This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 47, winter 2022.
Words: Barbara Burke.
Frank Quitely is the pen name of Vincent Deighan, a Glasgow-based comic book artist of international renown. He works predominantly with Scottish comic book writers Mark Millar and Grant Morrison and has created work for major titles and household names such as 'Judge Dredd', Marvel's 'X-Men' and DC Comics' 'Superman' and 'Batman'.
His collaboration with Millar has resulted in the Netflix series 'Jupiter's Legacy' and his work was celebrated in an exhibition at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2017.
The earliest comics he remembers reading were 'The Broons' and 'Oor Wullie', strips that appeared in the 'Sunday Post', then a mixture of other DC Thomson titles such as 'The Dandy', 'Beano', plus his sister's copies of 'Bunty' and 'Mandy'.
As a teenager, he did not have much access to comics other than what "the boy across the road" had – a smattering of Marvel titles. He also remembers a shop with a spinner rack in Millport.
"They had two things I really liked – 'Conan the Barbarian' and these old black and white reprints of 'Creepy Worlds', 'Weird Science', 'Tales to Astonish' – all that kind of stuff. All short 'twist in the tale' stories. So there would be a whole anthology of black and white, kind of newsprint. Each story by a different artist.
"There were some by Steve Ditko and various other people in there that I didn't know at the time."
When Deighan left art school he was asked to contribute to underground comic 'Electric Soup', for which he wrote and drew the comic strip 'The Greens' – an alternative to 'The Broons'. It was then that he got into comics more seriously.
He received a "crash course in what was happening in comics", introduced to major names such as Frank Miller, Geof Darrow, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
He particularly admired the work of French artist Moebius, Katsuhiro Otomo of 'Akira' fame and cartoonist Chris Ware – all of whom influenced his work.
Just before being snapped up by 'Judge Dredd', Deighan adopted his pen name for 'Electric Soup' when it first appeared in 1989.
It was not unusual for artists on the comic scene to use pseudonyms. Many were self-employed or on benefit and did not want to be investigated for not declaring income [despite their work on 'Electric Soup' being unpaid]. Deighan also had other reasons.
"I was freelancing, doing all sorts of artistic work for different people," he said "I was doing murals for restaurants. I was doing t-shirt designs for a guy at the Barras [market] and business cards, caricatures, posters for nightclubs – all sorts.
"My stuff in 'The Greens' was very patchy quality-wise and there was no particular thread – I never felt I found a voice or a direction. It was just something to do because I had the time to be involved and was enjoying the process of creating comics.
"There were other strips in the comic that I felt were a bit misogynistic, a bit unimaginative, rehashing old jokes you've heard in the pub. So there was a bunch of stuff in there that I didn't particularly want to be associated with. Part of it was the fact that I don't think my mum and dad would have liked it. Even if that hadn't been the case, I still would have used a pen name just to distance myself from the rest of the content."
Deighan chose Frank Quitely, a spoonerism of 'quite frankly' for his work on 'Electric Soup' and stuck with that as his artist's name ever since. He likes the association of honesty with the name [being frank].
He also found that upon working on US-based superhero comics, it felt fitting to be operating under a pseudonym while drawing characters who also had secret identities.
Working as a successful comic book artist often means having to attend comic and sci-fi conventions – places where fans get to meet their literary and artistic heroes while oftentimes dressing up as fictional superheroes. It's the one part of the job Deighan always struggled with.
"I really used to hate it," he said. "I wasn't shy but I certainly didn't enjoy being in the spotlight. I wasn't particularly comfortable with strangers coming up and showering me with compliments.
"It's strange because I'm not famous in the slightest in the public sphere. It's literally once a year or something someone will stop me on the street and say, 'you're Frank Quitely'. But when you go to a convention, it's very much like being a famous person. So if you're not used to it, it's really unusual."
Some fans were particularly invasive, stopping him no matter what he was doing, such as trying to get back to his hotel room or even "actually standing at the urinal with somebody holding a book in front of you saying, 'can you sign that?'."
His use of a pen name became an unintentional, but useful, shield. "For ages I would go to cons [comic conventions] and hear some people walking behind me saying, 'Frank, Frank!' and it wouldn't register as me because I didn't associate myself with Frank Quitely. It took years and years to get used to it."
After about a decade, Deighan stopped going to conventions. But some years later, he was persuaded by a convention in Toronto that made all the necessary assurances about protecting his personal space while he was not at the signing table. They also invited his wife, Ann Jane, who travelled to Toronto with him.
"The Toronto con is absolutely huge and it was the first time I had been to a con for years," he said. "I was really nervous, sitting there before the signing started, and there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people in a line waiting for books to be signed.
"My wife had half an hour to kill and sat at the signing table with me. Each person was coming up and shaking my hand and saying it was so special to meet me.
"Some people had brought me gifts and some people told me stories about how they'd been following my work since they were 10 and now they were trying to get into comics themselves [my wife] kept leaning over and tapping me in between people and saying, 'what do you not like about this?'. I thought, 'yeah, it is actually quite a special thing'."
His name is also a frequent topic of discussion among con attendees.
"In America in particular – still when I go to cons – people just presume Frank Quitely is my real name.
"I've had people coming up saying, 'me and my friends have been arguing – I say it's quit-ell-y and they're saying it's quitely'. One out of 100 fans will actually lean in and say, 'how are you doing Vincent?'."
Keen on a varied working life, Deighan is writing short stories, oil painting and print making, and developing a new project with frequent collaborator Millar.
He is also working on a suite of Scottish myths and legends for a luxury brand whisky distillery.
He has resumed attending conventions too, and while he still finds it slightly uncomfortable, he appreciates that a lot of the exchanges are personal and positive.
"When people stand and wait in line to meet you it's difficult to explain but it's very, very easy to make someone's day if it's important to them to get a moment of your time.
"I don't have any other interactions like that where it's almost like having a superpower, where you can make people feel really good about themselves just by being attentive and appreciative."
Frank Quitely features in the Library's major exhibition called 'Pen Names', which is on at our George IV Bridge building in Edinburgh until 29 April 2023.
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