More Second World War stuff, this time from the Team Supreme of Canada!
As I've read on this here blog recently, not everyone is a big fan of Kathryn Immonen. I haven't read enough of her stuff to say definitely whether I like her or not, but if you're on the fence about her Marvel work, pick up Moving Pictures, which she wrote and some guy named Stuart Immonen drew. Top Shelf published this, it costs $14.95, and it's brilliant. Yes, brilliant, say I!
Immonen tells the story in two different time periods, and switches back and forth between them well.
The "present" is an interview between and woman named Ila Gardner and a man named Rolf Hauptmann. Ila is a Canadian woman working in France, while Rolf is a Nazi officer. Yes, the book takes place during World War II after the German invasion of France. Rolf is interviewing Ila, but Immonen doesn't explain for quite some time why he's interviewing her. In the meantime, we keep getting flashbacks to show how Ila got into the room and perhaps why she is there. Stuart I. doesn't make the transitions between the "present" and the "past" (or maybe the "past" and the "pluperfect") too obvious, but they're still cleverly done.
Kathryn I. doesn't tell the flashbacks in order, either, which is nice. We begin with Ila helping her friend, Jane, leave the country and return to Canada. Ila wants to stay because she likes her job. She is part of the effort to catalogue the works of art in one of the Parisian museums and hide some from the Nazis. Rolf's job is to find them (he works for the Military Arts Commission). We believe, early on, that that's why Ila is being interviewed. As we move through the book, however, we learn some things. Ila and Rolf are having an affair, which certainly complicates things. And the interview continues to take a darker and darker path, until we discover what it's really about. Immonen does a marvelous job unspooling this story slowly, building the tension and giving us clues throughout the book until it becomes clear. She never spells it out for us completely, which is nice, but it becomes clear that Rolf and Ila are playing a dangerous game, where one wrong word can be disastrous. When the book begins, we're on Ila's side, because we admire what she's doing. As the book continues, we don't exactly change our opinion of her, but we do begin to see that perhaps she's not as admirable as we thought - not just because she's sleeping with a Nazi.
She will go to great lengths to save the art she's curating, but Immonen makes us wonder what else she could be doing and if what's she doing is enough. It's a chilling look at life in a world gone mad - at one point, Ila even says, "If today is possible, then anything is possible and nothing matters." She can't understand how the Nazis have managed to come to power, and what that means for the future. But does that, Immonen wonders, absolve her of her sins? It's something the reader has to ponder.
Immonen's dialogue carries the book, as everyone is very careful about what they say and when they say it. We get a very good sense of the paranoia of living under a dictatorship, as Ila and Rolf dance around what's really on their mind and Ila, especially, has to gauge every word she says to make sure she's not giving anything away. She has the advantage of being intimate with Rolf, because she knows she has him in her power to a small degree, but he's still a Nazi and he's still the enemy, so she can't use her relationship with him too much. It's impressive how Immonen reveals what each person knows - we're never quite sure who has the upper hand in the interview, even though we're sure that Rolf will have it at the end - he's the one in charge, after all. Ultimately, Immonen wants to examine what drives Ila to do what she does and why she cares so much about the artwork in her care and perhaps not about much else. We need to consider whether Ila is a good person because of her beliefs or whether she and Rolf deserve each other. It's very difficult to write about specific stuff in the book without giving away the ending, which I don't want to do, but there are several brilliant scenes where the characters talk around the subject but can't hide their real feelings. Unlike a book by Bendis, for instance, where people speak "like people talk," Immonen doesn't waste words - every character is very precise with their words, and it's astonishing to re-read this comic (I've read it twice; it's not long) and "hear" the voices and "hear" what everyone is really saying beneath and behind the actual dialogue. It's an impressive trick.
If there's any misstep, it's a letter at the end that seems a bit too obvious - it feels tacked on after we've already understood everything that the letter explains. It's not the worst way to end the book, but it's a tiny bit of overkill.
Stuart's art, done in the lo-tech style he adopts for these kind of projects, is stunning as well. He probably had to go to the art supply store quite a bit to stock up on ink, as the book is astonishingly dark, black often dominating the panels. It's actually quite wonderful to look at - the interview, for instance, is a bravura set piece in which Ila sits in the light while Rolf circles her like a shark, coming out of the shadows intermittently to surprise her with another unusual question. Even when he sits, his face remains shrouded, his eyes hooded like a bird of prey ready to strike. As a great deal of the "flashback" portions take place in the museum's basement, the shadows dominate there as well, which adds an element of unreality to what Ila and her co-workers are doing. When she's considering Veronese's "Les Noces de Cana," a worker comes out of the dark to chat with her for a moment, and it's as if he appears and then disappears from nowhere and is perhaps a figment of her imagination. It makes the scenes set in the light almost painfully bright, even though the whites aren't any brighter - the scene on the train platform when Jane leaves for Canada is the most hopeful in the book, even though it takes place almost at the beginning of the comic, and Ila contemplating a portrait of a girl combing her hair is beautiful both because of the brightness of the scene and because of Ila's wistful monologue - it comes right before she meets Rolf for the first time, adding some poignant irony to her speech.
If you've never seen this art style from Stuart, it's different from his superhero stuff, but no less effective and often magnificent. His reproductions of the paintings are well done and cleverly placed throughout the book, as well.
If you've only been exposed to Immonen's writing through her Marvel stuff, you should check Moving Pictures out. It shows a writer in complete command of her craft, taking chances and allowing the reader to discover things slowly, making them more satisfactory. Immonen never talks down to the reader, which is always nice, and she has a fantastic ear for dialogue. This is a wonderful graphic novel, and contender for the best one of the year. I'm already looking forward to the Immonens' next project together!
Tomorrow: Well, I've already read a book with lesbians recently, so it's time for the guys! Don't come back if dudes kissing freaks you out, man!