Dave Gibbons on his ‘Watchmen’ guilt, ‘Secret Service’ ambitions

April 10, 2012 | 3:38 p.m.

The first issue of “The Secret Service” arrives Wednesday from the very intriguing tandem of writer Mark Millar (“Kick-Ass,” “Wanted”) and artist David Gibbons (“Watchmen,” “Give Me Liberty”), and we’ve got some preview pages in the gallery above (you can view larger versions below). We caught up with Gibbons in a transatlantic phone call to talk about the new work and the echoes of a certain 1980s masterpiece that is back in the news these days.

HC:  “The Secret Service” gets off to quite a start in this first issue. What are you finding most interesting about the project so far?

DG: It’s slightly unusual in that it’s not a superhero book, and I’m really pleased it isn’t a superhero book, we’ve got enough of those. That isn’t to say that this is not a book about heroes or some larger-than-life situations. It is. I think it’s a refreshing take on it, although, and a little bit of a social document. Much in the way “Kick-Ass” contrasted everyday kids with the superhero life, this kind of contrasts everyday, low-class British life with the possibilities of the James Bond life, I suppose you could say.

"Give Me Liberty" (Dark Horse Comics)

HC: You’ve had a lot of experience in comics that veer away from the superhero center of comics — the Martha Washington character in “Give Me Liberty,” for example, or Doctor Who and Rogue Trooper. The story of Martha, too, presented her as someone with a foot in the lower-class mean streets who found herself drafted into the wars of the fantastic.

DG: With Martha Washington, [collaborator] Frank Miller and I were coming off of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen,” respectively, and if we had done a comic book about retired superheroes we would have sold millions, no doubt. That was never really the idea with Martha. It was kind of interesting, because it started off kind of gritty and slightly depressing, and then it became a much-larger-than-life kind of thing, and that was mainly because I decided I didn’t want to do a depressing comic. It gave it a bizarre kind of verisimilitude because it felt like the future of our world where one outlandish and scary thing happened on the heels of the last outlandish and scary thing. And, yes, there are some parallels now that I think about it, between Martha and the characters in “The Secret Service.”

HC:  Without giving too much away, what’s a specific character or relationship in “The Secret Service” that has intrigued you as an artist or storyteller?

DG: There’s the really interesting relationship between two characters. One is an older guy who is a very experienced and very successful secret operative. It’s about the relationship between him and his wayward nephew who is on the cusp of adulthood and hanging around some really bad people and it’s going to go completely the wrong way. It’s about this operative deciding to help his nephew and give him a chance and what the consequences are for their relationship and their individual destinies.

HC: If you look at Mark’s work, the ideas of dangerous inheritance and off-kilter, antihero mentoring are in both “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted” also.

DG: Yes, and when I look at Mark’s work, what I see is his ability to tap into basic psychological truths. If that sounds a little pretentious, what I mean to say is he has a really good grasp of character and a grasp of heroes and what it means to be seen as a hero. And what’s really refreshing for me is that he sees that in a way that is separate from that post-”Watchmen” and post-”Dark Knight” way. For many, many years, ["Watchmen" writer] Alan Moore and I felt guilty that we inflicted this kind of misery [of tone] on the comic book industry. And Mark’s work is in contrast to that, he’s very much in touch with the upbeat sides of what it means to be a hero. That’s something I hope we tap into on this project as well.

"Watchmen" cover. (DC Comics)

HC: That guilt you mentioned — you’re referring to a regret that “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight” shifted the creative community into a mode of the grim and the dystopian? Or something postmodern as far as superhero portrayals? 

DG: If Alan and I had done another major project together after that, the thing we had talked about was doing something bright and dreamlike, a Captain Marvel kind of thing that was kind of mythic and close to a fairy tale in a way. Alan did go on to do that with “Supreme” and other things.  It was never really our idea with “Watchmen” to say, “Here is how superhero comics ought to be.” It was just, “Here’s a possible way to tell this story that you haven’t seen before.” After that we were ready to see other ideas that we hadn’t seen before but instead we saw our own idea come back to us again and again. “Watchmen” sprang out of a love of superheroes too, we wouldn’t have spent so much time on it if we didn’t love the whole thing in the first place. But something was lost in the translation and some people thought, “Ah, black leather, stubble and a bad attitude, that’s the future of superhero comics.”

HC: “Watchmen” opened up this amazing new universe for readers, as did “Give me Liberty.” Do you prefer that as opposed to working on Superman, Green Lantern or other properties that tap into iconic mythologies but are also trapped within them?

DG: I’ve enjoyed in my time kind of playing with the toys in the DC Comics toy box. But I’m really pleased to be doing a creator-owned book now and a book that hopefully does break some kind of new ground. You eventually come to the conclusion that there’s only so much you can do with these established characters and you start wondering who among us will be the one to create the next Superman or Batman or James Bond or next Lone Ranger. I really like it when you can step outside of what’s come before and find a surprise for the reader and find a surprise for yourself.

– Geoff Boucher

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