No.30: Dave Gibbons
One of England’s most celebrated illustrators, one could argue that Dave Gibbons is the thinking man’s artist, a creator and penciller who brought a unique sensibility to the medium. His early interest in British comics such as Dan Dare that had a slightly American feel and the clean line of such legends as Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy and Ian Kennedy were as important to him as Infantino, Wood and Kirby. The thought and effort that went into his work at IPC in the 1970s brought him to the attention of American publishers and editors, and once he crossed the Atlantic in the early 80s he went on to collaborate with fellow Englishman Alan Moore on, amongst other projects, the pivotal Watchmen series that became a huge crossover success. Words: Andrew Colman…
Gibbons’s early years were spent reading the comics that would inspire him to draw strips, notably the aforementioned Dan Dare but also reprinted stories from DC’s inventory. Frank Hampson was an early favourite, “because he made Dan Dare absolutely believable and three dimensional, and kind of cross-referenced everything”. He was also a fan of Kirby’s 1950s sci-fi work such as Race for the Moon, along with Mad Magazine. By the time Gibbons reached school-leaving age, he had rediscovered his passion for comics through Gil Kane’s Green Lantern, and after visiting legendary fandom hub Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, decided to turn professional. It was when he picked up a copy of Nick Fury, drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, that “I thought well this guy’s an Englishman – so I thought it’s possible to be a young Englishman and end up drawing American comics. It’s not a case of he can do it and I can’t – there’s nothing to stop me and from making the effort.”
After showing his art pages to Dez Skinn and Steve Parkhouse at IPC, Gibbons got his start in the industry, learning his craft on the hoof while “writing stuff for fanzines, and then getting little bits of work. But apart from this I never had any formal training – I would basically read everything I could find about anatomy, perspective, whatever, and copying what I saw in comics of the time.” He spent a period at Fleetway lettering, and then DC Thomson, where, despite working on strips “that are best forgotten” he learned a considerable amount about storytelling. In the mid-1970s Gibbons began working on a new title at IPC, 2000AD. Gaining approval for his work on the first strip he did for the magazine, Harlem Heroes, by giving it a superhero feel, Gibbons had quickly found his niche, working alongside Kevin O’Neill and John Wagner. By developing a magazine that had both American and British influences, Gibbons and his colleagues differed from their predecessors as they were all fans, and saw this as a vocation rather than a springboard to another career.
With the huge creative energy around 2000AD at that time, Gibbons began work on dream assignment Dan Dare, and then Rogue Trooper, a key series for the artist as it was partly his creation, and also because it became an opportunity to refine his skills through his new interest in European art. It was here that he began to assert more creative control over projects, such as Doctor Who.
In 1982 DC sent over Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando at editor Len Wein’s behest to scout for British artists and writers who had worked on 2000AD and Warrior, and Gibbons, along with many of his contemporaries, was quickly brought on board at National. Adapting rapidly to DC with his stint on Green Lantern, Gibbons, without consciously making an effort to conform to the house style, ended up being an ideal science-fiction artist for the publisher, as he averred: “I think bringing a feel of making the impossible real – that’s what I feel I tend to aim for – to draw impossible things in quite a literal way, and make them seem completely convincing”. Such a clean line style, coupled with his ability to make the impossible accessible, would prove to be the template for his artistic zenith on Watchmen.
Moore and Gibbons’s tour de force was a bleak, claustrophobic deconstruction of the very comics that the artist had spent so many hours of his youth enjoying – the inherent naiveté, innocence and idealization replaced with a disconnected, cynical dystopia, despite most of the players retaining their humanity. From the inception of the project Gibbons was looking to make the series stand out, as well as positioning it outside of the medium as a whole, which he found through the use of a rigidly structured grid format for each page. “I was always impressed with European artists’ frameworks, using a very strict grid, plus what Steve Ditko did with Spider-Man, and what Harvey Kurtzman achieved with the E.C. war books. There’s a power of doing something in a regular grid – it’s almost a hypnotic feel.” If anything, the rigidity of the panels made things easier for Gibbons, as it enabled him to calibrate the storytelling, composition and effect within the context. It also went against the grain of experimentation that was fashionable at the time, being more like a European-style album, with Gibbons’s art a combination of the realistic and the humorous, delineating each character individually, making all of them very separate archetypes.
And as for the content, Gibbons’s approach was again a sea change – the noirish, benighted world of Watchmen a far more naturalistic, documentary-style science-fiction locale set in an alternative universe. “I wanted Watchmen to be very kind of documentary-like, so it was drawn with a very hard pen, with a bit of hatching put in afterwards, but basically a stark kind of art-style, with the characters not so well –rounded, and the feel of being, I suppose for want of a better term, “grittier”. Ultimately Gibbons’s clean line and traditional styling used the language of comics, like Eisner or Kurtzman, as a metafictional or self-referential device that was cinematic without being showy or too detailed, as this detracts from the story. “You don’t muddy the water by doing graphic narrative tricks. We did as much as possible to keep the reader in the moment of what was happening. I hate when I read a comic or watch a movie and I think “what a great bit of cinematography, or what a clever caption, etc.” because you’re yanked out of the story.”
Moore and Gibbons’ series was as much about the psychological undertow of the ensemble as the action – the beautifully rendered dialogue-free pages, such as when Nite Owl or Rorschach roam the streets, or the silent panels between conversations all add to the cold, enclosed, doom-laden dynamics. Along with the subtle, satirical touches throughout that riffed on over-familiar tropes, and the sub textual elements (such as the brutally primal pirate comic Tales from the Black Freighter, read by a bystander) and one realizes that Watchmen is perhaps the definitive treatise on superheroes and superhero comics. It certainly has remained hugely influential ever since its publication and drawn so many to the medium.
Gibbons’s next major project was his collaboration with Frank Miller on 1990’s Give Me Liberty, a series that was noticeably very different from The Watchmen. Even grittier and less humorous, Give Me Liberty was an arch, intense future-shock story that swapped the enclosed space of his previous work for a freer, less organized political satire that was garish, hyper and employed a sledgehammer sense of humour. Nonetheless, his work was as lucidly excellent as ever.
After Give Me Liberty and its equally intense sequel,1994’s Martha Washington Goes to War, Gibbons continued on a variety of projects, as an artist and writer. He wrote the World’s Finest miniseries with the Kubert brothers, the Elseworlds title Superman: Kal with José Luis García-López, and Marvel Edge’s Savage Hulk, amongst other works. In the 2000s he worked for both Marvel and DC, as well as producing the labour of love that was The Originals, a compulsive and clever fable in retro black and white, with a modicum of science-fiction, that was based on Gibbons’s own youth as an aspiring mod, battling rockers. He also returned to the Green Lantern Corps again, and wrote for DC/Wildstorm. In 2007 he was the consultant on the Watchmen movie and also wrote a sourcebook of the production.
Gibbons has been a writer/artist who has strongly backed the comic medium throughout his career, having been on various television shows advocating for it over the years. His attention to detail, artistic integrity and the wider context regarding every work he has undertaken has made him one of the most important British creators, and perhaps, thanks to Watchmen, the best-known. Still illustrating, and as opinionated as ever, there’s still thankfully more to come from him.
Here’s links through to the other entries in our 101 Greatest so far as well
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No.30: Dave Gibbons One of England’s most celebrated illustrators, one could argue that Dave Gibbons is the thinking man’s artist, a creator and penciller who brought a unique sensibility to the medium. His early interest in British comics such as Dan Dare that had a slightly American feel and the clean line of such legends
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