Artist Dave Gibbons made comic book history with writer Alan Moore when the two collaborated on Watchmen, the 1986 masterpiece that many hail as the most important work in the history of the medium. Watchmen was so sprawling, so intricately suited to its medium, that it was considered un-adaptable to the screen — but Hollywood tried anyway with a feature film in 2009 by Zack Snyder. The results were, at best, mixed.
Now Hollywood is trying again. Filming has been underway with a 2019 premiere planned for a Watchmen series on HBO from executive producer Damon Lindleof (The Leftovers, Lost) with an A-list cast led by Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson and Louis Gossett Jr.
Gibbons is part of a New York Comic Con panel right now to promote the new adaptation and look back on the magnum opus, but Deadline caught up with him beforehand a quick conversationl. (Moore, meanwhile, continues his somewhat reclusive ways and resistance to any new iterations or revisitations to the original work.)
Gibbons told Deadline he is enthused about the HBO project in part because it is not a straightforward adaptation — it is shares a name with the original work but tells a story that veers away from it and exists on its own.
“The original is something that we always saw as standing alone and it never in our mind required prequels or sequels or homages or pastiches or anything like that,” Gibbons said. “It isn’t that we thought it should be treated with great reverence, it’s just that we thought: If you’ve done something right just leave it alone.”
In recent years, DC Comics returned to the Watchmen universe to publish prequels and supplemental stories following the characters created by Moore and Gibbons. Again the results were mixed, but Gibbons was philosophical about the new visitations to a place many fans consider holy ground.
“I think as happens with all works that are around long enough and are successful enough, that people do want to explore things further. As far as this new one, TV clearly is the medium of the moment. It’s where the preeminent and most exciting areas for telling stories of the moment. The fact that Damon Lindleof has found a way to bring Watchmen into that area and do it with something I consider exciting, entertaining and absolutely worthwhile on the subject matter? I think that’s great.”
Gibbons said this new journey into the dystopian universe where superheroes have dark private lives and are publicly outlawed is the sort of project that is ideal for HBO which has shown with Game of Thrones that it can handle the storytelling expeditions that others consider unmanageable.
“It does pursue the idea of an alternative reality. And that’s essentially what Watchmen was [in its original comics form], an alternate-reality story. I think what’s happening with the TV version is it presents yet another variation. And while I’ve only read the screenplay — and I can’t speak to the tone or the way the things been shot — I’d say the reality it inhabits is one that feels quite authentic. It’s not here, it’s not now, it’s something slightly sideways.”
The original comics were published in 1986, and they present a story opens in New York City in that same year. As the epic unfolds it gradually reveals that its characters live in a very different version of America with a history that followed a different course. (For one thing, instead of Ronald Reagan the man in the White House is Richard M. Nixon in his fourth term.) The differences can be traced to the costumed heroes who, over decades, tilted geo-political affairs and culture in ways both dramatic and subtle.
“Once we got carte blanche to create the characters we wanted to create [and tell a story separated from the familiar DC Comics mythology] we thought: ‘Well we might as well create our own world and our own reality to fit the story,’ ” Gibbons said. “That let us investigate things that had never been addressed in superhero comics before. Clearly, if there was a Superman in the world — or an equivalent counterpart, like our Dr. Manhattan — the world and its history would be completely different. and in ways that were disturbing and disquieting.”
Watchmen isn’t the only strange and unnerving vision of America that Gibbons co-created with a legendary collaborator. Gibbons and Frank Miller (creator of Sin City, 300 and Ronin) teamed up for Give Me Liberty, which in 1990 introduced Martha Washington, a young African-American native of the Chicago projects whose odyssey takes her through the war and tumult of surreal America where corporations have standing armies.
Gibbons and Miller have returned to the character over the years to chronicle her life and times and, among comics fans and Hollywood producers, the property is one that feels ripe for a screen adaptation. Asked about the prospects, Gibbons chuckled and measured his words.
“I have to be careful how much I say but to answer your question I think all your Martha dreams may come true and reasonably soon,” he said. “There’s nothing signed and guaranteed at this minute but we are all very excited.”