Among the many painful, sometimes unanswerable, questions creative people are constantly asked are, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' or 'How do I become a comic artist?' (the subtext being, 'how do I get your job?').
But the one I hated most, for approximately nineteen years and five months, was, 'What does it feel like to have been involved in one of the most celebrated comics of the twentieth century?' The one answer I could not give until now is, 'Total embarrassment!'
In nineteen eighty-six Dave Gibbons first approached me to be involved with a new maxi series he and Alan Moore were about to start for DC. I had importantly (as back then my career in comics was only in its infancy) just completed my first fully-painted comic strip for the Judge Dredd Annual. So as much as I have always admired Dave's work, to be a colourist for it was just another job in amongst a variety of different strands of work I was doing at that time... Such as drawing the B/W Judge Dredd for 2000AD weekly, working in advertising illustration, painting covers for computer games magazines and doing children's book illustration. So at the time it did not appear to be a particularly important job.
The first time Dave and Alan had a Watchmen story brainstorm they invited me along. Instantly I started to understand that it was something completely different to anything I had been involved in before. As far as Dave and Alan were concerned they had wanted a full creative team approach right from the beginning, and that made me feel as fully a part of the Watchmen creative process as it was possible to be, being the junior member. I remember this all happening during one of the very first UKCAK conventions in London. Alan by this time was well into his creative stride and getting the sort of media attention that made it near impossible to find a quiet corner at the convention. We found a pub in the West End of London, The Royal Oak if I remember rightly. It was packed to the rafters with drinkers, so we went outside to the empty beer garden.
Being March in the UK it was damned cold, Alan and Dave talked all about the world of The Watchmen, the design approach, the characters, storylines and we touched on colour but other than for me to sit and listen to two comic masters talk there was not a lot I could do. My job was the colour, which would come at near the end of the creative process, but even at this early stage some colour guidelines were talked over. All along Alan and Dave wanted the Watchmen to be completely visually different to any other graphic magazine that was around at that time and of course that was achieved. One of the colour conversations I do remember concerned Doctor Manhattan, because he was made up of controlled energy in human form it was decided he should slightly affect his surroundings by casting a soft blue light a limited distance from his presence, I remember Alan and Dave trying to work out the optimum distance that it might affect objects. Yes it was that detailed! I had never up to that point been involved in a story that was so complex, usually working on copyrighted characters such as Superman and Batman, the character guidelines were strict and had a corporate approach, so to be onboard to see this creative deconstruction of superheroes was exhilarating.
My one major comment I do remember, and am proud to go down in the history of the Watchmen for, is as the teller of the first Watchmen joke. Interjecting into the conversation, after sitting in the freezing beer garden drinking cold beer, I told Alan and Dave, 'I feel a little like Doctor Manhattan.'
Dave and Alan's slightly confused response was 'Really, why?'
'Because my willy had just turned blue!'
OK, it might not be the best Watchmen joke but it was definitely the first.
I knew early on due to Alan and Dave's commitment to the detail and approach it was going to be different to anything else that had appeared in the Superhero genre. But I never knew, and I don't think anyone in the early days did know, how successful it was going to be. It was interesting to see how the company started to bend over backwards to accommodate the team once the early sales figures started to come in, and more than that, the critical acclaim. Most everything about it seemed to be right: the timing, we were getting the right sort of audience, the company were finally looking at creators as an important part of comics publishing and not just an exploitable commodity. Being that at this time there were a small number of like-minded writers and artists who, with Alan and Dave, were slowly changing the face of comic publishing. Not just in the content of the comics, but also more importantly, with rights and sharing remunerations which for the first time were starting to reflect the input of the creative team... except for the colourist!
This could be a time to explain my 'Total embarrassment!' statement. It wasn't actually due to my not sharing in the monetary success of The Watchmen, Alan and Dave had explained early on about the rights issue and had asked DC that I should share somehow in its success. But the company had nothing in place to accommodate this and even Dave and Alan's contract was a completely new deal. So I went into The Watchmen knowing my part was a work-for-hire job, and as I had said earlier, it was then 'just another job'. I do think, however, that DC's commitment to The Watchmen was total after a short time, and they did initially behave generously to me in relationship to The Watchmen's success. I got my flat-fee colouring page-rate, but they also surprised me by someone in DC's hierarchy arranging for me to receive a number of additional ex-gratia payments during the first year it was being produced, which did endear me to DC Comics for a long time.
So no, it was not seeing The Watchmen in constant print for twenty years, and fans coming up over the years and saying, 'Wow, you must be doing all right with all the reprint royalties.' And me through clenched teeth, saying. 'Nope not really!' It was something else.
But on to more of the creative 'fun' part of comics publishing. Or the hell-on-Earth part if you are working on a regular scheduled book, as the deadline starts to get closer and closer. Dave had a six week turn around for each issue, and even now, when I look at the amount of detail in The Watchmen, find it hard to believe that he did pencils, inks and lettering in that time! What a professional. Being the colourist and the last in the creative line did put deadline pressure on me, but my being so close to Dave's studio made it a lot easier than it might have been. My part started as soon as Dave gave me a phone call to come to his studios in St Albans, England. He handed me the reduced black and white photocopies of each page and, if I didn't already have it, the script. He would give me a coffee and a chocolate biscuit or two; I'd say hello to Kate his wife and Dan his son. After a while I used to bring my daughter Jenna around, she and Dan would play up stairs. They were about six or seven and I never really worried about this, until Dan went to University to study medicine to be come a doctor! But then Jenna became an Arborist and not a nurse, so...! Dave would show me his new collection of Lieutenant Blueberry comic albums or any of a multitude of new European comic imports or books about graphic arts he had just received. It was a most enjoyable and highly stimulating social evening. We would go over the art and to be only the third person to see the completed art and to read that new issue was a huge thrill for me.
Dave and Alan might have colour suggestions for something specific in a chapter such as, a red flashing neon sign, so I had to work out how to incorporate those colour ideas into what I had in each issue. This might sound simple and I might be a bit dense, but boy it did start to create colour conundrums very early on. But more so as the story unfolded in all is complex brilliance. For example in issue one, Rorschach takes the sugar cubes from Daniel's kitchen and in issue eleven he drops a sugar wrapper in the Antarctic snow! So do you do it the same colour as in Daniel's kitchen under hard strip lighting against hard edges and the primary colours of the units or allow the wane artic light to affect its tone, is it falling into a white snow drift or a shadowed one? Yes, the madness of The Watchmen detail had bitten me well before I reach issue eleven. But initially I didn't make colour notes of every sugar cube wrapper, light switch or Gunga Diner take away box on the ground. But I should have!
Seeing Dave and Alan's commitment to the project at work, I had to be completely honest to their vision of the world of The Watchmen. I used my choice of colour to complement and accentuate the art first and foremost, but also to enhance the mood and sense of drama of the story. One prime example would be the Rorschach episode, the opening scenes of Rorschach/Walter in prison talking to the psychiatrist. The issue started with sunny early morning light streaming into the prison room as the psychiatrist in a bright and breezy manner tried to get through to Rorschach, to cure him. As the story unfolds and the horror of Rorschach's life start to permeate the story, the colours start to darken and reflect the sense of corruption and despair that created Rorschach. I tried to use colour in this way through out the series, and to go beyond what was usually done in American comics at that time. I had a number of conversations with Dave as to why I had coloured such-and-such a scene in that way and according to Dave - in a conversation only last year for the new digital repackaging of Absolute Watchmen - in 1986 when he initially saw some of the more 'Watchmenesque' colouring choices I made that may have surprised him, I always had a reason and an explanation of why I coloured it in that way, and he always accepted the explanation, it wasn't just because it was a nice colour combination.
Now onto my 'Total embarrassment!' statement. How dare I be or even acknowledge my embarrassment to be involved with The Watchmen the most exciting and innovative comic of that period, for approximately nineteen years and five months? Well I dare! I dare!
Whenever one completes a creative endeavour, one always thinks of how it could be improved or can only see the mistakes one might have made. The same was true of the Watchmen, plus, timed, multiplied and squared. The Watchmen in a colouring sense was a major learning curve for me as a colour artist because of its size and its complexity and the sugar wrapper conundrums. Due to the complexity of the story other chromatic challenges arose. For instance I might have done a pleasing colour combination in a particular scene in any one chapter. Only later on when replacing part of it back into the story, as a flashback as just one part of a different scene, it could change its visual colour perception in a detrimental way. That and other similar colour moments are examples that I have kept on seeing for nineteen years and five months. Okay, those I could tolerate. But what I found unbearable was the really limited, almost primitive, printing format we had to live with pre-computer colouring. It had probably not changed since the nineteen thirties when the first superhero four-colour comics appeared. To have an imperfect reproduction of my colour ideas was very galling.
A very brief colour history to all you who now can print in your own homes near perfect facsimiles of any colour art you can imagine: In nineteen eighty-six everything was done by hand. I coloured the black and white copies of Dave's pages with watercolour, and then marked the equivalent printing ink combination for each colour. So for Rorschach's brown overcoat it would be Y3M2C1. Then that page would be sent to hand separators who would do up to twelve separate acetate overlays for each page to create a four-colour effect. Also every colour and every percentage tone within that colour had hard edges, so no matter how subtle I tried to be with the colour, what I was trying to get from my mind to the printed page was getting confused before it had even been printed. Also we found early on when we had the new option of using tones of grey, we should not have used them on the first couple of issues, but this we unfortunately only found out once they had seen print!
So there you have it. I have had to live with all the mistakes, colour conundrums and printing limitations on one of the most seminal graphic stories of the Twentieth Century. For approximately nineteen years and five months I couldn't admit it. Until twenty years later, now that we finally have the definitive digitally-coloured Watchmen in the 2005 DC/Wildstorm Absolute Watchmen edition.
What you will see in the 2005 edition is what I had always intended The Watchmen colour to be, but due to the printing limitations of the period you never saw it before. Believe me, to get the opportunity to work on the computer colour files, to finally get rid of the grey tone, to consolidate the colour conundrums, to tie all the colour threads into one united whole, was a joy. At last! Not many artists get this opportunity, ever, but at nineteen years and five months? Unheard of! I need to thank everyone at DC for sticking with this project to make it possible. The colourists at Wildstorm for giving me perfect facsimile colour files of the original flat colour for me to work on. The production department at DC, under Alison Gill in particular, who gave me full access to their computers and printer's-proofs to do final checks, to ensure there where no more 'colour conundrums'. Scott Dunbier of Wildstorm without which it might not ever have happened. Also, allowing for my bitching about the limitations of the printing process all those years ago, a big thank you to all those unsung original hand-separators who worked on The Watchmen and did try to make my near impossible demands appear on the printed pages.
And of course to Dave and Alan who all along had wanted to make The Watchmen a team effort and Dave in particular being the person I was in close creative contact with from day one to today. Without his support and input I would not be here to finally write about how proud I am to be involved with The Watchmen.
-- John Higgins.Dave and John are still working together and have just completed a mini series for DC/Wildstorm called Thunderbolt Jaxon. The story goes on!
This article appears in an Italian Book charity book. Watchmen: 20 anni dopo (Watchmen: 20 years after). 12 essays (written for the occasion) with a number of Watchmen illustrations by well-known international artists. Lavieri Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org. 15 euro (+ shipping costs).