Thursday, February 19, 2009

Readings 2K9: Watching the Watchmen

Watching the Watchmen
by Dave Gibbons

This is a coffee-table book with some process art from Watchmen, the mini-series/graphic novel Gibbons drew from a script by Alan Moore. It’s not uninteresting, but neither is it particularly revelatory. There are no great secrets about the making of Watchmen which come out here. Instead, the core of the book is a series of initial breakdown sketches Gibbons made for the pages of the graphic novel; but since Moore’s script is so intensely detailed, and Gibbons himself is meticulous in his craft, there really isn’t much of a variance between the breakdowns and the designs of the finished pages. Even the original character sketches don’t change that much.

There isn’t much text in the book, either. Most notable are a few chatty descriptions of what the experience of drawing Watchmen was like, a piece by the colourist about the process of coming up with colours for the comic, and some discussion of the book’s reception in the 80s. But Gibbons decided not to include any material about the estrangement between Alan Moore and DC Comics which followed the publication of the book. I can understand his reasons for doing this, but there is definitely the feel of a man skirting the elephant which dominates the room.

Consider the following quotes. Here’s Gibbons (p 237):

Looking back, it seems almost inevitable that Watchmen became one of the first graphic novels, although the fact that it has remained in print and sold consistently well over more than twenty years would surely have been beyond the wildest dreams of any DC marketing executive of the time.

It was certainly beyond the imaginings Alan and I had as its creators. We expected that three years after the original series had gone out of print the rights would revert to us, as stated in our contract. Instead, it has been in print ever since. We’ve received a constant stream of royalties and it has become a perennial presence in mainstream bookstores. Indeed, Watchmen has become ‘required reading’ for any novice comics reader and is widely recommended as the ideal entry point to the medium.

When you're talking about [movies being made from] things like V for Vendetta or Watchmen, I don't have a choice. Those were works which DC Comics kind of tricked me out of, so they own all that stuff and it's up to them whether the film gets made or not.

Gibbons is of course entitled to his perspective, and if he’s happy with his situation vis-a-vis Watchmen and DC, that’s great. But there seems a bit of an odd disconnect here.

Again, consider this quote from Gibbons (p 261):

Far more upsetting to Alan and I [than another DC artist producing a poster to advertise Watchmen merchandise] was a suggestion that we produce spin-off series from Watchmen or, failing that, that DC would produce them without us. Proposed titles were Rorschach’s Journal and The Comedian’s Vietnam War Diary. DC wisely shelved the proposals and, to their credit, have managed to resist the temptation ever since.

— Though one should note that there is a video game featuring the characters coming out in conjunction with the forthcoming movie. At any rate, here’s Moore on the above events speaking to Gary Groth in issue 139 of The Comics Journal, back in 1990:

I suppose if there was a final, tiny straw that broke the camel’s back [and led to Moore breaking from DC], it was when people at DC at one point very subtly made the suggestion that ... We were talking about the future of the Watchmen characters. We had been assured that we would be the only people writing them, that they wouldn’t be handed to other creators just to make a fast buck out of a spin-off series. There was a point where a highly placed person at DC did make a not terribly subtle — I think it was intended to be subtle but it wasn’t — insinuation that they would not give our characters to other writers to exploit as long as we had a working relationship with DC. It’s perhaps just me, Gary, but that was a threat and I really, really, really don’t respond well to being threatened. I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me on the street; I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me in any other situation in my life. I can’t tolerate anyone threatening me about my art and my career and stuff that’s as important to me as that. That was the emotional breaking point. At that point there was no longer any possibility of me working for DC in any way, shape, or form.

Different people have different takes on events, but these are fairly widely divergent perceptions. In one case, the company is briefly misguided, perhaps afflicted with an over-eager middle-manager, but on their own sees the error of their ways. In the other case, their attempt to bully creators badly backfires. There’s not really enough information to reconcile these versions; they are what they are.

So Watching the Watchmen does have this going for it: it gives Dave Gibbons a chance to get his thoughts on Watchmen out in permanent form. That’s nice, and interesting reading. But there’s not an awful lot of content of that sort in the book, and what there is to it doesn’t seem terribly significant. It’s likely that in years to come, scholars will appreciate the resource. At the moment, though, the average reader can do without it fairly easily.

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