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Frank Quitely: Comic Timing

BBC Arts interviewed Frank Quitely shortly after completion of his What Do Artists Do All Day? film. He talks more about his early life and his work on comics such as X-Men, Batman and Superman.

At school in Rutherglen, an undistinguished suburb of Glasgow, the young Vin Deighan was 'the best drawer in the class'. Life is a bit like that in Scotland.

"If you can't be the best footballer, you might as well be the best at drawing," he acknowledges. "There is a certain kudos."

If you can't be the best footballer, you might as well be the best at drawing... there is a certain kudos.

Now Deighan has grown up and acquired an alter ego, Frank Quitely, and a successful career as a comic book artist.

As Quitely he has assisted superstar writer Grant Morrison in reimagining Superman and the X-Men, and worked with Kickass author Mark Millar on The Authority amongst others; he is definitely not short of admirers.

And, it seems, detractors. "Oh, you know," he laughs, a lot of people love my style, and a lot hate it. Comic fans are an unusually vocal population."

"I just always wanted to draw, always," he says of his childhood. "It wasn't specifically comics, but a fundamental part of my ambition was... 'imagine if I could just have a job where I could draw all the time'. No big life-changing decisions for other people, just drawing.

"If you're a brain surgeon or a judge - a bad day at work is a big deal for someone. A bad day for me is when I rub out more marks than I leave on the page."

Spoiled superheroes

What Do Artists Do All Day? spent 24 hours in Quitely's company, watching him pull an all-nighter at work in his small shared studio high up opposite Glasgow's busy Central Station.

We3 by Frank Quitely

He sits hunched over, sketching elegant lines on a digital drawing board and, starting with simple pale blue shapes on the page, he succeeds in bringing an almost cinematic feel to the spoiled superheroes of Mark Millar's Jupiter's Legacy.

He is without doubt an artist, but how does Deighan himself view what he does?

"I draw the images, but I think what I do is different to those people who would call themselves fine artists. That's more akin to being the front man in the band, wanting the attention, feeling that you've got something you desperately want to say."

Without wishing to play his contribution down, Deighan sees what he does as rather different.

"To do comics properly, to do the stories justice, takes a great deal of thought, but most of what I do is working from someone else's script.

"But everything that I'm putting into it is of myself; my imagination, my personal taste, my years of experience... all in the service of telling the story. How to make people's eyes move quickly across the page, how to stop them in their tracks, how to make them feel what they need to feel.

"Think of me more like an actor, using everything I've learned to turn in the performance of a lifetime, every time, but for someone else."

Deighan creates artwork using a digital drawing board

Freelance work

Deighan studied drawing at Glasgow School of Art from 1986. Contemporaries like Turner Prize-winners Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce were in the Environmental Art department preparing to tear up the rule books, while Deighan set about spending his student grant with such aplomb that he was turfed out after two years.

My job is to make the illustrations provide a dynamic visual narrative

"I'd had a paper round a month before getting there, I was 17. I didn't have the talk to back myself up when I got into trouble."

It was while picking up freelance work, "nightclub posters, murals, pictures of people's pets", that he started drawing The Greens for Electric Soup, a fondly remembered Viz-like Glasgow comic.

His strip was a scabrous re-working of Dundee's famous cartoon The Broons, with stories such as "Nightmare on Glib St" and "Monty Fux Flying Circus." (Deighan is far from immune to word-play, with Frank Quitely a spoonerism of 'quite frankly'.)

This work brought him to the attention of Judge Dredd Megazine and later the opportunity to work with fellow Scot Grant Morrison on DC Comics' Flex Mentallo.

"Someone like Grant, his writing is already so multi-layered and well realised," he says of the creator of We3 and The Invisibles. "My job, for Grant and for Mark and the others, is to make the illustrations not just a companion to the script but to provide a dynamic visual narrative."

Skirting deadlines

Unusually for an artist, the better his work the less time the viewer spends looking at it. Counter-intuitively, the level of work that goes into a page often dictates how simple and easy it is on the eye.

We3 by Frank Quitely

Deighan is well-known for skirting deadlines, and confesses that digital technology has not speeded up his production process.

"I have never been on a project where I've thought 'ach, this is rubbish', and not tried hard," he says. "It's not in my nature. The downside of that is that things take a while.

Working remotely for American titles can mean that artist and writer don't get together much. When working with Glasgow-based Mark Millar the pair tend to meet for a coffee before a project, "to check we are on the same page" and talk about character design.

"Then off he goes to enthuse wildly and publicly, tweeting and talking to the press, like a good frontman does, while I stay out of the way. Just me, the script, and the ever-approaching deadline."

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