In the mid-'80s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons joined forces to create Watchmen, a brutal comic book exploring the lives of superheroes as they might exist in the real world. Beneath the characters and impactful storyline, one of Watchmen's most recognizable aspects is a simply smiley face badge smeared with blood.
That badge, originally the property of Edward Blake and his alter-ego The Comedian, has become a comic book culture staple. It is front and center in basically every piece of #Watchmen merchandise. Seeing how relevant it is to comic book culture, have you ever wondered how it came to be? Watchmen artist #DaveGibbons sat down for an interview with Entertainment Weekly, in which he offered an in-depth discussion about the badge's creation, and its hidden meanings.
The Creation Of The Smiley Face
Gibbons knew #TheComedian would be a dark character, thanks to his background as a black-bag operative hired by governments to stabilize countries no matter the cost. The artist wanted something that could add a twisted sense of levity to the character.
So, with no specific design in mind, Gibbons drew a small happy face pin on Blake's shoulder, to make a nice contrast between his intimidating personality and the happiness in his logo:
"I drew this black character and he had a star on one shoulder and red and white stripes on the other. But he looked very serious so I thought, 'I wonder what would lighten it up a bit?' So on the sketch that I did, I drew a tiny little yellow smiley faced badge, almost as a throwaway, because I thought that’s a really interesting contrast. This big hulking dark character, with this little splash of bright, silly color."
Initially though, Gibbons had no idea of what #AlanMoore would do to his badge. However, once work on the story got going, Moore wanted the first scene to be The Comedian's death, and he specifically wanted to make the badge take center stage during that moment:
"Alan [Moore] saw that and he liked it. And when he wrote the first issue it had to start with the death of the comedian. So he thought, 'How about the comedian’s been thrown out the window [and] the first thing we see is just that badge with some blood on it? And then we pull back and see more?' So he wrote that into the first script."
The Secret Behind The Smile
After the badge was already in the script, Moore and Gibbons realized something: It offered the perfect contrast between the bright and relaxed nature of a cartoon world and the brutal realism of our daily lives –– which was the comic's message from the beginning:
"We realized that what we had in that smiley face badge was really the ultimate cartoon. 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."
Of course, being an Alan Moore work, there was further meaning behind the artifact. A big aspect of the Watchmen comic was its dreaded Doomsday clock –– a symbolic representation of the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe.
As Gibbons revealed, the badge is supposed to represent that Doomsday clock. The blood splatter is pointing at five minutes before 12, the time the clock has when we first lay eyes on it on the printed page:
"What we decided we wanted to do is have it echo the clock. You know we also have the [Doomsday] clock face which is also bright yellow with the black numerals and hands. When we first see it it’s five minutes before 12, so we knew the blood splatter had to be kind of linear rather than just a blob, so I gave it a direction of five minutes before 12."
Both the badge and clock signified, in their own way, the start of something new. One represents the end of costumed vigilantes (thanks to #Ozymandias), while the other depicts a literal clean slate for Earth, thanks to nuclear war.
What Makes People So Attracted To The Badge?
It's peculiar to think that in a comic book with such a fresh take on the life of a superhero and all of its hidden meanings, a smiley face is what's made the most impact. So, what exactly attracts people to that image?
According to Gibbons, the attraction stems from the dichotomy created by taking a symbol people know so well (in this case, a simple smiley face) and giving it a different and ominous meaning with that streak of blood:
"Well, I think it’s a subversive thing. It’s taking that really familiar smiley face which has been around for god knows how long [...] and subverting, with a blood splash, which makes you take notice. It’s something familiar that now has a different meaning [...] I’ve always liked that idea of taking disparate or discordant elements and combining them into a symbol that somehow does say something thematically about the story that it’s in."
Following up on Gibbon's thematic exploration, the button's owner, Edward Blake, also helped give the smiley face a new meaning, with this blood-thirsty nature.
That, my fellow geeks, is how the Comedian's badge came to be. It's incredible to think about the duality of its creation: something that wasn't thought out prior to writing the story, but which added the depth that the comic book needed to resonate so much with audiences.
What do you think about the backstory of the Comedian's badge? Let me know in the comments!