With comics, I think you get the best of both worlds. [Discussing Watchmen in these terms] is all very clumsy because we are trying to formulate a language. There has been a certain amount of work done by the pioneers of the comics industry, but at this juncture we're still trying to come up with a narrative language of comic books, to try to establish some reference points of what comics are capable of. To give them a reason for being, quite simply.

In a comic, you can cram panels with all sorts of graffiti and references, little things like that Gordian Knot lock company and the Promethean cab company – information that doesn't relate directly to the action in the panel. You'd spend millions of dollars on set design trying to translate that to film.
Absolutely. And unlike in novels, you don't have to call attention to any of this stuff. There's no way you can do that in a novel without having descriptions of the background. A novel is all up in the foreground. The reader is made painfully aware of every detail. Because the author has to call attention to it or the reader is not aware of it. In comics, we can slip in this subliminal layer in the background. We don't have to mention it, but the reader will be slowly picking up the fact that the smily face is recurring in different incarnations throughout the book and the links between the Gordian Knot lock company, the Nodus Gordii Mountains on Mars – all these little links.

There are all types of comic-book artists' styles. Do you think that this requires a specific type of artist? Dave Gibbons's work has two particular strengths: it's reminiscent of film storyboards, with its fairly minute shifts in perspective, and he's very good at filling in precisely what type of detail you've mentioned without making it overbearing. Without really realizing it, the streetcorner [where much of the action of the series takes place] becomes a definite place – you know where the Gunga Diner is, you know what's across the street from it. It's very subtly done. And that's a unique talent that you don't see in ordinary comic artists.
Dave almost got to the point of building that streetcorner. It was certainly mapped. The ending sequence in issue number 11 was precisely choreographed: this is when the police car arrives down this road. It stops. The man selling watches sees the police cars, packs up his case, and he walks down to turn the corner opposite the Utopia Cinema. So when the bomb goes off, he's going to be just on the corner. And when we pull back from Madison Square Garden next issue, we'll be able to see all the strewn pocket watches – which will echo the pocket-watch motif that has been running all through the story. It's insane, obsessive detail. But everything – what was showing at the cinema, how long it would show for and when it would change to another film, how frequently the New Frontiersman would come out (which was daily), how frequently Nova Express comes out (weekly), when they arrive at the newsstand. The readers might not even notice most of these details. It's like the old Benedictine monks, who would engrave bricks. They'd also engrave the backs of the bricks – which no one would ever see. But they'd say, "Oh, we do that for the glory of God." That is basically why a great deal of the detail in Watchmen is there. It's for the glory of God. If I feel that I've got this concrete universe that actually works physically, then there's a very firm foundation to launch the wildest flights of fantasy from. Dave was an essential ingredient to that. Because I knew that Dave has the ability to pack an insane amount of perfectly lucid visual detail into a very small space, I suddenly realized there was a capacity here for doing what eventually became Watchmen.

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  •   BIG PICTURES  |  March 04, 2009
    Watchmen is that too rare work of popular entertainment, one that succeeds on many levels and that rewards your attention to every level it employs.
    The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen.

 See all articles by: M. HOWELL