WC11: Frank Quitely Spotlight

"All-Star Superman," "Batman and Robin" and "We3" artist Frank Quitely spent last Saturday afternoon answering questions from fans during his WonderCon spotlight panel, charming the crowd while giving the audience insight into his life and work along with some hints of future projects.

DC Comics' Larry Ganem hosted the proceedings, kicking things off with what seemed to be a softball question, asking Quitely what he thought of the recent "All-Star Superman" animated feature based on the acclaimed miniseries Quitely created with writer Grant Morrison.

Quitely seemed to be genuinely surprised by the question. "You don't really know the answer to this? No? DC sent me a copy of the DVD -- it was just last week -- and I settled down with three kids, one of whom was interested in watching it, and the two of us settled down to watch this DVD, and I was really enjoying the start of it, and ten minutes in, my mother came to the door. She hadn't been around for a week, and she was like, 'Go make a cup of tea.' And you would need to know my mum, but I couldn't say, 'Yes, mum, I'm watching a cartoon. I'll do that later,' I thought I would go back to it the following night, and, just with busy-ness, and getting ready to come here, getting things sorted out, I've seen, sort of, the first ten or fifteen minutes, which I really, really liked. I've seen some of it, and it's good so far.

"The first ten minutes are good, though," Ganem reiterated.

"The first ten minutes are brilliant," Quitely assured him.

"When you get home, you'll eventually watch the rest of it?"

"I'll watch the rest of it."

"You know how it ends?"

Admitting "my questions aren't going so well," Ganem turned the role of interviewer over to the crowd.

The first audience member to take the reins of the panel asked, "I've always heard that Grant Morrison does a lot of thinking about his books before he starts writing them. I was kind of curious, where does Grant come in and where do you come in, as far as the creative work?"

"When it comes to designing the look of characters, Grant usually has something to say about it, and sometimes, he'll actually send me a rough that he's drawn.," Quitely explained. "With Superman, he wanted a shorter cape, and he said, 'Go back and check the old stuff,' and actually, his cape was quite short. I looked at it, and I was like, 'I never really noticed,' but, yeah, it was quite short. If he's designing a new character we've not seen before, he'll actually do a sketch, and say 'it's something along these lines.' Occasionally, for a guy like [Leo] Quintum, the guy on the moon base [from 'All-Star Superman'], he'll just say he's a bit like David Bowie and he's a bit like the West End production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.' He'll just get a few different references and expect me to come up with something along those lines. But, generally speaking, things like gravity guns, he usually doesn't describe them in detail. But, more often than not, if it's a new character, or a new take on a character, he likes to do something; a kind of little sketch first."

The next question also dealt with Quitely's and Morrison's working relationship, a theme that would continue throughout the panel "The comics that you and Grant have done over the last five years are some of the best comics being made today. If I hear that you're on it, I'll buy it -- I don't care what it is. With Grant, some of the other stuff he does, I can't even get my head around it, but every time you guys have done something together, it's been pretty clear, and I wonder if you have any ideas why that is?"

"I like to think it's because I'm his translator," Quitely responded. "I like to think "We3" is certainly a project that was clear and more obvious than some of the work he's done. And I think 'All-Star Superman' is [clear], as well. I did the last issue of 'The Invisibles,' and yeah, it was pretty complicated. Grant does a lot of work, and he does go back to certain central themes and explores them in different ways, but he also covers a fair length of types of work. So, yeah, some of it is more difficult to get than others."

The same fan followed up with, "So you're the more action/adventure, literally more straightforward kind of guy?"

"Well, you know, when you speak to any writer, not just Grant, they do often complain that they make all these requests or suggestions in the script, and very often the artist will pick and choose which of these things they want to address, or which they want to include," Quitely clarified. "Generally speaking, if they ask for something in the script, I'll find a way to put it in there, without overcrowding the composition of the page. The thing about drawing comics is, this isn't me sharing my ideas with you; this is me taking the writer's story and presenting it the way that they've asked for it to be presented. I try to make it work for me, and generally speaking, it works for the majority of people if it works for me. I speak to Grant and I speak to other writers. Many other artists, they don't do everything the writer actually asks them to do. Whether it's consideration of deadline or if they have ideas of their own, I don't know. I do what I'm told! "

At this point, Ganem broke in, asking point blank, "Is Grant your favorite writer to work with?"

Quitely quickly answered in the affirmative, stating, "Yeah. I've been fortunate to work with some writers I really enjoy working with, but when Grant and I work together, we often feel that the work we do together is in some ways more satisfying than the work we do with other people."

"So you bring out the best in each other," Ganem asked.

"I think so, yes."

Ganem continued his line of questioning, asking, "One question I've always wanted to ask you: Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch had had a great 12-issue run [on 'The Authority']. It was incredibly hot; it was incredibly edgy at that point. They'd really built that thing up. Did you feel any pressure when you guys took it over?"

"Yes," Quitely answered. "I actually felt as much pressure taking over 'The Authority' after Warren and Bryan as I did starting 'New X-Men' with Grant. It was a definite thing. With 'New X-Men,' X-Men fans were used to seeing more definite writers and artists doing 'X-Men.' But the pressure was that it was a really big book and we were changing it quite a lot. We knew that not all the fans would like it -- and a lot initially didn't like it. I think there was a general feeling that we were two guys from Vertigo who were taking over a really-liked book and not knowing what to do with it, and that was sort of the feedback we got from them.

"The pressure going into 'The Authority' was completely different," Quitely continued, "That was a book that only belonged to Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, and I think it had become really popular -- at the time I remember this -- it seemed like a really fresh spin; it seemed like a fresh approach and they just totally made it their own. It was either my favorite of one of my favorite comics at the time, and Mark and I talked about it before we took it on because we were very well aware of the fact that it was their book."

Ganem turned things back over to the fans, and the next one asked, "I wanted to know if you'd touch on 'We3' a little bit; how that came about; what the genesis and inspiration of that one was? Also, a number of years ago, there was some discussion about it being made into a film, and I just can't even wrap my brain around how that would work, considering the innovation with handling you had done with that book."

"Okay, the way it came about was that Grant told me that he had created various creator-owned projects that he was wanting to do through Vertigo, he wanted a different artist on each book, and he wanted me to do one of them," Quitely responded. "He started talking about the ideas that he had and got to this one, 'We3,' and I said, 'What's 'We3' about?' He said, 'It's a cat and a dog and a rabbit.' I laughed and I said, 'No, no, really. What's it about?' And he said, 'It's a cat and a dog and a rabbit.'

"I'd worked with Grant maybe on four or five occasions before that, and I'd never not found it a really satisfying experience -- but it just didn't sound good. We talked about it at some length and I started to think, well, actually, maybe that could work. As soon as I started doing some designs for how the animals might look, I started to get a much cleaner feel for it. Grant was really liking the idea of trying to push what we could do with the storytelling. He had ideas in his mind that you couldn't quite see, but you knew there was something there. It wasn't the two of us getting together; this was a much more collaborative approach than the way we normally work. We usually have a big discussion at the top when we start something together, and then I'll sit and work with the first script and get back to him with any questions. With 'We3," we actually sat there and we worked on the stuff together. When I say we worked on it, we both had pencils in our hands and we were both drawing, but most of the time it just was Grant looking over my shoulder saying, 'No, no, make it better; make it more new. Draw something we've not seen before,' so there was a lot of back and forth. It eventually became like a regular thing, where I was left alone, making the artwork work, but there was this period beforehand with each issue, where we actually sat down and worked out some of the sequences together.

"As for the movie, a few years back, New Line took an option out and nothing happened with it, and nothing's happened with it still. There's nearly always been a director attached to it, but as far as we know, we've never been close to having a studio finance it. I think the problem is, that if you aim it at a more adult audience, it's about a cat and a dog and a rabbit, and you really have to talk people into it to get involved with it in the first place. So you would definitely have that in the way to get adults to see it in a cinema, or you'd have to change it quite a lot to make it kid friendly, so I don't know"

The next questioner asked about a possible Absolute edition of "We3," and wondering if there's an actual release date.

"It's not an Absolute, I think it's a Deluxe. Originally, when Grant put the proposal in with Vertigo, before we actually started it, he wanted it to be three books, but he was looking at a little over 100 pages. The way it broke down best was three 32-page books, and he felt that he could tell the story well in 96 pages. But when he was told six months or so ago that they were thinking of bringing it out as a Deluxe, that they wanted sketchbook stuff for out the back, and they wanted him to talk about it, he -- I don't know if he initiated it or what, but anyway, but we've got an extra ten pages of story that fill out some of the -- I wanted at the end, for, like, the rabbit to come back as a ninja zombie. Grant thought that was too good an idea, so the ten pages are expanding a couple of scenes."

The same fan had "heard a rumor that you got a go-ahead for a reprint of 'Flex Mentallo,'" which Quitely confirmed, adding that the series is being recolored by Peter Doherty.

Going for the trifecta, the fan then mentioned that he'd heard that Quitely and Mark Millar have been working and talking about projects, but Quitely was noncommittal in his answer

The next fan asked about Quitely's design process for his "very unusual" covers.

"The cover design process varies from project to project," Quitely responded. "Sometimes I'm given carte blanche and I can do what I want, and sometimes either the writer or the editor will give some kind of suggestion or idea, even if it's just for a general flavor or atmosphere that they're going for. Sometimes I get quite a specific description of what either the writer or the editor is after. And sometimes I actually get a thumbnail, usually from the writer, saying, 'take this kind of image or composition and make it work.'"

The fan followed up, asking specifically about the cover for "Batman and Robin" #2, to qhich the artist answered, "All of the 'Batman and Robin' covers, I think all without exception, were worked up from thumbnails that Grant sent me. He'd have tiny loose thumbnails, just so that I knew the type of cover, the type of composition he was after. I just worked from there. That particular one, oddly enough -- there was a little bit of a misunderstanding between the two of us. That was supposed to be Batman standing behind a model of a city, with a dead guy and his hand on the street. I actually thought it was a real city; that was put together as a montage image. You picked the one example that didn't quite work, but yeah, all of the 'Batman and Robin' ones were taken from Grant's thumbnails."

The next fan asked about Quitely's artistic inspirations, be they photographs, other artists or what. "Everything inspires me. I'm inspired by just everything around me," Quitely responded before expanding on his answer. "There's a Scottish artist, Dudley D. Watkins, who was a Sunday newspaper artist, and was a big influence when I was younger. Steve Ditko and John Buscema and bunch of guys, when I was very young and had my first exposure to a bunch of American comics artists. All through my teens, it was Mort Drucker and Jack Davis from 'Mad Magazine.' I loved those guys. In my late teens and early twenties when I started to publish comics, the other guys who were involved in the anthology comics that I was drawing, they introduced me to Moebius, Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons and a bunch of other stuff. I was up and running from there."

The next fan asked when to expect "Multiversity," the mammoth project being written by Morrison.

"I've not started on it yet," Quitely said. "I'm halfway through the ten extra "We3" pages, so I'm guessing -- I'm hoping -- by, like, from a month from now, I'll hopefully have some 'Multiversity' script. I really know very, very little about it. I know it's the Charlton characters, the book I'm doing. I don't know how many other books there are or what other groups of characters they've covering but Grant's told me that I'll have script by the time I finish the 'We3' stuff, so that is the next thing I'll be starting on, so it shouldn't be too long.

Ganem prompted Quitely to relate what Morrison had told him about the project. "He did also say it's going to take me forever to draw, because he's made it super complicated," Quitely answered to chuckles from the crowd.

"Are there any chance we'll get any extras in the 'Flex Mentallo' reprint? Because the behind-the-scenes stuff really interests me."

"I believe Grant's going to write some stuff about it, but beyond that, I don't know. I've got most of the original scripts I worked from and most of the thumbnails for most of the projects I've worked on. Thus far I've found a couple of pages of script for 'Flex' and the cover roughs for the original series, so I don't have much. I don't know how much there's going to be, what visual extras will be in the back. I know Grant's writing some stuff about it. I think they're relying on me to go to down to my mum's house and up to the attic and go through boxes."

Ganem asked, "Do you have scripts and sketch material from all your projects?"

Quitely replied, "From most of them, yeah."

Ganem wanted to be sure. "And you keep them where? In your mother's house?"

Quitely admitted he doesn't "have a filing system. They're in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Some of them are in my mum's house and some of them are in my house. Some are in the studio. I'm not organized."

"So when you say you have them, they just ... somewhere."

"That's right."

"So, 'have' might be a strong word for it."

"Um, yeah," Quitely admitted sheepishly.

The next questioner expressed admiration for the way the artist handles movement, citing "the clumsy way Clark Kent moves around and manages to save people's lives without them realizing it. But the one thing that I always admired was the way you did Flash in 'JLA: Earth 2,' when he's running and you would see the bits and pieces of him. I was just wondering how you came up with that idea, since it's so different from how he's usually depicted."

Quitely answered, "It was a variation of the idea of the strobe photograph; we've all seen, like, the running guy or the golfer? You take stop motion photographs and you put them all together? It came about like that, partly. There some Russian architects who tried to create movement in sculpture by putting what was like a strobe image, but it was more broken up than that. It's like a cartoon thing, where somebody's moving their head, and you see multiple faces, or multiple fingers on the hands, waving. It was just looking at the different ways movement was depicted, and trying to come up with something that worked as something that suggested movement but wasn't a huge distraction to the overall flow of the story. I'm real glad it worked for you. But it was as simple as that; it was just looking at different ways movement was depicted, and trying to come up with something along those lines."

A fan wanted to know how long it takes Quitely to do an issue, "'cause I love your work, but I want to see more of it."

"Penciling and inking, or penciling and digital inking, I used to work for two hours [a day] and be able to do about two and half pages a week. I'm kinda down to about two pages a week now, and after the third issue of 'Batman and Robin,' my sciatica problem came back. It was really bad once, and I promised it would never happen again, and it did. I was off for, like, three months, then six months working really slowly. After 'Batman and Robin,' it was just like a year of building up slowly. I only did covers in that time, and I'm just getting back into doing interiors now. The last year and a half, I've been slow even by my standards, so I'm hoping to be back to just regular slow from now on."

Ganem asked, "So, normally, it would be ten weeks for a book?"

"Yeah, I think the most I've ever done, is like, seven, seven and a half issues a year. I'm kind of aiming for six issues a year."

"Is digital inking faster than regular inking?"

"Digital inking is faster than regular inking, but it involves spending longer with the pencils, so it's not a huge saving."

Another question from the floor: "Your art had a real fluidity and motion to it. Do you use photo references to get that fluidity?"

"I tend to build up the environments and the figure work like an animator would, with simple stick figures and flesh them out. I try to use as little photo reference as possible, because I find that, with the idiosyncrasies with my work, it doesn't generally look 'photo reference,' and when I have to use straight photo reference -- like if I lightbox a photograph or something -- it would really jar with the more organic look of my normal artwork. If I have to use photo reference -- if it's like the White House, or if it's a specific model of car, or a specific type of animal -- I'll try to draw it from a slightly different angle from the photograph, just so it becomes more of a drawing, rather than a tracing or a copy or something else. As for the movement, because I generally take things up from simple stick figure drawings, you can kinda see even with stick figure drawings if it's really working or not. If it looks static and clumsy as a stick figure, it's gonna look static and clumsy by the time you put muscles and clothes and stuff like that on the character, so if you can make it work in the thumbnail stage, there's no reason it won't work in the finished stage."

Continuing with the line of questioning about artistic process, Ganem wanted to know if Quitely thumbnails the whole page first.

"Yeah, I've never, ever started drawing a comic book page -- even when I did small press stuff and was writing my own stories -- or started a page without the whole thing being planned out. I've spoken to other artists, who, quite often, will start at the top of the page, and they'll get halfway through a page, and will say, 'I really don't know what to do with the bottom of this page,' or they haven't left themselves enough room. I just can't get my head around that way of working at all."

The next fan had "read an article recently that reprinted some of your work on 'New Gods #1,'" and was "really struck by how you changed Jack Kirby's story, and kind of made it your own, along with the scripter. Would you ever go back to something like that, where you'd draw eight-page reprints of different stories?"

Quitely corrected the fan. "Well, that wasn't a reprint; that was a recent work. It was Len Wein that wrote it, so I had no influence on the story or how the story differed from the way events were originally depicted, way back when it was Jack Kirby was doing it. What I did was take Len's script, and it's the first time -- the only time -- I've worked 'Marvel process' on a DC script. He wrote it out -- there were no panel numbers or anything -- he just wrote what he wanted me to draw, and I had to break it down. That was an interesting process. I got a bunch of Jack Kirby reference for it, and I noticed that, probably because [Kirby] worked so fast, Orion's helmet would look different in three different panels on a page. He just had that kind of way of working, so I just took the general style and tried to keep as faithful as possible to the original designs. But for me, it was a really straightforward job. I think I had a good, fun script to work from and I had these amazing Jack Kirby designs to reference, so I just ran with it."

Ganem clarified for the audience that the story was actually a backup in the recent "DC Universe: Legacies" series.

With all the mention of Quitely's mother, it was no surprise that the next questioner said that someone had told him, "I should ask you what your family thinks of your comics."

Quitely seemed a little chagrined. "Oh, no you shouldn't."

Ganem asked who had told him to ask that.

"An anonymous source," was the response.

"I was at the Emerald City [Comicon] in Seattle a few weeks ago, and somebody asked what my family think of my comics and I said none of them have read any of my comics. After thinking about it, my eldest son, in fact both my sons, have read a couple of the things I've done and liked them. My mother read one comic that I drew. It was 'The Scottish Connection,' which was a Batman which Alan Grant wrote, and I said to her, 'What did you think of it?,' 'cause it was the first kind of mainstream thing that I'd done that I was proud of. She said [Scottish mother voice], 'Your drawings were very good, but the writing was rubbish.' [Laughter] And of course, I went and told Alan Grant."

Ganem told the crowd that when that question had been asked in Seattle, and Quitely had responded that none of his family have ever read his comics, the audience responded with a big "Awwww," but he didn't hear anything from the San Francisco group, calling them a "tougher crowd than the Seattle audience."

Another fan wanted to know, "If you had to break into comics again, if you had zero fame to your name, how would you do it?," to which Quitely answered, "I would almost certainly start doing a webcomic. I would probably workprint it, as well; do some sort of hard copy, When I started out, I kind of got into small press comics almost by accident. Once I started drawing my own stuff, I really started falling in love with the whole sequential process; the idea of actually making comic books. But it wasn't actually a childhood dream or anything. The childhood dream was that I would have a job that just involved drawing, but it wasn't specifically comic books -- it could have been anything. Looking back, the way people got into comics back then was just by doing fanzines and small press stuff, self-published stuff, Now, it seems to be, like, the webcomic is current equivalent of that. You have so much more control. It costs you nothing extra to make it in color. There's no initial expense of actually to print up. It's easier to find an audience, as well. It's still just as difficult to get money out of it when you're starting out, but in a lot of ways, it's still kind of the best time; I mean, it's not the best time to be getting into mainstream comics because it's always difficult to come in as a new guy, when there's editors who have got a lot of names in their books, and not quite enough work for everybody who's worked for them before. So, it's still very difficult to get a start, but it's easier to get started on your own."

Ganem asked if there were any webcomics Quitely followed.

"I'm following Dan Goldman's stuff; he was one of the 'act-i-vate' guys. You know, Dean Haspiel and Dan Goldman, and that bunch. And -- I can't even remember the name; the Canadian guys. Karl Kerschl, Ramon Perez, good stuff."
As the panel began to wrap, a fan wanted to know if Quitely's underground "Electric Soup" work is being collected anytime soon.

"Maybe. It's kind of embarrassing, because it's mostly really, really lame. Some of the drawings are okay, but most of the writing's hopeless. But yeah, I have been toying with the idea -- it's all black and white, anyway -- of doing a really cheap, low-priced version of it; mail order or something. I don't know."

After being cautioned by Ganem that the final question had to be a good one ["No 'what's your favorite color?' or anything about Marvel"], the final questioner asked, "One of the things Grant Morrison talks about frequently are the tripped-out magical experiences that come from working on his comics, and a few of the artists that work with him have talked about it, too, like Chris Weston. I was wondering if you have any bizarre comic-related phenomena, from doing that stuff with him."

Quitely replied cautiously, "I've got some fairly bizarre stories about Grant-related stories, but it's not really my place to divulge stuff like that."

The fan mentioned that Morrison had said he had met Superman and Chris Weston talked about meeting Bizarro, so "did the New Gods show up, or weird stuff like that?"

Quitely puckishly replied, "Aw, Chris just wanted attention," before wrapping the panel and bidding the satisfied audience farewell.

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