Before Watchmen's John Higgins Talks Curse of the Crimson Corsair

John Higgins, a longtime contributor to the UK's popular 2000 AD comics magazine and a prolific [...]

John Higgins, a longtime contributor to the UK's popular 2000 AD comics magazine and a prolific artist in his own right, is best known to most fans as the colorist behind Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal superhero epic Watchmen. He's also, along with series editor Len Wein, working on The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, a backup story that runs through all seven of this summer's Before Watchmen miniseries and is being collected for free on DC's website. The story is a callback to The Curse of the Black Freighter, the heavily-stylized "pirate story" that ran through the original Watchmen. Freighter was an in-story comic book, being read by one of the characters in Watchmen, which served as a kind of thematic parallel to the story but was not actually "happening" in the context of the world of Watchmen. In that world, it was explained, the existence of real-life superheroes had compromised fan interest in reading their stories in comic books, and other genres (notably pirate comics) took over the medium in their absence. Higgins joined to talk about The Curse of the Crimson Corsair and the perks and challenges of being the only creator whose name has been on every book ever to say "Watchmen." I remember when the Watchmen feature film came out, and there was a lot of talk about the "pirate story." It ran the gamut from "It isn't Watchmen without it" to "Don't you dare." Whose idea was it for you guys to take on a new interpretation of the idea in Curse of the Crimson Corsair? DC as far as I know, Dan Didio was the person who approached me with the idea of my involvement and Len came up with the title. This "pirate story," though, is very different from the first, right? As the colorist you have to have a very different take on this, versus the self-consciously retro look of the original. The style in which the Crimson Corsair stuff is done actually has very little in common with the Black Freighter, other than the fact that the pair of them are both pirate stories. Did the variety of art styles at play in Before Watchmen give you a little more leeway to draw it like yourself and not feel like you have to synch up with the lead features?

What we had done with the original Tales, to differentiate from the main body of the story, was a lot simpler as it was one artist and one style, so we used color to make the design difference. The variety of artist styles in Before Watchmen titles dictated a different approach. So I decided to treat it as "super real" and not to approach it as a "fictional publication" read in the Before Watchmen world, just a slight mind shift that did release me in a creative sense. So rather than the original nine-panel grid, or any classic comic "period" style I went for the more modern "IMAX" immersive graphic style, so you have drop panels, within panels, the more "importance" a scene has in the dramatic unfolding of the story, that would dictate the composition or size of the panel and so on. Then, using the color to make an immediate visual impact to separate Curse of the Crimson Corsair from the main story. My main concern was to ensure you get drawn into this world rather than be distancing by using a clever design element that would just be an intellectual storytelling conceit, that would distract the reader from the story. So far, we've seen the subtitle "Devil in the Deep" on both issues released. Will that be the subtitle of the eventual collected edition, and so the one used on all of the backup features, or will there be more than one as you get past the length of what would ordinarily be a single-issue comic? You got it. I love the subtitles Len has come up with for the story Chapters, and his VO and dialogue has an evocative sense of period English without it jarring on our minds ear. As with the subtitles, I think it has the essence of classic Pirate story sensibilities, but neatly counter points my "modern" approach to composition and panel layout, I wanted to make the Curse of the Crimson Corsair story have a broader appeal and to be able to stand alone as an exciting story, than just be there to service the other stories. You're the only creator whose name will, by the time all is said and done, have appeared on every Watchmen issue published, right? I mean, there's Len, but he was on editorial and not creative the first time around. That said, was it tempting to credit this to Tony Orlando or whomever it was that the Black Freighter story was supposed to have been done by?

Ha ha, nice one. Maybe to also give a credit to Max Shea! The way I saw Curse of the Crimson Corsair, in the context of a Watchmen world was to think along the lines of; with the success of Tales of the Black Freighter in the Watchmen world, every other publisher along with DC would produce more pirate-based stories, so it is not strictly a Tales of the Black Freighter story. In the Watchmen world, we would have had a large number of artists and writers creating many different stylistic approaches to a multitude of Pirate publications. Of course, the one most critically acclaimed after Tales of the Black Freighter was Curse of the Crimson Corsair by John Higgins and Len Wein. Thank you for pointing out my singular connection to Watchmen, I never thought about it in that context before. I know I did feel that sense of comics history when I digitally re-mastered the Watchmen for the Absolute edition and full credit to Dave Gibbons in particular and DC at that time, that felt sticking to the full original team had an importance and relevance 20 years after the first publication, particularly in light of how much color production had changed in that time. Ironically, the thing that I thought of when I first saw the style and the colors on this story was Palmiotti & Gray's All-Star Western. Then I remembered that you've worked with them on Jonah Hex before. Was there a similar approach between the two projects or is that just me projecting? Just you projecting, but thank you for the acknowledgement of my other work as most people still see me as "just" the Watchmen colorist. Which is not a bad "just" to have, but I am hoping after Crimson Corsair I will be seen by more people as an all-around creator and not just a colorist! Is it challenging to try and make something worthwhile happen in only two pages at a hit, and still make it flow with the previous and forthcoming chapters? I remember talking to friends of mine who were doing those 10-page "Second Feature" stories that DC did a few years back and they were always a bit harried trying to pace out a story at half-length.

I found it exhilarating, hard work but such a ride. I have worked in the world of short stories, albeit usually 6 pages, with 2000 AD for most of my career, so I had no real problem getting my mind around the short story approach. There is also a history in American comics of great artist/writers who worked on newspaper shorts to such magically effect who showed the best way of combining short exciting installments with an ongoing story: The Eisners, Raymonds and Caniffs. So with those giants always being an inspiration I am having a ball, and I hope it shows. Certainly the controversy surrounding Before Watchmen must affect you and Len a bit. Is it frustrating to hear people talking out of school, being that you presumably have opinions but want to stay on good terms with all involved? I love the fact people are talking about Before Watchmen, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." I believe most everyone will appreciate the sheer artistic excellence and enthusiasm all the contributors have put into this major publishing event. We are striving to reach the heights of the original publication, which is after all our inspiration. Even if it is considered that we only get part the way there, that in itself is a positive achievement in my opinion, for DC in particular but for comic publishing generally. You lift the bar higher and everyone reaches higher. In much the same way Watchmen brought the comics-and-graphic novels genre some credibility in the mainstream marketplace of ideas back in the '80s, it seems to me as though your work with Moore made comics fans reconsider the importance and impact of the colorist on the work. Would you say that's a safe assessment? Dave and Alan from day one had intended me to be a full part of the team and I think with that support my work had a different approach to most of the comic coloring at the time. Watchmen demanded to be read in depth and appreciated in a different way to most comics, even to this day. So the readers saw that the coloring was integral to the story and not just nice color between the lines. That asked, did you have any qualms about joining this project when you were invited aboard? If so, how were you won over?

I talked to Dave Gibbons before I fully accepted the invitation from Dan. If Dave has said he had a problem with it, I would have re-considered my involvement. Simply put and avoiding all the contentious issues on "should DC do it at all?", The bottom line is, to be involved with such a historic publishing event, to be in the company of such modern creative giants of the industry all doing some of the best comic work ever. How could I turn down such an opportunity? You've been around the industry for a while, but also worked outside of comics. Obviously the comics industry has a reputation for evolving a little more slowly than most others, so is it heartening to see something like DC putting the Crimson Corsair story online in "realtime"? I think for the Crimson Corsair it is a perfect fit. I am a fan of hard-copy comics before digital anytime, but acknowledge the place that the 'net has in comic publishing. And for this case in particular, if for any reason you miss an episode you can fill it in on line and not go mad trying to bridge that gap in the story, the way I remember having to do in my days of comic collecting pre-net. It is a "Roller coaster, hell for leather, swashbuckling horror romp!" so a lot happens within each episode, (just as within that sentence!) you just can't afford to miss one.