Watchmen Interview: Co-Creator Dave Gibbons

Watchmen, for my money, is the Citizen Kane of comic books. When it was first published in 1984, its keen deconstruction of the superhero genre had an immediate impact on everything that followed in its medium and eventually even impacted movies like The Incredibles -- which borrowed heavily (though some might say stole) from creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece. On March 6, Watchmen’s legacy will expand with the release of director Zack Snyder’s big-screen adaptation of what many had called an unadaptable work. Well, as a fan, I’m here to say it turns out it’s not so unadaptable after all. Watchmen the movie, like the comic book, is a powerful indictment of those who negotiate concepts of morality in the name of justice and even world peace. In anticipation of its release, each day Film.com will be posting interviews I conducted with the actors, filmmakers and, in today’s case, Gibbons.

Cole Haddon: With the release date almost here, I have to ask: What do you think of the movie Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. have ultimately made out of your baby?

Dave Gibbons: Well, you’re a step ahead of me, because I only saw a rough cut in August. But I loved the movie. Of course, I’m the worst person in the world to ask because I sit in the dark and watch the movie, and it’s exactly what I saw when I drew the comic book. “All right, that’s the shot I wanted.”

CH: Then you think Snyder pulled off the look of the Watchmen world you illustrated?

DG: Absolutely. There are times in it that are just bang on, as I would’ve seen them in my head. I have to admit, I had been slightly worried. I couldn’t be happier with it now, but I’m an enthusiastic guy and I’ve been saying for a long time online, “It’s great, guys. It’s great.” But then I start wondering, “Am I just flattered because they decided to make a movie of it? Have I gone too far [with my enthusiasm] this time?” And indeed, on one website [they wrote], “Gibbons Gushes!” [That said], we showed the first 18 minutes to 3,500 people at New York Comic-Con [a few weeks ago] and they loved it. They stomped, they cheered. They shouted, “Again, again!” and I could tell then the fans would really love it. That was a tremendous relief to me.

CH: For the uninitiated, can you talk a little about why you think Watchmen has become an enduring classic of not just comic books, but literature of all forms? What makes Watchmen the singular experience it is?

DG: [Laughs] You mean what Zack would call the “Watchmenyness” of it. Well, it’s hard to put your finger on something like that, isn’t it? Quite often, it’s the individual ingredients that give you the final taste of it and sometimes it’s hard to tell what that taste is separate from the ingredients.

Basically, what [Alan Moore and I] were trying to do as lifelong fans of superhero comics, we were trying to get to know them a bit better. We thought there were questions that hadn’t been asked before, that related to society in general. Why would someone put on a mask to fight crime? What is a vigilante? The whole title of the book: Who watches the Watchmen? Okay, you’ve got people to watch over us, but who watches them? So there’s this question of responsibility. There’s also the moral ambiguity about deciding to do something for the good of society that might turn out not to be for the good of society. What right does anyone have to decide what’s good for people? So there were these issues we explored there.

There were also comments on recent American politics. That time in the Western world was a frightening time in many ways. There really was a threat of imminent destruction. It was a very real fear for Alan and I –- could it really all go very badly? The period was fascinating globally, too, because you had wonderful things like the moon landings and the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, but you also had Vietnam and the assassination of figures of hope like JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. So all those ingredients, when mixed in with the Watchmen characters, are what gives it its flavor.

**Slight Spoilers ahead if you haven't read the graphic novel.**

WatchmenCH: From my experience, die-hard fans of the Watchmen book have been enthusiastic about what they’ve seen in the trailers, especially how passionately Snyder re-created the images on the page, but word that the ending’s been changed has left them dubious of the overall achievement. [For non-fans, the book’s villain stages a fake alien invasion of New York City to help unite a divided planet against a common enemy.] How do you feel about the altered climax?

DG: I’m extremely relaxed about it. When you’re a rabid fan of something –- and I am a rabid fan –- any change, any deviation from the true gospel can feel like heresy. But I really think the [fake alien] squid [at the end of the book] was what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin –- the thing we needed to get everything going. It’s not the point of the whole book, and I always felt that what [the book’s surprise villain] ultimately pulls off is a colossally convincing special effect. And in the movie, it would have just been another special effect [amongst many]. So I think the ending [the filmmakers] put on it is a really important ending. And they haven’t just plopped a different ending on it by ripping the squid out and putting _______ in either. It ties directly back into the story and makes tremendous sense in the dramatic sense in a way the squid [couldn’t have]. So I think the [new ending] is true to the graphic novel. There’s still that same sense of, “Did he do the right thing?” The moral ambiguity, the crisis of conscience it gives all the characters. So, yes, I’m perfectly happy with the ending.

WatchmenCH: And how does it feel to now be the sole creator of Watchmen since Alan Moore, after years of watching his creations be butchered by Hollywood, refused to allow his name to be associated with the movie?

DG: It feels wrong, to be honest with you. You no doubt know the reasons Alan isn’t involved, and I’m really sorry he’s had such a bad experience with Hollywood that he can’t see his way to be part of this –- because I do think [finally] Hollywood has done right by him. Everyone I’ve met in the course of this movie certainly wants to do right by Alan and have certainly used all their powers to make it something that [he and I] would be happy with. So, yes, it does seem strange to see my name alone up there. It just looks unbalanced, because then you ask, “Who’s the other co-creator of it?” I think the best thing that will happen is many people will now see Watchmen and go buy the graphic novel, and then read Alan’s work in the way it was meant to be experienced. Ultimately, I hope that, even though my name is on the screen, people will be smart enough to know Alan was the other co-creator. His name’s indelibly marked on the Watchmen.

CH: Do you think Alan will ever get around to watching it? He’s said he refuses to.

DG: It’s hard to say because Alan is a man of principle. Obviously the valuable picture would be one of him sneaking out of a Blockbuster with a copy under his arm [laughs]. But I don’t know if curiosity will get the best of him, I couldn’t predict.