I always am. And we haven’t actually started my term of office yet, that starts at the end of February and will run for two years but straight off the bat we had a lot of interest and it’s very hard to turn down radio and newspaper requests for interviews, just because you can reach so many people with them, so I’ve done a few of those already but we’re working in the background to get me properly briefed and have all the information I need to really be able to speak on behalf of CLAw.

So I’m greatly looking forward to doing that in the new year.

Do you think the growing acceptance of comics as a medium has trickled down to parents yet?

I think a lot of today’s parents are very used to comics, probably read them growing up, certainly we’ve seen a lot of movies particularly the Marvel superhero movies so they’re really quite familiar with what goes on in comics.

I think from the days that I was at school that comics have lost a lot of their outlaw or renegade or trashy kind of connotations. And I think a lot of people I meet who are parents are really into comics and love to see their children enjoying them.

There may still be a little bit of resistance but I think as usually happens, it’s probably down to being ill informed and not really being clued into what’s happening these days. So I don’t think that we’re going to have to overcome a lot of resistance, it’s really just to make people aware of exactly the range of stuff that is about and what a wonderful tool for literacy they are. And a great introduction, a great on-ramp if you like to the world of reading in general.

Certainly my own experience was that I loved to read comics when I was a kid and I actually learned to read before I went to school because I wanted to know what was in the word balloons. And I graduated from comics, whilst still reading them, to reading science fiction and then to reading other sorts of genres and then literature in general and then non-fiction has become a great favourite of mine in recent years.

I think there’s a lot of things that can test children’s awareness these days and I think games and movies and everything are great but there is a particular joy to sitting down on your own and actually reading something. It’s an active experience and it’s a thing that’s quite an intimate and involving experience and I think it’s one of the great pleasures of life so anything we can do to get children reading, I’m all for. And it’s not for worthy reasons, it’s not that they ought to be reading, it’s just that I think that reading is great fun and I would want to share it with as many people as possible.

Another collaboration with Moore for xxx's Dave Gibbons For The Man Who Has Everything in 1985's Superman Annual #11
Another collaboration with Moore in 1985’s Superman Annual #11

Dave Gibbons on comics going mainstream

Between Mark Millar getting an MBE and yourself becoming comics laureate, are comics becoming establishment?

Yes, it’s obviously it’s a great shame that I haven’t got an MBE myself but Mark certainly is hugely entitled to it. He also does a lot of things outside comics that I think it’s great are being recognised. And again I’m a little bit conflicted about the idea of comics becoming establishment.

I love the fact that people do enjoy them and there are lovely collections of them and books that you can put on your bookshelf but there is something I love about the cheap and cheerful way that comics have been presented in the past, you can roll them up, stick them in your back pocket and read them in the loo, all that kind of stuff.

So I hope they’re not becoming establishment as I say, I just hope that people are finding there’s no particular barrier to enjoying them. I don’t know that I had a particular “How did this happen?” moment, I think it’s been a growing thing. I think way back in the 80s when Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and Maus sort of hit the general media channels that that was I think a step forward for comics and I think recently it’s become even more and more established as people are doing a huge variety of very personal work and very emotional and personal work that there’s now something for everybody in comics from the juvenile to the really quite adult.

I think it’s been a slow trickle or a growing wave. You know, talking about MBEs and laureates, the only thing I really envy someone like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman for is that they’ve been on The Simpsons. And that to me, to get on The Simpsons I think really means that you’ve arrived. So there’s no signs of it at the moment but who knows, if I become lord enough one day I might even appear with jaundiced skin and three fingers on what I think is one of the apexes of today’s culture.

Gibbons' variant cover to Miracleman #8
Gibbons’ variant cover to Miracleman #8

Dave Gibbons on British comics

Britain’s comic heritage has gradually been embraced by the mainstream too. What do you think the big change was in terms of acceptance.

I think that people are recognising that the Americans have obviously got their superheroes and humour comics as well, but Britain has always had a wonderful range of writers and artists and different genres and you look back at stuff in the DC Thompson titles like Beano and Dandy and you marvel at the amount of inventiveness and craft and true artistry that people like say Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid put in. And of course Frank Hampsen and his team’s work on Dan Dare was way ahead of its time and certainly could stand shoulder to shoulder with anything the rest of the world has produced.

So yeah I think we should be very proud of our comic book heritage. For many years it was dismissed as being juvenile but unlike on the continent and in Japan and in America as well to a certain extent so I’m really glad that it is being appreciated for what it is.

Do you think more needs to be done to salute the British comic book lineage?

Yeah there can never be too much done to salute our lineage, it is something that we should be very proud of and it would be great to see even more of classic comic strips from the UK being collected.

I’d love to see a collection of Ken Reid’s wonderful work on things like Jonah and Faceache and Leo Baxendale’s groundbreaking work on Bash Street Kids and Little Plum and then the stuff they both went on to do later for Eye Piece.

There’s already been some great collections of Dan Dare and of Frank Bellamy’s work on Heros The Spartan and Ron Embelton’s Wolf The Briton and other titles so I think lots of things are being done and one does look towards the day when everything is available online and you can read work from all times during the history of comics publishing and enjoy them with new eyes.

Dave Gibbons in his studio, by Harry Borden for the Guardian
Dave Gibbons in his studio, by Harry Borden for the Guardian

Dave Gibbons on the ongoing influence of Watchmen

You’ve been living with the success of Watchmen for decades, does it still surprise you with how pervasive it is?

Yes. I mean, it does really. We never, Alan [Moore] and I when we were doing it, had any idea that it would persist in the way that it has and I suppose, from when we did it in the 1980s it was a constant presence in comic book stores and later in book stores when they had their own graphic novel section.

Obviously the movie a few years ago gave it a tremendous boost again and I think as many people bought it in the three months after the first trailer was shown as did in the previous probably 30 years so that made a tremendous difference. And now I think it’s just sort of part of the cultural landscape and I think when people discover comics or rediscover comics it’s one of the things that bookshops and comic book stores recommend tot hem as being a good place to start.

So yeah we were very lucky with that and I think I’ve become so used to it now that maybe it has lost its surprise. But no, it was a wonderful thing to be involved with.

The book’s been such a huge influence on the superhero medium so are you hyper aware of that when you’re reading comics?

Well you know for a long time Alan and I regretted that it made people think, readers and particularly creators in America, that this was the way to do comics, to make them very self referential and rather downbeat and rather bleak and kind of dark. That wasn’t what we ever intended, what we tried to show is just one way of doing comics. And certainly we had plans maybe after Watchmen to do something like Captain Marvel, something rather light-hearted, something at the other end of the spectrum.

I suppose inevitably because a lot of people now working in superhero comics grew up reading Watchmen, we must on sort of levels have had an effect. In fact, as I speak to you on my drawing board behind me were a couple of comics I was reading only yesterday, I finally got to my local comic book store and managed to get hold of them, and these were a couple of issues of the new Multiversity thing that DC have been doing, and coincidentally enough, one of them is called Pax Americana by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely which Grant had shown me Xeroxes of some time ago.

It’s a wonderful interpretation of the same characters that Alan and I interpreted under different names in Watchmen, namely the Charlton characters, you know the Blue Beetle and The Question and The Peacemaker and so on. And I think what Grant and Frank have done on this is just wonderful. They’ve introduced such complexity into it, such rigorous storytelling, such an inventive way of approaching things with a sort of nod to what Alan and I did without in any way being a pastiche or derivative of it or stolen from it.

They’ve come up with something of even greater complexity and the thing I really loved about it was I think I got an insight into what it must have been like for other people to read Watchmen back in the day and to discover that and to become slack jawed (as I’m told they did!) so Pax Americana obviously shows Watchmen’s influence but I think it’s something that’s so exciting and very fresh and new.

And in fact the other comic that I picked up at the same time was what Grant has done with Cameron Stuart with Captain Marvel. Which is a wonderful interpretation of the Captain Marvel legend with all the characters in it, with Savannah and with the Uncle Marvels and the Mary Marvel and the Captain Marvel Junior. And a huge contrast in a way to what they’re doing with Pax Americana so I think this kind of contrast is still going on and I think some comics will always be a bit like Watchmen but I think there’s some stuff that is completely unlike Watchmen and comes from a very new direction.

I’m obviously very flattered when people are influenced by something you’ve done in the past but I just love to see a whole range of influences and thank God we’ve seen the end of the completely dark and bleak superhero comic.

Dave Gibbons is just one of many incredible guests at London Super Comic Convention 2015, held 14 and 15 March at London Excel Centre. Find our more and book your tickets at www.londonsupercomicconvention.com.