All Star Superman

Comics artist Frank Quitely, in a rare interview, looks back on his iconic career

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Aug 14, 2018

Over the past 30 years, Vincent Deighan — aka Frank Quitely — has amassed thousands of comic book fans worldwide for his work on All-Star Superman, We3, Jupiter's Legacy, Flex Mentallo, Batman and Robin, and New X-Men, just to name a few. A few hundred of those fans were able to meet Deighan at Boston Comic-Con over the weekend, where he traded stories, signed books and talked about his upcoming projects.

It was a rare appearance for the Scottish artist, who told SYFY WIRE that while he's struggled with conventions in the past, he's learned how to enjoy fan interaction in recent years. Quitely also shared stories about working with Grant Morrison, why you shouldn't follow him on Twitter, and how his pen name originated.

How'd you get the pen name?

When I was about 19 or 20, I heard there was a print shop in Glasgow looking for an artist and I went along with my portfolio from the Glasgow School of Art. I had been designing t-shirts and doing murals and taking any kind of work. I went to this print shop and it turned out they were looking for people to work on a comic.

At the time in the UK, there was a comic called Viz and these guys liked comics books and wanted to a Scottish version. Electric Soup was an underground, adult humor kind of comic and my parents were practically priests so I didn't think they'd approve. Some of the other guys had made up stupid names to use. We were messing about one day, and I said "quite frankly" wrong and it came out as "Frank Quitely." It kind of sounds like a real name.

This is a rare appearance for you. Has it gotten easier at all to meet fans?

I don't do a lot of conventions and I used to avoid them all together. I just found it overwhelming. I just wasn't comfortable with people coming up and really enthusing about my work and I stopped doing them a while back. It changed when I was invited to a Fan Expo in Toronto and my wife, who has family there, was asking if we could please go to this one. She hadn't seen her extended family since she was a child and I gave in.

It was the first time I had done a signing in a while and I was really nervous because there were huge lines. When I go online and read about my work, 50 percent is "he sucks" and 50 percent is "he rocks." When you go to a convention, you're not likely to wait in line for hours just to tell someone they suck. The line started and everyone was so nice, "I love what you do, You're my favorite artist, This part made me cry." My wife kept tapping me on the shoulder and said, 'What's not to like. You're making people's day by just sharing a moment.' That kind of made me snap out of it.

These interactions are easy and rewarding for me and the fans. It's a nice exchange but it took me a while to get on board.

Flex Mentallo

Credit: Vertigo Comics

Tell us about your first meeting with Grant Morrison.

I first worked with Grant on Flex Mentallo (1996) and it was significant because it was my foot in the door to mainstream American comics. I had met him a bunch of times previously around Glasgow but he really never intimated he wanted to work with me, maybe he was waiting until I got up to an acceptable standard (laughs). He knew my work from reading Electric Soup and Judge Dredd Magazine. Typically, when I work with Grant, he'll phone me to have a conversation about the idea and usually he's got a very specific idea. There have been occasions where he's given me a choice [more on that below] but it's usually "Vic, there's something I want you to do."

Generally, he delivers a full script with draft dialogue, then I'll illustrate it and he'll go back and tighten it up afterward. Occasionally, where he feels the art stands on its own, he'll sometimes remove or trim dialogue but I think he does that with all of his artists.

Grant's scripts are usually simple but every now and then he'll unload pages and pages of detail, when something needs to be done a certain way. In All-Star Superman, there's a panel showing the City of Kandor and I think it was about five pages of description on what it should look like. Previously, every time you've seen the city in a bottle it's been just a glass jar with skyscrapers inside. Grant thought it all out and decided the city should work in concentric circles. In the center would be the biggest building, which would be the government, then each of the parts of society would build out from there, so commerce, then residential, suburban, parks, agriculture and then the mountains on the edge of the city to help create the weather.

My heart was sinking when I read it because it's a lot for just one panel, on the other hand, I was aware as I was reading it that if there was ever such a thing as a city in a bottle this would make much more sense. That's my job though, to put on the page whatever the writer is thinking, and I've found the more I put in, the more readers get out of it.

How'd you get involved in We3?

[In 2003] Grant was working on some creator-owned characters and he said 'I'll give you the choice of three but there's one I really want you to do. He described the first two, Seaguy and Vimanarama, and I didn't really love the first two ideas so I was excited for the third one, which was We3. When he said it's about a cat, a dog, and a rabbit I burst out laughing. But, he got serious, and said, "No, you don't understand." As he explained the idea, I got on board. He sold me when he said we'd be able to experiment with the storytelling. But I think the clincher for me was when I started messing around with robotic suits that could fit a cat or rabbit.

What's your proudest achievement in comics?

There's not one specific thing, but there are three areas for me. I'd say from a storytelling point of view, Pax Americana and WE3. If I were teaching a class, I'd probably use those two as examples of what you can do with comics.

From an artist's point of view, I'd probably say the short Sandman story I did with Neil Gaiman, which was an eight-page comic I was able to paint with watercolors. I hadn't done that since my Judge Dredd days. The fact that everything on the page is me, mistakes and all was very cool.

I think Superman is up there because of the fact that it has connected with so many people. Grant told me it would be 12 individual stories that told a larger story and when I got that first script, it was perfect. Every one after that was perfect as well. It was a total privilege to work on that book because he could have gave it to anyone and it would have been a hit. It was just my good fortune.

Jupiter's Legacy

Credit: Image Comics

What have you heard about the Jupiter's Legacy TV adaptation?

I know that Netflix is doing a series and I thought I had heard it would be eight episodes, but I think Mark [Millar] may have told me it would be six seasons (laughs.) I don't know much but I do know that the writer's room started last week because Mark emailed me to track down the scripts probably because he was too lazy to look in his email.

What would you say is your signature style?

When I look at my work I can see traces of a number of different artists and influences. There is an early Scottish artist named Dudley D. Watkins that illustrated The Broons, which I grew up reading. I was a bit late to discover Winsor McCay and when I was a teenager, Mort Drucker and Jack Davis from Mad Magazine were big inspirations. John Buscema was another big one.

When I was working for Electric Soup some of the other guys were big comic fans and they gave me copies of Akira, Watchmen, Dark Knight, Ronin, Hard Boiled, Hellboy, Elektra and you get the picture. I also like Robert Crumb and Geoff Darrow. There's something in the way we draw that's a bit like handwriting. Even if you're drawing like someone else you'll eventually return back to your own style.

What's with the @Frank_Quitely Twitter handle?

Yeah, that Twitter handle isn't me. I keep meaning to find out who it is but I'm not on Twitter or any social media. There's a fan page on Facebook but that's about it. The Twitter thing is a bit weird because the avatar is a wee character design I did for an animation I wrote so they're clearly pretending to be me. The only saving grace is that they've done very little posting. I just wish they weren't using my name.

What are you working on now?

Outside of comics, I'm working on some sci-fi character designs and an album cover. I can't say the name of the band and I don't want to insult them by getting their genre wrong, but I'd say they play shoegaze. Maybe with some electro-pop and trance in there.

Comics-wise, I'm working on an alternate cover for Grant Morrison's Green Lantern #1 and that's coming soon even though I haven't started yet. Then there's an anthology of short stories I'm working on that hasn't been announced yet. I'd like to do a few more short stories before I take on a new project though. Maybe some time off to be creative, which would be a nice change of pace.