The first thing you see when you open a copy of Watchmen, the legendary comic series from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a little yellow smiley face sitting in a pool of blood. The smiley image recurs throughout the book and went on to become its signature motif, adorning T-shirts and coffee mugs and pins on messenger bags the world over. But hearing Gibbons, the series’ illustrator, describe its creation in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, you might be surprised to learn it was practically an afterthought.
Watchmen fans know the face is actually a badge belonging to The Comedian, the violent, cynical crime-fighter whose murder is at the center of the story. In trying to distance him from The Joker, Gibbons and Moore created the character to be a “toughened-up version of Groucho Marx” rather than a demented clown. As his costume evolved into something very dark and functional, Gibbons was looking for an element to “lighten it up a bit,” and he just so happened to doodle on a yellow smiley face pin “almost as a throwaway,” he said. “I thought that’s a really interesting contrast. This big hulking dark character, with this little splash of bright, silly color.”
Moore liked that added touch and started envisioning what would eventually become Watchmen’s opening panels—the badge sitting in a pool of The Comedian’s blood with one striking splatter of plasma staining its face. The duo quickly realized just how evocative the image was, not just as a cool, subversive visual that would eventually find its way to Hot Topics everywhere, but also as a symbol for what they were trying to accomplish with Watchmen. “What we had in that smiley face badge was really the ultimate cartoon,” Gibbons said. “The simplest cartoon. A black and yellow smiley face, with a splash of really realistic blood on it. It was like the real world imposing itself on a cartoon, which is what we were trying to do by treating comic book characters as if they were living in a real world.”