'We don't coast along and knock off at five o'clock, we know you only get better by doing the best you can' – Frank Quitely talks comics
We talk to the Scottish artist behind some of the finest comics of recent times, as a major exhibition celebrating his work opens in Glasgow
Once upon a time, the café in Kelvingrove art gallery was where artist Frank Quitely had his ideas. He looks back to the creation of the 2004 comic book miniseries We3 – one of his favourite among his long and prolific partnership with writer and fellow Scot Grant Morrison – and remembers the pair of them meeting here or in the Burrell Collection to discuss their most intensely collaborative project. 'We were both sat with a big pile of A4 paper and a pencil,' he remembers, 'trying to come up with storytelling techniques we'd never seen before.'
Now it's the artist's turn to bring some of his own inspiration to bear upon Kelvingrove with the opening of his new exhibition Frank Quitely: The Art of Comics. Through many examples of his original art – and that of his influences' (including the creators of Batman and The Broons) – plus scripts, videos from collaborators like Morrison and Alan Grant, and a scene-setting overview of the genre, this exhibition will introduce the wider public to a modest great of the Scottish comics industry. It's fair to say that, among all the Turner Prize nominees and celebrated Art School graduates the city has produced, Quitely is a contender for the title of Glasgow's most famous living artist.
Some may beg to differ given the presence of Alasdair Gray, although he's also represented here; a photo of him opens the exhibition, reading a Batman comic down by the Clyde. Through his prolific partnership with Morrison, Quitely has had a hand in some of the most acclaimed and successful comics of the last 20 years, from the wildly experimental Flex Mentallo (1996) to the underrated but superhero genre-reviving New X-Men (2001–2003), the transcendental All-Star Superman (2005–2008) and the ambitious Multiversity: Pax Americana (2015).
Most of Quitely's other signature works have come with fellow Scots writers, like Gordon Rennie and Robbie Morrison on his breakthrough strips for the Judge Dredd Megazine in the early '90s, and Mark Millar on the groundbreaking The Authority and more recently the ongoing Jupiter's Legacy. That's a strong, unbroken thread of national comics culture for an artist who grew up on DC Thomson's Beano and The Beezer, and rightly idolises The Broons and Oor Wullie's creator Dudley D Watkins.
'Like many kids, I drifted away from comics in my teens,' says Quitely, who was born in 1968. 'Then when I was on holiday in Spain with my family, I found this comic called Cimoc – it had lovely, fully painted fantasy artwork, but it was all topless women flying about on pterodactyls and heads getting cut off. It was an eye opener! Aside from that I read Mad magazine and reprints of old horror comics from the spinner rack when I was on holiday in Millport.'
Raised in Rutherglen, Vincent Deighan – as Quitely was born – went to high school in East Kilbride, because his dad was the principal PE teacher there. Like Gray and Watkins before him, he studied at Glasgow School of Art, where he learned of a new comic magazine named Electric Soup, a Scottish Viz analogue. Between 1989 and 1992, he contributed a humour strip he'd written called The Greens, an affectionate parody of Watkins' famous family. He knew nothing of contemporary comics, but fellow artists on the title soon educated him in the work of artistic greats like Frank Miller and Moebius, and it was eye-opening.
'I studied drawing and painting to hone my skills for when I figured out what I eventually wanted to do,' he says. 'I had an interest in graphic design and thought it might be good to design posters and album covers, and I loved illustration, so I considered creating children's books. I hadn't even ruled out teaching, but it was when I started working on Electric Soup, even just single-page strips I was writing myself, I clicked with creating comics. Unlike animation or storyboarding a movie, I had complete control.'
At first Deighan called himself Frank Quitely (it's a spoonerism of 'Quite Frankly') as a joke in keeping with the Electric Soup style, and because this 'PC art student' wasn't sure if his family would have liked seeing his name appear near some of the work in the title. Yet when his first professional comics work came, he kept it because he'd already started getting good reviews. After a couple of years on the Judge Dredd Megazine, he quickly graduated to what's perceived as the big leagues – the American market, and DC and Marvel. Although he had a couple of transatlantic credits already, Flex Mentallo broke him as a big name.
It was Morrison, already a cult star in the US, who recruited Quitely for the spin-off to his experimental 'Dadaist comic' Doom Patrol for DC. The artist and writer were introduced at a regular get-together for Glasgow's comic creators at Blackfriars Bar in the city. 'I met him socially and we hit it off,' says Quitely. 'We get on well, we have the same sense of humour, but I think work-wise we have the same hunger to make sure we get it as right as possible; we don't coast along and knock off at five o'clock, we know you only get better by doing the best you can.'
Since that first series, Quitely's work – whether with Morrison, Millar or another Scot, Alan Grant, on 1998's Batman: The Scottish Connection – has been the kind that devoted fans follow from title to title, with his incredibly clean lines and expressive faces carrying a rich sense of drama and action. Ask him to pick a favourite from that time, and surprisingly he can.
'All-Star Superman struck such a chord, a number of people have said to me it's their favourite book ever,' he says. 'I put that down to Grant's stories, twelve stand-alone issues about Superman setting his house in order before he dies. It's a very human story, and I did my best with the art.' There's more than a touch of modesty here; as visitors to the exhibition will see, doing his best with the art has helped create some of the finest comics of recent times.
Frank Quitely: The Art of Comics is at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, until Sun 1 Oct.