Speaking quite frankly with Frank Quitely

“Witch, crone, devil!” he cried,

“I charge you by the power of God, begone – if you be dead, to the grave; if you be damned, to hell.”

– From Thrawn Janet, Robert Louis Stevenson

They couldn’t have known it but when Beam Suntory decided to contact Frank Quitely to ascertain his interest in a forthcoming project their timing couldn’t have been any better.

“I was at a very fortunate stage in my career, I’ve worked between six and seven days a week, between 10 and 16 hours a day for 30 years,” the acclaimed Scottish graphic and comic book artist, real name Vincent Deighan, recalls. “Comic books isn’t the best paid of the creative industries. Over those three decades I have climbed my way up, and I’ve worked on big titles and got royalties and I’ve made a decent living, but I could never afford to stop working.

“And then I did a comic called Jupiter’s Legacy with a fellow Glaswegian called Mark Miller, the guy that wrote Kickass and Kingsman. We sold it to Netflix and they made it into a TV show. So for the first time in my career, I reached a point where I could very comfortably take my foot off the gas and think about what I would like to do next. I was at that stage that I didn’t want to take any more comic work on, just because I wanted a break.”

In between doing an album cover for a French band and drawings for a hotel in Glasgow, an intriguing email arrived from Bowmore, followed by a phone call. Asked about his plans and any ‘bucket list’ he had, Quitely mentioned that he was only taking on pieces of work that interested him with people that he liked. While his comic illustrations are usually based on others’ scripts, he had also written several short stories that he planned to draw for himself, he pointed out. His second wish, he added, was to do some illustrations or prints related to Scottish myths. “There was a big pause, and then they said, ‘Funnily enough...’

“The Bowmore team told me that they had a body of myths and legends that were peculiar to the island of Islay. And they were wondering if maybe we could get together and talk about whether there was something we could do with these in relation to the recipes. Obviously, I was very interested. It sounded tailor-made for where I was at with my life and what I wanted to be doing artistically.”

Quitely had a decent knowledge of Bowmore, his father having been a whisky drinker who favoured Islay malts. He had also grown up with Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian myths and so the combination of whisky making and storytelling intrigued him.

He was even more interested when he discovered that Bowmore didn’t simply want illustrations but desired a much deeper collaboration that would explore the notion of marrying Islay myths to the selection and finishing of whiskies where the tasting notes would echo the narrative.

“They were very aware of the fact that they are drawing on the roots of Bowmore and Islay,” Quitely says. “That’s actually what their business is all about, particularly with the older whiskies – they’re bottling whiskies that were laid down by the fathers and sometimes the grandfathers of the men and women who are working there. With the casks that they are filling now, they can’t predict what they’re going to be like ten years or even 30 years from now. When I was on Islay I saw so many of the casks that have just been filled. The people that are filling some of them probably will not be here to see them opened.

“What’s really satisfying for me is that I was not simply hired to do an illustration job for a label or a box. It’s actually a collaboration to do with storytelling. It’s to do with tradition and with passing down a culture.”
– Frank Quitely

“They’re very aware of this and they wanted to do something that reflected this idea of drawing on the past – the culture of storytelling, the culture of whisky making. And through the art that I do I’m very aware that I’m a link in a chain as well. Yes, I did go to Glasgow School of Art, but I was immersed in illustrated books, comic books and fine art books from my primary school years right through until I found out there was such a thing as an art school.

“I was influenced by artists and illustrators who are long dead now and when I go to comic book conventions I meet young aspiring artists that are influenced by my work. So right away we really understood each other in terms of this link in a chain, this cultural tradition, and the idea of trying to retell the story.”

To truly reflect that story, the whiskies needed to be carefully chosen. And in keeping with the collaborative spirit of the project, the illustrator had to be part of the process. Quitely, along with members of the Bowmore and Beam Suntory teams, wrote down a list of key words related to the myth. “The story starts in the Round Church so all of us had words that related to old wood, dust, candlewax, incense, frankincense, altar wines, claret, sherry and so on,” he recalls. “Then the story heads down through the streets and lanes of the town. So we were thinking in terms of herbs and flowers and greenery. Then we head into the distillery so you’ve got the malting barns and the peats, and then at the end of the story you have the saltiness of sea air and the coal from the paddle steamer.”

How to capture all that in whisky form? Who better to answer the question than Bowmore Master Blender Ron Welsh, who lined up some 40 whiskies for a nosing, served both neat and with a splash of water. From the half dozen or so that were in the running, two were chosen. “When I tasted the whiskies they were 21 and 30 years old,” Quitely comments. “Ron felt that with the whiskies which ticked the most boxes for the tasting notes that we had given for the narrative, finishing them off for about two years in these Rosewood casks would just seal the deal and finish them in a way that he thought would be very satisfying and give them something slightly different.”

And the Quitely verdict? “I’m enthusiastic about whiskey, but I’m not an expert,” he responds. “But even to a relatively untrained palate like mine, from the first nose to the first taste through to the various flavours you get in your mouth and after you’ve swallowed it and the way it changes at the end, you get the candle wax, you get the incense, you get the sherry, and it finishes with the hint of salt. It’s pretty remarkable.”

And so to illustrating the packaging and the myth. Originally only one age statement was planned and Quitely opted to tell the story using all four sides of a box so that the narrative would unfold as the shopper turned it in their hand. Once it was decided that there would be two expressions, it was decided to include a limited-edition print inside the box of the 32 Year Old. “The idea was that when you saw the box you would see the devil at the window; you would see the pagoda on the roof and the starry skies at nighttime; you would know it’s in a distillery and you would know it’s the devil.

“Most people take the box off the shelf and turn it around and read the blurb on the back. But instead of just your usual tasting notes, you’ve actually got this summarised myth. So as you turn it in your hands, you read the story and you see the Round Church, the villagers shutting the distillery, the paddle steamer coming in at the other side. So literally from start to finish it really felt like a collaboration that was tailor-made for me. Without doubt it’s been one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve worked on.”

Scottish folklore, poetry and other literature are laced with references to the devil and Quitely thought carefully about how he should capture the Satanic force. A seminal inspiration was Tam o’Shanter, among the most famed works of the great Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns, in which the devil conveys a dark and foreboding presence.

“I didn’t have a definite single image of the devil when I started. But if you think about it, most of us have a good idea of what the devil looks like. If you’re Scottish it’s probably from illustrated versions of Tam o’Shanter as one source. And there is Mephistopheles [a demon featured in German folklore], the red devil with the horns and the little beard and moustache. Most of us are familiar with the devil that has the goat’s head.

“A lot of us, whether we’re religious or not, have images of the devil that came from Christianity. That’s often like a man with wings and horns and a tail. So like most people I had various images of the devil in mind. And of course Tam o’Shanter with the cloven hoofs and whatnot was a primary source but what I wanted to do was to try and draw on as many different sources as possible.

“Obviously, I was concentrating on Western sources because it’s a Scottish myth… but I felt I could combine something of that animal look, something like the goat’s-headed look, but make it slightly more like a man with the ram’s horns and with the goat’s legs. I felt if I could combine the versions of the devil from my earlier years, then with that combination he wasn’t going to be the same as the Satan man devil from Christianity. He also wasn’t going be the same as the Baphomet goats-headed devil [a pagan or gnostic idol or deity that the Templars were accused of worshipping, a concept that later appeared in much occult and mystical writing]; and he wasn’t going to be the same as the dramatic red devil with the goatee and the moustache.

“So I felt that in that combination there would be something that pretty much everybody could recognise and particularly could recognise as Scottish. And I felt we came up with something that was unique to this project. So it’s now unique to Bowmore. But it also draws in enough references that it would be instantly recognisable as the devil.”

The name No Corners to Hide is a pithy and evocative summary of the story. How did the creative process work in terms of connecting the myth to the final illustration and storyboard?

“The title is something specific to Bowmore. We went to the island, we toured the facility, and went to the church. We went to the museum, and in the back half of the museum in their records they have got a lot of old books and manuscripts and papers. The curator of the museum had actually selected as many of the old works that included myths and legends. That’s because when we started this process we weren’t just looking at this one story, we were looking at all the different versions of the stories that are from Islay.

“There are stories with sea dragons and ones with land dragons. There are stories about giants. There’s an array of stories, and some of them are echoed in other parts of Scotland and in Ireland. We ended up with a shortlist of myths and legends that we thought were worth retellling. The reason we chose to start with this one is because it’s the most recent, it’s only a few hundred years old, and because it included the distillery. The church was built round so that there were no corners for the devil to hide in, and it was from the story that we came up with the title.”

Armed with the choice and title of story, Quitely worked in the way he always does, going over and over the tale in his mind. “I started making little thumbnail drawings. I had a lot of old books and the references for what the island looked like as far back as we had photography and before that what it looked like from old drawings and paintings and etchings. I also took a lot of my own photographs. I wanted something that looked like the island but was a slightly dramatised version. The main street going up to the church isn’t quite as steep as that [in my illustration], for example.

“I’ve worked to create something that feels mythic. But after doing all these thumbnail roughs, I then had to come up with a composition that allowed the devil to be front and centre. And I had to leave space in the back [of the box] above the sea, where the story was going, and under the sea for where the cask was going. It made sense that as you turn the box, on one side you have the first half of the story before the devil goes into the distillery. So you’ve got the devil on the front of the pack and when you turn it, you’ve got the other side of the distillery, with the paddle steamer coming in. I was literally taking pieces of paper, and I drew all the individual elements first, and then I made a composition that would work on four sides of the box. And then I was just folding the paper and turning it in my hands to work out the best way of actually arranging all the elements. So that it worked in individual sections as you turn the box in your hands, but also as a flattened-out composition that you could view as one work.”

It must be a really cool prospect, I put it to Quitely, to be able to walk into airport duty free stores around the world and discover his work presented on a very different kind of tapestry to that of his traditional media. “It’s very satisfying,” he replies with a smile. “There’s a number of things that are satisfying for me about the project. One of them is the fact that it’s going to be in prestige airports; people that really love whisky are going to be buying it, collecting it and holding on to it. Some people will hold on to it and not open it and it will be passed down to another generation. Other people will share it with special friends who appreciate whiskies like this. So there’s that aspect to it.

“There’s also the fact that people who don’t know the background to this collaboration will pick the bottle off the shelf. It has an illustration on it, and they’ll turn it around and there will be the story. And then as they turn the box in their hands, they will realise that they’re actually reading the story visually. That’s a kind of bonus for people because nobody who is buying a fine or rare whisky is buying it for the illustration that’s on it.

“The other thing that’s really satisfying for me is that I was not simply hired to do an illustration job for a label or a box. It’s actually a collaboration to do with storytelling. It’s to do with tradition and with passing down a culture. And for me, the fact that the whiskies have been chosen and finished to reflect a narrative and that the liquid in the bottles are exceptionally nice whiskies means that everything about it is satisfying.”

They are important points that underline in various ways the critical component of provenance that so many consumers today are looking for. The same applies for heritage and craftsmanship, both of which stand out like Islay’s Carraig Fhada lighthouse in the night sky in terms of storytelling, illustration and the whiskies themselves. Ron Welsh might make whisky making and blending sound simple; it is anything but. In the Bowmore No Corners to Hide project there is an unmistakable dual sense of creative harmony and integrity.

As a fascinating discussion draws to a close, I ask Quitely when he first became entranced by the wonder of being able to draw. “I don’t remember when but I suspect it was probably when I was two or three,” he replies. “Like most children, it just started whenever I could hold a pen or a crayon or a piece of chalk. And long before I started primary school, so when I was three or four, I was drawing all the time, it was one of my favorite things. I liked playing with toys, I liked playing with Lego, but drawing was always my favorite pastime. And the love of it has never left me; the desire to get better has never left me. So it’s just a constantly evolving thing.”

And when did Vincent become Frank? And why? Frank/Vincent chuckles and says, “I suspect by your smile that you know the answer! When I left Glasgow School of Art, I was doing all sorts of different freelance work. I was doing murals for restaurants, t shirt designs, commissioned portraits and so on and somebody asked me if I wouldn’t mind writing and drawing a comic strip for a comic that was just starting in Glasgow. It was a kind of underground adult humour sort of comic and some of the other guys that were doing it were using funny pen names. And I didn’t really want my mum to see it! So I thought Frank Quitely – a spoonerism of quite frankly – would be a fitting name for humorous publication. So that’s where that came from.”

With his creative energies truly awakened by the project, Quitely is already looking forward to the next edition in the series that bears his adopted pseudonymn. “This is just the start,” he says.

About Frank Quitely

Born in Glasgow in 1968, Vincent Deighan loved to draw. His dream was to make this his career. After studying Drawing and Painting at Glasgow School of Art, he began his creative exploration through the world of comic fiction.

Carving an impressive career from the Scottish underground comic scene, he adopted the pseudonym Frank Quitely, a name now synonymous with cutting-edge visual storytelling.

His list of creative accolades ranges from the cult scene to the blockbuster domain, from Marvel to DC Comics. Credited with assisting the reimagination of Superman and the X-Men during the 2000s, Quitely’s back catalogue reads like a who’s who of leading, inspiring, and game-changing graphic artistry

In 2017, an exhibition of his work went on show at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Later that year, he received an honorary degree as a Doctor of Letters from the University of Glasgow, in recognition of his achievements.

Spotlight Series - November 2021

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