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Interview: Vincent Deighan - Artist

IN A packed second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh's West Port, Glaswegian artist Vincent Deighan has entertained a hushed crowd for an hour and now they're getting what they really want: drawings.

• Frank Quitely – aka mild mannered Glaswegian Vincent Deighan – is acclaimed for his work on such US comic titles as The Invisibles, We3 and The X-Men. Picture: Kate Chandler

Notebooks, scraps of paper, even diaries are pushed over the table for Deighan to decorate. Autographs are pass here, it's got to be an original artwork.

Imagine listening to a world-class writer giving a reading and then, at the end, instead of looking for a signature on the fly-leaf of your book, asking if they could just knock you up a quick short story. Or watching a gig by your favourite band and then hanging around the stage door to ask if they'd throw a few chords together just for you. It's unimaginable. Not so, it seems, in the world of comic books.

"What would you like?" he asks politely, using whatever pen or pencil the eager fan has handed him. Too shy to say, most plump for "anything you'd like". And so he draws.

He takes his time with each one, concentrating. The fans try to sneak a peek as they wait and I wonder if this always happens?

"You should see it at comic conventions," he says, continuing to sketch. "There are loads more people than this."

Deighan whose artwork appears under the name Frank Quitely (a spoonerism of Quite Frankly, the pseudonym he came up with when he started drawing his spoof of The Broons, The Greens, in the early 1990s to avoid his family finding out what he was doing) is one of the leading artists working in comic books today. If the men and women bunching around him are treating him like a rock star, that's because to anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary comics, that's exactly what Quitely is.

Since the 1990s comics have undergone a transformation. Once the preserve of teenage boys, with storylines and characters as simple as the line drawings they made famous, comics offered little to adult readers. But in the last 20 years the artform has been reworked and revamped, transformed into a vehicle for psychologically engaging characters and the exploration of complex, demanding themes. What's most interesting is the key role that Scottish writers and artists, including Quitely, have played in the comic book renaissance and the question of why the world of superheroes and villains would prove such a good fit with the Scottish sensibility.

"It's funny because when I was growing up in Glasgow watching TV, everything was American. You get the impression that everything good that's happening is happening somewhere else. But lots of it is happening here. We really don't celebrate it enough.

"In American comic books, mainstream ones in particular, there's a really high proportion of UK artists and writers.

We, Scotland in particular, are really well represented."

All-Star Superman, one of Quitely's biggest successes is a case in point.

"It was a Scottish guy who wrote it (Grant Morrison], a Scottish guy who drew it (Quitely] and a Scottish guy who coloured it (Jamie Grant]," he says.

"Working digitally means it's easy to work from anywhere in the world, so (commissioning editors] could be picking people from literally anywhere, but I suppose (Scotland's dominance] in the music industry or the gaming industry is the same. In some respects we are a creative, industrious force to be reckoned with."

There's something else too. As far as Quitely is concerned the supremacy of Scottish artists in mainstream US comics is largely due to the fact that most of the top names have established themselves over the past 20 years, building a fanbase that follows them as much as the characters they create. More than that, the do-it-yourself nature of comic book art, the fact that it's an artform that still exists outside the establishment to a certain extent, is a particular fit with a Scottish aesthetic sensibility.

"If there's no obvious channel to go down to do this stuff, people find their own way," says Quitely, 42. "When I started there were no comic book courses. There was nowhere you get a degree in anything to do with comics. That meant that the people who were doing comics were doing it because they were doing it anyway.

"It's the same with bands - they're going to do what they do no matter what. If not even the local pubs will give them a gig, they'll be doing it in their bedroom because that's what they do. They've written these songs and at least they think they're good. I suppose in many respects comics is still a good industry to go into if you're self-taught."

Almost every iconic comic book hero - Superman, Batman, the X-Men - has had the Quitely treatment. Bulging muscles, enlarged jaws ("Desperate Dan" he says, rolling his eyes) and astonishing levels of detail (influenced as much by Norman Rockwell as Broons and Oor Wullie creator Dudley D Watkins) have illustrated stories created by comic industry's leading figures, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Alan Grant. Like any artist, Quitely has his detractors - people who bridle at his stylised, idiosyncratic creations, but if sales and awards are anything to go by, he is rightly regarded as a modern master of his form. It's not bad for someone who was kicked out of art school at the end of second year.

"I went into the drawing and painting department thinking that I'd learn how to draw and paint and I'd get better at it and I'd be able to illustrate books," he says. It didn't work like that at all. They wanted to know what the empty Govan shipyards meant to me and to other Glaswegians. Had the politics of the landscape change people's lives? I was 17."

After leaving, there was still nothing else he wanted to do more than draw, so he did whatever came his way. z Portraits of pets drawn from photographs, murals in schools, posters for nightclubs. And then Quitely heard about someone looking for the services of a cartoonist so he pitched up with his portfolio. "It turned out it was bunch of guys planning to put a comic together. Viz was doing really well at the time and they wanted to do something like that, but with less magazine content and more comic strip content. But they had no writers, only artists, so everybody who could draw had to write their own material."

The result was a comic for adults called Electric Soup. Quitely's contribution his Broons parody. It was a way of acknowledging the influence of Watkins, while allowing Quitely to develop his own style. They sold Electric Soup at comic conventions and Quitely was urged to submit his work to commissioning editors. He got his first commission from popular British title 2000AD in the early 1990s and from then on, Quitely has gone on to make a huge name for himself both in American mainstream comics but also in quirkier independent publications. Like his artistic influences, which range from Watkins to Leonardo da Vinci, Quitely has never distinguished between high and low art, he's only ever been interested in what he liked and could learn from.

After working on 2000AD, Deighan collaborated for the first time with Glaswegian writer Grant Morrison on a DC comic called Flex Mentallo. It was Quitely's big break into American comics and the comic that cemented his partnership with Morrison which led to their work on the X-Men and All-Star Superman.

"For the last ten or 20 years Grant Morrison has been considered by most people in comics to be pretty much at the top of the tree creativity-wise," says Quitely. "He's well known for putting a new slant on things while staying true to the original idea."

Morrison and Quitely have enjoyed massive popular and critical acclaim with their work for both DC and Marvel Comics. Their creative visions may differ radically from the original models - Morrison's narratives are often non-linear just as Quitely drawings are uniquely stylised - but their work on iconic titles has created a new benchmark of what comics can do.

Ask him if there are limits to what comics can achieve and he'll tell you that if you only look at the mainstream, what you will see is a product geared to make money and appeal to the widest section of people possible. Step outside of that, though, and things get a lot more interesting. Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman are amongst the names Deighan mentions as producing soemething different. The work they produce might all be described as stretching the boundaries of what was once regarded an industry for children but which has long been a serious and respected artform.

"Are there any limits to what you can write in your own diary, or on your blog, or what you can sing on your demo tape, or film with your phone or whatever you've got?" asks Quitely. "There are boundaries in terms of taste and decency and legal matters, but beyond that there aren't really any boundaries in what you can do in any artistic format, you're only limited by yourself and the popular consensus."

And how does he explain the appetite for those archetypal characters that despite being woven into more complex storylines still resemble at some level the original creations that emerged in the early 20th century?

"Collectively there are certain things that we are looking for; there's a reason we need heroes and a reason we need villains, in real life as well as in fiction. There's a reason we have archetypal characters and they get repackaged for each new generation. Maybe William Tell, a guy who bends the law for a good cause, is the same as Zorro is the same as Batman is the same as whoever is coming next.

"You can look at it as if there are no new ideas but it's not really that, it's more that we've all got the same needs and through time we just find different ways of addressing that or sharing it or working it out individually or together."

l Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin collection is in comic shops now.

 
 
 

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