No End in Sight: The Exclusive with 'Watchmen' Co-Creator John Higgins
Watchmen co-creator John Higgins talks about his opus Razorjack and his road to self-mastery as a comics creator's creator.
In preparation, I reach for what I know. A handful of hours before the interview I pick my copy of Watchmen, but also my copies of Hellblazer: Son of Man and Hellblazer: Haunted.
Watchmen is every bit as psychologically vivid, as psychologically raw as when I first read it as a teenager. Many forget that at its heart, Watchmen is the story of murder investigation. As a work of crime noir, it's as much about cerebral engagement with the world, as it is about the emotional grinding of having to investigate a murder while under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. After just a few pages of reading, I flip to my favorite part. It's a confession scene of sorts, but not to the crime. The Comedian has broken into Moloch's apartment. He speaks openly about how broken his life has become. There's no context to this scene yet. We only get the full context much later in the book -- the Comedian has just uncovered a plot to murder half of New York to force world peace. What makes this scene so purely immortal is John Higgins' play with color. The Comedian offers up his confession while, in alternating panels, the bright neon lights of New York bathe the room in emotion.
Some 13 years later, during a year-long run on Hellblazer, Higgins' psychologically vivid caricaturing, and emotionally-driven draftsmanship comes into even sharper focus. Taking over artwork duties rather than inking, Higgins shows us a John Constantine and a London that summons those moments in Dickens that wouldn't seem out of place in Poe.
It's no surprise then, that when we do talk, even about his daily practices that structure his creativity, that there's a kind of steel to John Higgins. "It is probably an age thing, but I feel I have so many ideas inside me that I want to express in art or prose, that I find no day is long enough or find there are enough days in the week. I usually start at 6.00 am trundle down to the studio at the bottom of my garden, feeding and watering the birds on the way, depending on what season it is, I stop and smell the flowers. Then I boot up all the computers.
"My best work day is just doing art of one sort or another, then I might feel as if I have achieve something. If I have distractions such as email, phone or even worse a meeting, I feel twitchy and unfulfilled. I have one caffeine packed coffee a day around 11.00 am, lunch with Sally Jane my colorist/designer about 2.00 pm then work till 8.00 pm with a mid afternoon break 4.00ish. That is usually it, seven days a week.
"If Sally Jane and I do take time off, it is a joy to walk down to the shore and have a coffee later in the day at break time. Living by the sea is a constant reminder of the eternality of nature, the sea on the darkest days pulses and heaves, heavy and dark. On sunny days sparkles and scintillates in ways that enter deep down inside your heart, making you feel blessed to be able to view the perfection of the greatest work of art ever, nature."
It's near the end of our second session, and we're already winding up. Although I can't see it, I imagine there must be a glint his eye. This is a wistful turn from just a moment ago when that fires of a sudden and certain determination flared. "Then I boot up all the computers," Higgins had said, and that was that. The start of something.
But that's not actually what Higgins is just dying to talk about. The story that's bursting to get out is actually the secret conclusion to an anecdote from the end of our first session. We'd gotten into talking about emotionally poignant moments from Higgins' past and he'd shared a story that can only be Da Vincian in scope. One night in a mortuary, it begins… Da Vincian in scope but not the Da Vinci we recognize mind, not the wizened old master busily sketching away in his studio. But the younger Da Vinci, who still hadn't proven himself, and only had his grand ideas and hubris as currency.
That burning ambition that ends in a drive to self-evolution is where we begin. I picked up on a sincere compliment paid by Mark Millar, comics auteur behind Marvel's the Ultimates and his own creator-owned Kick Ass. Millar said of Higgins, "John Higgins sickens me. He an write, pencil, ink and color, all seemingly effortlessly. Had he just performed neuro-surgery on a young child this morning, too, I would not be at all surprised."
"Ha ha, that was a doozie of a compliment. When I started my career as a freelance artist, book covers and editorial illustration was my mainstay of work, I also fitted in animation and medical illustration. I found if I turned my hand to all forms of illustration as a work for hire professional, you kept working, I took anything on.
"Fully painted comics, which was the reason I got into comics had more or less stopped at that time as being too expensive. But I retained the -- take anything on -- attitude, which is how I got to do the coloring for the Watchmen, not many comic artists did their own coloring then, as most comics were either black and white or the color was done in house.
"What I love the most about comic art more than any other form of illustration, is obviously the storytelling aspect, but also the adventurous ways you can design a picture, to make the most mundane image interesting, close ups, unexpected cropping and extreme perspective, All to give a dramatic impetus to a panel illustration which then tells a better story. With the added dimension of color you can dictate and guide how a reader responds to the scene.
"This became even more of a 'science' when I colored the Watchmen. The way Alan and Dave had told the story gave it such depth and complexity that I had to raise my game as the colorist. In many ways because of the almost archaic comic production process in 1986, such as the hand separation of the color, it became more relevant to the storytelling than the traditional use of hand sep' color.
"The use of color to accentuate a scene came out of those limitations. If we had the color palette we have at our finger tips now - with computers. The color would not have had so much resonance. This was why when we digitalized the Absolute Watchmen in 2005, Dave made the editorial decision not to modernize it and we stuck to the purity of the color we had in the original printing, I just cleaned it up, added some modeling and caught continuity errors that had happened in the original run.
"Initially I did want to color the Absolute Watchmen in the modern style, but now I think Dave was completely right in this decision for the book. In 2011 I illustrated and colored a limited run of Watchmen prints and did a modern color take on them. The Rorschach print in particular gets a lot of comments."
Higgins embodies a sense of always learning, always pushing the envelope, constantly evolving. It's almost unique psychology, one that reframes experience as an educational paradigm. And it's this sense of the world being a perpetual opportunity for education that makes reading his preliminary opus, Razorjack such an intriguing read.
Republished in a gorgeous new volume by Titan Comics, Razorjack tells the story of a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future at two speeds. Both the brutal nature of existence in the future, and the almost incidental, trivial machinations in our world today that cause that future. Reading Higgins' Razorjack is truly an immersive experience. You'd have to go back as far as Will Eisner (or possibly B. Krigstein) to find works that simply surround with their creativity as Razorjack does. You'll try to analyze it, so you'll look at the dialogue and you'll be convinced that dialogue as flawless and as pitch perfect as this must have come first. And that the art and the plot must simply be a vehicle for the dialogue. But analyze the artwork, or analyze the plot and you'll easily reach exactly the same conclusion about those elements. Razorjack is something incredibly rare in comics, it appears as something fully-formed, irreducible, accomplished.
When the conversation wends its way Razorjack and that sense of interior unity, I bring up the question of that sense of "completed-ness". In response, Higgins offers, "It grew organically! Which I hope shows the 'strength' of a writer/artist. The story and art bounce back and forth making the pictures more complete and complimentary to the writing and then I returned again to the writing as the texture of the world and characters became more visually solid.
If you are fortunate and have a close working relationship with a writer or an artist and collaborate closely you throw ideas back and forth in that way and the story grows. This is what I had intended when I started working with Len Wein on 'Curse of the Crimson Corsair' in Before Watchmen. I have done it with a number of writers over my career and I love that aspect of creating an illustrated story, but to have no one else to reflect off gave Razorjack a singular vision. I should have been intimidated by it all, as it is a lot more fun to do it with a collaborator and you do have a sort of safety net. But the timing was right and my desire to be honest to my vision kept me going right or wrong and thankfully a number of people feel I did get it more right than not.
Razorjack became flesh with my very first complete depiction of the evil bitch which appears on the cover of Titan Comics collected edition. I wanted that sense of armored might, the SWAT team passing through what appears to be a vulnerable naked female, but the expression on her face belies that she might be anything but vulnerable.
My skill base has grown over the years since her first inception, and with the new stories, one written by the phenomenal Michael Carroll, book author and comics writer who is writing Jennifer Blood for Dynamite Entertainment at the moment. I introduced elements I had not considered at her first appearance, as she has become a more rounded character and grown, I believe so has my skill base for expression in art or writing."
But at the level of theme, Razorjack cuts and even deeper swathe than simply Higgins' continued evolution. Its high concept is as ambitious as the scope of the Terminator series of movies, TV shows and comics--an all-out war for the bleakest possible future, but one fought in the past. In the dystopian future presented in Razorjack a back-slide into barbarism opens the door for the cruelest, most tyrannical force imaginable. Once ushered into existence, this force, Razorjack, attempts to ensure her existence by contriving events in the past.
What's crucial to Razorjack is Higgins' dogged exploration of the full scope of fatalism, apocalypse culture, and teleology. On this question, he offers, "I probably felt 'terminal world gloom' from growing up in the '60s; MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) the nuclear threat, was the dark cloud that permeated all of western society, throughout my child and young adulthood, my favorite reading was the post apocalyptic SF novel, so when I got the opportunity to tell my story, it has that dark thread of terminal gloom running through it.
"Both periods you mention seem to my jaded eye, a typical cyclic rise and fall of western society with the seeds of the next fall already sown. The fear a large portion of society placed on the cross over from one millennium to the next was an opportunity for people to consider their mortality in the context of a world wide event. The financial crash was just as inevitable as the millennium, and for more people than the numbers who considered the millennium as moment of global crisis, the financial crisis has had an impact that is life changing for whole communities and countries.
"As with Nostradamus I felt the Mayan calendar ending did not have the strength to be as all pervading as the millennium or the financial crash. I think my terminal world gloom seem appropriate to the sensibilities of an anticipation of a dark period. I believe with that approach, Razorjack should be an escape from everyday life and an antidote to the realities outside our control that impinge on our well being. Living in Razorjack's world is a lot worse than living here, but you can escape the Twist Dimensions by closing the book. But then, when you close your eyes, just like Freddie, 'she' will be looking at you, asking - 'let me in!'"
A response like that certainly begs the further question of what influences Higgins might allow himself to be subject to. I frame the question with an observation of my own, something that goes back further than Razorjack. Higgins' work has always seemed psychologically vivid to me, in the way that Poe's is, or Hemingway's or specifically, Thompson's, Jim not Hunter. I put this to Higgins and he responds, "Wow, thank you for that Shathley. One of my all time favorite authors. Many writers say, 'once you have no idea where your characters will go next, then they have taken on a life of their own and become something more.' I felt at a certain point, within the structure of the over arching plot, my characters became real for me. They constantly surprised me with the detail of their involvement in the story. I could not imagine when I first started, how all encompassing real Razorjack, Twist Bitches, Frame and Ross would become.
"I wish I could give you a list of my influences, but if I open a newspaper and see an image, open a book or comic, and the story or art moves me, that will influence me. As much as to try harder, to improve as an artist or writer, as to take anything in particular from one writer or artist. I look outside of comics, as much as I enjoy comics, books feed me, fine gallery artists draw emotions from me that puts me in touch with an artist who might have lived and died generations ago. But the one person who influence me more than any other creator right from the beginning of my interest in comics is Richard Corben and he will always be a touchstone of excellence for me."
But by the end of our first session already, I'm curious to know about Higgins' formative experiences. So I jump to that question even before we get to the questions about Razorjack.
"Ha ha, thanks for that question Shathley, it gives me the opportunity to get all nostalgic. I believe you never have an age when you start learning how to be an artist, it is in you or its not, but I suppose my formal training started in Singapore when I was 17 and went to art classes in the evening, the most important lesson I learnt then was to look between, under and around shapes to get the form and not just look at the form. And the use of shadow to give depth and solidity.
"Maybe the second lesson I learnt was not to get drunk and go to Johnny Gurkha's to get a tattoo that I had drawn my self. I did not consider how stupid it would look on my skin. Next con I'm at, ask to see my stupid, stupid tattoo.
"Back in the UK I went to Art College, at that time you could get a full grant or bursary, it was not a lot of money but it gave me the opportunity to go to college full time with my mother's additional support on her tight budget. I was fortunate to have two tutors who thought comics and SF illustration was a valid genre of art and gave me great support when I explored those avenues. I also discovered, looking at reproductions of Leonard Da Vinci's sketch books, the visceral (excuse the pun) pleasure of drawing gross anatomy, gross as in anything under the skin. His depictions of the bodies he had dissected as he strived to understand what makes us what we are had a profound effect on me. Once you understand form follows function so many things make sense and shapes fell into place, and not just with the human form.
"My college supported my quest to learn more about anatomy and sent me to take anatomy classes at the University of Liverpool Faulty of Medicine and at this moment in time 30 years later, I have just had a revelation, thank you again Shathley.
"I now realized were my leaning toward the depiction of 'body horror' comes from. The first time I had ever seen a dead body was when I was taken to see the Medical School's refrigerated morgue, to walk in and see up to fifty bodies stacked like kindle wood on top of each other, pile on haphazard pile of naked formaldehyde flesh, the shock of it hit me almost like a physical blow. Then later to see the dissection of a human being over weeks being slowly reduced sliver by flesh sliver down to the bone, has been a memory catalogue for any time I need to depict 'body horror'. At the time of course it was not intended to be horror, but the pursuit of understanding, for future doctors and done with complete respect. I have too much imagination.
"My training carried on after college when I took up a position at a Medical art department in a London Hospital, to learn more about the human body was a gift to an artist who has made his career out of depicting the human form. Operations and autopsies were a feature of my time there. I am trying to decide about one anecdote concerning the mortuary technician we had toward the end of my time at the hospital … mmm no. Sorry Shathley, I can't tell it. He was sacked just a couple of weeks after being hired after it was discovered what he did. But if you come up to me at a con and ply me with my favorite drink, a pint of Guinness, you might get it out of me!"
Of course, that's where the first session ends, but not without John burning to tell the whole story by the start of our next session. "I just realised I can't leave the mortuary anecdote hanging," he tells me "It was discovered the new technician had moved into the morgue and was sleeping on a dissection table and eating there. There goes all those free pints."