By the time Frank Quitely and panel moderator Douglas Wolk took the dais for the 9th Annual Emerald City Comicon’s “Spotlight on Frank Quitely” panel, the hall’s seats had filled with fans of the acclaimed Scottish penciller, best known for his collaborations with fellow Glaswegian Grant Morrison including “All Star Superman,” “We3,” and “Flex Mentallo.” Fans relished the opportunity to discuss Quitely’s artwork with the artist himself, as well as the future of “Flex Mentallo” and Quitely’s methods of combining digital inking and coloring with hand-drawn pencils.
Wolk, himself an esteemed cultural critic and author of “Reading Comics,” kicked off the panel by listing some of Quitely’s most high-profile works, with the audience offering huge rounds of applause for each comic book work he named.
Wolk started by asking Quitely what he was currently working on, and the shaggy-haired artist began by explaining how his sciatica had been cutting into his work-time, perhaps in anticipation of audience questions related to the delays and setbacks that seem to plague Quitely’s oeuvre (no such questions were ultimately asked).
When asked why his sequence in a recent issue of “DC Universe Legacies”-featuring Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters-looked so different from his work on titles like “Batman and Robin,” Quitely said that he inked those pages himself. These days, the artist typically combines hand-drawn pencils with digital manipulation via software like Adobe Photoshop, so the “Legacies” gig marked something of a departure for him.
He then revealed that he was still hard at work on the ten new pages of story that are being included in DC Comics’ forthcoming “We3” hardcover edition.
“I’m actually working on [those pages] in the hotel room,” Quitely told the crowd.
“You’ve had sort of a [Mick] Jagger and [Keith] Richards relationship with Grant Morrison over the years-do you have any other collaborations in the works?” Wolk asked.
Quitely responded by saying that he’d like to make some time to tackle more creator-owned material, like his breakout strip “The Greens” for Scotland’s “Electric Soup” comic, adding that he’d already written some story ideas and scenarios that he planned to illustrate.
Wolk then steered the conversation towards the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling, asking Quitely about the way he is able to communicate the passage of time across the panels of a comics page.
“The way I thought about storytelling was, if you had a reasonable idea of what was going on [on a comics page] before the words were put onto it, then I’ve done OK,” Quitely said.
He then talked specifically about a double-page splash from “WE3” featuring a series of panels presented in a row at a perpendicular angle to the reader, as well as the “strobing” sequence of bumbling Clark Kent in the Daily Planet offices from “All-Star Superman” #1. Quitely also shared an anecdote from early in his career (one he’s told before on podcasts and in interviews) about a Lobo story he drew for DC Comics editor Dan Raspler, who had many, many criticisms of Quitely’s storytelling decisions. Ultimately, Raspler’s input helped Quitely develop his now-distinctive, practically faultless knack for communicating action across a series of panels. “I reckon that was the steepest learning curve,” he said.
Panels like the aforementioned one with Clark Kent were completed without any photo reference, according to Quitely. “I find it more believable when everything has the same kind of crudeness or ugliness or whatever you want to call it,” he said, in reference to the idiosyncratic way many of his characters appear.
At this point, the panel was turned over to the crowd for questions. The first fan wanted to know about how Quitely worked with Grant Morrison to communicate “All-Star Superman’s” mind-boggling density of ideas.
This gave Quitely an opportunity to discuss his collaborations with Morrison more generally, saying, “It works differently for each project. Normally, Grant will phone me up with his enthusiasm,” but for the ground-breaking “Flex Mentallo” limited series, Quitely admits that he had very little consultation with Morrison and essentially went in blind, since at that point he hadn’t picked up a superhero comic since he was a child.
For specific action scenes in “We3,” Quitely said that he and Morrison were literally doodling ideas in the same room at the same time, trying to hammer out the beats in simpatico.
The second audience question was also related to “All-Star Superman.” A fan wanted to know if Quitely had seen the recent animated adaptation of the series, and Quitely sheepishly admitted that he had not. “I was not invited to the premiere, and they didn’t even send me a [complementary copy of the DVD],” he said. Staffers at ECCC’s DC Comics booth offered to make up for it by gifting Quitely with a copy of the film this weekend. “I didn’t bother mentioning the Region 1/Region 2 thing,” Quitely quipped, referring to the different encoding of DVDs for the United States and the UK.
The next batch of questions addressed the specific strengths of Quitely’s unique artistic style: the way he illustrates fabrics and textures, the way he expresses movement, and his gift for suggestion emotion through posture and “performance.” “Some years ago, I made a deliberate decision not to use motion lines. I was kind of looking for other things that would help suggest movement. If you’ve got someone getting punched in the face, obviously their head is going to be falling backwards from where the first hit them, and their hair is going to be flying forwards.”
Quitely’s talent for expressing motion in panels is evident, as one audience member pointed out, in the many well-staged fight scenes from his three-issue arc on “Batman and Robin,” as well as his illustrations in “Batman: The Scottish Connection” (when asked if “Scottish Connection” was going to tie into the ongoing “Batman, Inc.,” and if Quitely would be involved, the artist said no on both counts).
For the “acting” in his artwork, Quitely said he was inspired by Normal Rockwell and Scottish comics artist Dudley Watkins. “Normal Rockwell would depict a scene, and everybody else in the scene added to the whole texture and flavor of it. You could read their reactions by the facial expressions, y’know?
“It’s actually more interesting for me to actually draw [background characters] actually doing something, and not just be generic shapes,” he added.
A fan asked if “Flex Mentallo” would ever be collected, apparently unaware that DC Comics has already announced a hardcover edition for 2011. Quitely then revealed that the hardcover would use his original cover illustration for the collected edition that he drew in the mind-’90s, and that all of the interior artwork was being re-colored by Pete Doherty (colorist for the likeminded Geoff Darrow’s “Shaolin Cowboy”).
Wolk intervened at this point to press Quitely for more details on how he combines digital illustration with traditional “analog” methods, citing a recent “Judge Dredd” cover that Quitely drew entirely on his Wacom tablet.”Most of what I do is still done on paper,” Quitely said. “Sometimes I start digitally and finish it in pencil, and sometimes vice versa.”
He then spoke about the difficulties of employing his style on creator-owned characters, specifically Mike Allred’s Madman, who Quitely views as indivisible from Allred’s signature style. For his one-page contribution to a forthcoming “Madman” anniversary issue, Quitely decided to depict Frank “Madman” Einstein on a psychiatrist’s couch, complaining about how “different” (read: “Quitely-esque”) his world was suddenly looking. The page combines unfinished pencils with refined, fully-rendered digital art to evoke a world that is being deconstructed before the reader’s eyes.
As the forty-five-minute panel neared its conclusion, Wolk told the audience they had “time for one more awesome question.” A fan sheepishly approached the mic, saying, “I have a question, but I’m not sure if it’s awesome.”
“It better be,” Quitely said, smiling.
The fan then proceeded to ask Quitely about how his family has reacted to some of the more mind-bending, psychedelic, and hyper-violent work he’s done with Grant Morrison. “This is where the sad music starts playing,” Quitely said. “No one in my family has read my work.” The father of three then revised his statement: “No, that’s not true. Both my sons have.”
The crowd laughed in unison and with that, Wolk politely thanked everyone for attending and the room was once again filled with enthusiastic applause.