Studio Sessions: Frank Quitely
As an unusually warm October afternoon settles over central Glasgow, Comic Booked takes a seat at the communal coffee table (glass and heaped with comics) inside Hope Street studios. The studio, situated within spitting distance of the bustling train station, is home to a revolving collection of top Scottish talent. This place is a comic factory: Batman & Robin, The New X-Men, The Authority, We3, Sandman: Endless Nights, to name just a few. Both mainstream and provocative works that seem to suggest their place of origin to be equally edgy; a retro-fitted evil genius think-tank; European Punk-dive populated by inflammatory and arrogant insurgents. Not, one suspects, accommodating Scots speaking with a soft brogue. ‘Hey, how are ye?’ beams artist Frank Quitely as we enter, shaking hands. ‘I was just gonna make some coffee – do you want some?’
We talk of comics he’s read recently (“Daytripper was just brilliant”) and music (Low is his favourite Bowie). Quitely (whose pen-name was created upon mis-pronouncing ‘quite frankly’) appears warm and bookish in vintage sneakers and jumper frayed at the elbows, deceptively younger than his 42 years thanks to a clean shave and expressive eyes, which light up when discussing a topic he is particularly passionate about (of which there are many). Indeed, nothing about the multiple Eisner award-winning All-Star Superman artist screams ‘comic super-star’. “It’s funny – I met up with Paul Pope (New York comic creator and rumoured hell-raiser) recently, and he’s such a relaxed, chilled guy,” he laughs, as if he has read our thoughts while grinding coffee beans. “Most creators are.”
Quitely, we are surprised to find, is unfailingly generous. Upon running out of pencil lead, we detour to his local art store, all the way telling animated stories (“that club there Grant and me went with Gerard and Mikey [from My Chemical Romance]. They just sat quietly wanting to hear us talk about comics – these two world-famous rock musicians!”). Quitely giggles at our reaction, which is the excitement and jealousy of a long-term MCR addict.
He permits photographs to be taken and he says i’ts no problem if we record. He explains the pencilled boards for his new effort – Pax Americana with Grant Morrison – and offers to show the re-colored Flex Mentallo pages, due for publication next year. It is this generosity, twinned with a humble understanding of the practical realities of working in the comic industry, that put us in mind of the New York artists responsible for the comic revolution back in the early ’60s: Jack Kirby and John Romita Sr. – craftsmen unhindered by ego, who sat at their drawing board because they loved it but also, crucially, in order to provide for their families.
And so, although he would probably cringe with humility and disagree, there is something inherently old school about Frank Quitely. Not that he is in it for the money, far from it. As we discuss his book-shelf crammed with trade paperbacks (‘lots I haven’t even read yet! DC send me a box each month!’), he alights on Akira and Moebius collections and his eyes burn with jealousy and pure admiration.
CB: What is it about comics you love? Why work in that medium above any other?
FQ: I always loved comics when I was small. It was always the artwork. I never read them when I was wee. To an extent it still is mostly the drawings. I got into comics by accident after I was kicked out of art school. I wish I had some amazing story but I just squandered the opportunity. I probably went too young. I had the idea that you would to do art school and get taught to draw and paint because that’s what I wanted to do. Ideally just to be a painter – doing drawings and paintings and prints, and getting in galleries. But that’s as precarious an existence to get into as deciding you want a number one single. But everyone listens to music whereas not everyone goes to art galleries and buys artwork, so it didn’t seem like a realistic way of making a living. I had the idea that I’d like to illustrate books because I’ve always loved illustration. And I quite fancied the idea of being a poster designer – [laughs] but I don’t think there’s any such thing. I like the design side of it as well. But I had the idea of going to art school and being taught to draw and paint – that’s certainly how it was back in the ’40s and ’50s, and they realized what they were doing was they were training people to be craftsmen.
CB: Do you think we’ve lost a certain love of craft? Some suggest that entertainment needs to be about artists and audiences again…
FQ: To an extent. But it may just be they used to train people in the craft of using paint, you know? Teaching them about perspective and anatomy. But they realized they weren’t teaching them to express themselves or finding out about the person.
CB: And what they wanted to achieve…
FQ: Yeah! And so there was a sea change in the ’60s and then it became all about just expression. And if you were doing that by throwing shit at a canvas and as long as you could back that up and justify it – theory took charge. It was a really huge change. It’s the way fashion tends to change. There’s a status quo and eventually enough people will want to react against it that change will happen. And almost always once something is seen as the wrong way it’s like over-corrected a mistake.
CB: Do you think that happened in comics in the ’80s? That the exaggeration of sexual themes and violence were a reaction to what has always been considered a juvenile art-form?
FQ: It started as a throwaway medium people weren’t paying attention to, and in that way it had a kind of edge to it. The tipping point for that was the Frederic Wertham (Seduction of the Innocent crusade) thing. And all of a sudden comics had become the scapegoat, the video games of the day, where everyone blames the problems of youth. And that’s when Batman got a side-kick, becoming much more family friendly. Much more child-friendly. After too much of that there was a reaction against it. I think the big problem with the ’80s when everything was getting dark was, and this is the case in general, a small group of people come up with an idea and start doing something that seems new and fresh and cool, and because it is, and because it appeals to lots of people, everyone starts doing it. But what they did when they saw what Alan Moore and Frank Miller (Frank Miller in particular) were doing, suddenly everyone had a trench-coat and a pony-tail and a nervous break-down, and a drug problem, but there was none of the things that actually made it great. It’s the same with Jim Lee, he came along with this flashy style but he was actually a brilliant draftsman and a great storyteller – his work had a dynamism that lots didn’t. So most people saw that and were like ‘that’s amazing, I’m gonna learn how to draw women in fish-nets’, and that’s what they copied and it was rubbish. It’s the same in most things.
CB: Like movies?
FQ: Yeah, like movies. It was the same with Punk. Here was this homemade thing where people were reacting against something and a very small number of people started doing whatever the hell they wanted and everybody else that spoke to, or felt that same disaffected reaction to society, looked to punk and said ‘I want in’. So they adopted the tartan trousers and the safety pins and Mohawks, and all of a sudden it just became another fashion. Assimilation is the way we evolve socially and culturally.
CB: Do you, as an artist, feel the need to learn new things? Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to? You mentioned when you were younger you wanted to be a painter…
FQ: I haven’t painted purely for pleasure for a long time, I’ve painted some stuff for commissions but even that, my colouring for comics is mostly digital. The last comic strip that I painted was the Endless Nights (Sandman) and that was close to ten years ago now.
CB: I’m sure your art-school dream of being in galleries wouldn’t be much trouble now, given your success?
FQ: I suppose anybody halfway good, that can put in the time to actually produce a body of work can get it in a local gallery or art show. It’s just, like most people I’ve got a day job [laughs]. Fortunately my day job is drawing comics and I really enjoy it but if you’ve got a wife and kids, mortgage, car loan etc. you actually have to put the day job first. That was an easy decision for me to make early on. Maybe because I’m not a stereotypical ‘mad artist’ living in a garret, wrestling demons and having something that needs to be said…that people need to hear.
CB: I would say some writers and artists starting out feel they need a troubled past, or tormented soul to be successful in a creative medium. What would you say to that?
FQ: We need people like that, wild cards, in most areas of life, but I think one of the problems of compartmentalizing everything [gestures separation] – this is art, this is business, this is sport, this is music, and even the subsections within those. Fine art, commercial art, entertainment. Over the years I’ve met quite a few people involved in comics, artists, writers, musicians, those involved in video games and films, and you do get people who fit that stereotype but you also get people who seem like the guy next door, others who seem to be quite uncomplicated, you get left-brainers and right-brainers, big egos, some that are phenomenally good who are also incredibly humble, and people who generally don’t think that much of their work. It’s just a job. Those you wouldn’t expect – big names – folk that have really inspired me who say ‘I just hack this stuff out. I’m glad people enjoy it, I enjoy doing it but it’s not art, it’s not special’. You get others whose work I don’t rate at all saying their stuff will change your world. The full spectrum is there.
CB: We talked earlier about Moebius briefly. Do you have any more heroes that you look to for inspiration?
FQ: There are some guys like Moebius and Katsuhiro Atomo, Mort Drucker and Jack Davis (Mad Artists) that I like the best. Dudley D Watkins. There are certain artists who I look at and they just put me in the mood for drawing. We were chatting about that Green Manor book, if we all stop for a coffee it’s that kind of book I’ll pick up and flick through. I look for storytelling and draftsmanship. Some of the creators I couldn’t remember the names of, and I haven’t read any of their other stuff. There’s lots of stuff I can look at and enjoy but its not inspiring as such. David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is just phenomenal, it really is. It’s not all just about the artwork. Equally, Robert Crumb’s Genesis. I’m a big Crumb fan. I find his own personal work (complete Crumb) from his childhood, his sketchbooks, it’s brilliant. It tends to be the stuff that’s crushingly embarrassing and deeply personal and autobiographical. Once you couple the great artwork with a story worth telling or an emotion worth sharing, or just something awful that you wouldn’t have the guts to say yourself but someone else says it and you think, wow yeah, I can relate to that. That combination is magic.
CB: Do you find there’s a discrepancy between your personal favourite pieces and fan-favourite work?
FQ: Oh god yeah! On the one hand I meet people and they’ll like my stuff but it’s really the superhero stuff or the X-men, and it’s obviously because they love the X-men – not because the way I did it is significantly different from how I did lots of other projects. I’m eventually going to put a website together, hopefully early next year. One of the things I would like to have it is a small archive of stuff for people who have never seen my work and ask, “what kind of art do you do?’ It would be a broad selection. As it is, if you do a Google search there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s not my favourite at all.
CB: Your detailed, economical style looks like it takes a perfectionist to produce. Is the temptation there to go back and tinker?
FQ: [On Flex Mentallo] That was the first time I’d been coloured by someone else. When I drew it I had a very clear image in my mind of how it was going to look and it looked very different, mostly in a way I didn’t particularly like. Bits of it worked but too much for me didn’t work, either on personal taste or on storytelling. There are things you can do with colouring that help the narrative flow, and others that can be quite jarring. Peter Doherty (Shaolin Cowboy) is re-colouring it. Peter’s natural palette is quite similar to mine – quite realistic, believable and not super-saturated. Jamie (Grant, All-Star Superman colourist], his natural palette is saturated colours and I think, generally, All-Star Superman worked.
CB: Lettering is similar, I suppose. Punctuation, bold, italics – can all change inflection and meaning.
CB: Has it happened often that you haven’t been happy with an aspect of the production you’ve been involved with?
FQ: It’s a thankless task colouring my stuff [laughs] if it wasn’t for the fact that they pay far less for colouring than pencilling then I would colour all my own work. The idea of pencilling a page and giving it someone else to ink and then someone else to colour just doesn’t make sense to me. In fact, it annoys me [laughs] I mean, you get people who are uncomfortable using colour, and you get people who are not brilliant at drawing but they are great at colouring so I can totally see why that works, but it just doesn’t work for me because I see the colouring when I’m drawing. So it’s never the same. Also if I’m colouring my own stuff I can be more economical with the line. If I work with someone else I will have to put those lines in or leave them to their own devices.
CB: I remember your work on Sandman. Especially Despair’s mottled skin…
FQ: Yeah, it’s like a golf ball!
CB: …and the line is so tight that I can’t imagine it without color.
FQ: You’re right, without colour it seems empty and flat. Because when I draw I see the colour as well. And now I’ve got to the stage where I want to write and color. I started off writing, back when I was doing Electric Soup. They were mostly single page humorous strips, and they were mostly rubbish but I’d like to get back to it. A couple years ago now my back problem came back and I started writing a bunch of short stories that I wanted to draw when I got better but of course by that time I had to get back to working on stuff that was going to pay. There are two different projects I’ve already started.
CB: These are intended as self-published works?
FQ: Yeah. One is with a group of Argentine artists and would be a short story to go in an anthology. The other was originally going to be a book for short stories of mine, sometimes just scenes and scenarios that I wanted to do and I noticed that a common thread running through them was they were set in a domestic setting, and I decided that I could put them all together and that would be the way they would link. Almost a doll’s house, that you can have a scene of one area, and then cut to somewhere else.
CB: That sounds great.
FQ: Yeah, it sounds great. [Laughs] Whether or not it will be great is another thing.
And there’s that humble, nervous laugh again, so at odds with his influential creative output. We ask him, upon hearing of the movie premiers and meetings with pop stars, whether he is ever overwhelmed by where he has found himself, the art school drop-out done good. He simply smiles and relates a back-stage encounter at a My Chemical Romance show. “The only time was seeing my 13 year old blown away that [lead singer] Gerard Way was star-struck by his dad! It really shocked him that these rock stars thought his dad was cool!” Given the likelihood of Frank Quitely’s secured position in the comic book hall of fame, we aren’t surprised one bit.
Frank Quitely is currently working on Pax Americana for DC Comics and his own self-published works. He lives in Glasgow with his wife and children.