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Things I Have Learned

Jeffrey Lewis On Watchmen And His Love Of Comics
The Quietus , March 17th, 2009 08:29

Jeffrey Lewis talks to The Quietus about why Watchmen used to terrify him, and his love of the comic. Interview by Mairi Mackay

My parents were beatniks

It's true that we had no TV and it's also true I wasn't exactly an outdoors athlete type, so naturally I spent a lot of time reading books and comics and doing drawings. But … maybe I would have gotten into comics anyway.

One of the first comics I drew was Humanoid Atomic Samurai Squirrels

I did about five issues when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. It was a series that ripped off the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think the first actual full comic stories I remember drawing as complete books were when I was about 10 years old.

Graphic novels are just comic books

It's just a marketing term used to get comic books stocked in bookstores. Kind of like how New Wave was a term to help market Punk.

Most people still don’t realise how good Watchmen is

It's still a high watermark for brilliance in terms of the way it was all put together. It hasn't stopped being a bestseller in 20 years, so I imagine it'll keep revealing its secrets to people for a long time to come.

It grossed me out when I first read it

I guess I was about 13, I saw a sign for a poster-drawing contest so I entered and did a poster, the theme of the competition was "Say No to Drugs". Later I found out I won first place, though actually I was sharing first place with another kid. So we split the $100 first prize 50-50. I spent my 50 bucks on comic books (although if it had been a few years later I probably would have spent the winnings on drugs), one of which was the big collection of Watchmen. I'd heard it was supposed to be good and "mature," which was a bit scary for me. And it really was too "mature" for me, all the extreme violence and brutality grossed me out and I didn't understand the story at all.

The Comedian stands for political ugliness

If the 50s in the Watchmen comic stands for a simpler happier time of absolute values where superheroes indulged in street-level heroics and where good is good and evil was punished. Then, the 80s is a time of lost innocence where simple evils had turned into political ugliness and The Comedian more than any other character in Watchmen is a symbol of the worldwide arena of tangled politics and ambiguous morals. He’s one of the characters that really makes us ask ourselves who is supposed to keep an eye on those who are keeping an eye on us.

The smiley face is symbolic

Watchmen’s iconic smiley face with blood dripping over one eye is a symbol of obscured vision in the comic. The symbolic covering of one eye – usually the right one – is a symbol that pops up again and again in the comic and often ironically juxtaposed with dialogue which shows a character in some way not seeing the truth.

Liking Watchmen is bit like being into prog rock

For some of my friends the idea of reading Alan Moore is totally unhip. It reminds me a bit of how people in the 70s must have had arguments with their friends about the merits of young, fresh, raw punk rock vs. far more technically complex "better" music which just wasn't as cool or exciting. Of course both ways can be great. I've got plenty of both Jethro Tull AND the Dead Kennedys AND N.W.A, which is pretty normal these days. I think when it comes to music most people do tend to listen to everything and not be as clique-y. Maybe it just seems that way since I'm out of high school. But the comic book divide is kinda more prevalent - it's less likely to find people who love both Peepshow AND Sandman.

Watchmen seems like a new book every time

I have no exact memory of the first time I read Watchmen but over the years I’ve read and re-read it and every time I thought I had it figured out I’d got back and read it and it would seem like a new book. It’s good to return to Watchmen even if it’s just to see how much effort can go into comics. It’s a great piece of art but it’s not the only way to make comic books.

Indie comics are my thing these days

A lot of the comics I'm currently into, and that my comic-reading friends are into are the black and white indie comics that are often mostly reality-based and sometimes quite basic in the approach to art and writing. Which is not to say the emotional impact and artistic amazingness isn't just as good as more complex stuff.

Eightball by Dan Clowes is one of the best comic series ever

It is probably among the best comic series ever, though it seems to have stalled out after about 20 issues, but it was really hitting a peak back in the mid to late 90s. But, there's no objective answer to what the greatest ever comic book ever is. I couldn’t tell you that any more than I could tell you what the greatest movie or greatest novel ever written is, or what the greatest album of all time is. But there are so many different comics that are great in different ways. Little Nemo In Slumberland is still pretty flabbergasting to read even after 100 years, though totally different from what makes Alan Moore's best stuff great, like A Small Killing or V For Vendetta.

Drawing comics is hard

It's a lot easier to read them than draw them! But I guess if I was on my deathbed I'd be prouder of ones that I drew than ones that I read.

Comics make can make people angry

In some situations people have been mad about how they end up depicted in my comics. As far as I'm concerned it's just total honesty, I certainly don't go out of my way to smear anybody and I'm probably always the one who ends up seeming the worst in my real-life comics.

Illustrated songs started as a gimmick

About 2001 some guy was gonna hire me to illustrate his songs, which first sparked the idea. I figured I'd be better off illustrating my own songs, since I had all these songs that were narrative stories and then, it meant I could show the art at my shows. Back then I was really going out of my way to make every show completely different, and the illustrated songs were just one of many gimmicks. But it really made sense for me and I kept on doing them till now it's just become a standard facet of what I do. I almost never do a show without including one or two of them. I've got about 30 done now.

It’s almost amazing people read comics at all

It's a very obsolete form of entertainment. It was originally sort of on a par with radio theatre which obviously barely exists as a medium nowadays, what with video games and TV and internet etc taking up whatever extra time people have for entertainment in their lives. On the other hand, people still seem to read books. But there are a lot more truly great books in the world than truly great comics - if there were more great comics more people would read them, that's just the natural way of things.