The Den Of Geek interview: Frank Quitely
Frank Quitely talks Wasted, All Star Superman, New X-Men, We3, Alan Grant and a whole lot more...
Since breaking into the American comics mainstream in 1996 by pencilling Grant Morrison’s metatextual masterpiece Flex Mentallo, Frank Quitely – born Vincent Deighan in Glasgow – has become one of the industry’s foremost artistic talents. In addition to work on The Authority, Sandman : Endless Nights and Batman : The Scottish Connection, he has since collaborated with Morrison numerous times on some of the most exciting, vibrant and groundbreaking series of the last decade – including New X-Men, We3 and, most recently, All-Star Superman – meeting with high critical acclaim and awards at almost every turn.
Though acclaimed as one of the most innovative storytellers in the industry, he’s also in high demand as a cover artist, turning in memorable pieces for series such as American Virgin and Bite Club. Indeed, the latest place his unique aesthetic style can be seen is on the front covers of a collaborative, small-press adult humour comic entitled Wasted – a testament to his fondness for working in a variety of genres and for a wide range of types of publisher…
How did your involvement in Wasted come about?
Well, the two people who are most responsible for putting Wasted together are Alan Grant and Jamie Grant, and probably next to them Rob Miller. I've known all three of those for years, particularly Alan and Jamie - I've worked with Alan in the past on a few things, Batman and Shit the Dog among them; and I've worked with Jamie over the years, on Lightz – his last self-published venture – and of course We3 and All Star Superman. Also, myself, Jamie and Rob all work in the same studio, Hope Street Studios. So right from when Northern Lights was winding down and Jamie first started talking about doing a new comic, even before it got its title, I was privy to all the plans and whatnot. And over the course of the whole thing coming together, I had offered my services initially as a cover artist for an issue at some point whenever they needed it - and eventually they asked me to do the first issue.
Are you involved with it much beyond the cover work, at all?
Not yet - when they were putting the first issue together I was still under exclusive contract with DC. The contract is now finished and I've done the cover - but I am now planning to do some interior strips for forthcoming issues.
In a way, this is going back to your roots, as it's a self-published, Scottish adult humour comic - was that something that appealed to you?
Yes, absolutely. As you say, I started on Electric Soup, which was exactly that - a Scottish, adult humour title. It was convenient and artistically satisfying for me to cross over into mainstream comics, but throughout the years I've done various things with various types of people - small press and self-publishing - just because there's something very satisfying about working with a small group of people when everybody's, to some extent, doing their own thing. Nobody's got a company line to toe... It's a little bit like being in a band, it's got that kind of slightly anarchic feel. It's not really like work! And that's part of the reason why I'd like to do some interior work in upcoming issues - it's nice being in that kind of atmosphere.
So you've just completed All-Star Superman - what was it that drew you to that project? Was it just working with Grant Morrison again, or do you have any kind of attachment to the character?
Generally speaking, I try and choose my projects based mostly on who I'm working with, more than what I'm working on. I've worked with Grant five or six times before – and I mean, ever since my earliest years working in comics I've had the pleasure of working with quite a few writers that I hold in quite high regard; but I feel that Grant and I click in a certain way that's perhaps, from my point of view, more satisfying than pretty much anybody else I've worked with. So the main draw of the project was working with Grant again - we'd just finished doing We3, and before that it had been New X-Men, so we'd gone from a big mainstream superhero thing to a creator-owned project – and then to go back onto a big superhero title was ideal.
There aren't a huge number of comic book characters that I feel a particular association with before I actually come to work on them, but Batman and Superman are two of my favourite characters.
So how much of the series' unique aesthetic look came from Grant at script level, and how much was based on your decisions?
What comes from Grant, I suppose, is the general direction that you get in a script – so obviously, like any writer, Grant does as much as he can to either direct or suggest the way he wants it to look and the way he wants it to read or flow. But obviously, give the same script to ten different artists and you'll get ten very different looking books. So even despite myself, even if I was trying to do something very different to what I ended up doing, the appearance and aesthetic of the book come down to me – good or bad, irrespective of whether you like it or not!
Were there any specific influences you drew on for the look of Superman in particular?
Yes and no. I suppose just in general, when I think of Superman in my mind, I think of Curt Swan, Win Mortimer... that classic-looking Superman. I mean, there's been Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller and who knows how many other Supermans that I've seen and liked as well, but that default image at the back of my mind is the old-fashioned, classic-looking Superman. And if I'd done anything differently with the look of the book it would have been that I'd have inked it traditionally, if I'd had the time [All-Star was "digitally inked" and coloured by Jamie Grant].
But the actual look of Superman really is just – like the way most comic book artists do with most characters – it doesn't really matter whose version you like best, because when you come to draw them yourself they end up turning into your own drawings. And some people like that, and some don't – but in a way, your drawing style is kind of like your handwriting. You know, you can start off doing copperplate or italic or something you wouldn't usually, and by the bottom of the page you're back to your own handwriting.
One thing I found quite interesting was that back when preview pages of the first issue were released, you'd included a new, simplified insignia on Superman's costume, but it had been changed back to normal by the time the issue came out. What was the story there?
The reason behind the simplified insignia was Grant - he'd wanted to simplify the Superman "S" slightly, and asked me to increase the size of the "S" within the shield so that there'd be no other bits of yellow aside from two small "tadpole" shapes. And I daresay if I'd pressed Grant, I would have got some philosophical rant, but I didn't! So I showed him what I'd come up with and it was exactly the same as he had in his notebook.
The reason it was changed back was because the film was coming out at the time, and I'm not absolutely sure, but I think it was a decision that came from Warner Bros. rather than DC - it was one of those things where a new movie was coming out, and they didn't want some kind of distraction in the press along the lines of there being a "new" or "changed" Superman in the comics.
I think All-Star Superman is probably one of the longest uninterrupted runs of interior work we've been able to see from you...
It's the longest, yeah!
... and I think it's possible to discern a high level of attention to detail as the series progresses - I've noticed things like characters' hairstyles growing and changing, or the way Superman's appearance deteriorates as he weakens over the twelve issues. Is there any kind of line you stop yourself at when it comes to the level of detail?
At the risk of having things thrown at me, the line is the deadline! On the one hand, if I didn't have to consider deadlines – which, it's fairly well-known, I do miss quite a few of – and if I didn't have to generate a certain amount of money just to pay for things, then I'd spend longer on everything than I do. So in that sense it's practical things that stop me from spending longer – but equally, if I had unlimited time, I'd spend that time bringing the pages to a finish that I was absolutely happy with, rather than just adding detail for detail's sake. I mean, I'm sure all of us could come up with the names of artists whose work we feel is distractingly over-detailed. There's a balancing act. So I tend to put in the detail that I feel is relevant either to the storytelling of a particular scene, or to fill in the background information. But if I had much more time to spend on it I don't think it would be much more detailed.
One of the things that really jumps out about We3 in particular is how interested you seem to be in the way comics convey the progression of time and narrative - and there was that description at the time of a "Western Manga" style that you were pioneering with the book. Is that an ongoing development in your style, or more of a one-off experiment?
To an extent it was a kind of natural progression of the way I'd been going since I started. But when I started off in comics, because I wasn't much of a comics reader beforehand – I read Mad magazine and Weird Science and Sinister Tales and things, but I didn't follow any superhero titles regularly at all – what I was concerned with was the quality of the drawings, without any real knowledge of the rules and conventions of storytelling. So over the years I've just naturally learned more about visual storytelling, and it's become more and more important to me – to some extent, even to the detriment of the drawings themselves!
With We3, that was a project that Grant had approached me about because of the way I go about my storytelling anyway – he had some ideas about storytelling that he felt was relatively new, he knew that I was already borderline-obsessed with storytelling, and together we sat down to see how we could do things differently, and what boundaries we could push at slightly. So on my learning curve, which has been going since I started in comics, that project was one of a number of steep inclines. But with All-Star Superman, because of the nature of the stories – the stories in some ways are very condensed; there's actually an awful lot going on in what appears to be, visually and in terms of the dialogue, quite simple and easy to follow – there’s a lot of information to convey, and a lot of that is that natural progression from We3. And so although the storytelling is a very different flavour, in a much more subtle way all the same rules apply. And time moving across the panel and across the page is something that I utilise as often as is necessary.
So it's not like We3 was some very complicated experimental thing, that I'd maybe do again at some point in the future - it was a kind of progression from what I was already doing, and what I learned from it actually informed the way I told the Superman story.
You do a lot in the way of covers work - is there a different approach to that? And do you find that more or less satisfying than interior work?
They both have different rewards - I wouldn't like to be restricted to only doing interiors or only doing covers. The challenges of making the interiors work are largely challenges of storytelling: can you read the script, work out what it is the writer's trying to say, and can you do your part in telling that story, so that the readers can get it, but also so that it's easy to follow and entertaining to look at - probably in that order. And obviously there are a lot of different ways of going about it, and I really enjoy the challenge.
The covers, on the other hand, are much more like doing a poster or a cartoon, where you have to make an interesting image that people will want to look at. Also, often you'll have to say something about the story, or the flavour of the characters, in one image, or you'll have to sum up something. It's a completely different set of challenges. And one of the things I particularly like about doing covers is that I get to ink and colour them myself. Because coming from a non-comics background, art to me was about creating something. It wasn't about being a cog in a machine - it wasn't about being a penciller and having an inker and a colourist. And as I say, for practical and financial reasons, I can't do everything on the pages myself for interior work, but I can on the covers, so that's very satisfying - what you see on the cover is everything done by the one person.
Speaking of the finishing on interior work, this comes back to something you said earlier about how you would have liked to have inked All-Star traditionally - one of the things that really stood out for me on that book was the precision and detail of the linework, particularly on some quite small-scale images. I don't know if the digital inking helped with that, and regular ink would have made it less clear?
Well, the "digital inking", it's a very misleading term, because there are a number of different ways to go about inking digitally, and there are some artists who will scan in the pencils and, using Photoshop or some other package, draw on top - they may be using a computer but it's the same process as using brushes or pens. What you're doing is still creating new lines on top of the pencils.
Now, I've had traditional inking on my pencils on The Invisibles, The Authority, and New X-Men - four or five different inkers on X-Men. And what I like about inking is the different weights of line that you get. But what I don't like about having different inkers working on my stuff is that very small changes to eyes and mouths and things, for example, can really change an expression altogether. So the type of digital inking that Jamie Grant's been doing for me, what happens is that I draw the pencils to a very tight finish – I pencil them in blue-line first, and then I effectively "ink" with graphite pencils on top of that. Jamie then takes that finished linework, scans it, and puts it into Photoshop.
Now you know when you do a photocopy, you can do a really light copy or a really dark one – with the light one, some of the thinner lines are going to break up; and with the dark one, lines that are close together are going to clog together. So he does a light and a dark scan, and blends the two of them. And what I like about that is that it's actually still my linework that's there, and facial expressions and so on don't change. What I'm not as keen on is that you don't get the different weight of lines that you do with brushes and pens. So it's swings and roundabouts, really.
I suppose it's hard to wonder just how you'd top something like All-Star - but do you have anything lined up for the future that you're able to talk about yet?
Not yet, really. There are a couple of different projects I've been toying with - a month or two before I finished All-Star, I spoke to a number of publishers in the UK, France and the States. But there weren't many specific projects, it was more "Come and work for us, we'll fit you up with something". And as it happens, it's not absolutely finalised yet, but it looks like I'll be working with Grant again, and it looks like I'll be staying at DC, doing another project there with him. Like I say, though, it's not finalised - it nearly is, but I daresay when it is they'll say "don't say anything until such-and-such a time!" But at the moment I'm just doing some work on covers, to keep myself busy, and some design work for a project that I'm almost definitely doing to be doing. But more on that later!
In a more general sense, rather than specific upcoming projects - are you looking to move away from superhero work, having spent so long on Superman, or is it something you're still interested in?
Well, what I've been doing for the last few years is going from superhero to non-superhero, because I like both genres - if you can call "non-superhero" a genre! So ideally, what I would like to do is more superhero stuff in future, but I'd also like to do more creator-owned stuff, and some small press, self-published stuff as well.
Frank will be launching – and signing copies of – Wasted, along with Alan Grant, Jamie Grant and others, at Forbidden Planet Shaftesbury Avenue this coming Saturday 27th Sept, and FP Edinburgh on Sunday 5th October. Find out more at www.wastedcomic.com.