Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Review: Moving Pictures, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen (Top Shelf, 2010)

Writer: Kathryn Immonen
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Format: 14.6cm x 21cm, softcover, black and white, 144 pages
Price: $14.95 (US)
Release: June 2010

The Second World War has long been a fertile subject matter for fiction. Arguably unparalleled in political, economic or emotional scope, the conflict’s subsequent reverberations on the global socio-politico-economic landscape are still felt today. Offering almost unlimited fodder for writers to draw from, a consequence is that literature and entertainment media can, at times, feel oversaturated by the era. It’s a good thing then, that Kathryn and Stuart Immonen’s WW2-set Moving Pictures is absolutely outstanding.

Part of what makes this book so appealing is precisely its avoidance of the overarching war itself. The writer-artist/ wife-husband duo create an emotionally interconnected microcosm of characters that exist against the backdrop of the conflict, rather than simply because of it.  More about the complex relationships between the characters than the war around them, the book’s tone (unlike its clear and striking art) is anything but black and white. 

Taking place within Nazi-occupied France, the narrative of Moving Pictures follows Canadian Ila Gardner, a museum curator in Paris facing the German Military Art Commission’s desire to categorise and store the city’s precious collections. The reader watches on as she perilously balances the acts of appeasing their wishes whilst actively conspiring against them, dutifully engaging in a plot to hide works around France with other co-conspirators. Desire and indifference permeate the book in equal measure, and  there is an optimistic resignation shared by all characters, Nazi and ally alike. 

Atmospherically, Moving Pictures is fraught with the foreboding anxiety one might expect of an occupied territory during wartime. Beginning with a tension-fuelled noir-esque interrogation scene between German officer Rolf Hauptmann and Ila, it soon becomes clear that the story’s chronology is non-linear, which only adds to the mystery and paranoia of the book. Broken up and interspersed throughout the comic, this back-and-forth exchange forms the unifying anchor point of the narrative. Dynamic throughout, this fragmented conversation enhances and contrasts with the past conversations between Ila and those around her, such as her sister, her co-conspirators and her lover.

There’s a delicate complexity to the comic that is complimented by this structural choice. Split into two indistinct timelines, information regarding the characters and their interactions is unfurled gradually, creating moments where the reader must recontextualise preceding exchanges between characters. It's not a unique literary technique by any means, but it adds a certain naturalism to the way details are revealed in real life, where mystery and one’s inability to see the “whole picture” is accepted and largely uncontested. 

Whilst Moving Pictures' scenes are non-chronological in order, the Immonens use this device much more subtly than most, creating an effect that is complementary rather than jarring, largely thanks to the  suitably understated (but no less impressive) transitional art. With so many comics falling foul to the increasing desire to ape the mechanics of cinema wholesale, something has to be said about just how proficient the creators are at using the unique language and strengths of the comic book format to great effect. The symbiotic relationship of illustration and story that is at the heart of comics is impeccably balanced here, and the experience of reading it really is seamless and all the more engrossing for it.

Originally serialised one page per week on the creators' website in 2008, Moving Pictures only now receiving the stand-alone treatment that it rightly deserves. From the darkness of the book’s opening to its enigmatic and resonant final pages, it’s a comic that’s simply not to be missed. Packed with allegorical layers of meaning, the Immonens' have produced thought-provoking piece that asks questions about the value of objects and the commodification of people in wartime. For authenticity's sake, it also comes with French flaps.


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