In some sort of bizarre inverse world where Us Weekly covered the world of comic books, there's no doubt in our mind that writer/artist team Kathryn and Stuart Immonen would be classed as a "power couple". Working for Marvel and DC on characters such as Spiderman, Superman and X-Men, they are household names in the mainstream comics market. Somewhat of a departure from their work for the big two, their new book, Moving Pictures (our review here), will be released next month by Top Shelf. Originally serialised on their website, the comic sees a museum curator engaged in a resistance plot to protect works of art in Nazi-occupied France.
Not quite as inaccessible as Brangelina, we invited the Immonens to talk to us about their book, which our review described as a "thought-provoking piece that asks questions about the value of objects and the commodification of people in wartime". Read on for an illuminating interview that includes information on their inspirations behind the comic, their working processes as well as their next big personal project, Russian Olive to Red King.
What led to your interest in the subject of art in Nazi-occupied France?
Kathryn Immonen: Years ago, I was reading Janet Flanner’s Letters from Paris. It’s a collection of the journalistic letters she wrote as the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker during the war years. And at one point she mentioned that the cleaning of the Louvre as a by-product of the shifting of the art out of the city. It was just so strange and funny. But I really started thinking about those guys with the rags and the cans of Pledge and the buckets of ammonia water... small domestic activities that were a side-effect of big global acts of violence and, in a lot of ways, imagination. So, I guess, I’m not really interested at all in the big subject of the art theft (and it’s huge) but in a really small moment. There are so many personal memoirs from the time that paint such an interstitial picture. MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf is another favourite in the same vein.
The Second World War itself is barely mentioned in the story. Obviously, it is set in a specific era of 20th century history, but the focus certainly seems to be on the characters themselves as well as concepts. What do you consider the core of the narrative to be?
Kathryn Immonen: There were so many reasons why we really turned away from the event itself. It’s such well trodden ground and I don’t think that either of us has anything to really contribute in the way of trying (and most certainly failing) to address it in any meaningful way. And I think if you purport to be creating an historical work, the second that you make a mistake (and you certainly will), the whole thing has the potential to be evacuated of any meaning. Your error becomes the sole focus. So, I guess what I’m saying, is that this book is a product of my anxiety! My interest is always the characters and the historical backdrop provides a context in which to discuss ideas of desire and commodification, the opaque and often arbitrary nature of valuation. At its heart, I think it’s about how we can never know the true nature of intimacy between others.
Stuart Immonen: Visually, I made every attempt to support the themes in Kathryn’s script. The art style went through several iterations, each more abstracted and formal, less naturalistic than the last, before settling on the stark, almost gestalt, look employed in the published book. Though it was necessary to show locations and settings, even these were several steps removed from photographic references, and in the interrogation scenes, there was no attempt to define the space, instead drawing focus to intimate moments, objects and characterization.
How much research was involved in the creation of the comic?
Kathryn Immonen: The script was completed long ago and any time I glance back at the notes I kept, I’m surprised by how much I read, how much I knew. But typically, for me, I don’t keep stuff either in real life or in my head. So, the answer is ‘a lot’ but then there comes a point where you just have to put a stop to the research and it’s mostly because you are in danger of finding yourself wanting to include things that your characters couldn’t care less about. As a person looking back on an historical period, we have the privilege of a panoptic view but the characters don’t. And the most important thing to them in a given moment is more likely to fall along the lines of the fact that they need to go to the bathroom rather than worrying about the implications of political manoeuvrings happening in a secret room 400 km away which won’t actually come to light until 30 years later.
Stuart Immonen: Again, the picture-making demanded at least a nod to what Paris looked like in the 1940s, and there was a considerable file of clippings, website printouts and books, but in the end, there was a persistent effort to strip away the literal. The setting isn’t the story; it isn’t what’s important.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that online serialisation was a means for the two of you to meet a deadline; with the process of creation being spread out over such a long time, did you find yourselves altering much?
Stuart Immonen: Between the end of the online publication and the printed version? Yes. But it was more or less to overcome the inconsistencies that cropped up over the course of the nearly three-year serialization. One of the pedestrian reasons for using the “clear-line” style was for me to be able to return to each page of Moving Pictures after a week of drawing in a very different way and still have the look be more or less the same, but drawing the pages intermittently over a long period of time meant getting used to the characters and the style repeatedly. When read one page a week, as it was drawn, the inconsistencies were minor, but in a single volume, we felt they were more noticeable.
Individually, you are credited as writer and artist; is it as simple as that, or is there an extra degree of collaboration between you? How do the two of you work together?
Kathryn Immonen: We work in a very small office, within punching distance of each other. And we talk about projects that we’re working all the time. I think we’ve got fairly strong voices individually but because we’ve been together so long, and have been making work together all that time, we really do speak the same language in a lot of ways. So the communication is not only aided by proximity but also by shared experience. We certainly benefit from a useful shorthand. Having said that, Stuart will ask questions for clarification and show me stuff to see if it makes me happy but really, once I’m done, I’m done and what he does with it next is none of my business.
Stuart Immonen: The script was not broken into pages, so there was an opportunity to expand on some scenes – the interstitial moments where there is no dialogue for example—which were not described at all in the original draft. We’d discuss it on the fly, often on the day I was to draw those pages, and I think the end result benefitted from close contact.
Obviously, you are both known respectively for your successes in mainstream comics. Can you tell us a little about the differences in the way you approach working for the ‘the big two’, in comparison to your personal work, generally as well as technically?
Kathryn Immonen: The personal stuff is a lot easier, technically. There are fewer, if any, external obligations to continuity and the like. And I write a lot less description etc. when I’m writing for the two of us. Again, partly because we can just talk about it and partly because I kind of know how Stuart will probably see what I’m driving at.
Stuart Immonen: There are also fewer (ie: none, at least at the beginning) editorial constraints—we’re free to follow the muse, as it were, and let the story tell itself the way it wants to be told. Moving Pictures had no fixed page count and no deadline; that being said, we imposed arbitrary limits on certain technical aspects ourselves—the three-tier panel grid, the black and white palette, and certain recurring sequences—with a goal of cohesiveness in mind. It wasn’t a vanity project. I think Kathryn would agree that years of mainstream work informed the choices we made, both large and small. It’s a better comic for having worked in comics for so long already.
Kathryn Immonen: Weirdly, I think our first self-published work, Playground, still kind of holds up. But Never as Bad as You Think was a total joy.
Stuart Immonen: That was also self-published initially. And not that weird.
What else is on the horizon for Immonen Illustrations Inc?