Kathryn & Stuart Immonen talk "Moving Pictures"

Stuart Immonen is a name well known amongst superhero fans, having worked on characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Avengers over the course of his career. Stuart’s wife, Kathryn Immonen, isn’t one to let her husband hog the spotlight entirely — she’s also a comics creator, having written “Patsy Walker: Hellcat” for Marvel, a sequel to her acclaimed Hellcat story in “Marvel Comics Presents.”

Outside the realm of printed comics, the Immonens have been devoting their free time to web conent, first with “Never As Bad As You Think” and now “Moving Pictures,” which is being serialized one page a week at www.immonen.ca/comics and will be followed with a print version courtesy of Top Shelf in 2009 . The decidedly personal story is set during World War II and deals with the Nazis’ pillaging of much of Europe’s great art collections, but Kathryn Immonen says, “The history is just a backdrop to tell a fucked up love story that's about how we assign value to things and people, how we behave when not everyone is playing by the same rules” and “in the end, maybe it's all about the fundamentally perverse nature of desire, about not being to help wanting what you want even if you don't know why. And how, from the outside, we really don't know anything about someone else's intimacies.”

“Moving Pictures” has just hit its halfway point, and CBR News spoke with Stuart and Kathryn Immonen about the project, which looks and reads like nothing else the pair have produced previously.

CBR: Where did the idea for “Moving Pictures” come from?

Kathryn Immonen: Quite a few years ago, I was reading Janet Flanner's wartime reports from Paris for the New Yorker. It's material that is pretty well known and seems to have maintained a kind of bizarre breeziness. She made some quip --and I'm being extremely paraphrastic-- about thanks to the Nazis for letting the Louvre staff get some good dusting and mopping in and well, that was pretty irresistible. This script has been kicking around for quite a while but has always been near the top of the short stack of projects which we've been determined to get to.

Stuart Immonen: I guess I’m to blame for having a stack at all—there don’t seem to be enough hours to get to all the ideas we want to develop. It’s only in the past couple of years that we’ve set aside time for our own projects no matter what.

How did the story end up as a webcomic?

KI: It's really just scheduling mechanics, a way to get it done in a timely fashion; the looming necessity of making the Friday deadline.

SI: Like I said, with our other obligations, maintaining a schedule for work that doesn’t have a pressing, tangible deadline is really tough going. Making it public and knowing that there are people reading and expecting it on a regular basis ensures that it keeps getting done.

KI: We're so appreciative of the not a few people who are visiting every week because we know that this is not so much a webcomic as a comic on the web. Having said that, though, we are really doing our best to make every page a satisfying story bite. We do wonder how the storytelling might have been different if we'd gone straight to print but we're very happy with the way it's turning out.

”Moving Pictures” is your second web comic. You previously made “Never As Bad As You Think,” which was very different in pretty much every respect. What about that experience did you enjoy and made you both want to do it again?

KI: Frankly, we just want to make work together. It's been the goal from the very start of our relationship and it seems to have worked out. “Never” was kind of a happy accident in that we were obliquely participating in Illustration Friday and it actually turned into something quite nice.

SI: “Never” was also rather experimental in structure in a way that “Moving Pictures” is not; “MP” is, even with frequent flashbacks, a very conventional three-act story, while “Never” favored character exploration over plot. But the medium of the web has affected both projects as they would in print publishing—that is, the expectation that they continue with regular frequency. But of course, in smaller doses.

You serialize “Moving Pictures” one page at a time. Is that largely a matter of convenience, fitting it in between all the other projects you're both working on?

SI: Yes, exactly. There’s a small buffer of pages waiting to be posted, but I’m have some seventy pages or so to draw. “Moving Pictures” is, essentially, being offered online without expectation of monetary compensation, so, realistically, we have to put paying work first. Thankfully, Kathryn and I share the post-script duties of Photoshop processing, lettering, web prep and posting, so it’s easier than the conventional writer/artist relationship.

How much research does “Moving Pictures” require?

SI: For my part, I’m thankful that Haussmann’s Paris is much the same as it was at the end of the 19th century, though we only see it occasionally in the story. In fact, after much discussion, we agreed to avoid overt declarations of period or place. Flags and signs are obscured; newspapers and documents are blacked out; names of historical figures are not mentioned. This is in keeping with Ila’s point of view about the world and her place in it.

KI: And, I think too, it comes from a general discomfort we both have with over-determination. I'm not a WWII fetishist or romantic by any means, although I am obsessed with wartime knitting. There is a torrential amount of material available about the state of national art collections at the time and the images are extraordinarily compelling. Most people, who have any interest, know about Hitler's Art Museum and the big find in the salt mine, about Rose Valland and her work with the Resistance. So, I read a lot because it's interesting. And I've heard in a couple of places something along the lines of 'Hey man, you Immonens stole my idea for doing a story about the WWII art theft." Believe me, calm down, there's still room for everyone.

SI: Sure, just like “Moving Pictures” is nothing like Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s “The Museum Vaults.”

KI: One of my favorite things Bruce Robinson has said about storytelling is "Yeah, yeah... that's what happens... but what's it about?" The history is just a backdrop to tell a fucked up love story that's about how we assign value to things and people, how we behave when not everyone is playing by the same rules. It's about responsibility and obligation and the essentially opaque nature of certain individuals. And about how sometimes the only real choice you have is the choice to not choose.

You mentioned “The Museum Vaults,” which is a graphic novel about the Louvre and the artwork it contains. Was there a comic or a film that you looked to for the tone of the piece?

SI: To some extent the look is influenced by the work of Stanislas—particularly from Au Passage du Pourquoi-Pas—by Ulf K. and by Michel Rabagliati, but mostly from photographs of the place and time itself. I’d like to think that I haven’t just been poaching, but rather have tried to render the period with respect.

How do you two work together? How has this project differed from others you’ve worked on in the past?

KI: We do talk all the time. Even though we sometimes get tired of comics, we don't get tired of each other. “Moving Pictures” was originally written in the form of a one-act play, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about comics the whole time. As a result, as we go along, there's been the introduction of a series of interstitial pages, transitional mostly, which we've been working on week by week and actually, even now, we realize that we want to slot in a couple more right at the beginning which we'll do for the print version which is being published by Top Shelf in 2009. (We are doing our level best to have it out for TCAF in May.) Stuart is working from the original script (which has a lot of pencil revisions on it). I've broken it up into story pages (though that's a bit fluid also) and Stuart will pencil the page. I have a look at it and generally any changes are very minor and always due to my not having been clear enough in the first place. He inks it, I letter it, it hits the web. We both know where the story's going but are, in a lot of ways, really discovering how it gets there.

SI: Absolutely. Because the script isn’t broken down into pages or panels, it’s more freeform than other projects we’ve done. Again, this allows us to break the pages on key moments, to expand or contract the narrative, or to even spend time away from the script as in the city scenes.

“Moving Pictures” is very internal, but it's also very theatrical. To what degree is the fact that the story hasn’t been broken down by pages or panels a help and a hindrance in putting the story together?

SI: It’s very freeing—there’s no set page count, although after a number pages were done and we’d established a rhythm of sorts, we thought it would come in around 150 pages. Now, 80 pages in, this is still the estimate which assures me that it’s not too lean or too padded. We set a very deliberate pace from the outset, and I’m determined not to rush through; sometimes, I need to review earlier sections to remind myself of this approach.

The style and voice of the project is different from other books you’ve previously created. Is that a matter of intentionally adapting to fit this project or what was it?

KI: Whether it shows or not, “Moving Pictures” kind of rips my heart out on a regular basis. My constitution is not so strong that it's a position I could take on every project, you know? It's a period piece and it's also, I think, very theatrical or presentational. And we were both really interested in trying to think about what constitutes “action.” For “Moving Pictures,” we get all excited when some character actually gets to do something —like, you know, pick up a glass or, if we're feeling really crazy, open a door. I've described it previously as one long, strangled inhalation.

SI: It’s pretty challenging to make a talking head scene in a dark room visually interesting for several pages; the solution (or at least, the one we agreed to employ) is not to alter the reader’s viewpoint radically, but to emphasize the tension through repetition and theatrical lighting. Creating stillness in a series of static images is actually not easy—not for me, anyway. The drawing style also echoes this uneasy quiet—the approach shares a lot in common with "Never," but it’s harder, more brittle.

Tell us about Top Shelf publishing “Moving Pictures” in print in 2009.

KI: We were hoping, from the outset, to not publish “Moving Pictures” ourselves.

SI: Not because we couldn’t! I think we agreed that it could appeal to an audience larger than we had the capacity to print for. That it would be worth some publisher’s while to do.

KI: We also, after twenty years of doing our own projects alongside mainstream work, no longer had any contacts at all with independent publishers. It was actually Brian Wood who suggested Top Shelf as a possible fit. About 50 pages in, we sent round some emails introducing ourselves and the project and asked if we could forward the story so far. The response from Chris Staros and Brett Warnock at Top Shelf was enormously encouraging. After, I think, two more mailer updates, they were ready to say yes and so were we. We could not be happier with the company we’ll be keeping at Top Shelf and I think we’re going to be able to put out a beautiful project which will make everyone involved feel very good about the decision.

You mentioned that you have a stack of projects. Hopefully that means next year when you complete this one, we can look forward to a new story being serialized on your website?

SI: We did a comic jam-style piece last year for an event called Trampoline Hall. There were a number of cartoonists present, including John Martz, Diana Tamblyn and Steve Manale. Our contribution, among some other scraps, will likely be put into the next volume of “Centifolia,” maybe in a year’s time.

KI: Our only other joint project at the moment is a short story for Image’s “Outlaw Territory,” as well as a 30-part postcard project that we’ve decided to torture Marvel editor Nick Lowe with. The project drawer, however, contains a very sad and haunting story about two people, thousands of miles apart, one of whom may or may not have survived a plane crash. And there’s this other thing about the moon that I think will be next. It’s been around almost as long as “Moving Pictures.”

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