TCJ 300 Conversations: Dave Gibbons & Frank Quitely

Posted by on December 15th, 2009 at 6:00 AM


Dave Gibbons is one of the most recognizable names in mainstream comics. At the forefront of the British invasion of the 1980s, he brought the humor, energy and aesthetics of 2000 A.D. to U.S. readers in his artwork for Marvel and DC. He has collaborated with some of the biggest writers in his field, including Len Wein on Green Lantern, Frank Miller on Martha Washington and Alan Moore on Superman, The Spirit and, of course, Watchmen. Also a writer in his own right, he penned what is considered the definitive Rogue Trooper story in the “War Machine” miniseries, along with stories for some of Marvel’s and DC’s most precious properties, including Superman, Batman and Captain America.

Like Gibbons, Scottish artist Frank Quitely (aka Vincent Deighan) is in the unusual position of being both an insider and outsider. One of the most highly praised yet also fiercely criticized mainstream penciler of recent years, Quitely draws in distinctive fine-line style, utilizing modernist design instincts and an uncanny eye for the human form. As such, he has placed a fresh emphasis on storytelling and realism in mainstream cartooning. His breakthrough work with Grant Morrison on the mind-bending Flex Mentallo has led to several more notable collaborations with his countryman, including The Invisibles, New X-Men, We3, the award-winning All-Star Superman and, most recently, Batman and Robin.

Alumni of 2000 A.D. and its sister publication, Judge Dredd Megazine (though in different decades) Gibbons and Quitely share a sense of British satire in their work while also being at the forefront of the digital revolution in comic creation. The two artists charted the changes in the comics industry (and the exchange rate) on both sides of the pond in the following conversation.

— Gavin Lees

Transcribed by Gavin Lees.



Panel detail from Ro-Busters Book One, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Dave Gibbons — according to Rich Johnston, this was actually drawn by Kevin O’Neill; ©1983 IPC Magazines Ltd.

Frank Quitely:
I didn’t see a lot of 2000 A.D. growing up. I actually had friends who didn’t read any other comics but did read 2000. It wasn’t until I started doing self-published work in 1988-1989 that I started being introduced to 2000 A.D. and a whole selection of American, European and small-press work. I know, obviously now in retrospect, just how big 2000 A.D. was — publicly, as well as in the industry — but it’s much more your thing, really.

Dave Gibbons:
It was a tremendous influence over here. They would run shorter stories and it would be a way that they could give a writer or an artist a few pages to test them out and if it was no good, it didn’t really matter. If it was good, then maybe it would lead to other things. I broke in in an even more anonymous way, working for a publisher called D.C. Thomson, who are much nearer to where Frank is at the moment, in Dundee, Scotland. That was really where I learned to draw comics. I used to get scripts anonymously written and I’d pencil everything out, send it in, and they’d come back with Post-It notes and bits of tracing paper stuck all over them — talking about the real nuts and bolts of how you tell comics stories. Things like, “We need to see the reaction on this character’s face,” or “We need to see the key going into the lock.” So that’s where I learned to do comics and, while I learned, I was never credited with anything I drew. Which I’m really pleased about. [Quitely laughs.]

Then when it came to 2000 A.D., there were a whole lot of us like myself, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, later Alan Moore, who had grown up reading British comics and American comics and finally here was this area or forum where we could all get our stuff in print together — the kind of science-fiction, larger-than-life stuff that we loved — and there was a real kind of esprit de corps. I imagine it was rather like if you’d worked in the Marvel Bullpen or you’d worked for E.C. Comics, this real sense of friendly rivalry and group effort. So, it was a really, really important thing for me and a lot of artists like me. It was a tremendously successful comic and the fact that it’s still going today — more than 30 years after it was launched — is just incredible. I think it says a lot about the energy that the creators of it, Pat Mills and John Wagner, put into it, right at the very beginning.


Right: from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo #3, ©1996 DC Comics.

After the self-published work, I too got my start in 2000‘s sister publication, the Judge Dredd Megazine, on a seven-page story and I was made to understand that if I did a good enough job then there would be more work to follow. So, even now, it is still a platform for new talent. But I think what’s maybe changed — and it’s changed right across the industry — is what you were saying about sending your artwork in and it would come back with Post-It notes and suggestions and guidance. Only 10 years later, by the time I got there, there was no real editorial input at all and there have been very, very few editors that I have worked for who really have much more of an idea about how to go about telling a story, visually, than your average artist who’s only been working for a few years. I think in the past — before royalties and the rest of it — artists and writers who became very good at their craft then went on to become editors. I think one of the things that’s changed is that there isn’t actually this mentoring or this apprenticeship any more; it really is just learning by your own mistakes.

Yeah, it’s true, I was lucky enough to come in at a stage — which you were there at the end of — when the editorial staff was much older and much more experienced than the contributors. But now it’s kind of funny to be working for DC or Marvel and somebody maybe a third of my age, certainly half my age, is telling me how to do it. I must say, though, that if you’ve got a really good editor — no matter what their age — it’s a really, really valuable thing. There are certain things I’ve done where I haven’t been edited because I think maybe they didn’t want to “tell their grandmother how to suck eggs,” where I really wished they had. I do think that a really good editor is such a tremendous contribution to the creative effort. I’ve worked with some good editors, but I don’t think that there’s quite that level of expertise and experience there at the moment.

Yeah, I’ve worked with some good editors too, but I’m just under the impression that there was a time when most editors had years of practical experience behind them, as a writer or an artist or whatever, before they became an editor.

I can vividly remember the first professional comic-book strip that I ever had to draw. At that time I was quite happy to draw alien space fleets or Kirbyesque monsters or superheroes — I had to draw a police inspector climbing out of a London taxi outside New Scotland Yard. As you know, that’s 10 times as difficult as drawing some incredible science-fiction action. So I had a grounding in having to draw real things and making real things look dramatic. The artists that I admire are the people who can bring that sense of reality to their work. After all, comic strips are a huge trick anyway, and what you actually have to do is to take the reader into a world that’s completely invented, that has lines drawn round everything and convince them that that is reality. I’ve always felt that the best comic artists are the ones who create a completely believable universe. I think of, for instance, Steve Ditko whose drawing is sometimes crude and a bit wacky but who succeeds completely in taking you to the “Ditko Universe.” So I think you have to have a grounding in reality, but I think once you’ve got that you can draw in a really far-out style.

Yeah, I mean, anybody with a strong personal style and, in particular, people who tend not to use much in the way of photo reference — people like Moebius, Robert Crumb. It’s just what you’re saying about creating an entire environment that seems to be all made out of the same stuff — a bit like The Simpsons, you know, you soon forget that they’ve got the wrong number of fingers and they’ve got bright yellow skin because their whole world is just made of the same stuff.


From “For the Man Who Has Everything,” written by Alan Moore and drawn by Gibbons; ©1987 DC Comics.

I think probably, I would say to most people who particularly want to get into superhero comics: Learn to draw real people. You’ll never waste your time if you draw from life.

Yup, I’d agree with that.

I love the quality of weight and movement that your figures have, particularly. And I mentioned D.C. Thomson earlier on — an interesting thing to me about what you do is that your work is kind of superheroes as if filtered through D.C. Thomson. That wonderful artist Dudley D. Watkins who could draw anything — that man could draw funny, straight, dramatic, anything — and your work always reminds me of that. So, I’d be particularly interested to hear about your influences.

Well, obviously Dudley D. Watkins is a huge influence — he was the artist who did a strip called Oor Wullie and another strip called The Broons, which appeared in a Scottish newspaper every Sunday [the Sunday Post] — this guy was just phenomenal. He could capture just very, very realistic facial expressions and body language from jealousy to embarrassment to anger to smugness with very, very few lines. He was just phenomenal. In contrast to your very tight, controlled, accurate work, I’m often — when I venture online to see what people are saying about my work when something’s just been released —

Always a mistake! [Laughter.]

Yeah, it is, isn’t it? I always get a lot of people who hate my figure work and say I draw too many ugly people and too many fat people and too many cartoonish-looking people. But, the thing I loved about Watkins’ work was the fact that, if something was happening that was the focal point of the scene, everybody in the scene would be reacting in some way to what had been going on, in the same way that Norman Rockwell does, who’s probably more familiar to American readers. After leaving art school more than 20 years ago, I actually just last year went back to life-drawing classes and, you know, I draw in the train station on a small notepad when I’m waiting for a train. So, if you’ve got the interest in what a small, simple drawing or what body language or facial expressions can say or what they can add to a story, then it’s just something you kind of do anyway. Just because it enriches your experience of actually making the work and it enriches the experience of some of the people [laughs] who talk about it on the forums.

There’s another quality in your work that I can see in Dudley Watkins’ as well — and that I’d like to think is in some of my work — and that’s the impression you get that the artist likes people and is interested in people; real human people, not larger-than-life, godlike, symbolic people. It’s just that crackle of humanity in the odd gesture or the way of looking or the slight paunch or the wrinkly clothes; it brings a warmth to the work.


From Quitely’s The Greens, ©2009 Frank Quitely.

I know I’m not here to plug publications, but on the desk in front of me is a book that I must mention that relates to just what we were talking about. Disney Studios used to be wonderful at teaching animators, and other people who worked for them, how to draw, and they had some excellent teachers. There was a guy called Walt Stanchfield who used to teach gesture drawing and would give out lecture notes and sketches and things. These have been on the Internet in dribs and drabs, but recently Focal Press has published a two-volume collection of these and I’ve been reading them over the past couple of weeks. It’s absolutely reinvigorated my love of drawing and my desire to go to the real meat of the drawing, rather than just dressing it up. So that’s a rather unscheduled and unpaid ad, but I heartily recommend the books. They’re called Drawn to Life.

I shall give them a try.

OK — available on Amazon! [Laughter.]

I think British people and Scottish people tend to be a little less easily impressed than, perhaps, they are in the States. I think the best British comic art has always got a slightly satirical or sarcastic edge to it. I think certainly that what the first wave of Brits brought to America was a certain kind of — not “darkness,” that’s putting it too strongly — but a certain desire to tear down the idols. Not for purely destructive ends, but perhaps to show everything a bit more realistically and a bit more interestingly. I can certainly see that in your work and other people who are working today.

I wonder if part of it is that we don’t really have a superhero tradition of our own. So maybe it’s that thing where you’re going into a different environment and using other characters that, in some ways, are less precious to you. Maybe that’s just me, because I wasn’t brought up on a big diet of comics, but any time that I’ve ever approached a character and have been allowed to make some small changes — [New] X-Men being a case in point — often a lot of people are really against any kind of change and I just wonder if maybe it would be the opposite situation if American writers and artists came over to do Judge Dredd and gave him a little bit more humor, making him a little bit more light-hearted and making the stories a little bit more upbeat with the occasional happy ending. Maybe it would seem more obvious if we could see it that way round.

One of the few American artists who has drawn Judge Dredd was actually John Byrne. He was friendly with one of the editors on 2000 A.D. and said he’d like to draw Judge Dredd. So, John Wagner who, as I said, was one of the founders of 2000 A.D. — a fantastic writer and the guy who’s really responsible for everything that Judge Dredd has become — when he heard that an American was going to be drawing it, he wrote the most difficult-to-illustrate script that he could think of. It was full of crowd scenes and huge vistas. You know, John didn’t make a bad job of it, but I don’t think American writers and artists would somehow fit in the club over here. Perhaps that’s a terrible thing to say, but I think it might be true. I’ve got many good personal friends amongst American writers and artists, who think we don’t need sweetening up. I think maybe the American industry has always needed a bit more bite.

Maybe it’s just we’ve not got the room because we’ve really only got a couple of comics over here.


From Gibbons’ The Originals, ©2004 Dave Gibbons.

Well, that’s true, and American comics now equate to British comics because so many of us work for them and it’s really the only thing you can buy over here with any predictability — other than 2000 A.D. or nursery comics or Panini merchandise — we haven’t really got any comics. Oh, there’s something I must say that I’m very, very proud of — we were talking about D.C. Thomson who still publish The Beano and The Dandy. I was amazed, the other week, to pick up a copy of The Dandy, which is a fairly juvenile humor comic, to find the whole thing was lettered with my computer hand-lettering font. So, it’s like I’ve taken over the British comics industry. I’m on every page — it’s brilliant! [Laughter.]

I think the thing in Britain is that even very big celebrities over here are very down-to-earth and flawed. Whereas — if you equate those to characters that people would be interested in — in the States there’s always much more airbrushing and a kind of unreality about these figures. Perhaps I’m making too many disparaging comments about American culture, so I’ll put a halt on that now.

It used to be the job of editors to protect the house characters, you know, like Superman was far more important than John Byrne or Dave Gibbons or Jim Lee or Frank Quitely or anybody could possibly be. But that turned round at some point, actually I think at the point where the publishers started to give the artists and writers credit and you could then put a name to the good artist or the shit artist, you know. So, in a way, the creators become more important than the characters, and you can see that now. What you and Grant Morrison have done with Superman is to completely elevate that character, so I think the editor’s position is a little bit different. If the success depends on the particular version of a character then the editorial have to step back and let the creators have their head on it. So it’s much more difficult to be an editor nowadays. I think I’ve always drawn in kind of a house style anyway, because that’s the way that I learned to draw and it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Yeah, but it’s House of Gibbons.

Well, thank you. I suppose what any artist does — and I was saying earlier about your work being American comics by way of Dudley D. Watkins — is put all our influences in there. Certainly I can see bits that I’ve taken from Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Frank Hampson, so I suppose what we really do is synthesize styles into our own version of it.

You can’t help it, can you? Actually, I should qualify that — one can’t help it! [Laughter.]

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