INTERVIEW: Dave Gibbons Tells Us How Comics Work

Dave Gibbons is a towering figure in the comics industry. Co-creator of Watchmen (the only graphic novel on Time Magazine’s Best Books list), Rogue Trooper, Harlem Heroes and Martha Washington, he has worked with many of the finest artists and writers of the past forty years. He has also written and drawn the most popular characters in comics, from Batman and Superman to Doctor Who and Judge Dredd. If that wasn’t enough, he has also lettered, coloured and edited comics, and was a pioneer in the use of digital colouring.

So, when someone as experienced as Dave Gibbons speaks about art and the process of creating comics, the smart thing to do is listen (and try to absorb each pearl of wisdom he imparts !).  That is exactly what Geek Syndicate did when we had the pleasure of speaking to Dave about his new book How Comics Work, due for release on 15th September. We are happy to present that interview below – enjoy !

GEEK SYNDICATE (GS):  What makes How Comics Work different to other comics’ “how to” books ?

Dave Gibbons (DG): I love books that tell you how to do something, and books that give an overview or an analysis of things. I hope what we’ve done with How Comics Work combines both types of books. It’s about the mechanics of comics: how the medium allows a particular type of story and how comics are physically put together through the different stages of production. We also look at the different skills and kind of talent required to produce comics, and discuss the professions that are involved in the process – from the writer to artist to colorist to letterer; we visit all those areas. So what makes the book different is that it is not just focussed on how to draw comics, it’s about the whole production process.

Another unique aspect of How Comics Work is that the examples used are actual parts of the process I have produced in the past. I tend to hold on to everything, so I’ve got all the working drawings, the sketches and character concepts I have created before even putting a pencil to the page, along with all the thumbnails and breakdowns of the finished art. This makes the book a record of the hands-on way you make comics. It hasn’t been put together in a contrived way to show only the nice clean drawings of the finished product and ignore the earlier sketches, mistakes and dead ends. It is a very truthful view of how comics work.

So I think that people who like to write or draw comics – really anybody who is interested in the medium of comics should get something interesting from the book. I hope that even people who aren’t particularly into comics should respond to the overview of the creative process. I personally always love hearing people’s enthusiasm about their work, so even though I’m not a gardener, when I am working I listen to things like Gardener’s Question Time where it’s gardeners talking in great detail about how gardening works. I always find that interesting. Hopefully there is a similar enthusiasm showing in this book that people will find attractive.

GS: The way comics are created has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, has that affected your creative process ?

DG: I think the way comics are created is much the same as it always has been, it is only the tools that have changed. Throughout my career it has been my experience that no matter what tools I use, my approach has always been more or less the same and my work looks more or less the same.  Not that the tools are not important. When using pencils to draw in the traditional way, for example, as an artist you are always looking for the best pen to use, or you want to find out what sort of pens, brushes and tools your idols use in the hope that if you use the same equipment then you’ll get the same result (obviously this is slightly faulty thinking).

I’ve used everything from an expensive watercolour brush and drawn entire jobs using that, even ruling straight lines with a brush. I’ve used blue pencils and graphite pencils, dip pens and mechanical pens. I actually drew Rogue Trooper for 2000AD with a disposable fountain pen which I filled with India Ink, yet the final art looks more or less the same.  I have found that when you first to use a computer  you do get a little bit carried away with the filters and the effects you can get without much effort (Laughs),  but eventually you boil it down to it really being the digital equivalent of the tools you use anyway and you replicate your real-world method for creating comics. Where you used to write out  a script longhand or type it on a typewriter, you type on a word processor.

I use a piece of software known as Clip Studio Pro, also known as Manga Studio, which has wonderful tools that closely replicate real world tools. So I do my pencilling out and sketches with a tool that looks like a blunt pencil or a blue pencil. I then use a sharper pencil (as it were) to finalise that drawing and a pen tool to ink over the top of it, doing each step on a separate layer so I don’t have to erase the pencils. One of the beauties of using this type of software is that you then end up with a piece of art that’s ready to go which can immediately be e-mailed to the editor, there is no need to scan the finished artwork and clean it up before sending it. I do still sometimes draw things by hand because I enjoy it, and one of the main disadvantages when you produce artwork digitally is you don’t have any physical artwork to sell – which for some artists is a considerable part of their income. I think on balance, though, it is much better producing comics digitally because you are essentially doing commercial artwork to order on a schedule and the computer makes that a lot easier.

Using a computer is weird to begin with because it does feel unnatural. I clearly remember working on the computer quite early on and I had drawn something in ink and used the paint bucket tool to fill in a big area in black. I then put my arm across the computer screen to draw something else and thought “Shit ! and pulled my arm back because I thought I had smudged the ink. Even though that is completely impossible to do on a computer, I was so immersed in what I was actually drawing I wasn’t thinking about the technology !

GS: One of my favourite works of yours is The Originals, which is being republished under Karen Berger’s new Berger Books line. You mentioned earlier you tend to hold on to everything associated with a comic you produce, so what goodies will there be in this new edition of The Originals ?

DG: It’s true, I do keep everything . Somebody once said “If you keep a diary one day the diary will keep you”.  I think they were speaking more about scandal you can blackmail people with (Laughs) rather than anything artistic but I do agree with the idea. One of the reasons I keep everything is for reference when drawing something within a continuity, and it is only a few sheets of paper in a folder in a drawer.  I also find the behind the scenes stuff fascinating; it’s where you can see the artist thinking. If I collected original art I would prefer to have the sketches rather than the finished work because the finished work just looks like what is printed. I think it’s the pencils, the false starts and the way things get modified during the early stages that I think is really fascinating. It is also the case thing that quite often they are drawn without any self –consciousness. When you are drawing for print you know people are going to be looking at, so there is a feeling it will be judged which is inhibiting. Whereas an artist will often tell you they feel more free to be creative  when doing the roughs because the worry about judgment evaporates. The rough workings are never going to be seen, so the artist feels free to make mistakes, or draw badly on the way to drawing properly.

So for the new reprint of  The Originals I’ve got all my rough workings like thumbnails, character roughs, tryouts and scripts. I also worked a lot to get the look of the book right because the way the book is designed is always very important to me.  And the story wasn’t always called The Originals so there are all the alternative names I came up with to begin with. So there are all sorts of goodies there and I think that if you enjoyed The Originals you will really enjoy seeing the thinking behind it.

GS: Artists are notorious for unfairly criticising their own work (especially the earlier projects). Given you had to look at a heap of your old work when putting How Comic Work together, was there anything you looked back on and enjoyed, or a piece of work you are especially proud of ?  

DG: It’s quite hard to think of any specific pieces of art, if anything there were some bits of art Tim chose that I thought “that’s a bit rough” or ‘that’s not very well drawn” or that’s me rolling out that design again, that doesn’t seem very original to me”. To be honest I was quite happy to let Tim choose the art because he had an impartial view of it. He chose a variety of stuff from all stages of my career,  and it is an honest look at the way I’ve done what I do. I think any variability on quality or excellence in drawing just adds to the interesting nature of it.

Your comment about an artist being critical of their old work is interesting, because I think that sometimes your much older work is the easiest to look at. I think there is a reason behind this which is common to a lot of artists, which is this:

When you start to draw something, you get a vision of it in your head which you believe is the best one you have ever had and so the art will be the best you have ever done. You are absolutely convinced it will be, which is a good thing because if you didn’t think it was going to be the best thing in the world you wouldn’t be motivated to actually do it.  Then you start physically drawing it and creating the artwork – of course it then becomes “work” which you struggle with and have problems with, so when it is done it hasn’t come out the way you saw it in your head (it never does !). Of course you want to change it but you run out of time and you just have to finish and send the artwork off even though you don’t really like it.  When the finished art is published all you can see are the mistakes, so you put the original  away in your drawer and you think “That was terrible” because it wasn’t the best thing you ever did and you really wanted it to be. Some time goes by and while you are digging around in the drawer looking for something else you come across that piece of art. This time when you at  it you think “Oh, that’s alright”. Not “That’s the best thing ever”, but “That’s OK, I’m not ashamed of that”.

I think the psychological mechanism here is that you are the only person in the world who ever “saw” what you wanted the art to look like it (in your head). Anybody else looking at the art has only seen the finished piece – they have seen what it actually is – not what you wanted it to beHopefully there is a level of craft and talent in the finished piece so people who see it think it is pretty good and enjoy it. I think that it takes a couple of years for you as the artist to forget the art as it was in your head and look at it the way the everybody else does, you can appreciate the art as it actually is. I think this is a natural process, one shared by many artists and that is what drives that “unfair criticism”.

So when it comes to the older stuff in the book I think “That’s pretty good” . Not “It’s the greatest thing ever” or “I’m a genius”,  but “Yeah, it’s OK” – I think that’s probably the best you can hope for ! (Chuckles). I think, too, that if you didn’t doubt your own work, if you weren’t critical of it, you probably wouldn’t be much of an artist. You would probably be complacent and uninvolved,  and your art repetitious.

GS: Aside from buying How Comics Work, what other advice does UK Comics Laureate Dave Gibbons have for  aspiring comics creators

DG: I think the most important thing is that you have to realistic. If you want to be a professional comic creator and earn your living from it, you’re going to have to really like to draw as you will spend 8 or 9 hours a day drawing for 5 or 6 days a week.  So if you don’t like to draw, forget about it.  You also have to be able to draw a variety of things time after time. A lot of people when starting out only draw the things they like or are easy to draw, and don’t confront what they need to do as a comic artist. I remember the first professional job I had, the first scene I had to draw was “The Police Inspector gets out of a taxi outside New Scotland Yard in London”. That sounded simple enough, but  I had no idea what a Police Inspector looked like ! I had been in cabs of course, but I hadn’t paid attention to what they look like, so I had to go to my local taxi rank to take pictures of taxis. As for New Scotland Yard, I did live quite near London but I had no idea what that really looked like either. So I actually wrote a letter to the police at New Scotland Yard and said “I am a commercial artist and I need to draw New Scotland Yard, so can you please send me some photographs ?”. Lucky for me they did ! That first scene I had to draw made me see exactly what I needed to do to in order be a professional comics artist. But if you want to just draw comics for yourself, that’s great ! With the internet you can show other people your work and do comics for the sheer joy of it – just remember you still need to really like drawing !

I think the other important thing to remember is that in any creative endeavour, in any endeavour you undertake really, is that you have to work from the general to the particular. For me, whenever I approach a job I always start with an overview, then I subdivide the overview into its component parts and subdivide those into their component parts. You must do that first. If you’re drawing a comic, finessing a character’s ear so it looks just right, or doing that clever bit of hatching to provide shading around their nose then is OK, but that isn’t really what the drawing is about. That is the particular. You need to work on the general –  the structure of the drawing itself, the relationship of the comic’s pages to one another, the relationship of each of the pictures to one another, the relationships of the elements within the picture to one another. It’s only after you have done all this work and the art is almost finished that you can take the time to do that attractive, hypnotic rendering and fiddling with details, because that’s the least important thing. It seems like it is the most important thing, especially when you’re an immature or naïve artist. But the more comics you create the more you realise it is in the generalities that the work really lies and the actual drawing and rendering is one of the least important aspects.

GS: For me, the news you were releasing a how-to book with many unseen sketches, raw thumbnail pencils and inked pages was the most exciting news of the year. Then we were told The Originals is being reprinted, which was just as excellent to hear. What’s the next piece of news from Dave Gibbons which will have me cheering out loud on the train ? What is next for Dave Gibbons ?

GS: These days I do a lot of consultancy work, so I do a lot of work with people like Madefire , who do the wonderful motion books for the iPad. It’s well worth checking out,  where there’s a lot of free content by me and other great artists like Bill Sienkiewicz. Or, if our work provides an inspiration, you can make your own comics using their online tools. You can also get the Madefire app in the Apple app store or Android app store. That’s something I am proud to be associated with. I also recently worked with the Oxford University Press doing comics for use in schools which I thought was a really interesting and very worthwhile project. And I am working as a creative consultant with a company called Magic Leap, who are a mysterious start-up company at the moment who have some technology which is really going to revolutionise the world – of course I can’t really talk too much about what am working on as yet.

My other personal project is my autobiography;  I am a fair way through that. It’s not a chronological autobiography, more of an anecdotal one. It will of course have lots of untold tales of working in comics – lots of things that I’ve never quite had my say on that I’m having my say on now. There will be lots of obscure artwork in it too. Everyone has seen sketches and character concepts for my more popular work like WatchmenHarlem Heroes and The Originals, but with the autobiography I am really trying to put in lots of stuff that people haven’t seen. Your comments have me thinking that I am doing the right thing, and that’s the kind of stuff that you and many other readers want to see.

So that’s what I am currently working on, and that’s the sort of thing there is to come.

Geek Syndicate profusely thanks Dave Gibbons for agreeing to share his wisdom with us.

Find out more at: Dave Gibbons (@davegibbons90) · Twitter

Interviewer: Brett Harris 

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