The Art of Comics: Kelvingrove’s cracking Frank Quitely exhibition
I’ve been meaning to pay a visit to one of my favourite places in Glasgow, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum to check out their Frank Quitely exhibition. As a comics creator working in Glasgow it’s a terrific venue to host a major comics exhibition of his work – not just because it’s a great museum and gallery (it is), but because it’s embedded in the city’s culture; almost everyone growing up in and around Glasgow pays visits to Kelvingrove, its distinctive red stone architecture settled in a leafy part of the city, with parks, the River Kelvin and the Gothic tower of Glasgow University all dotted around. As Forbidden Planet Glasgow was holding their Small Press Day in conjunction with Kelvingrove last weekend (see report and photos here), this was a perfect chance for me to kill two birds with one four colour stone and take in both Small Press Day and the Quitely exhibition.
It’s a hugely impressive exhibition by the Kelvingrove, very well put-together and thought out, properly curated (a term that has been a bit devalued lately by overuse in many areas, here being used in the proper sense) to give not only an overview of the artist’s body of work across the years, but to give some insight into the creative process, the influences and evolution and relating it to other works. This starts right at the beginning – as you enter through the sliding glass doors to be greeted with a wall-sized, wonderfully colourful reproduction of the Man of Steel from All-Star Superman, which leads to a similarly wall-sized reproduction of Frank’s female version of the classic Scottish comics character Oor Wullie, along with the original pages, and nearby some vintage Oor Wullie and The Broons on loan from Dundonian publishers DC Thomson, whose work most of Scotland has grown up with, Frank included.
The full-wall colour reproductions of Frank’s art with some of the relevant panels and pages alongside is something of a theme throughout the rather large space of this exhibition, and very attractive it is too, eye-catching, colourful and impressive, as well as functional in that they indicate a particular theme or strand of the artist’s work contained in the smaller frames nearby.
Most of the rooms boast these floor to ceiling works, with a couple in particular being especially splendid – a reproduction of one of Frank’s regular collaborators, fellow Scot Grant Morrison holding his hands out surrounded by his various characters (originally drawn for a Playboy article on Grant), bisected by the doorway, and one that makes any Glaswegian comics fan’s heart glow with joy – Frank’s rendering of Kelvingrove itself, complete with Superman flying over it, taking up the entire end all. That particular space also comes with boxes of vibrantly coloured costume pieces – capes, masks – for the younger fans (or older!) to play superhero dress up (there is also a large table with plenty of drawing material for both younger and adult fans to sit down and draw, inspired by the walls of comics art).
As well as walls and walls of art, usually grouped into themes in a number of adjacent rooms, from dynamic pencilled pages (still with all the blue line markings for printers and instructions for colouring, inking etc) such as a group from We3 (one of my favourites), including a superbly kinetic full-page of the cat in his battle armour, pouncing with feline fury on his would-be hunters (who have clearly misunderstood just who is predator and who is prey here!) to works set in Frank’s native Scotland, such as Batman: the Scottish Connection and celebrating landscape and architecture as much as his powerful character designs, with panels including the iconic Forth Rail Bridge and an “impossible” perspective looking down from above the intricately carved stone ceiling of the astonishing Rosslyn Chapel just outside Edinburgh, one of the legendary resting places of the Grail (this was before The Da Vinci Code turned the historic location into a massive tourist magnet). These varied selections give a good flavour of Frank’s flexible abilities on both depicting characters and infusing them with personality, and on crafting locations, both imaginary and real-world.
There are glass cased tables between the framed art on the walls in most of the larger rooms, and there are some smaller but delightful treasures in here, just as well thought-out as the larger pieces adorning the main wall displays. Many of these smaller items on the tables are especially effective in conveying something of the process – individual panels physically cut out so they can be moved around as the artist experiments with possible layouts, for instance, sketchbooks and thumbnails and design sketches. Scripts from the likes of Mark Millar and Grant Morrison are present, along with hand-written annotations and notes back and forth between writer and artist.
Rather nicely the process side of the exhibition also makes clear the teamwork behind producing a single issue of a comic, not just the aforementioned writer’s scripts and notes and artist’s thumbnails and layout sketches, but also the often unsung yet vital role of the inkers and colourists. I was also especially pleased to see this included notes from DC editor Dan Raspel, asking Frank to try rough sketches of his pages first, then fax them to Dan before embarking on the much more arduous task of drawing the actual page. Alongside these notes from his early DC work there are comments by Frank noting that this was quite a hard way for him to work at first, much more effort, but it paid off further down the line and made him up his game, another good example of influence and collaboration in the medium, and how it affects and improves an artist’s work.
There’s so much else to explore in this large exhibition – local academic (and well-kent face on the Scottish comics scene) Laurence Grove places modern comics into some historical context, not just discussing Topffer and the Glasgow Looking Glass (the earliest proper comics works) but also in a wider context of centuries of illustrated books (including illustrated Scottish books from the 1600s from the nearby university’s Stirling Maxwell Collection). Other audio-video touchscreen panels give more information on Frank and various collaborators, and another on the recent animated short film, Nothing to Declare, which Frank scripted (reviewed in my recent write-up of the McLaren Animation strand at the Edinburgh Film Festival).
Work from other comics artists is also included, including Charles Burns, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, as well as other non-comics artists who have had an influence, including iconic Scottish artist and author Alasdair Gray (with his Archie Hind painting – complete with child reading Batman). Frank’s work ranges from early promotional pieces for the ArtStore in Glasgow (which some of us of a certain age will doubtless recall) and his Broons parody The Greens in the underground mag Electric Soup (required reading when I was a student) through Judge Dredd to Batman, Superman, the X-Men, Sandman and more, and some terrific cover artworks and a portrait for a French publisher of comics god Alan Moore (in which Frank has worked titles from the author’s ouevre woven into the strands of his beard, if you look closely).
(the first appearance of Broons parody The Greens in Electric Soup back in 1989; below, Frank’s portrait of Alan Moore – check the larger versions on my Flick where you can make out the names of some of Alan’s works entwined into his beard)
There is even a case full of tiny, postage stamp pieces Frank sketched for an intricate sequence from the perspective of a CCTV system, so he could move them around for best layout, saved in, of all things, an old raisins box (which his wife nearly threw out as rubbish!).
It’s just a terrific exhibition – a friend who also visited it but isn’t much of a comics reader told me she still found it engrossing, especially the pieces exploring the process of creation and collaboration, and the other artistic influences which had fed into Frank’s work. The exhibition runs until October 1st, so if you haven’t been yet you still have time, and I heartily recommend it, the Kelvingrove staff have really pushed the boat out here, celebrating not just the work of one of the city’s artists, but exploring influences and development, links to other artworks and more.