by Zachary Clemente
On the extremely busy Saturday of this past weekend’s New York Comic-Con, I had the sublime honor of interviewing Frank Quitely (pen name for Scottish artist Vincent Deighan) about his visual narrative process, the cycle of artistic influence, and his once and future work. This was a wild treat for me as Quitely stands as one of my favorite artists in comics. Quitely has worked on We3, Sandman: Endless Nights, Flex Mentallo, New X-Men, JLA: Earth 2, Batman & Robin, Jupiter’s Legacy, All-Star Superman and many more.
Comics Beat: Frank, you’re currently working on Jupiter’s Legacy [with Mark Millar] which is ending after 10 issues?
Frank Quitely: It’s actually two volumes, both five and five.
CB: I see. Something I’ve always loved about your work is how versatile your storytelling can be. Hearkening back to Flex Mentallo, there’s some interesting panel layouts, All-Star Superman is a little more cinematic and straightforward, and We3 deviates a lot. I’m wondering how you approach that you want to train the reader’s eye the way you start talking about the story through your art and panels.
FQ: When I started out, I didn’t know a lot about storytelling because I never got a formal training in comics. It ended up being kind of intuitive and my main thing was about trying to make it clear and interesting. You know, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of narrative flow, it was more just about clarity and trying to make it as good as possible. Gradually, over the years, I just became more interested in storytelling. There was a DC editor I worked with named Dan Raspler – the Lobo editor amongst other things. He was my editor on JLA: Earth 2 and before I did JLA, I did a short Lobo story for them and it was the first mainstream DC thing I’d done; I’d been working for Vertigo and Paradox for a couple years. I sent him the pencils and it was the best thing I’d done up to that point and I thought “he’s going to phone me back and tell me how good this is” and he didn’t phone for a week. I was really panicking by the time he phoned; he started the conversation with “dude, I don’t know how to tell you this…”
Basically what he said was my drawings were really lovely, but my storytelling was really boring. He went through and told me what I should be thinking about and that was kind of a real milestone. As it was, that book never came out for different reasons. For JLA: Earth 2, he made me fax a rough for every page because he wanted to see that I could do art that makes sense in rough with a sharpie, then I could do it properly.
CB: Sort of like doing thumbnails?
FQ: Yeah. In fact, the new version of [JLA:] Earth 2 has those thumbnails in it. That was a big leap for me.
CB: There’s a couple panels I’d like to ask you about, the first from We3. The one where it looks like the panel begins to turn across the page.
FQ: With the cat leaping through?
FQ: Grant [Morrison] and I sat together, both of us with pencils, trying to work out a way of doing this. […] That kind of “turning the panels” was almost like windows that the cat was going though – that didn’t come right until the last minute because Grant was describing something to me but it was like he knew there was something there we could do but he couldn’t quite visualize it. It was just a case of me sitting, drawing stuff and then asking if we were getting closer – it was very collaborative.
CB: Do you think that kind of collaboration is where you find the best of your work coming out?
FQ: Um, sometimes. Sometimes it works that way and sometimes it’s nice just to be left alone and work it out myself. Like in Jupiter’s Legacy, in the first issue there’s kind of cube thing. In the script, Mark said something like “he puts them in this cell” and I got thinking about “cel” as in animation cel as well as “cell” like a prison cell and it just kind of came together very, very organically in a relatively short time. It really goes both ways.
CB: I actually wanted to ask about that panel. It’s beautiful how it breaks down all the way to the linework and builds it back up again. I find it an interesting visual discussion on comics.
CB: Changing gears a bit, I’m curious about your influences. Not necessarily artistic influences, but what comics have influenced the way you want to do comics, the way your approach working on comics?
FQ: An early one was Hard Boiled by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow. I set out when I was maybe 20-something and when I saw that, I was really blown away by that. More recently Chris Ware’s Building Stories, it’s a masterpiece – the guy’s a genius. I’ve gone plenty – Akira, the big black and white collections of Akira. Moebius, particularly [his] short stories.
CB: The sheer breadth of his influence is remarkable and that’s something I wanted to touch on with you. In my opinion, you and your work occupy a peculiar place in the comics “family tree” where your catalog is intensely influential for many contemporary creators, but it’s not like you’ve gone away, you’re still pushing yourself. Do you find yourself in something of a loop, being influenced by people you might have influenced?
FQ: Oh, yeah.
CB: What is that like?
FQ: It’s really cool. It’s actually really cool. Two artist whose work I really like a lot who’re younger than me are Amy Reeder and Becky Cloonan and both of them, in some way, found something in my work that they liked and there’s now something in their work that I like. With Amy in particular, she started off at Tokyopop and she was only interested in manga. Brandon Montclare, who she’s working with now [on Rocketgirl], was an editor at Tokyopop at the time and he gave her a bunch of comics that he wanted her to look at to kind of broaden her horizons a bit. When she first saw it, she didn’t like my work at all; there was nothing there that she liked. Brandon told her to ignore that she didn’t like my drawing but to look at was I was doing because I was going about it a different way from her. After a while, she did actually start liking it and that’s the kind of funny thing – she didn’t like it at all at first but once she kind of get into it, she got something from it and now her recent work on Rocketgirl is just phenomenal.
When I see stuff like that, I always feel slightly threatened by a lot of younger artists. Because to me, a lot of this stuff seems really fresh and I keep thinking “shit, man, I’m going to have to up my game.”
CB: Can that be a little thrilling?
FQ: Yeah – absolutely. I don’t want to get to a stage where I’m kind of quite happy with what I’m doing. Like every other artist I know, I see the mistakes in my work more than the good parts. Even things that work quite well, it always looks slightly better in my head. Every page I start I think “this is going to be the best one yet!” So I don’t want to get to a stage where I’m not influenced or threatened by other peoples’ work.
CB: That’s a very remarkable way to stay relevant. Though something I noticed is your lack of online presence. It seems being active on social media outlets is a big part for many comics creators. Is this something that’s never interested you?
FQ: You know, the thing is I can’t answer all my emails as it is, I answer maybe a quarter of my emails or something. So what’s the point of having Facebook? I’m already insulting enough people by not getting back to them. If I had a Facebook presence, I would never talk to anybody – I’d just never get back to them. Either you just that kind of person or you’re not, you know.
CB: Heading to the end, Jupiter’s Legacy will be wrapping up, what’s next?
FQ: “Pax Americana” – one of the Multiversity books at DC.
CB: And are there any dream projects? Characters you want to work on, people you want to work with, or your own stories you’d like to make?
FQ: I have written a bunch of short stories and some of them are thumbnailed. So at some point I want to get a collection out of just my own dumb stuff.
CB: That sound wonderful Frank, thanks for sitting down to chat.
FQ: Not a problem – thank you.
Frank Quitely lives in Scotland and draws some of the most amazing comics around. I encourage you to watch the 30-minute feature about him, part of a series called “What Artists Do All Day” produced by BBC4. His upcoming works are the next 6 issues of Jupiter’s Legacy and an issue of DC’s Multiversity called “Pax Americana.”