I started the blog back in October 2007, and almost four years later here I am with the 2000th post. Since it’s a landmark, for me anyway, I figured why not mark the occasion with something a bit special?
So here’s a transcript of a talk that superstar artist Frank Quitely gave in his home city of Glasgow on July 2, 2011, at Plan B Books, the finest purveyor pf graphic novels in Scotland. I know I’m a few months late in posting this. I’d love to say it’s because of my windswept and interesting life but I just never got round to it.
It was a lovely afternoon, Frank was incredibly gracious with his time and pretty entertaining as he did a Q&A followed by a signing. Plan B were taking orders for the We3 Deluxe Edition, and Frank went back and signed everyone’s copies when it was released. If you missed out, Plan B are doing a similar thing when the Flex Mentallo hardcover finally comes out next year, so check their website and put an order in if you want a signed copy.
So, I won’t gibber on too much throughout the transcript, just give a few pointers on what questions were being asked. Sorry the pictures I took are so rotten.
And before I forget, many thanks to everyone who drops by the blog.
The first question was about how Frank started in the industry…
“Because I was going to comic marts and comic conventions I would hire a table and sell the comics at it. People just kept saying to me that I should send off submissions of my work. So, because I wasn’t a writer, I made up a four-page fight and chase sequence of Batman. I actually only sent off four pages because the rest weren’t finished, which was an incredibly stupid thing to do when you think about it.
“Back then there were millions of comic book companies, well there was a lot more than there are now. Eventually I got work with the Judge Dredd Megazine. What happened was first of all they sent me a script and said do a few pages of this. So I did them in black and white and they said they really liked them, so they sent me another script, saying can you do a few pages of this in colour, still not getting paid.
“So I did that, then they said they would send me a script (for Missionary Man) by a Scottish writer Gordon Rennie, who works in the games industry now, and the editor David Bishop asked me how long it would take to do three pages and I said it would take me a week and a half, but that was literally working round the clock. So he said if I kept up the standard he would send me another one after it , and that was it. I’ve never been out of work since.”
“There’s bits and pieces of them online, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a comic con where someone hasn’t asked me about them. I gathered up all the stuff I did with Electric Soup and I thought it would be a good idea to reprint it. And then I started looking at it and it’s just woeful. There’s bits and pieces that are okay but most of it is rubbish.
“I did these stupid movie spoofs. I was really into Mad Magazine. And I would go and buy an issue of Starburst I think it was called, it was a movie magazine, much cheaper than Empire, and whatever movies they were reviewing, the one that had the most pictures of the cast that would be the movie spoof I’d do, even if I hadn’t seen the movie. It was just awful.
“There’s one called Batman Retorts and it’s about a dyslexic Batman. The commissioner keeps sending him cables and I would keep making up these stupid things just so I could jumble up all the words. Everything I wrote was about a punchline and I would strive to make up something to get to the punchline.
“I’ve got a dummy put together, and what we’re probably going to do is do a small print run, see how it goes and maybe print more after that. Hopefully this year. I’m embarrassed thinking about it because just so much of it is rubbish. I’ll have a big disclaimer on it saying ‘This is rubbish, buy it at your own risk.'”
Someone then asked about what it’s like working with his long-time collaborator (Flex Mentallo, We3, All-Star Superman, Batman and Robin) Grant Morrison…
“Occasionally he asks me to draw things that are difficult to draw. One example is in All-Star Superman. There’s a scene with the bottle city of Kandor, and quite unusually for Grant, he always writes a very concise script, and if it’s something really complicated he’ll say ‘I’ll phone you about this’ but other than that he often says ‘This is kind of what I want, do your own thing’, or he’ll describe it in as few words as possible but giving me as much detail to cover the things I need to put in, he knows I’ll build stuff around that.
“But unusually for Grant, this bottle city of Kandor description was, I think, eight pages of script for one whole page of artwork that I had to draw, and five of those pages were for panel one, which was describing the layout of the bottle city, about how it had hills around the edge and it all went in concentric circles so you had ther hills and then the agricultural land and then you had parks and leisure, and then you go into suburban residential and eventually in the centre you had all the tall buildings , the arts and mathematics, and he had suggestions on how all the buildings should look . It was just mammoth, and it took me about a week to sort out that page.
“But at the other end of the spectrum, when we were doing Flex Mentallo there were these characters Nano Man and Mini Miss and they could shrink, and one of the panels was him describing them shrinking down into the micro-infinite, and he said ‘They’re both clinging to each other because they’re both terrified’ and when he described the background it was ‘primordial chaos manifesting itself around unseen proton cores’. And I kept re-reading it thinking ‘How do you draw that?’ And then I was stuck because obviously I didn’t know what that looked like.”
What about the cartoon adaptation of All-Star Superman…
“I’ve seen the first 15 minutes. I started watching it and I was really enjoying it. Obviously I had seen the trailer and knew what to expect of it, but my mum turned up. The doorbell went and I went to answer the door. I paused it at the time and didn’t want to say I’m watching a cartoon, and it’s actually a cartoon of a comic that I drew.’
“But I was enjoying it. And I was kind of chuffed, I saw even in the first 15 minutes certain scene and set-ups that were really, really close to the way I did it in the comic. It’s just quite nice that they liked the source material. The only real complaint I heard other people making about it was the fact they had to chop out the Bizarro issues and they missed out a lot of the death of Pa Kent, I really liked that.”
And what of DC 52, the re-booting of the DC Universe and re-numbering all the titles from number one in a short space of time…
“I tend not to keep up to date with what’s going on, I’m not one for keeping my finger on the pulse of comics in general, but obviously everyone has been talking about it. I don’t know. Somebody was making the point the other day that Action Comics is up to 900-and-something, so they’re not that far away from 1000. I mean, I can understand why you would put things back to number one. People like a number one issue. It’s kind of difficult to jump on most titles because they’ve been going for ages so you kind of feel you ought to start at the beginning.
“But at the same time, doing so many number one issues in such a short space of time, I think it’s a bit of a stretch. I think comic sales are really low just now. The number one selling comic just now is something like 75,000. Two years ago it was twice that. So I don’t know if we’re at an all-time low just now but things are really bad, and I suspect part of it is because money is really tright just now.
“I heard a statistic the other day from the National Statistics Office or whatever. It was on the radio and it said food had gone up 100 per cent in two years. But food, electricity and petrol, everything is much, much dearer thns it was a few years ago so that I would imagine probably means people are buying fewer comics.
“And the idea that, fair enough, you bring out number one issues and relaunch comics, I understand that but for a company as big as DC to do all their titles back to number one in a short space of time, it’s a huge stretch for most comic fans and it’s a huge stretch for most retailers, because the comics aren’t sale or return.
“So the retailers are in the position where they have to put out a lot of money in the hope that the customers are going to have an unusually expensive two months. Or they buy in cautiously and sell out and half the customers are disappointed.
“I suppose it sounds to me, and I haven’t read up about it, but it doesn’t sound to me like it’s been very well thought out. There must be a better way of doing it.
“Most comic fans aren’t going to want a new number one for every DC book. Most fans are either into the Batman stuff, or the Vertigo stuff or Green Lantern. A lot of people have a spectrum that they like from that particular company. I would have thought maybe one a week would have been a pretty good idea. A new number one every week, that’s four a month.”
Someone then asked if he would ever consider drawing Oor Wullie, given that the cover for the recent Glasgow Comic-Con brochure featured a Frank Quitely homage to the character sitting on his trademark bucket…
“I don’t have a list of other artists I feel would be ideal for it. I was a huge Dudley D Watkins fan for as long as I can remember. He was maybe my biggest influence in comics, definitely my biggest early influence. And Ken Harrison and some other person, of all the people who have drawn it since he died are the only two who have been allowed to sign it. The thing is, both of them are really, really good, but they’re not Dudley D Watkins. I suppose it’s like hand-writing, there was just something about his style.
“There was something about his style that I really loved and although they other guys who have done it since then have been really good, to me it’s not the same, it doesn’t have the same charm. I’d rather go out and buy the old books, because they do loads of really affordable collections now.
“If you have happy memories of something that you enjoyed when you were younger, like for me it was Scooby Doo before Scrappy came along, those old, dull colours in the backgrounds. My kids watch Scooby Doo now and they’re made in Japanese animation places. I mean, they’re really good cartoons but they don’t have that same charm about them, that look about them from the Seventies.
“But at the same time, something like Oor Wullie or The Broons, I suppose they were very contemporary when they started out and over the years, because they stayed the way they were, they’ve kind of become more and more old fashioned; so there’s a really good argument for updating them. Just speaking from my own point of view I’m happy to go back and read the old stuff because I really love the artwork but I don’t think it would be sacriligous to update them all.
“To do Oor Wullie, I have considered it before, but to follow Dudley D Watkins, I don’t think I could do it.”
What about reading comics on an iPad or tablet…
“I’ve been working on some of my own stuff recently, a lot of the pages are actually worked out to be seen as a whole page at one time, so you can actually see the progression of the character across the page, like walking down a flight of stairs or whatever.
“But there’s a number of online comics I dip in and out of every now and again. And looking at artwork on a good quality monitor, I still do prefer to have a paper version, but I don’t need to keep a paper copy of everything that I’ve read, or everything that I like. There are certain things I’d prefer to have a paper copy of.
“There’s probably a quite good argument for not bringing out indiviudal monthly comics on paper, because a lot of people, myself included, actually wait for them to come out in trade anyway. Maybe the best idea is you buy the comic much cheaper as a download and then if you like it you go and buy the trade paperback. You should definitely get it cheaper. If they’re not having to cut down trees, and use inks and ship solid objects around the globe then it shouldn’t cost the same amount of money.
“I haven’t seen any motion comics that I particularly like. I remember seeing one issue of a Watchmen motion comic. I love Dave Gibbons’ artwork and it’s a brilliant story and it’s one of my favourite comics but as a motion comic it just looked like a really cheap cartoon.
“I saw something, on I think it was Deviantart, and it was a wee motion comic, a digitial comic so that every time you clicked. something else happened. It wasn’t like slow pans and zooms, that kind of thing you usually get with a motion comic. You just keep clicking and a new picture would come up, or you would have a picture of two people and you click it and a speech bubble comes up and then you click again and there’s a reaction on someone’s face with another speech bubble., so it was much more like just a new frame each time.
“I think it was just a wee exercise in the different things that this person could think up that you could do with digital comics that you can’t do with comics on paper . It’s a nice idea that you could sit on the bus with your tablet and read a comic that was actually designed to be read that way . It’s alright having a whole page there and clicking in and sliding around, moving the page around to read the whole thing on your screen but I don’t find it that satisfying. There must be a way of doing tio for a table or a phone that wouldn’t work in a comic.”
Would he ever consider doing a 24-hour comic…
“Funnily enough when I was at Kapow they had two Guinness World Record attempts for the most people working on a comic and the fastest comic ever. And there was people there from Guinness and they picked me and John Romita Jr to go out and there was two plaques; framed certtificates, one was for the most people involved in a comic and one was for the fastest comic.
“I can draw fast, it’s just I can’t do comics the way I want do them, fast, because about half the time is spent on the planning. I’ll read the script and then I’ll do thumbnail sketches in the margins of the script and then I’ll take those thumbnail sketches and arrange them into a page layout. And then depending on how it’s flowing will depend on what changes I make, and that process for me takes the same amount of time for when once it’s actually decided and I draw the page.
“There are things in comics that you can’t do in film or you can’t do in prose and similarly there are things you can do in other media that you can’t do in comics, but there are certain things you can do in comcs that are best done in comics. Having a picture that reads from left to right, depicting a moment in time, or a slice of time, playing with that. I had already been drawing comics for a while before I ralised that was the way it was working.
“In the simplest form it’s the person who speaks first is on the left or nearer the top of the panel and it works best that way, it flows easiest that way, at least on our side of the world where we read left to right and top to bottom, and if you’re willing to overthink it you can really take that to extremes and I find that really interesting.
“And if I can do that and still make the comic read easily so that people who just want to sit and read it on the bus and it takes them six minutes or whatever it takes, they can read it and they get the story and that’s it. But when you read it and look into the way it’s actually put together there is actually stuff there. Because I like doing that to other people’s comics, where I can see the thought that’s gone into it.
“It would be interesting to do a 24-hour comic but I think it wold be pretty ropey because for me it would be going on gut instinct on every decision that I made, which isn’t something that I ever do.”
Tell us about this new We3 release then…
“It’s a deluxe hardcover so it’s very slightly larger and it’s got ten extra pages. Six of those pages have expanded two scenes and four of those pages are new scenes. Grant actually asked for them. When he originally wrote it, I’m not sure if he wrote it as a screenplay or a comic first. They didn’t want it as a four-issue thing, they wanted it three issues, and the way it worked out for them, because printing is worked out by blocks of certain numbers of pages, so it was 96 pages but it’s now 106 pages. And six of those pages are expanding trwo scenes, and four of those pages are a new scene.”
What about the We3 movie…
“There’s always been a director attached to it and for the last couple of years it’s been John Stevenson the Kung Fu Panda guy and there’s often been a special effects mob attached, and at the moment I think it’s some mob from New Zealand.
“I’ve learned to stop asking. How many years is that now and still nothing has happened? As far as I’m aware the problem with it is you either make it as violent as the comic and most people aren’t going to go along and see it or you change it quite a lot and make it for kids. Maybe that’s over-simplifying it but I don’t think the studios know what to do with it.”
Tell us more about working with Morrison on We3…
“The sequence with the CCTV cameras, there’s like six pages with 18 panels what I did with that was I started thumbnailing it the way I always do but it was just endlessly complicated becaue there was no script. Grant just sat and told me there was going to be six pages and he suggested 18 panels, because the way it breaks down on the page it roughly looks like TV dimesnions, and the guy with the white beard he’s meant to be gathering a posse and he’s going to tell Roseanne that they’re terminating the animals and she’s obviously going about her business and she already knows this is going to happen and she’s deciding what to do, and then we’re zooming in on the locks on the animal restraints . So he just said can you work all that out as if it’s being told from CCTV cameras, and I thought ‘Yeah no problem’ and I started doing it and it was just really difficult.
“What I ended up doing was I drew them out on pieces of paper, and for each of the different cameras, like this is the camera at the crossroads, I would put a colour frame round it, and then I’d put them all out the way I thought they should be and then it was quite easy to change them and then Grant came over to see how it was going, and we ended up, well you can lie them out in lines for each camera, or you can put them out like chronological order or you can make them cross over, there are certain intersections like a crossword puzzle or Scrabble or something. So we ended up sitting for hours playing with these things. I was looking about for them one day and I couldn’t find them and my wife had actually thrown them in the bin, they were in a box, but I got them back. I was like ‘This is two weeks work!’ but she just asked why I couldn’t work like everyone else.”
Hasn’t your style changed since you orginally drew We3, did you not notice a difference when you did the extra scenes…
“No, not really. The way I draw is kind of like hand writing. The way I do the under-drawing, for We3 for instance I would do the under-drawing in blue pencil and then I would use a graphite pencil to basically ink it. The blue under-drawing is the same for We3 as it is for All-Star Superman, as it is for Batman and Robin. It’s just with We3 I was doing kind of like straight lines, a nod to manga; All-Star Superman was more simple lines; Batman and Robin a lot more solid blacks, more of a noirish feel, but the basic under-drawing is the same. And similarly when I’m actually painting on water colour or colouring the work on photoshop the under-drawing is basically the same so it was a case of me drawing it the way I normally out and then looking at pages to check it was in the same style.”
Have you ever wanted to be one of those artists who both write and draw…
“Once I started working from other people’s scripts there was no more sitting around thinking ‘What will I write this time?’ It was just like someone would send you a script and it would even say page one, five panels, panel one and sometimes they would say this is a wide panel or a narrow panel or a bird’s eye view. They’d be as well drawing the comic!
“Probably a bit over a year ago, Martin (Conaghan) up the back who was asking about the style change in We3, he works with the BBC and he got in touch with me about a couple of guys from the BBC who were looking to develop properties with a view to do pilots and try and get stuff commissioned. And they were interested in The Greens. They said there would be no money in it, we would need to submit something in the hope that they would gives us money to male a pilot.
“So they said they were going to try and make a script from your Greens characters, do you fancy having a crack at is as well because obviously you used to write them. I thought why not? So I wrote a 15-minute TV script, obviously I knew nothng about how to actually format it and make it look like a TV script. And then eventually I typed it up. I really enjoyed it. All the writing was basically dialogue and I really enjoyed it. Since then I’ve been writing short stories that I tend to draw.
“I’ve noticed there is a bit of a fashion right now for getting established superhero artists to write the comics that they’re drawing. You’ve got David Finch writing one of the Batman titles and Tony Daniels is another Batman artist who is writing one.
“I’ve read a couple and they’re alright. I think it’s a gimmick more than anything else. People who do naturally write their own stuff, like Frank Miller for instance, that’s come out the same mind if you’re good then it will work out. I don’t have a Batman story to tell and despite the fact I’ve worked with so many scripts over the years I wouldn’t actually know how to plot out a a story arc and break it down into issues. I’ve just written a bunch of short stories for myself and want to draw some of them.”
What comics are you reading…
“Over the last year or so, Asterios Polyp, the David Mazzuchelli book, that’s pretty much the best thing I’ve read, particularly in terms of the way the artwork works, it’s pretty much the best thing I’ve seen and don’t expect anything to come close to it.
“I’m about two-thirds through Essex County. It suffered from the same thing as Wilson, the Dan Clowes book, where somebody said it was amazing and will totaly blow you away. It’s that way it’s the ET factor. I was told it was the best film ever made, but no it was really good but it wasn’t the best. So Essex County when I started reading it I thought ‘This is good.’ It’s a collection of three books, the first book was good, the second book I was much more hooked on that, so I’m enjoying that.
“Eddie Campbell’s Alec: The Year’s Have Pants I finished that a couple of months ago and really liked that. I’ve read a lot stuff recently, I should have made a list. I read Black Hole, the Charles Burns book and that was really brilliant.”
What about online comics…
“What I like about digital stuff is what I like about a lot of small press stuff, it’s that you feel you’re getting something that is absolutely uncompromised. I don’t care if people think this is too simple or whatever, this is the way I want to do it.
Scheduled to appear at this summer’s Glasgow Comic-Con, Frank had to pull out because he was stranded in Argentina because of an ash cloud over Chile. This prompted Mark Millar to take to the stage at the event and say: “Has anyone actually heard of this ash cloud. It’s more likely to be a hash cloud.” Anyway, how was Argentina, Frank…
“Eduardo Risso organises a convention in his home city which looked like half an hour away from Buenos Aires on the map and took five hours on the bus. No need for a country to be that big.
“I was there for a week and it was brilliant and I met loads of Argentinian artists who were all really friendly and then I weet back to Buenos Aries for one overnight before flying home and the Chilean ashcloud had scuppered my plans.
“Apparently the week I spent there, the airport was shut more than it was open and they had a huge backlog of people stranded and I ended up staying six extra days . It was a real disappointment when I found out because I was thinking I was going to get back . You know that way you get to the last couple of days and you know you’ll be going home soon and you start getting into the mindset that you’ll be back home soon, and my youngest daughter is seven and she was really missing me and to get told you’re getting put back six or seven days, Air France are apparently notoriously inflexible so I had half a day of trying to get other flights but the problem was no-one could guarantee if I bought a flight for a couple of days away they wouldnt give it to someone else because all the airlines were working on a queueing system so I thought I might as well make the most of it so it was an act of God and the airlines weren’t paying for it but fortunately Argentina is cheaper than here.
“I could have done without the expense but it wasn’t as much of a diasaster had I been stranded in France or New York. And half the artists in met live in Buenos Aires so they were like ‘Come up to our studio, don’t eat on your own’ they were a really nice crowd and not drinkers, the society doesn’t drink much at all so I wasn’t your stereotypical drunken Scotsman. I actually had two weeks of not being drunk at all. It was great, the food was amazing and the people were super-friendly.”
And 100 years from now, what work do you hope people remember you for…
“Of stuff that I’ve already done, storywise probably All-Star Superman, maybe story-telling wise We3, for the finish of the artwork maybe the Sandman short that I did, the Destiny story in The Endless Nights book, but hopefully it will be the stuff I do myself in the next few years.”