An interview with legendary writer-artist Dave Gibbons at New York City Comic Con 2017.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dave Gibbons is one of the most important comic book artists in the history of the medium.
A great deal of this has to do with the fact that he is the illustrator and letterer of Watchmen (collaborating with writer Alan Moore and colorist John Higgins), which, exactly 30 years after the 12th and final issue was originally released, is still considered by many the single greatest comic book story of all time, while remaining hugely popular and influential even among the most casual of comic book readers.
Yet there’s much more to Gibbons than just one groundbreaking story. He’s written comics like Batman Versus Predator (which he was kind enough to sign my copy of, along with Watchmen), Rann-Thanagar War, and a run on Green Lantern Corps. He also drew such notable titles as The Secret Service (with writer Mark Millar), which spawned the popular Kingsman film franchise, the classic Superman story For The Man Who Has Everything (another memorable collaboration with Moore as writer), and of course, the series that he sat down to discuss during New York Comic Con 2017 at the Dark Horse Comics booth: The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century.
This special, 600-page “Second Edition” from Dark Horse Comics collects all Martha Washington stories published thus far, each illustrated by Gibbons and written by the renowned Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City). Starting with 1990’s four-issue miniseries Give Me Liberty, this bombastic and sweeping story is not about the Martha Washington who was married to the first president of the United States, but a brilliant, tough, and resourceful young black woman fighting to survive and do the right thing in a dystopian-near future threatened by corruption and civil unrest.
It’s a fascinating, wildly inventive piece of fiction that will likely continue to push plenty of newer readers’ buttons, not to mention it still looks fantastic, so we couldn’t wait to talk to Gibbons as he reflected upon the comic’s history, his relationship with Miller, and why Martha and her story remain relevant today.
AIPT!: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. It’s been over 25 years since Martha Washington first came into the world. What’s it like seeing it not just back in print, but in this massive 600-page edition collecting all of her stories?
Dave Gibbons: Well, it’s great. Martha was something Frank and I did over several years, kind of doing in between doing other things, but we’d always return to Martha. We’re really pleased to be back with her again, and I think I speak for us both when I say that of all the heroes that we’ve worked with, she’s our favorite, because she’s a really great character. She’s so decent, she’s so unshowy, she’s so composed, she’s so brave. You know, she’s a really strong character. I mean essentially, she is the still center of all the madness that swirls around her. So yeah, she’s a real favorite character, and it’s great to have a nice, new edition that has the entire story. Because it’s very hard to find the individual stories.
AIPT!: Seeing it all in one place really is incredible. You’ve built up an impressive body of work over the years, and your style is so distinctive. Was your approach to drawing Martha, her story, and everything surrounding her any different than it was with other works like Watchmen or The Secret Service?
Gibbons: Yeah, I always like to make every project look unique and different. So, the design of the book, the actual layout of the pages, whether it’s color, black and white, whether I do a grid layout or a freeform layout, that’s something I consider very carefully before I start drawing. I will always draw like the start of a page, just to see what it’s going to look like. Now, I had done Watchmen, and that’s a very formal grid, it’s a three-by-three grid, but I knew that Martha had to be different. I wanted to do something that was much more spectacular, splashy, freeform, because that serves the kind of story that Frank wanted to write. So yeah, I tried to make the style very exuberant, very adventurous, and very rich and juicy.
AIPT!: You compare it to Alan Moore being more of a classical composer in the book, and Miller being more of a–
Gibbons: A virtuoso.
AIPT!: This is definitely, I think, safe to say a political story in a lot of respects. Almost from the word “go,” we see Martha–or rather, hear Martha–relating her life, and her birth, even, to the goings-on in politics, and what’s going on with the president in particular. Obviously, we are living in quite a time now in politics, and American politics, in particular, so how might Martha’s story be different if were to be maybe restarted or reimagined today?
Gibbons: Right, yes. I mean, the thing about Martha, we always sort of thought of it as being a comic without genre. It’s science fiction, it’s political satire, it’s kind of a western in places, it’s a war story, you know, it’s all these various things. But we did do it with satirical intent, and of course, the president we were being satirical about was kind of like Nixon or Reagan, and of course, reality has really moved beyond the power of parody now. But I do think that Martha is a really relevant character even today. Because of her origin, because of where she comes from, because of where she fits on the social economic stage. And I certainly think that what’s really going on today is even more grotesque and bewilderingly bizarre than anything Frank and I came up with.
AIPT!: That definitely sounds about right! So yeah, this is definitely a story that remains very relevant, and I think one thing that keeps it relevant is Martha herself.
AIPT!: Even to this day, in comic books and media, in general, people are saying that we need more than just straight white men in our stories, and in our comic books. So going back to the early ’90s with creating Martha… why was it important, even back then, for her to be a young, black woman in America?
Gibbons: Well, I think it was partly because the obvious thing for Frank and I to have done was to do another superhero, a dark superhero book. We’d have cleaned up.
Gibbons: So there was a definite… imperative to go the opposite way, not to go for another big muscular white guy, to kind of go the other way, and tell a story that relied on the fact that it was about somebody from the very lowest levels of society, eventually fighting her way through government, war, and into outer space. In other words, escaping from her origin. So… in Give Me Liberty she was looking for freedom. And, of course, if you’re going to take somebody from the lowest level of society, unfortunately, and unfailingly, you know, a young black woman from the ghetto of Chicago is pretty much it. So it was an aspirational book, and we certainly didn’t treat Martha in the way some female characters are depicted with huge breasts and, you know, a kind of pin-up appeal. We wanted to go real believable, very real, very decent, and in a sense very ordinary, showing just the nobility, and the courage, that average human people have within them anyway.
AIPT!: Right, that’s great. You’ve been referring a lot to “we” in relation to your collaboration with Frank Miller, and that’s a collaboration that went on for some time, and continues to be revisited over the years. You talk–both of you, in your separate introductions to the book–talk about how you came up with the idea at the zoo, and how you nearly quit the project at one point.
Gibbons: Yes, sure.
AIPT!: Can you maybe expand a little bit more about what your relationship with Frank Miller is like?
Gibbons: Right, well, I mean, we got to know each other in the late ’80s, when Watchmen was becoming very popular, and Dark Knight was very popular. Frank had come over to a couple of conventions in England, and we went to the pub together, and found that we got on together really well. And what always happens with comic creators is, you know, if you find a kindred spirit, you then find yourself saying, “wouldn’t it be great to do something together?” So, we spoke along those lines, and Frank said–I remember walking around the zoo in San Diego, and Frank had really quite vague ideas about what this character might be, and the first thing he sent me was a very rough outline, a fragment, just seeing the story of Martha on a horse… and an Elvis Presley impersonator, in an underground bunker, holding The White House to ransom with nuclear missiles. And I did a few sketches just based on that loosely. So it was a very freeform thing, and then he wrote the script, and I drew it. You know one of the things about Frank is he’s very responsive to what you draw, so whenever he’d see something he liked, he’d expand the story around that. So yeah, as I was saying, our relationship went on for years and years and years, in and out of all the other things that were happening in our lives. And then we abandoned Martha for a while, and then he suddenly came up with this final script, and I read that and it made me feel quite emotional. It was a wonderful, wonderful end. And we haven’t seen each other so much over the years, although amazingly, I was with Frank about an hour ago.
AIPT!: Oh wonderful!
Gibbons: Yeah, he was up in the DC room. We’re going out for dinner tonight, and we no doubt will be talking about what might happen next with Martha.
AIPT!: Can you maybe talk about that a little bit, or–
Gibbons: Well, you know, we’ve both had the experience of having our creations made into movies, and possibly TV series’ as well. You know, I do think Martha has got a lot of relevance nowadays. There has been… there has been some interest, so we’re really, you know, going to pursue that, and see if there’s a way it could be done that is faithful to the character and that works in another medium.