The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world’s first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student’s perspective, looking at and discussing what the term “Comic Studies” really entails.
One of the most exciting benefits of doing a Comic Studies degree right here in Scotland is just how many of the world’s greatest comic writers and artists live nearby. Luckily for us students, quite a few of them have managed to squeeze some free time out of their hectic schedules to come and talk to the students at Dundee University. Next month, we’ll be learning about script writing from Alan Grant, while John Wagner is one of the guests at Dundee Comics Day at the end of October.
This week’s guest was the legendary Frank Quitely who stopped in on the class to talk us through his work as one of the most sought after artists in the comics industry. Those, of course, are my words rather than his, as Quitely (real name Vin Deighan) is incredibly down to earth and happy to chat away at length about any of his projects.
Speaking to a class including students from the MLitt in Comic Studies as well as from the nearby art college (Duncan of Jordanstone), Quitely brought a large, digital portfolio of his work, some pages to be pounced on and admired and one of his many notebooks containing all his rough work. His pages included two of the comics he is most admired for, “All-Star Superman” and “New X-Men,” as well as some of his older work, including “The Greens” from Electric Soup.
After a brief battle with the Macbook being used for the occasion (I get the sense Quitely is a Windows man), the class settled into a brief tour of his artistic process from trusty sketchbook to finished work. Quitely starts with thumbnailing the script and then selecting the best sketches upon which to build his page layout. Then, the thumbnails are reworked as he decides how to make the panels work with each other as well as the story.
Bringing up a page on the screen, Quitely discussed the problem-solving aspect of his work which he says often takes as much time as the actual drawing. The images on the screen, from Grant Morrison’s upcoming “Multiversity” series, all had something more complicated about them than your average comics page. In a page split into three horizontal panels, two characters walk down a flight of stairs: in the first panel they walk left to right, in the second they walk right to left, and in the third they walk left to right again. The middle panel, therefore, has them walking against the normal flow of a page.
“When I got the script in for this, I wasn’t really happy about it because it’s a real bugbear of mine when things go the wrong way,” Quitely explained. “But the script itself was echoing what was actually going on — they were talking about things going backwards, or going into reverse, or something like that.”
Consequently, Quitely told us, these pages took a lot longer than usual to actually work out before he got past the initial page layout stage.
“Having said that,” Quitely continued, “one of the problems was there was a wee bit of performance anxiety involved in this. The comic that that was for is called ‘Pax Americana’ — this is this ‘Multiversity’ thing that Grant Morrison’s writing. He’s getting a bunch of different artists each to do one of these books, and the one that I’m doing is the Charlton characters. These were old comic book characters that the publisher, DC [Comics], acquired years ago. The most famous comic, called ‘Watchmen,’ it’s based on them, these characters. But because a couple of them died in the story, DC wouldn’t let him [Moore] use the actual Charlton characters so they [Moore and Gibbons] made their own versions of them.
“But Grant recently said in an interview, just right before I started thumbnailing the script, he said something to the effect that this will be ‘Watchmen’ — but done right! And that’s the thing, he hates Alan Moore,” Quitely joked, referencing the much-publicized comments Morrison has made topwards Moore over years.”[Grant] thinks he’s overrated, so he’s quite happy to say, ‘This is the way it should be done!’ But I love Dave Gibbons, the guy that drew the original, and he’s not overrated in the slightest! So now that [Grant’s] said that, I can’t hand in something that doesn’t actually work!”
The next image Quitely showed was that of a gigantic human head with terrifying eyes, an amazing illustration of Alan Moore and his prolific beard which contains his even more prolific list of works. It’s a stunning work of art, even before you notice the writing cunningly hidden within the beard. The illustration, Quitely explained, is the cover art for a book by “a writer called Alan Moore. What I planned to do was do a pencil drawing, or what looked like a pencil drawing, with fully painted eyes. I did the pencil drawing. As you can see, there’s actually writing in the beard there as well. That’s got the names of various of his — ‘Lost Girls,’ there! — various works. But the thing is, once I’d done the pencil drawing — it had been ages since I’d use watercolor paints and I thought, ‘I’m gonna mess this up!'”
Quitely’s solution was to paint the eyes digitally. In fact, most of his work is done on the computer these days. His sketchbooks are scanned in, drawn over and tightened, before blue lines are printed out for more work. Zooming in on the cover image, Quitely pointed out the highlights and shadows on the veins of Moore’s eyeballs; a great attention to detail that is incredible to see, but understandable when the final, printed size of the illustration is about human head size.
Next was one of my new favorites — Quitely’s take on Madman for the upcoming anniversary issue. The story Quitely shared with us doubled as a neat breakdown of how comics work.
“This was a single page story that I had to draw and write for ‘Madman,'” Quitely said. “Madman’s a character that’s been written and drawn by the same guy [Mike Allred] for like 20 years. He asked loads of different people that he knew in the comics business if they would do a page. I couldn’t actually get past the idea that it was his character. Although I’d read Madman before, it didn’t feel right, me writing and drawing it, so I actually have him going to the psychiatrist or therapist, talking about the fact that something feels different, that that thing out there that he can’t explain, it just doesn’t feel the same any more.
“I just pencilled the whole page loosely like that, then scanned it in and added a few extra lines and a suggestion of a kind of the light from a lamp,” Quitely continued. “You actually see the shadow of the pen there, then he’s partially inked and then it’s inked and some flat coloring added. Then we’re back in the real world, going back out into white, and then he’s back to being sketchy again because he’s not feeling quite right. He’s starting to feel a bit sketchy like he was before.”
The sequence finishes with Madman sitting on a bucket, an “Oor Wullie” reference that perhaps flies over the head of any non-UK readers (Wullie begins and ends each of his strips sitting on an upturned bucket). In fact, the creator of both “Oor Wullie” and “The Broons,” Dudley Watkins, is someone Quitely cites as a particular influence on his work though says it’s hard to pinpoint other specific influences.
“When I was growing up,” Quitely explained, “I didn’t make much of a distinction between high art and low art. There were people that could do what I wanted to do and could do it much, much better than I could. They could be old Victorian illustrators like Gibson, it could be album covers, it could be posters, it could be food packaging — it could really be anything! Disney cartoons, you name it.”
Asked about the most challenging work of his career to date, Quitely pointed to “We3.” Hearing the artist break down what went into the series, it was quite astonishing to realize just how much hard work was involved. Some scenes, like the Cat smashing through slices of time, are understandably complex, but even small tricks like breaking up panels with landscape and shadow, lengthening leaves to give the illusion of movement or a flash of light to draw the eye, it’s impressive how much work lies behind this accessible comic.
“Very often, you read a script and it seems more complicated when it’s written down in words. Then, once you actually start doing thumbnails and breaking it down, you think, ‘Aw ,no, actually, this is okay.'” Quitley said. “These pages took ages. And the thing was, it always looks really simple once you’ve done it! Grant and I very often get together at the start of a project, just to talk about it and fire me up with enthusiasm with what kind of overall feeling that he’s looking for for it. But this was one of those occasions when we actually got together and we met in my house, we met in his house, we met in the cafe at the Burrell Collection and in a wee cafe in Glasgow. We’d get together and we’d both have sketchpads, and he’d be saying, ‘Right, the way I want this to work is…’ and he’d describe something that didn’t actually make any sense on paper! It was actually like him looking over my shoulder, saying, ‘No, no, think more like an animal!’ So yeah, it took ages,” he said with a laugh.
Asked whether he’s tempted to become his own writer, Quitely seemed enthused about the idea — particularly when it comes to a strip he’s developed featuring a hitwoman. The artist shared with the class, “I’ve written some short stories recently. About two years ago, my back problem came back and I had some time off work. I started writing a bunch of short stories that I wanted to draw when my back got better. Some of them are silent strips, and some of them have got dialogue in them. I’m working on two at the moment, one of them is going to appear in an anthology next year.
“I would rather do my own stuff than doing other people’s work,” Quitely continued. “Generally speaking, I would rather work on my own characters than company owned characters, and I would rather just work on my own things than work from other people’s scripts. But that’s quite a recent change, it’s only really the last couple of years that I’ve actually started wanting to write again. ”
That said, Quitely did stress, however, that he is still very happy drawing comics. The artist was keen to emphasize that for him, it’s about job satisfaction rather than monetary gain. Not that he need worry, being one of the most in demand comics artists around!
“Comics is really steady work for some people,” Quitely said, noting his own career. “I’ve been one of the ones it’s really steady for. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m working on something that I’m doing for free or if it’s for somebody and they’re only paying a very small amount of money or if it’s for a big company. It doesn’t matter what I’m working on or how much I’m getting paid for it, I always have this idea in mind that it’s probably the only time I’m going to do this particular job so I may as well make it as good as possible. Or if I’m going to spend the whole day on it I might as well have something that I’m proud of at the end of the day. I know quite a few people that work in comics, and depending on what publisher they’re working for at the time — you get paid by the page in comics, and British publishers that do stuff like ‘Judge Dredd’ pay a lot less than American publishers who do stuff like Batman, and they pay you more to draw Batman than they do to draw a creator owned thing like ‘We3’ — and I know quite a few guys, they find out what the page rate is and then they actually set a clock!”
His final advice was equally useful, I think, both for the writers and artists present. “If you’re always determined to do your best work, if you’re always determined to solve problems as they arise, and if you’re reasonably easy to work with which helps, people do come back to you.”
After the talk, I spent a good ten minutes browsing through his sketchbook and furiously resisting the urge to grab it and run. Sketches of Superman, Catwoman, Ra’s al Ghul and a number of characters I couldn’t identify (ooh!) flashed before my eyes. Tiny thumbnailed pages the size of a match box had full stories playing out. And did I mention Catwoman?! It almost made up for me not seeing the pages of “Transmetropolitan,” which visitors to my site will know is my object of fangirl desire.
I await “Multiversity” even more impatiently than before!
Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.