20 Years Watching the Watchmen
This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week on Oct. 18, 2005 Sign up now!
By Douglas Wolk -- Publishers Weekly, 10/18/2005
Dave Gibbons has been drawing and occasionally writing comics since the mid-1970s. But his most famous project is undoubtedly Watchmen, his mid-1980s collaboration with Alan Moore. The only graphic novel to make Time magazine's list of the 100 best novels published since 1923, the book is marking its 20th anniversary with Absolute Watchmen (DC), a deluxe hardcover edition with upgraded coloring (by original colorist John Higgins) and bonus material detailing the genesis of the project.
PW Comics Week: When Watchmen originally came out, it was the most throughly designed-looking comic that had ever been published. How did you come up with its look?
Dave Gibbons: We wanted to do something that wouldn't get lost on the stands—we knew that what we didn't want on the covers was images of heroes fighting or emotive close-ups. It occurred to me that the only reason to have the logo across the top was if it was going to be bought from a newsstand, and Watchmen was going to go entirely to direct-market comic book stores, which tend to present comics along shelves, rather than down vertical racks. I realized that if I ran the logo along the side, it'd probably be even more obvious. I also came up with the nine-panel grid, which gave all the interior pages a look you couldn't mistake for any other comic book. At the time, a lot of comics were going in for what I call "poster" layouts, where there'd be a central image with smaller panels arranged around it, and I really didn't want to go for anything that felt faddy, or like a passing fashion.
PWCW:The front cover of the new edition is the one it's had for the last few years, a close-up of a blood splash across the eye of a smiley-face button. For many years, Watchmen had a cover image of a smashed window; why the change?
DG: The cover it always should have had is the one it's now got. When they first asked me to design the cover for the  Watchmen collection, the first design was very big on the blood-splash—it's so iconic and so graphic, and you think "what the hell is that?" That went on the initial Warner Books edition, which was comparatively limited, and it was also picked up in England by Titan Books. Then DC asked me to come up with another cover, and frankly by that time we were sort of running on empty. There was a constraint on the cover that it had to lead into the first thing you saw in the book, the badge lying in the gutter, and it had to be related to that. Then we thought: maybe we can go back in time, so what you're seeing is the window breaking the night before [the beginning of the story]. But I have to say that, of all the covers I did for Watchmen, that one was my least favorite by far. And when I realized that the book was being continually reprinted, I thought: hey, surely we can have the correct cover! So we did do that, and DC took the opportunity to revamp the back cover, as well. As far as I'm concerned, this is the correct cover for the collection of Watchmen.
PWCW:This edition had a difficult birth. Do you think of it as being related to the 15th anniversary hardcover [an expanded edition announced in 2000, then scrapped when Alan Moore withdrew his support from the project], or is it a separate project in your mind?
DG: I think this is a separate project—I don't know that the Absolute editions existed then, and I think certainly the plans that were in mind five years ago were different. This is essentially just a reprinting of the book—although that's doing it a disservice: to my mind, it's like this is the book, and everything else has been a kind of prototype or an attempt at it. Certainly the major artistic input was John Higgins, who had a chance to recolor the whole thing, and Alan had kind of zero input, and I had a kind of supervisory input, so I think that suited everybody just fine. I know that DC were very careful to get Alan's clearly authorized assent before they went ahead with this—they wanted to make sure this time that all the ducks were in a row.
PWCW:The extra material in Absolute Watchmen is reprinted from the limited-edition hardcover that Graphitti Designs published in the early 1990s. How'd you decide to do that?
DG: We felt that if this was meant to be a definitive reprint of Watchmen that it should include all the so-far-published material. I always love that kind of stuff in a collection—on a DVD, the first thing I do is check out what the extras are—and we thought it was worth seeing again. But we did re-scan all the sketches, and tweaked bits of the design.
PWCW:What was your participation in the Absolute edition's design?
DG: Quite a lot. The first thing I did was sketch out what I wanted the whole package to look like, the dust jacket and the slipcase and the book itself, and then the guys at WildStorm and DC did their very best to make it happen. It was just a question of using those motifs—the smiley face, the clock, the on-end logo—and making something that you'd realize from the other side of the room was Absolute Watchmen and no other comic book.
PWCW:You know, when you put the word "Absolute" in the font that was used for the original Watchmen logo, it looks a bit like an Absolut vodka ad.
DG: I suppose it does! You know, I never even thought of that. It seems obvious now that you've mentioned it. Thank goodness we've got the E on the end of it!