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‘Watchmen’ Illustrator Dave Gibbons on His New Book, the ‘Watchmen’ Movie, and Why You Won’t Even Notice That Doctor Manhattan Is Naked

Jonathan Horowitz’s Nightmare on Main Street: Election ‘08 (2008)

To commemorate the historic 22nd anniversary of Watchmen, the groundbreaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Gibbons has dipped into his personal stockpile of previously unpublished storyboards, original character sketches, and correspondence with Moore, and collected the highlights in Watching the Watchmen, a gorgeous new Chip Kidd–designed tome that traces the Watchmen’s evolution from idea to finished product. Oh, also, there’s apparently a Watchmen movie in the works that Gibbons was more than happy to discuss when we spoke to him by phone last Friday. He told Vulture about editing Alan Moore, his feelings on director Zack Snyder, and why he’s not overly concerned about a squid-less ending.

When you and Alan were working on Watchmen, it was mostly without an editor. So, as you say in the book, you were the one responsible for catching his typos. How many were there?
There weren’t very many, actually. There were occasional illegibilities because he used to bash this stuff out on a rickety old typewriter. He used to destroy a typewriter a month, I think. We did have an editor at DC, but there was none of the usual editorial direction or suggestion; I mean, they really just left us to it, and I was never sent any edited versions of Alan’s script. What I got from him, I drew. And what I drew is what they printed.

You’ve said you were surprised by some of the choices that colorist John Higgins made. Particularly that his use of secondary colors wasn’t what you’d envisioned — what did you first envision?
It’s just that sometimes his work looked very garish to me. He used really odd color combinations, but he would always be able to explain to me why. We have an expression in England: There’s no point in having a dog and barking yourself. In other words, there’s no point in employing John as a colorist and then saying I want you to color it exactly the way I would color it.

In the book, you talk about the famous meeting that you and Alan had in the eighties with Joel Silver, where he told you he wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Doctor Manhattan. Do you remember anything else about his pitch?
I just remember he wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play everybody. He even wanted Sgt. Rock to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Obviously Sgt. Rock fought the Germans and the Austrians during World War II, but his justification was that his dad had emigrated to the U.S. and people always thought the family was kind of Nazi or foreign, and Sgt. Rock had to prove that he was a true American, you know, by defeating the Germans. All I can really remember is Joel being this typically bombastic Hollywood type who I found quite amusing. Actually, even Alan found him quite amusing at the time.

When you were first working on Watchmen, did you ever think it might make a good movie?
No. I would have been quite happy for Watchmen just to be a graphic novel — that’s the way it was conceived. But now that it’s being made into a movie, I’m really glad that the people who are doing it really get it and are putting the same passion into it that [Alan and I] put into the comic.

How much have you been involved with the movie?
Well, rather more than I would have expected. Zack [Snyder] was very keen to get me aboard, and he sent me an early draft of the script for my notes. He got me to do some storyboards for the movie, drawing some scenes that weren’t actually in the comic book, just to see how I would have treated them. I have subsequently seen a screening of a rough cut, and the producers really wanted me to give them more notes to make sure that if there was anything I didn’t like, then they could address it. Considering that Alan and I sold all our rights to DC way back when we first did the book, and the fact that the movie people really have no obligation to consult me at all, I’m delighted that they have done so.

Can you tell us anything about the movie’s supposedly changed ending? The version they screened a couple of weeks ago didn’t have a squid…
I saw an early cut of the movie, and there was a nondisclosure agreement involved. I have read on the Internet that people suspect that there are multiple endings that they’re going to market test, and that they have an ending with the squid and an ending without it. I certainly feel that if all you want to do is a literal adaptation of the book, then I guess you must have the squid. But I do think it’s possible to have the same message as the book and have basically the same ending without the squid. So, that’s something that I don’t have insider knowledge about, but it’s something that frankly isn’t of huge concern to me.

How much of prerelease hype is meant to influence public opinion against Fox in the lawsuit over Watchmen’s movie rights?
Well, I mean, as far as the lawsuit is concerned, I’m not a lawyer. And I really don’t know the ins and outs of it — but I wouldn’t think it’s in anybody’s interest for the movie not to be released as planned. I think that’s all I have to say about that.

Were you pleased when you found out Zack Snyder would be directing?
I actually met Zack at the U.K. premiere of 300. I was very struck by how faithful 300 was to Frank Miller’s comic book. Obviously 300 is an entirely different thing, both in its scope and in its execution, than Watchmen is. But from talking to him, I got this tremendous feeling of enthusiasm that he wanted to do it right and that he did understand it. And everything I’ve seen along the way has really reinforced that feeling.

The original version of the script I had read had some major deviations from the comic book that I was rather concerned about, and I believe he actually even filmed some of that because that was what the studio wanted. But when they saw what he’d done, they kind of said to him, what you’re doing is really good [and] we’re happy to let you do it. Because clearly 300 made a lot of money for the studio on a relatively small budget, so I think we’re really fortunate to get somebody like Zack on it when he was the golden boy of the studio.

There was a controversy over 300 — regardless of Snyder’s intentions, some people found it homophobic while others thought it was homoerotic. Are you worried about how audiences might react to the sight of a naked Doctor Manhattan?
Well, nobody at any point has ever complained or done anything sonorous about the naked blue superhero, and what they’ve done in the movie is the same thing we did in the comic book, which is to introduce his nakedness at a point where you almost don’t notice it. There’s the scene in the comic book where he’s in bed with Laurie. I think if we’d shown him naked then, it would have had a huge sexual charge to it. But you first see him naked when he’s wandering about this wrecked installation in the middle of the Mojave Desert and you hardly even register it. He is actually almost like a CG person. He’s somebody who, by the force of his will, has reconstructed his body, so you’re not looking really at a naked man; you’re looking at a model of a naked man. I know that’s a rather fine distinction.

‘Watchmen’ Illustrator Dave Gibbons on His New Book, the ‘Watchmen’ Movie, and Why You Won’t Even Notice That Doctor Manhattan Is Naked