Dundee Literary Festival – 21/10/15
Dave Gibbons: Comics and Creativity Lecture
The Dave Gibbons Comics and Creativity Lecture marked both the opening of an array of comic events throughout the Literary Festival and of the Dundee Comics Creative Space. Between 2-4pm Dave Gibbons, along with Tanya Roberts, Letty Wilson and Norrie Millar talked with attendees about their experiences in the industry and explored the new Comics Space. The event was well-attended by the press too. Tanya Roberts is an Edinburgh-based comic’s creator who has worked on the likes of Star Wars Clone Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony. She has close links with the University and has given several talks for the Masters class on creating comics. Letty Wilson is a graduate of the Comics Studies Masters course and a key member of Panels Comics, and creator of Cosmic, with writer Erin Keepers, and Meteor, which she has written herself. Norrie Millar was also at the event to answer queries and questions whilst showing off some of his recent work. He is also a graduate of the Comics Studies Masters and is the creator of his self-published comic Duality, He is currently involved in a comics based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, titled Mary Shelley’s Dundee or Frankenstein Begins, written by Dr Chris Murray and launched as part of the Being Human Festival. In addition, the Eye-Tracking Research Project was also showcasing its experiment, the project name Conventions: Understanding Comics Reading, is a joint project between the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen undertaken by Professor Ben Tatler, Dr Chris Murray, Phil Vaughan and project Research Assistant Dr Clare Kirtley, which aims to assess and analyse the ways in which we read comics. Reading comics is often such a subjective experience and can vary drastically from each person, for example some focus more on artwork, others more on writing, some linger on bigger panels others skim past them. Dave Gibbons himself got involved in the project and read over a section of Watchmen, his world famous collaboration with writer Alan Moore. Even the legendary Dundee comics rogue Dennis the Menace turned up to the event, smiling for the cameras, as the Dundee Comics Creative Space played host to the wave of media excitement. Afterwards the event moved to the nearby Bonar Hall for Dave Gibbons’s lecture, a free event which filled a large hall.
This talk began with a brief introduction from Dr Chris Murray who commented on the close relationship Dave Gibbons shared with the University. Over the past few years he has worked alongside the Dundee comic’s community and in June of this year he was given an Honorary Degree by the University for his work in comics.
After taking the stage Dave commented that it was a great pleasure to be here in Dundee again and that he was very supportive of everything that has been going on in the city stating that ‘it is such a wonderful thing you can now study comics at such a high level.’ He continued by giving a brief outline to the presentation, saying that it was primarily autobiographical and focused on two spectrums of his life; his days as an amateur artist and the projects he is now working on.
His story began with a picture of him at around seven years old, which is when he caught the ‘comics bug.’ He remarks that he has a very distinct memory of being with his Grandad in Woolworths and looking at a Superman comic which his Grandad then bought for him. To this day, he still owns that comic. At that time he thought it was the best thing ever, it was bright and vibrant in full colour unlike most of the British comics at that time, noting that the 1950s itself was a ‘very grey time’ in British society and that there ‘were few nuggets of colour.’ He then went on to talk about the links his family had to Dundee, saying that his Grandfather, Hubert, worked as a Customs Officer in the city, adding that he is staying in a hotel right next to his father’s place of work in Dundee. The family lived in a boarding house whilst his Grandad worked in Dundee, whilst staying there Dave’s father met an artist working at DC Thomson and he recalls his Dad telling him all about the artist’s anthromorphic designs when he was a child. Indeed when he first started out working professionally in comics it was under the employment of DC Thomson. However, at the time, artists and writers were not credited for their work so although he drew comic series for the company it was always anonymous. Despite this he remembers his time working for DC Thomson fondly, saying that they ‘were a huge part of my education’, for example if you sent them a page of artwork they would often return it to you full of sticky notes of feedback telling you how things should be done.
Prior to working professionally in the industry however, Dave had always had an interest in creating comics. At twelve, he created the characters Night Owl and H-Bomb (who were early versions of Watchmen’s Nite Owl and Dr Manhattan), and from there he practiced how to get the effects right. He would often copy techniques right out of his collected comic strips and adapt the characters to match his own creations. However, he comments that the school he attended was highly against the pop-culture of comics, going so far as to confiscate and burn students who brought their comics to class. Gibbons added thankfully that he was never foolish enough to take his precious collections with him so he did not have to endure his beloved possessions being burned. His memory highlights just how negatively the comics industry was viewed only several decades ago. In contrast, Gibbons parents were supportive of his creativity however they could not foresee any career prospects in comics. His father, who was favourably inclined towards comics, wanted Dave to succeed and wanted to know whether his son had a chance in the industry so he took Dave’s portfolio to a local artist for him to assess. From there he was told that his work was just copying and he had no chance of a career in the industry. Dave then joked that even when he eventually became a successful artist he still had to convince his Dad that he didn’t just copy stuff for a living.
After being told his dreams were not to be he became a Property Surveyor, however he noted that at any given opportunity he would sneak off to comic book stores. Eventually his name began to get recognised and Dez Skinn, a publisher on Fanzine, got him to do some work for him. He would normally do covers and advertisements at first but at the time was happy enough just to be involved in comic’s creation. He again jokes that he was actually involved in helping one of the first comic’s shops ‘Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed’ get a new staircase put in which he commented was a ‘wonderful marriage of my careers.’
Dave continued by saying that his generation of comics creators were very fortunate that Fleetway and IPC decided to create a sci-fi comic when they did. At the time the sci-fi genre had never been a bestseller so it was considered a bold move, but 2000AD did not disappoint and has been going strong now for almost 40 years. He notes that 2000AD acted as a sort of clubhouse where like-minded artists could all draw the comics they loved growing up. Working on series such as Harlem Heroes, Invasion and Rogue Trooper, Dave quickly became a renowned artist on the magazine and found a strong following amongst British readers.
Once again, he was approached by his old friend Dez Skinn, who by then was working as an editor for Marvel UK who proposed that he do a Dr Who comic alongside writers John Wagner and Pat Mills. Dave remembers how much fun the series was to do saying that, it had ‘lots of elements I like, action, adventure and comedy.’ However, not too long after that, the ‘Americans came calling’, hoping to benefit from the array of young, new talented British creators.
At first when Dave handed his portfolio to DC Comics it was returned to him with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ however seven or eight years afterwards they contacted him and offered him more money, royalties, re-print fees, a board to draw comics on and the return of their artwork once the company was finished with it if he worked for them. At the time this was a dream come true for most British creators and offered them far more than they could receive in the UK comics industry. Originally Dave had been signed up to do the Star Trek run on DC Comics however he notes it sounded a little too daunting in terms of the work required to reproduce likenesses of the actors, and he instead ended up on Green Lantern which was the ‘perfect fusion’ of genres for him. He looks back on his career saying what a huge thrill it has been to come from reading all of the big American superheroes to then going on to draw them yourself.
In addition to his work on comics, Gibbons also became involved in the games industry which he commented had a similar kind of fandom. He did designs for Beneath a Steel Sky, a 1994 dystopian cult-classic game and noted that there are plans afoot for a sequel which he expressed great excitement about considering how much technology has advanced more than two decades on from the original project. At around the same time Gibbons also worked on a comic series called Martha Washington alongside writer Frank Miller, it has now been released in a collected edition and there are high hopes for the character to soon branch out into new media. Throughout the 1990s Gibbons was also approached by DC Editor Karen Berger who wanted him to write and draw his own comic. Eventually he created the idea of a ‘mod’ styled comic that stemmed from his love of the subculture in his youth. The comic titled The Originals is currently out of print but is set to be re-released in digital format. Gibbons also worked as a cover artist on Albion, a series created by writers Leah Moore and John Reppion with art by Shane Oakley.
Gibbons then went onto talk about Watchmen, his most famous work. He jokes that his nickname is Dave ‘Watchmen’ Gibbons. He then brought the audience back to the beginning of his talk where he spoke of his creation Night Owl, who he says is essentially the same character that was created for the epic comic. He notes that after the release of Zac Synder’s film in 2009 he was invited to go to San Diego Comic Con and actually sit in the movie prop of the Owlship which he comments was a wonderful but surreal experience seeing something in the ‘real’ world that had originally came from his imagination. Despite mixed reviews over the film adaptation of the comic Gibbons comments that, ‘you couldn’t fault them for their attention to detail’ as he described all the little aspects of the ship that had carried through from the comic to film.
More recently, Gibbons also returned to 2000AD to write and reboot Rogue Trooper in the storyline The War Machine alongside artist Will Simpson. He decided he would adapt the character to be haunted by his dead comrades on a more spiritual spooky level and that he would get rid of some of the more fantastical, sci-fi elements. However, he jokes that his recreation was not nearly as successful as he had anticipated, saying that people were devastated when he got rid of the dead friends as biochips.
Gibbons concluded the talk by bringing the audience up to date on his more recent endeavours saying that ‘as I fade into my dotage, I’m doing less drawing,’ and focusing more on dispensing wisdom and working on the conceptual nature of the media. He has expanded his career into helping pave the future of the comics industry and bringing the unique media to the masses. He is currently involved with the digital comics app Madefire, the creators of which are experimenting with motion comics and new technology. Gibbons created the comic Treatment for the site, which uses new techniques to further enhance the immersive nature of the media. Similarly he is also working with MagicLeap, a revolutionary technology company whose aim is ‘to bring magic back into the world.’ Although, as mentioned earlier, he works less on comics art nowadays he has recently done a front cover for the new Dan Dare collection and on promotional covers of The Dark Knight Returns in anticipation for Miller’s recent comics venture The Master Race. In addition to working in and out of the comics industry and alongside new innovative technology, Gibbons is also highly involved in the Comics Literary Awareness project that aims to get comics into school and to get children reading. In 2014 he was appointed as the first Comics Laureate to act as ambassador for the media and to help improve visual literacy. It is clear that Gibbons is passionate about comics and his aims to raise awareness of its potential as both a powerful educational and entertainment based tool.
His final note was in fact not so final at all with the last slide of his presentation stating ‘to be continued.’ Gibbons, who now seems to be at the forefront of various extremely important comic’s projects, has merely given us a glimpse of what is to come. His talk had the audience learn of his humble beginnings into comic’s progress into the modernisation of the industry and a look into the not so distant future of the media. And it seems, what with his strong links to both Dundee and the University, that this will definitely not be the last we see of the legendary comic’s artist.
After the talk concluded time was allocated for the audience to ask Dave Gibbons questions: Some of which included, what comics he was reading at the moment, and was currently interested in. Gibbons jokingly replied saying that he was never short of comics because DC sent him all of their titles each month. However, he admits despite this he has little time to go through them all. He notes that he tries to follow his friend’s work but has to be quite selective. More recently, he has begun to go back through his older comics and is enjoying the nostalgia.
The next question was from a young boy who commented that his favourite character in the Watchmen series was The Comedian and he wondered who the character was based on. In response, Gibbons laughed and told the boy he could tell him but he might not understand the reference. The Comedian he stated was mainly based on the appearance of Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck’s Magnum PI, who Gibbons described by gesturing towards Dr Chris Murray, who was wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt, much like Magnum, jokingly adding that Magnum was just a little trimmer.
Ian Kennedy, another famous comic’s artist, then asked Gibbons ‘do you ever get that feeling after drawing a certain page etc. that you have opened the door to others?’ Kennedy himself commenting that there were several times throughout his career when he was so proud of a piece of his artwork he almost felt like he had bridged the realms of reality and fantasy on the page. Gibbons replied in agreement saying ‘when I’m drawing and it’s going well it’s almost like I’m stepping through the comic’s dimension.’
The next question again came from another comics creator, Monty Nero, (both Kennedy and Nero were in a panel together the day after –https://scottishcomicstudies.com/2015/11/02/creating-comics-panel-thursday-22nd-october-2015/ ) who questioned the future of comics and whether Gibbons thought it would all be digitalised. Gibbons argued that it is the opposite, saying the reverse has happened and that although digital comics were becoming increasingly popular and many were reading online they also wanted the printed versions of comics so more than often would buy both. He also hoped that the future would see a change in the way comics are perceived. Indeed he says even by looking at his time at school in comparison to his child’s, who attended the same institution as him, it is clear to see that big changes have been made, he joked saying that comics have ‘gone from burn the works of the devil to this is kind of cool.’
The event then concluded and Gibbons went on to meet face to face with his fans, answer any further questions and sign their comics. Overall the workshop and lecture offered a useful and interesting insight to Gibbon’s progression into the comics industry from fan to fandom, giving insight to aspiring creators. It similarly, looked as much to the future as to the past and provided a preview of what Gibbons anticipated for the progression of comics into a new, technologically advanced and highly interactive media.
(Images courtesy of The Courier, @activevisionlab and DundeeComicsCS)