Comic Book Hero: Frank Quitely Interview

Frank Quitely (aka Vincent Deighan) talks about exhibiting at Kelvingrove Art Gallery as a comic book artist and the status of the medium today

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 04 Sep 2017

Now exhibiting in Kelvingrove Art Gallery, comic book artist and writer Frank Quitely’s career is at the centre of The Art of Comics. Over the course of two decades, Quitely has drawn the likes of X-Men, Superman and Batman. With countless awards and accolades under his belt, Quitely marks the final month of the major retrospective of his work with the release of Jupiter’s Legacy Vol 2. This title is the final part of a collaborative project with Scottish comic book legend Mark Millar – well known as the writer of Kick-Ass.

Into the last leg of the show, Quitely reflects here on how he came to show in Kelvingrove Art Gallery as a comic book artist, that slews of comic adaptations haven't necessarily attracted a new readership, and why the question of whether comics are art is “redundant.” He also thinks of the reasons for the show’s marked impact on visitors.

First off, despite living and working in Glasgow through his life, the invitation to show in Kelvingrove as a comic book artist was still a surprise, and not something he’d considered as a possibility. “I’ve been going to Kelvingrove since before I started primary school and went there a lot when I was an art student and I’ve gone a lot all through my adult life.” Nevertheless, he goes on: “my work, it’s not the same as the artworks that are upstairs in Kelvingrove or the artefacts that are downstairs in Kelvingrove. So it was never on my bucket list to have a piece hanging in Kelvingrove.”

Is this evidence of the greater significance, or at least respect of comic books themselves? Thinking about this suggestion, Quitely’s not totally convinced that recent films and Netflix series are a mark that comics are any more popular than before. Despite a specific kind of resurgence as material for summer blockbusters, he’s clear that this hasn’t been paralleled in sales of physical comics. “It’s very much like the music industry. Some people will pay for digital content, [or it's] more likely they’ll pay to stream content, which is much cheaper and almost nothing goes back to the artists. Then, of course, loads of people will get their digital content for free.”

While the digital boom of cheap to free content has harmed the revenue of artists, it has made a difference for new artists at the very beginning of breaking through. “It’s easier to find an audience, and to put work out without going to the expense of printing and sending the material to people. It’s much easier to break in. It used to be that you’d at least have to fork out for some black and white photocopying – you don’t even need to do that anymore. Of course you’ve got the problem of numbers, as everyone’s doing the same thing [and the difficulty of] making that into a revenue stream. Maybe that’s where crowdfunding comes in, sites like [Patreon].”

With this idea in mind of the popularity of comic heroes rather than the physical comic books themselves, Quitely wasn’t so confident that an exhibition on his drawings and artwork would draw the crowds. This was one of the nagging anxieties he had as the exhibition gradually grew in scale, literally with “graphics blown-up floor to ceiling,” as well as “apps, iPads and big screens.” This was a new experience for Quitely, compared to past shows in which he’s been included, usually at comic book conventions when “you give the organisers a bunch of pages, you turn up on the night… And there’s the work framed in a white room, usually with the work of lots of other artists around.”

As he watched the tremendous amount of production and innovative curation going on, he still couldn’t shift the feeling that maybe it would all go unseen. “I was worried that no one was going to come.” As it goes, as he’s sitting and speaking months later, The Art of Comics has surpassed all expectations of the organisers, and might possibly become a touring exhibition as several other cities have expressed interest.

Despite never expecting or setting his ambitions on the works he makes being hung in Kelvingrove, Quitely nevertheless is slower to draw disciplinary limits between media or artforms. “Within the visual arts, whether you’re looking at a pre-Renaissance painting, 20th century figurative art, a political cartoon for a newspaper, a movie poster or a comic book panel, the basic rules of compositions about where and why you have a point of focus, using characters or elements that support the narrative or the symbolism, all the basic rules of compositions, anatomy, lighting, iconography, symbolism remain... The crossovers are unavoidable, but the political cartoons are not the same as a comic book, not the same as abstract art, or book illustration. They all have their place.”

Nevertheless, he accepts, “How can you not be influenced by everything?” It’s for this reason that when it comes to asking if comic books are art, at the most general level he suggests “it’s a redundant question.”

This isn’t dry speculation by Quitely, and rewinding to his teens, these ideas map directly onto his bio and emergence as an artist. After a stint studying Drawing and Painting at the Glasgow School of Art, it wasn’t long before he was making a living embroiled in as many design and artistic projects as possible. “I kind of wanted to do a bit everything. When I got chucked out of art school, I did posters for nightclubs, I did t-shirt designs, window displays in shops, commissioned portraits, murals for schools and restaurants.”

Though he “loved the variety of it,” ultimately comics were where it was at. “I was writing and drawing my own stories [at Electric Soup]”. In drawing and writing comics, he describes the excitement of not being the “cog in a wheel” of some grander creative project. Instead, he found, “I was being the casting director, the actor, the cinematographer, everything. The more comics I drew, I realised what you could achieve, there were no restrictions in terms of budget, space, time.”

Despite the infinite potential of comic books, according to the museum staff one of the most successful parts of the exhibition has also been one of the most humble works. “There’s an X-Men bit. I was redesigning the X-Men and their costumes with Grant Morrison and there’s a wee headshot of Jean Grey on a Marriot Hotel notebook.” There’s been many comments by visitors on this one little sketch, and he speculates some of the attraction. “There seems to be something in the simplicity or familiarity of a lined jotter or a hotel notebook with a biro or pencil drawing on it that actually appeals to people in a way they can see what it is, when they can’t with an amazing CGI animation.”

Ultimately, this insight into the individual artist’s hand at work is, for Quitely, responsible for some of the successes of the exhibition at Kelvingrove. “You see all these huge [printed works], but framed in front of it is what looks like a really simple drawing on bashed paper. It’s just a good drawing, that’s it. There’s not really any jiggery-pokey. I think that really appeals to people.”

Frank Quitely: The Art of Comics, at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, until 1 Oct