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Crave meets Watchmen creator Dave Gibbons

CNET UK jumped at the chance to meet Dave Gibbons, British comics legend and co-creator of Watchmen. We talked movies, comics and how technology is creating paperless graphic novels

Crave worships technology, but we also reserve a little space in our shiny hearts for cake and cats and traditional British public houses -- and comics. So when the opportunity came up to chat to Dave Gibbons about Watchmen and how technology has changed comics, we were out of the door before our slice of Victoria sponge had hit the floor. Over the course of his more than 30-year career, Gibbons has wielded the pen and ink on countless comics, including Judge Dredd and Green Lantern. He co-created 2000AD classic Rogue Trooper, and the most lauded comic book series of all time: Watchmen.

We caught up with this British comics legend at the launch of the Digital Artist 2009 Awards. Intel has partnered with Computer Arts, Computer Arts Projects, 3D World and ImagineFX magazines to reward digital artists in 13 categories. These range from graphic design, animation and illustration to character design, concept and videogame art and architectural visualisation. There's also an award for ethical design, and five Intel Rising Stars awards for whippersnappers aged under 25.

Who watches the Watchmen

The conversation inevitably began with the movie adaptation of the book described as possibly the greatest comic of all time. Gibbons is "very pleased" with Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen: "I feel so flattered that they stuck so closely to what Alan Moore and I did. The first time I saw it I'm sure it would have been the experience of people much less close to it than me. It's just 'Oh my God -- it's really happening! It's Rorschach! He's gonna say that, this is the bit where this happens...'"

"It's interesting," he says, "people seem quite divided on the movie: there are some true fans who like it, some who don't like it. Some people had never heard of it and really, really like it. Some don't get it. But it's those ones who weren't aware of it and had seen it not knowing and got absolutely hooked on it, they're the real victories."

Recolouring the Watchmen

Recently, Gibbons was involved with the recolouring of the original artwork for the Watchmen: Absolute Edition, something he describes as being like "a digital remastering of a favourite song, where you don't correct the bum notes but you take the hiss and the scratch off it. You restore it to what it was always meant to be."

It's a task that may not have been possible before the digital age. "The way that the colour separation was done on Watchmen originally is almost like something out of the Victorian age. You had to do watercolour colour guides with every single area annotated, and it would be something like R2B2 -- which isn't a Star Wars reference, it's 25 per cent red, 25 per cent blue: it's a light purple. Every single area had to be coloured like that. It would then go to these ladies who would sit at their kitchen tables with sheets of acetate and they'd paint out all the areas. It was so inefficient... Three tones of every colour, three tones of red, yellow, blue, so there's nine sheets of acetate for every page in a 30-page comic. That's nearly 300 sheets of acetate."

From ink to Cintiq

Although his art has a classic, timeless look, Gibbons embraced the possibilities of digital art early. "I invested in some serious stuff very early in the 90s. Originally I would do typographic sort of things. Mechanical elements. Then I started to do colouring myself, for which it was wonderful. And now I use it in all kind of ways: I write my scripts on the computer, I do a lot of my rough drawing on the computer because you can be so loose and free on it -- you can re-size stuff and move stuff round. I've recently got on to a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet, which is one of these wonderful things where you literally draw on the screen, and that's just... that's magic."

It's not just colouring that's made things easier for comic artists. "Things that probably wouldn't occur, things like getting photo reference. One of the main challenges of comics is you have to draw things repeatedly from different angles, so 3D modelling programs are very useful there -- not making finished models, but models that are good enough to draw from. So there isn't an area of what I do that hasn't been improved by technology."

The paperless comic artist

So it's possible to create a comic without putting pen to paper at all? "I've done bits of artwork where nothing has ever been drawn. On the computer I'll do the roughs, then the pencils, then the inks, then the colour, and, y'know, it feels strange to begin with... But it certainly saves a hell of a lot of time, particularly if you ever have to do any correction or any redrawing. I'm moving increasingly towards 'the paperless studio'." There is a downside though: "You're not left with a piece of original artwork that you can sell!"

Surprisingly, publishers weren't initially keen on this kind of new-fangled technology. "There was resistance, because I think in a sense publishers liked to see what they'd paid for. They liked to have a page of original artwork, and actually a physical object. I think it's a thing that had to reach a critical mass: a friend of mine called Richard Starkings, who runs a company called Comicraft who do digital lettering, he had terrible trouble with DC Comics, trying to get them to accept digital lettering. What he used to have to do was do it digitally, then print it out and cut and paste it physically on to the artwork."

Moore mail

Scripts as dense as Alan Moore's must have made some sizeable parcels in the days before email. "When Alan was really under a lot of deadline pressure he wasn't able to do an entire script. I have had two sheets of typing paper delivered from Northampton where Alan lived, delivered to Hertfordshire where I live, in a taxi because there weren't any fax machines. He said that the money he spent on taxis was God's punishment for making him rich."

Dredd to think

After his positive experience with Watchmen, Gibbons is upbeat about the forthcoming Judge Dredd movie, which is hoping to erase the bad memories of the 1995 version starring a gurning Sylvester Stallone. His advice is to take a leaf out of Watchmen's casting directory. "I think one of the successes of Watchmen is that the cast, although they're wonderful actors, aren't over-familiar. I wish the Judge Dredd movie well, I'd like to see it."

An exhibition showcases examples of digital art at London's La Galleria on Pall Mall until 8 April. Leading digital artists, including Gibbons, will be leading masterclasses for the public between now and September, in the run-up to the Digital Artist 2009 Awards. Watchmen is in good bookshops now -- and some bad ones too -- but do us a favour and buy it from your local comic shop. We think Dave Gibbons would thank you.