Interview: Frank Quitely and the Vertigo years

This is an edited transcript of the interview given by Frank Quitely at the 25 Years of Vertigo conference in Dijon, France, on 9 November 2018. Any mistakes are my own.

Many thanks to Frank Quitely for being with us on that occasion, and living up to his reputation as the Nicest Man in Glasgow.

Special thanks also to Rita de Pinna who did backup recordings of the interview and was kind enough to share them with us when our own recorder expired in the middle of the afternoon.


Isabelle Licari-Guillaume: Could you tell me more about your relationship with the editorial team at Vertigo? Were there any expectations regarding the type of work you were asked to do?

Frank Quitely: To some extent I think many of my happiest memories are from the various years that I worked at Vertigo, partly because all of the editors that I worked with were very, very passionate about their work, and partly because there was a variety to the genres of work that I was being offered.

Flex Mentallo was the first project I did at Vertigo. I got together with Grant; he and I knew each other socially from the comics scene in Glasgow but we hadn’t worked together before, then we got together and talked about what he was wanting. I think there were several editors on Flex Mentallo, but over the years I worked very closely with Stuart Moore, Art Young, Shelly Bond, Axel Alonso, Pornsak Pichetshote, and Karen Berger. I actually found Shelly Bond to be a very enthusiastic editor. You sometimes get editors who are enthusiastic but tend to get in the way, because they want to be involved, they want to have their fingerprints on the work itself, but Shelly just had enthusiasm.

Axel Alonso was a particularly good editor because unlike most other editors, when he had started in comics, when he was a teenager, actually, he had wanted to write and draw his own comics. So he was actually the same as Mark Millar, the same as Grant Morrison, and everyone [in this situation] is given the same advice, they always get told “choose one or the other”, especially if it’s mainstream comics they’re aiming for; if you’re doing independent comics, writing and drawing your own material is fine.

Axel was one of the few editors I worked with who could actually draw, and had a keen understanding of how to tell stories visually, so I found I could get advice and great feedback when I was working with him.

We’ve just talked about 2020 Visions, which was a very unusual project. Flex Mentallo was a project that I enjoyed immensely, and I knew from the first scripts that I received from Grant….

This was before the Internet, so I hadn’t seen any of Grant’s scripts before. I knew from reading the script through the first time that this was a writer I wanted to work with again, because I actually wasn’t familiar with Grant’s work. I had entered comics as an adult again about 20-21 years old, because I was drawing independent comics; so I knew Grant by his reputation but I hadn’t read any of his work. It was a pleasant surprise when I read the first script for Flex Mentally and though “this is tremendous!”

Also, one of the things I particularly liked working at Vertigo was that they would release four-issue miniseries of anthologies of short stories: there was Heartthhrobs, which was like a romance comic; there was Weird War Tales; there was Gangland which was a crime series; there was an ongoing anthology called Flinch, which was horror, and I did a couple of different strips for that. And the idea that you can… I’ve always loved short stories anyway: when I was a teenager the only comics that I read were old black and white reprints of Weird Science and Creepy and Mad Magazine, so it was really – short stories always appealed to me and as a professional artist very often I’d be given something…. The All-Star Superman was 12 issues and it took me three and a half years or something? It was really a joy, but it was also torture.

The idea of being given an eight-page story by somebody like Bruce Jones or Robert Rodi… Robert Rodi is an American novelist, I think it’s mostly gay fiction that he writes. The idea of getting a short story by someone who particularly likes writing short stories and you only have six or eight pages – it’s a really nice, small investment of time, and you can afford to work in a slightly different style, or one time you do a romance story, then you do a war story, the next time you do a horror story… So as far as a I was concerned there was nowhere else for me to get the opportunity to do that type of work.

Maybe if I’d had contacts with, you know, Heavy Metal or somewhere else, maybe I would’ve been offered short stories by them, but Vertigo was the place that kept getting back to me and offering me jobs I particularly wanted to do.

ILG: Would you have enjoyed working for Heavy Metal?

Yeah, well, Grant Morrison was the editor of Heavy Metal for a while, but at the time I was working on Jupiter’s Legacy, and I was amazingly behind deadline, so I couldn’t have worked for Heavy Metal anyway because of my deadline problems.

There’s also the fact that with Heavy Metal it wasn’t very clear-cut who owned the work: I couldn’t get a clear answer on it. In fairness, this was from years before [Morrison’s time as an editor], when I was doing The Authority: I was asked if I would have an interest in working for Heavy Metal, and at the time the pages rates were lower and it was unclear who would own the material.

ILG: Going back to editors at Vertigo: do you have any specific memories of things you were asked to edit or change? What type of input did they have? You did describe Shelly Bond and others as not being too hands-on which is something creators often say about Karen Berger too, that she was happy not to edit when there was no need to.

There was one issue of 2020 Visions where I was asked to make some changes, and I looked at the changes and they were very slight, it was like “zoom in 20%”… I think it was actually an assistant… I don’t know, maybe that was just a test to see what they could have me do. There was one or two changes that I was asked for that I thought might have helped slightly, and there was one that actually didn’t work at all, so I got back to them and explained my position, and they said “OK that’s fine, do the ones that you’re OK with”.

One of the short stories I did for Vertigo was called “Watching you” [in Flinch #12]. It was written by Bruce Jones who has a long, long history of writing short stories. (I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with [Jones’] short story called “Jenifer” – it’s a classic American horror short [published in Creepy #63, July 1974, and drawn by Bernie Wrightson] and if you don’t mind reading things on a tablet it’s probably worth googling, as I imagine it’s there; it is a spectacular little short story.)

So [“Watching You”] is that really creepy story about a ménage à trois. In the first and the last page there was a woman lying naked in the moonlight, so she was almost like a silhouette, the moonlight was on the outline of her body, I thought it was tastefully done. But had put in a suggestion of public hair with white paint, and when the comic printed she was totally smooth. There was still a highlight there, it was just totally smooth. And when they returned the artwork to me somebody had made a patch and stuck it on and I thought what’s the thinking behind that?

ILG: [laughs] It’s both surprising and very unsurprising. When was that?

I think it was in the nineties… Probably mid- to late nineties [the comic is actually cover-dated May 2000, so late nineties]. I don’t know if it’s maybe… just… they don’t mind vague nudity, but they don’t want… I dunno.

ILG: It’s almost like…. You know, the pornography rules in Japan, where you can show lost of things but pubic hair is actually one of the things that they won’t print? It’s apparently a limit of what is acceptable or not. Ok, so even in the late 1990s you would have stuff like that happen to your pages.

That’s the only time… [stops to think] Actually, it’s not. It’s one of two times that my artwork was changed by Vertigo. The other one was on 2020 Visions, and I had pencilled and inked – what I would do was I would do the pencils, send them in to the editor, they’d get it lettered on my pencil drawings, and then I would ink the bubbles. I had done a crowd scene of people running onto a ferry in New York and there was a large narrative box, and Jamie Delano who wrote the story (either him or the editor, I’m not sure), somebody had the idea of changing the words in the dialogue box and cutting it considerably so they actually did a patch with a much smaller box on, and then somebody (I’ve never found out who it was), somebody drew in lots of people in this space, and I actually didn’t notice it when the comic was printed, but when they sent the originals back, I was thinking, was that me, and I looked at  it and I was like: “I know that wasn’t me” [laughs]. Whoever did it didn’t care in the slightest. I think it might have been the cleaner or the tea lady or something. It was really dreadful.

ILG: Yes, that ties in with other stories that you hear…

[Apart from than] nearly all my experiences with Vertigo were very, very good.

My two favourite monthlies were Preacher and The Invisibles. Every month, I couldn’t wait to get Preacher because I knew exactly what to expect – and with The Invisibles I couldn’t wait because I didn’t know what to expect. I had read the Sandman books as collections and I much prefer collections, and I think Preacher and the Invisibles are the only two comics I remember being really addicted to.

And there were amazing artists over the course of The Invisibles. In the first few issues of Preacher, Steve Dillon was using a lot of hatching, like what he was doing in 2000AD; and gradually he dropped it and it became simpler and simpler, and the simpler it got the more I loved it. 

ILG: To a certain extent that was the beginning of Vertigo’s turn to simpler, almost transparent artwork:  Pia Guerra on Y: The Last Man, Mark Buckingham on Fables and Mike Carey on Lucifer and The Unwritten. That was one of the turning points where you realized you could tell really complex stories with really simple art.

Although Vertigo has been mostly writer-driven, some of them have been very good – I’m aware of the fact that a lot of people are more about following the writer. When I was growing up I always followed the artist, it was all about the art for me. It’s only as a I got older that the writing started to become important.

Audience: your work seems incredibly simple but you can feel there is lots of work needed to convey that iconic immediacy. How much thinking and work do you put in “simple” images like covers? Do you rely mostly on thinking or is there a part of instinct in that?

When I started drawing comics I had no training in comic books and so my storytelling was a combination of following the instructions from the writer and the script, and intuition, and striving for clarity. I always had the idea that if the reader had a vague idea of what was going on it was probably OK. Then I worked with an editor called Dan Raspler, he was a DC editor. The first time I worked with him was on a Lobo short which was never published. I sent the pages, 24 pencilled pages, I sent them in, and I hoped that he would… It was very basic what I had done to that point, and I hoped that he would get back to me and say: “this is fantastic”, and he didn’t get back to me and a week went past…. Again, this was before the internet, so I had sent them through FedEx and I was waiting for a phone call… And it took him more than a week to get back to me, and he said “dude, I don’t know how to tell you this…”, and my heart sank. He said “your drawings are good but your storytelling is boring, this is a Lobo comic, it’s meant to be anarchic and dynamic and humorous,” and he said “this is like a flipbook”, you know where you have the drawings and it’s like a little animation.

I had done a fight scene, spent ages working on it, but it was from a fixed camera, it was like watching a boxing match…. So, after that, I became very interested in storytelling, and slowly over the years I became obsessed, to the point where I was spending much, much more time working out how to make the visual narrative flow rather than doing the drawings. It became an obsession and my productivity was slowing down. Both Grant Morrison and Mark Millar said to me “What’s the problem?” When I get a script I do little thumbnails in the margins for each of the things, and it got to the stage where I did six, seven, eight, ten thumbnails for each frame on the page. And then laying out the different pages using different thumbnails. I was just exploring all the different ways I could tell the story. And Grant said: “how often do you go back to the first thumbnail?” and I said: “nine times out of ten”, and he was like “you’ve been doing this for 25 years, trust your instincts!” And I knew that he was right, but I couldn’t….

I was still doing this when I was doing Jupiter’s Legacy, and Mark Millar asked me the same question, “do you not usually go with your first instinct?”, and I said “Yes, usually I just can’t stop myself”. He said “would you go to a hypnotherapist?” [audience laughs] I said yeah, and he said “I know a hypnotherapist, he’s one of my neighbours, and he helped a friend of mine stop smoking, he’s really good”, so I had three sessions with a hypnotherapist and it cured me. If It’s a friend of a friend he’ll do a house call. He actually went to my house three times and hypnotized me.

ILG: That’s strangely consistent with what you would expect from either Morrison or Millar. Going back to the question on covers, what was it like working on covers for Vertigo series where a different artist was doing interior art? How different is that from drawing a comic?

Covers can be pretty liberating, in the same way and perhaps even more so than short stories. Very often I’ll be asked to do a cover, and for Vertigo instead of doing alternate covers I would be the main cover artist.

Very often a cover can be story-based, but with American Virgin, I got the synopsis for the first 4-issue story arc, and from reading the synopsis I had this idea… It was about a guy who’s a televangelist, and he goes to Africa on a safari and slowly his plans for remaining a virgin go awry. The theme of each of the four issues was that he goes to an unfamiliar place, he starts getting pursued by all these young women, he eventually gets caught up and then he gets consumed. And I had worked on a cover where in each cover he’s with fewer clothes, and it worked really nicely but then in the fourth one where he’s consumed, he is sitting inside a giant mouth, and unfortunately [the writers] loved this cover so much they said “I know it makes sense to have this as the fourth one, but it’s such an arresting image we want it to be the first  one”.

It’s really nice to be able to either see the script and come up with something that in some way lets people know what to expect of the story, or sometimes it’s “do what you want” and it’s just a one-off cover for something.

ILG: Also you don’t need to tell a story in sequence, which from what you’re describing might be liberating.

It is. It’s nice when… Like with the Sandman retail poster, that was just the seven characters in a circle, so all I was doing with that was getting a composition that worked and depicting each character in such a way that satisfied me, satisfied my vision of what these characters are. But other times if you have to suggest something of a story then you need to come up with a composition that has some narrative element to it, not in terms of sequence, in the same way that a newspaper cartoonist would have to suggest a narrative to make the joke work.

ILG: Sure, that’s not what I was saying – obviously a single image can contain a narrative. I was just thinking that if you remove the sequence you remove the need to have all those possible versions…

You remove the need to do ten thumbnails, yes!

ILG: What were the difficulties, if any, of working with an American publisher? Apart from the exchange rate, which you’ve talked about in other interviews and which is a very real problem for many writers and artists working in Britain.

There was a period, right at the start of All-Star Superman, where the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar basically meant my wages dropped to two thirds, dropped by one third, that was actually very difficult.

But there wasn’t much of a difference for me. The thing is, the Judge Dredd people were down in London and I was up in Glasgow, so it was still faxes, phone calls, going to the post office, I never had that [experience of] dropping into the office to see the editor, which a lot of artists in London or in New York have, that kind of relationship where  you can drop in, see the editor and they’ll take you for lunch. It never worked that way for me.

ILG: do you feel like people at Vertigo might have specific expectations from you, because you were Scottish or, let’s say, because you were not American? Do you feel that there was an expectation of you to be more original, to be different in a way?

Karen Berger came over to the London Comic Convention – I think this was 1990 or 1991. She was staying in a very grand hotel, the Russell Square Hotel, and she was reviewing portfolios in her suite. Art Young, who was her assistant, Art Young went round and he had a list of artists that they had invited to show their folios and I was one of those artists.

And I had an interview with Karen and Art and it transpired that they had seen my work in the Judge Dredd magazines, and Grant Morrison had been keeping an eye on my work and wanted to work with me. And she was very, very complimentary about the work that I showed her.

I think I was one of those artists who were seen to be different from the American superhero artists. So much so that Alan Grant, for years, when he was writing Shadow of the Bat while I was working with Vertigo, (I didn’t know this at the time) he was speaking to his Bat editors saying “I want that guy to draw a Batman story”, and apparently the Bat editors were like : “but that guy, he’s not a superhero artist, he’s a Vertigo artist.” There was a real-world element to [my work] …

Also, the drawings of most superhero comics tended to be slightly more stylized, slightly cleaner than my work and I think there was a genuine feeling that my work had an ugliness or a creepiness about it that would not lend itself to superhero comics but certainly lent itself to a lot of Vertigo projects. I was aware, keenly aware of the fact that there was this opinion of my work.

ILG: Do you remember the date of that meeting? The year?

I think it was 1990 or 1991.

ILG: As early as that?

Wait a minute. I didn’t do Flex until….

ILG: ’96?

That means I would have started it in either 94 or 95. I’d actually been working for a few years for Judge Dredd doing a Japanese strip and a Western cowboy strip, and that was the work that I showed Karen. Also, actually by that time I’d done a few things for Paradox Press, a few black and white shorts, so I guess it was probably, it must have been 93 or 94 that I saw Karen then.

ILG: You talked about your art being seen as ugly or weird, which is something I’ve read often. You have an interview in the Comics Journal with Dave Gibbons, and he states how controversial your art is.

Every time I have a new comic coming out, I always go online to see what people have to say about it, and it seems to me that it’s fifty/fifty: people either say “This guy rocks” or “This guy sucks”, cause that’s the level of critique that you get! I got a lot of comics where, on forums, people say “This guy put a lot of time and thought into storytelling” – and someone else says “Yeah, so what? His drawings are still ugly!” and that’s … I think that’s fair enough. It’s like – if you love Bruce Springsteen and your friend hates Bruce Springsteen, there’s no point in arguing that he’s a really good songwriter: “I don’t care, I don’t like his sound, I don’t like his voice, you know, I don’t like his style of music.” So much of it is personal taste. It’s like football teams; if you support a team and they have an arch-rival team, you can see that team’s shit. They might be just as good as your team, but you still hate them because they’re the rivals.

ILG: Do you have an opinion on Vertigo as it is nowadays? Is it a place where you would like to work? Either from the point of view of the contracts they offer, or from a creative point of view?

 To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t actually know who’s in place at the moment at Vertigo in terms of editorial.

Audience: At the moment it’s Mark Doyle, the former editor of DC’s Batman titles [as of June 2018].

I’ve met Mark, very recently in Boston, and he’s a delightful fellow. He’s a really pleasant and enthusiastic guy, who seems really committed to his work. That said, what I’m going to do just now is some short stories of different genres that I don’t think Vertigo would want to publish without me making some changes. Pubic hair changes and things like that [audience laughs]. So at the moment probably not, but never say never!

ILG: Would you say that Image, which was pretty much the opposite of Vertigo at first, has now become a space for innovation and creativity in the same way that Vertigo used to be?

I’ve always been guilty of not keeping my finger on the pulse and not keeping up to date with what other people are doing. But from my memory, when Image started, each of the seven founding members had their own imprint, and Top Cow went one way and Wildstorm went another way and so on. I don’t know what’s happened in the intervening years but the Image that we’ve got just now I think is probably the best place to go if you have a creator owned project that you want somebody else to publish for you and still retain full rights. I don’t know much more than that but at the moment, I think Image seems to be the place for that kind of innovation.

ILG: Would you like to write your own stories at some point in the future?

Over the last ten years I’ve written a bunch of short stories, but they’re the kind of stories you wouldn’t get from a writer – the kind of stories that artists write because that’s what they want to draw. Only I’d get somebody else to do my marketing! One of them is now an animation; one of them is going I won’t comment on just now because it’s going into an anthology which hasn’t been announced yet, and one I wrote very recently for an actor friend who wanted something for a short live-action film, something cheap that could be shot in an apartment over a weekend. I’ve got a bunch of other shorts that I think could work as a collection, but at the moment I’m concentrating on the one for the anthology. If I’m able to get some money for doing it I’ll do some of the shorts to get them out of my system, and if another offer comes along that’s more rewarding in any other way, they might get shelved for a little bit longer.



ILG: In We3, did you think of certain transitions and certain scenes in terms of sound? The reason I’m asking this is because of one point in the story where Roseanne opens her eyes after realizing that she’s going to have to confront the animals, and the next panel is the train on its tracks. I felt that this was very reminiscent of a movie in which the noise of the train would be used to illustrate the state of alarm that Roseanne experiences. Am I imagining this?

Yes and no. As far as I remember nearly all of We3 was full script, which means that Grant Morrison would have described cutting to Roseanne opening her eyes, and then cutting to the train, so I don’t think I would necessarily have been thinking in terms of sound at that time, but as a general rule although comics are effectively silent I tend to do something that I did when I was a child, where if I’m drawing an explosion I’ll be making explosion noises…

ILG: Everyone does that: if you draw a smiling person you have to smile…

And if you’re drawing somebody… yeah. So I may well have been aware of the train noise while I was drawing the train but that transition came from Grant’s script rather than my work.

ILG: So even though We3 was very collaborative, it was still full script?

Most of it is full script. The double page spreads that people always use as examples of something, the page with the panels turned 90 degrees and the cat moving in between them, all those pages that were adventurous in terms of storytelling, for all of them Grant would just write in the script: “Karen – no point in trying to explain this! Just trust us!” So We3 was our most collaborative project, and we would sit together and Grant would say: “no, come on, give me something I haven’t seen before!” I would never have persisted that long and tried to come up with something new, had Grant not been…

ILG: Nagging you?

Bullying me, yeah. “Come on, you can do it, come on!”

ILG: Would you like to talk about your approach to animals in We3 and how to convey emotion in animals when you draw them while still remaining relatively realistic?

I think as a general rule with We3 the emotion comes very much from that alchemy or whatever where you have the writing and the art working together to tell a story. I think the emotion that you perceive… If you hadn’t read the book and just cut out one panel and showed it to people, I don’t think people would necessarily get strong impressions of the emotions of the animals. I think it’s very much something that happens when you’re reading the story, and there’s something about the way the story is being told as a sequence that you become more sympathetic with the animals as the story goes on – it’s actually very interesting because people have asked me before how I’ve conveyed emotions without making them look like Disney animals, and I’m not actually convinced that I’ve done that… I must have done it slightly, but I think if you took them out of context and showed them to someone that wasn’t familiar with the story, then maybe they wouldn’t feel that emotion.

Audience: what about the type of script that you use?

There are two main ways of writing a comic script. First, there is what we call full script where you have panel 1, panel 2, panel 3, and the dialogue, everything’s there ready to go, and the writer to a great extend is directing the action. Obviously if you give the same full script to ten different artists, you get ten different comic strips: the direction if you like is going to be different in each one, so it is very much a combination of the artist and the writer, and that’s the way I usually work. The other way is the Marvel way where you get the story written out in prose and sometimes with some suggested dialogue and you break it down over however many pages you’re told to break it down. I’ve worked Marvel script just once and I actually liked it.

Grant Morrison does… When he writes a comic story, every comic that he writes apparently, he does very simple thumbnails. On only a few occasions over the years he has shown me his thumbnails after I’ve drawn the story, but with Pax Americana Grant gave me his thumbnails before I started working on it. At first I thought it may make the process faster; however, Grant’s thumbnails are very simple, and they worked to an extent but they didn’t work well enough to satisfy me. He really wanted me to try and stay close to what he had drawn: so I had to then make changes, solve problems in a very tight space. Instead of rearranging panels so it flows well, I had a page where half the page flowed fine and then it just didn’t flow at all. But Grant didn’t want that top bit changed so I had to then change the bottom bit… It ended up taking longer so I hope we don’t do that again.

Audience: We3 is one of my favourite books, in large part because of your art. More precisely, on one of the pages with the fragmentation, the one of the accident, how do you elaborate this kind of page in terms of rhythm? It’s kind of narrating a moment, but also a break in narration – all the small panels occur at the same time.

Basically the top panel is a military jeep coming down the hill and the dog leaps through the windscreen, the front glass of the jeep and comes out of the back door, and here’s the cat up a tree firing metal pens from between its paws. On the little panels we have the dog firing bullets as it’s jumping through the car and so we have split-second stop frames of bullets just about to go through somebody’s eye, coming out of a helmet all squashed up, and we have the foot on the brake to slow the vehicle down and then coming off the brake after the driver has been shot: everything is laid out, we’ve got the lucky rabbit foot round somebody’s neck…

Similarly, with this we’ve got the soldiers, close-ups of the pens going into thumbnails and into eyeballs and breaking teeth, and you have the soldier falling down, the pens going through the helmet and as he falls down the blood coming down his feet. So everything is worked out in terms of where it would be happening on the picture but the idea is that if you’re actually just reading at casual speed, it’s an  image of a dog jumping through a truck and all the nasty little stuff that ‘s happening, you’ve got the cat up the tree firing things at the unfortunate soldiers. So on the one hand if you want to take the time to sit and move about the image and see why it’s laid out the way it is, then there’s a logic to these little many sequences that run through it, but again it’s easier to see in the coloured version. But you should be able to just look at it and say “it’s a dog jumping through a truck and a cat up in a tree firing things”. There’s other things going on, there’s the cat that moves in between the branches of the tree as though they were as many panels, but it’s that thing of trying to give an immediate impression but having enough information there, enough choreography and enough pre-planning that if you want to spent the time actually reading the image slowly, you’ll be rewarded for it, but you can also just flick through and get the general impression.

ILG: Grant Morrison describes We3 as an experimentation with manga storytelling. Is it something you had in mind – or was it just Morrison’s way of seeing things?  

I found out later when Grant was talking about “Western manga” he wasn’t talking about the aesthetics of the drawing itself, he was talking about a sensibility – it was a much vaguer thing.

ILG: I thought he was talking about rhythm, and decompression taking you to a stage where you effectively stop time, using techniques like fragmentation.

I had no intention of trying to bend my natural style of drawing towards something that people would consider to be manga, but I’m a fan of a fair amount of manga myself, and particularly Katsuhiro Otomo. I looked again at Akira and Dômu and a few other things before I started, and I felt there wasn’t much I could have changed about my normal way of working that would have lent itself to my style. But one of the things I quite like [in Otomo’s work] is when you have a shadow cast on the ground, like for instance from a motorbike, instead of being solid black it’s actually lines that are going in the direction and perspective of the road. So in the scenes where there’s people walking I’ll actually shade the shadows – it was a tiny thing.

So it wasn’t specifically the artwork that Grant wanted to talk about when he mentioned Western Manga, but that is one small change that I made. That, and the fact that the guy who runs the Animal Weapon project in the story actually looks sort of like Hayao Miyazaki, that was my tip of the hat.

Sandman: Endless Nights

ILG: Can we talk about the Destiny story you did for Sandman: Endless Nights? What’s specific about it is that it doesn’t have any panels, just full splash pages, but you can still see how you’re supposed to read it, how you eye is supposed to move about.

I remember that very well. I got contacted by Karen Berger about the fact that Neil Gaiman was going to write a new Sandman graphic novel, and did I want to be involved? She said, the story behind it was that Karen had said to Neil: “what do we need to do to get you to come back and do more Sandman”?

Out of eight pages, the last page is the only one that is actually just a single image. Everything else effectively has an inset panel. [shows the page representing Destiny in his gallery] In this image, the way I did it was… Destiny is in his hall looking at the portraits of his siblings, one of the frames is actually a mirror because that would be himself, and one of them is for Destruction so that one’s covered up, this was in the script, and the insert panel was his sister Death’s faced, and what I did to make it clearer that [the first one] was a mirror was I decided I would go for like a sepia line like in a sketchbook, and it would make a more obvious distinction between the drawings and the mirror. But also it would be nice when we got to the inset panel to just do a sepia. There’s pools of light in arch shapes from cloisters, so where we have the perspective of the framed portraits we also have a perspective of the pools of light from the arches, and that gave me a place to put the insert panel without actually drawing a panel. So it was one of these amazing projects. Obviously I was very excited to get to work with Neil, I’d read a lot of his comics and some of his books.

So the story was that Neil said he would come and write another Sandman book if he could get his dream team of international artists. Milo Manara, Miguelanxo Prado, Dave McKean was doing covers and chapter breaks… P. Craig Russel, Glenn Fabry, Barron Storey, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Moebius. Moebius had agreed to do the Destiny story. Either his wife or his agent or somebody said “It needs to be a short story, don’t make it longer than eight pages, and if you can give us just splash pages That would be ideal, it would be easier for him because he wasn’t in good health at the time, and unfortunately for all of us he couldn’t do it – all of us apart from me [Isabelle protests].

I came in as the substitute, and Karen and I think Shelly was assisting on this, and they said some of the other artists are actually painting on this, and of course I hadn’t painted since I was doing the Judge Dredd stuff, so it was 10 years since I’d last painted, and I thought [excitedly] “I could paint 8 pages”, so I got out my watercolour pad, cleaned up my pans of watercolour paint. Obviously I did roughs and sent the roughs in first for approval, and then I painted the pages and it was a joy to work on, it really was. The script was so simple: each page was just like a short paragraph, an absolute minimum of information. This being said, it was written for Moebius so [Neil] was probably very confident he’d get something amazing even with a very short description.

I found it a remarkably easy script to work on, form the point of view that I actually got to colour it as well, it’s actually a personal favourite of mine. As always, I’m my own biggest critic, and I think it looks a little overworked, because I hadn’t painted in years and I was very aware of the fact that it was a big deal and I was in there with Milo Manara and Miguelanxo Prado, so I was aware of the company I was in. I do think it’s a little overworked but even then, I’ve been the happiest of men working on it.

 [shows the page where Destiny holds his book]. The main image for that one is the book and the inset I suppose effectively is the face. In the script, the actual writing, it explains that Destiny’s book has everything that’s ever been, every person that’s already lived or is still to come, everybody that doesn’t exist, everybody you’ve ever thought of, everybody you’ve never thought of… So I had the idea that the people on the pages would be standing on the pages cause that’s the way it was described in the script, but there were also drawings of the people, and the way I did it was that the fronts of the people are all on one page and their backs are on the other, so if you’d cut them out you’d have a detail on both sides. It was a real joy to work on this one.

Audience: Do you always do your own colours?

I used to do my own colours when I was doing the Cowboy strip and the Japanese strip in Judge Dredd. As often as possible I do my own colours when I do a cover. Generally speaking I have colourists doing the colours on most of the projects I work on. There are two reasons and they’re very closely linked: First, I’m pretty slow as it is; two pages a week  is the fastest I can do, if I was then doing the colouring as well I would be down to… [Endless Nights] was about one page a week… It would be very slow. So it kind of only makes sense to colour a short project like [Endless Nights].

Second, the way it works in comics is, out of a team you get paid the most for pencilling, a bit less for inking, a bit less for colouring, a bit less for lettering, and because it takes me about the same length of time to paint a page as it does to draw it, it means I can get half the amount for the second half of the week, and I’ve got a wife and three children. I just couldn’t justify always colouring my own work.

And in a way, if had always coloured my own work I would have produced far fewer pages, so after 30 years I would have learnt a bit less than I have. At one point with The Invisibles and with the X-Men (and for The Authority as well) I actually did something I always promised myself I never would: I just did the pencilling and had somebody else do the inking. I knew I wouldn’t like it, no matter how good the inking was, I knew I wouldn’t like it because it’s not my drawing anymore, but the way I was thinking of it was… Because I was starting to get a little obsessed with storytelling, I though “I’ll make all the storytelling decisions at the thumbnailing and pencilling stage, and if I’m only ever thumbnailing and pencilling I’ll do more pages, I’ll learn more, I’ll become better,” and after a short while I was like “I can’t do this”…

But I would like to get back to doing the colouring myself [if I could].

Audience: What kind of instructions or indications do you give the colourist?

“Please do the best you can”! [laughs] I usually try and be kind of hands-off with the colourists; occasionally I’ll get something back and say “this isn’t really working”, and I’ll either write them an email or give them a phone call… Or I’ll do a screen grab of what they’ve sent me, open it into Photoshop and start fiddling about with it myself and send them back to them saying “I can picture something like this, what do you think?” But there has to be a bit of come and go, you can’t just order people around and say “do it this way”.

It’s the colourist’s name that’s going on the cover: if they want to take my guidance if I’m asking for specific colour scenes for parts of the book, then that makes me happy, but if they don’t, what can you do?

ILG: Would you like to talk some more about painting? Are painting and drawing essentially the same thing?

The drawing for this figure, for instance, is largely line work and it’s very simple, it’s generally an outline and some key describing lines, with the butt and the ear and whatnot, and then all the shading is done just with washes of watercolour and leaving areas white, but it feels a lot like drawing when I’m doing it. There’s a line texture in the lips, a dimpled pore texture on the skin and a stubble on the chin, much of it is just done with paint but most of it feels a little more like drawing than painting.

Large washes of colour feel a little more like painting, but anything that’s detail or describing form, or putting in simple shadows tends to feel like drawing. Drawing and painting to some extent feel like the same thing to me, it’s part of the same process, and this is the reason that it’s never sat well with me to have other people colouring my work, because no matter how good they are they just do it differently from the way I do, and to me it is more satisfying if I can do everything myself, which is one of the reasons I can still look at this with a fondness. I felt liberating for me to be doing everything after years of having other people colouring my work.

ILG: Are you saying that you can’t look with fondness at something like The Invisibles for example?

It’s… [embarrassed noise] it seems ungrateful and critical…

ILG: The reason I’m asking is that as a reader I can see the difference and it really doesn’t feel like you on the final page.

John Stokes, and this is typical of everybody who inked me on the X-Men, I think it was 4 people credited with inking my X-Men pages and I believe there were something like eight or more that were actually doing it, a couple of pages each, but John Stokes is a very good inker on other people.

ILG: It’s not about his ability as an inker…

I had the feeling it doesn’t feel like my work…

ILG: Like your work is impossible to ink for other people?

I dunno. For me it’s all part of the same process. When I start a drawing I block everything in very roughly, and then I go in and tighten it up, and then I go in and ink; and it’s all just different stages of the same process. All the same thing. And I very much like to do everything myself.


ILG: When I was researching for this interview, I read your piece in the Comics Journal #300, and one of the things you said was “I’d like to do a webcomic”. This was ten years ago, in 2009. Is it something you still feel like doing?

Yes and no. I think I don’t actually read any comics online. I feel it would be unsatisfying on a phone, because even with very good resolution I feel that a phone is actually a bit too small. I’ve been shown some comics by a friend of mine, on a tablet, and I think if a comics is designed to be viewed on a tablet, so that you can swipe or click of whatever, and the image is always the same size, I think that could be quite satisfying. I’ve considered trying to do a short story specifically, and although I may still do the artwork physically on paper, I’d actually design it so it would work on a screen – I haven’t had time to do it yet.

The two worst things are comics that are just scanned in and then you’re scrolling about following the page (I don’t understand why anybody would want to read a comic that way) and the other thing is comics that have a tiny bit of motion in them? That doesn’t work for me.

ILG: Would you like to show us some of the pages from your book Frank Quitely: drawings + sketches, which includes chapters on Jupiter’s Legacy, sketchbook work, character designs for comics and animation, storytelling research, etc.?

The book is 120 pages, there’s a whole variety of different images, we are hoping that it would be interesting enough for people who want to casually browse, but there is a commentary that goes along that explains what’s actually happening.

[Showing a panel from Jupiter’s Legacy] One of the characters is putting another in an environment that Mark described it as a psychic cell, like a prison cell, and I was thinking in terms of an animation cell as well as a prison cell, so the way I go about creating a page is I’ll draw loosely with a light blue pencil, and then I’ll do the final linework, and then usually the colours, a rough version, and then the final colouring. So what I did was I drew a very rough landscape, threw a 3-D cube into it, and then worked the detail in towards the center, until such time as the environment became as real as the character, and I hope I’ve been able to explain what was actually happening as well as actually showing what was happening.

 [showing a double-page spread from Pax Americana] It all takes place in one room, a very large room with pieces of sculpture to help set the scene between the frames. There are three different narratives going on here – it’s happening in one space but these three narratives take place over three different periods of time In the yellow boxes, a character, the Peacemaker, is leaving the house and his partner is  urging him to stay; the red panels is the partner left and on her own ; an intruder comes and on the bottom of the page is killed, and then in blue panels, it’s another character called Question, who comes in with a torch and a Dictaphone, and examines the crime scene after the police has left, so you have three different narrative elements happening over three different time periods but occupying the same space. It’s explained in the book but it’s one of these things you can only do this way in a comic book – you can’t do it in a stage play, can’t do it in a film or in a novel – absolutely specific to comic.

 [Showing the roughs for the same sequence from Pax Americana]: That’s me putting in where the cast shadows are going, because it’s actually the colourist’s job and it’s a lot of extra work for him to do that kind of thing.

Unfortunately, this is how the pages turned out. Nathan Fairbairn, who is the colourist, did a fantastic job, but when I saw these pages I felt there wasn’t enough distinction between the two night-time scenes : it felt like there were two timelines instead of three and I don’t know if it was just my monitor in the studio or if it was too close, and Nathan, he spent much longer on this project that he ever spent on anything else, because he loved this project, loved the story and the artwork, and when I said I feel the distinction should be more obvious, he said he felt that we were patronizing the reader and they would have to work it out. My philosophy has always been “I have to do all the thinking and all the background work so that the reader doesn’t have to think they can just read it”, but unfortunately Nathan wasn’t to be moved.

I carry a small notebook with me and sometimes I thumbnail stories in it, sometimes I thumbnail covers, or write my dreams or… I went through a phase of writing my dreams as soon as I woke up. I wasn’t actually writing down my dreams with a view to making them into comic strips, I just… for maybe a year I was trying to write them down as much as I could remember them.

[showing character design for an animated short film] The page on the left is my initial character designs for the main character in the animation, and the page on the right is the way I’ve changed those designs because the animators told me that the drawings to the left are too realistic, so when you see a character like that animated it becomes unconvincing, but if you make him more stylised, like a puppet, it’s much more convincing. If you think, if you remember the first Toy Story movie, Buzz and Woodie seem absolutely convincing, they feel like toys that are alive, whereas Andy and his mom seem somehow slightly blocky. The animators did an amazing job on a tiny budget. It’s a beautiful film. It’s not online yet because they’re still touring the short film festivals.

[showing the CCTV sequence from We3] This was the CCTV sequence you were talking about. There’s a sequence in We3 where the animals are released, and they find freedom, it’s told over five or six pages, eighteen panels a page, and it’s all from security cameras inside the building.

It became so complicated that I had all these different imaginary cameras in an imaginary building forming a sequence of drawings, and it was too much so I made little thumbnail drawings and cut them out so I could arrange them and fine-tune the sequence for the five or six pages. I kept them in a raisin box and I worked on that sequence for just over two weeks. I don’t get paid for working out how to tell the stories, I only get paid each time I send in a page. I was working in the house at the time, it was before I had the studio, and I came down to the kitchen in the morning and the raisin box was gone, and I said to my wife “Ann, did you see that raisin box?” and she said “There was an old raisin box? Yeah, I threw it in the bin. And fortunately she had just thrown it in and I went into the bin, and there amongst the potato peelings and the tea bags, there was my box of raisins. I took the box out and I said: “do you know, this is two weeks’ worth of work in here!”, and she looked at me like I was crazy and she said “Vin, nobody, nobody keeps two weeks’ worth of work in a raisin box”, and just walked out of the room, and I thought “Um, I suppose that’s right”.



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