With the British Library’s Comics Unmasked now underway, Steve Dinneen speaks to the renowned artist about the exhibition
ARTIST Dave Gibbons has had a career in comics spanning almost 40 years. He has drawn icons including Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America and Judge Dredd, as well as writing many other highly regarded comics. He has worked with industry legends including Stan Lee and Frank Miller, although he is best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore on the legendary Watchmen series. He gives us his take on the British comics scene.
WHAT IS THE APPEAL OF COMICS?
There is something primal about them. Scholars will point to pre-historic cave paintings to show there is something ancient about the notion of putting words and pictures together to tell a story. To me, it has always seemed a very natural form of expression. I’ve always thought of comics as being subversive – when I was at school they were frowned upon and that made me value them all the more. I went to a very traditional British school and I have a vivid memory of comics being dragged out of our desks and burned at break time. That was quite a formative experience for me. Many years later when my own son went to school, the English department found out I drew comics and they got me in to address the whole year. Comics have gone from being frowned upon to something that’s rightfully seen as a valid part of modern culture. If you go to San Diego in July there are 150,000 geeks and fans at Comic-Con. Things have changed a great deal. Something inside me regrets that comics aren’t still this grubby, private pleasure but nevertheless it’s great that somewhere as prestigious as the British Library would put on an exhibition about them.
WHAT MAKES THE COMICS WE PRODUCE FEEL DISTINCTLY “BRITISH”?
There is a streak in the British character that is very dismissive of authority and very sniffy about privilege – I suppose it’s something to do with class. In the US there tends to be an in-built respect for authority, whereas we slightly despise it.
WHY WERE YOUR CONTEMPORARIES SO SUCCESSFUL IN CONQUERING THE US?
It was a generational thing. My generation in England actually grew up loving comics and wanting to make them our life’s work. Previously people had drawn and written comics to tread water until they became a famous illustrator or painter or novelist and looked at comics as a lowly pursuit to make some money. It was our chosen form of expression, the summit of our ambition. People like Alan Moore and I kicked down the door and wonderfully talented people like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison were the rear guard.
WHAT DO YOU PREDICT FOR THE FUTURE OF COMICS?
Unlike a movie or an animation, it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce a comic. A single author can do the whole thing themselves through fairly economical means. And with the internet you can distribute to vast audiences for virtually no cost. A lot of people who would maybe not have got their work into print are doing it online, so the readership of comics is expanding.
There was a fear that people would read them on the internet and then not bother to go into shops and buy them. But the opposite has been true – new readers are getting hooked online and end up buying them. Comics also benefit from the fact they can be the blueprint for other media, be it movies or TV shows or games. You only have to look at the success of the Marvel movies – some of the biggest grossing films of all time – to see that the world of comics is continuing to thrive.
To find out more about the British Library's exhibition go to http://www.bl.uk/whatson/