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SUPER-Stars (Part 9): Stuart Immonen talks "Superman: Secret Identity"

Clark Kent is Superman.

That may not be a big revelation to some, but as writer Kurt Busiek explained of the DC Comics mini-series "Superman: Secret Identity", it is a different kind of twist in the series. While Busiek has received a lot of acclaim for his writing on "Secret Identity," many fans have found their jaws on the ground while staring at the work of artist Stuart Immonen. Not a stranger to the Superman universe, Immonen spoke with CBR News as part of CBR's Superman celebration and explained how he got attached to the project.

"Kurt and I jointly approached editor Joey Cavalieri with the idea way back in 2001 at Charlotte's Heroes Con. Kurt and I were mid-way through 'Shockrockets,' and were looking for our next project. I had personally wanted to do something grand and expansive; I think Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale were having lots of success with their Superman and Batman limited series at that time. As I recall, it was Kurt's idea to do something with Superman, and both Joey and I had already had experience with the character, so it all clicked. Three years later, it seems so easy..." he smiles.

While he's worked on many superheroes, including the Fantastic Four in his next project, Immonen says there are no real differences in the creative process when approaching Superman. "Not at all different, really. There is no 'Superman approach' as far as I can tell. I just try to do the best professional job I can on each project I'm given. Knowing that this series would be in DC's prestige format, I suggested a look that would stand apart from the monthlies, and perhaps be an incentive for readers to give the more expensive format a try."

Something else he finds common in his superhero work is that he does not lay out his vision for a specific character and try to convey that through the art- he treats each story differently. "Honestly, this is not the kind of thing I think about when drawing or even when starting out to draw. I look at the story primarily, and decide the most appropriate method for tackling it. The story could have any character at all, but it's not the character that defines the mood or atmosphere-- it's the story itself. Otherwise, it's putting the cart before the horse, in my opinion.

"For 'Superman: Secret Identity,' the approach was based on the idea that we were doing a 'real-world' book. I mulled over my options and came at it with a style that I thought would best suit. After preparing some samples, Joey and Mark Chiarello were on board right away. The fact that Superman was the main character didn't really enter into the equation. In fact, the main character in this case was Clark Kent, not Superman, which cemented the decision to go with a naturalistic style."

Having worked on Superman previously- in the "End of The Century" graphic novel and "Adventures of Superman" series most prominently- Immonen didn't need to do a lot of research for the project, but found inspiration in some very different places. "As I mentioned, I thought the work of Tim Sale set the pace and tone I wanted to achieve. Katsuhiro Otomo's Domu was another influence," he explains. "Both artists captured a certain indefinable quality-- a powerful silence which I attempted to emulate. There was only so much I could do as far as explore the pacing once the script was done. I couldn't randomly add splash panels for effect, for instance. Similarly, there wasn't much I could do in the way of researching settings until I had seen the scripts. Often it was a matter of 'cut and run,' deciding quickly what it was I had to draw and going with it. My father-in-law lives by a saying, 'Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.' This is often the case when you're working on a schedule.

"As far as how to deal with the character, I didn't deviate much from previous experience, apart from the fact that I had to draw him at different stages of his life. There isn't really a 'superman ideal' -- an actor or whatever-- that I drew inspiration from."

The Busiek/Immonen duo is one with history and that leads to a creative synergy, where each creator trusts one another and isn't trying to do the other's job. In Immonen's case, he couldn't have done more if he wanted to: he was in charge of the visuals, not just the pencils. "There are some freelancers who like to be in on every aspect of the process on a given project, but unless I'm actually contracted to write, I don't care to have any input. The only part of the 'writing' of comics I'll control, as a penciller, is the page-to-page pacing. That is, determining the size and arrangement of panels, 'camera' moves, body language and expression are pretty much the exclusive province of the artist. Kurt likes to talk through a plot, and I'll be a sounding board, but I'd rather not offer up ideas voluntarily. It's simply not my job.

"On 'S:SI' in particular, I was already doing the job of penciller, inker and colourist/ separator, so I didn't need any additional worries about story."

In "Secret Identity," Immonen's art (as seen from the pages included in this interview) has what some have called a classic painted look and while the artist thanks fans for their strong response, he is confused on one point. "I've heard from a few sources that it looks 'painted,' which I find curious, since, to my eye, it's clearly a 100% digital colour job. It's not the kind of thing, I think, that could be done on a monthly basis, but the tools are no different that those used everywhere in comics.

"The process is similarly fairly traditional; after a page is broken down and laid out, the lineart is finished (though instead of ink, I employed black pencil crayon almost exclusively for shading and texture. Then, the panels are "flatted" (basic colour areas divided up), and colour shading and highlights are added. To elaborate on the specific colouring technique would be quite dull, I think. It's basically layers and layers of slightly varied colours applied on top on one another to build up a roughly natural grade from one shade to another. It's not the kind of thing I would have expected any other colourist to undertake-- not due to lack of talent, but due to the sheer amount of labour involved-- it took me as long to colour as page as it did to draw it.

"I think I learned quite a lot during the process, but I wouldn't have proposed tackling full art chores if I didn't think I could achieve something that was printable. Once I had the correct technical information, the rest was just palette choices."

Immonen also used some photo referencing in "Secret Identity" and while that artistic tool is often criticized by fans, Immonen feels it comes from a lack of understanding. "People can think what they like. Photo reference is an artist's tool, nothing more or less. Bill Sienkiewicz inks with a cup of coffee; Brian Bolland inks with a Mac-- who's cheating? There's a silly notion among certain artists that there's a 'right way' and a 'wrong way.' I don't buy that.

"For me, it's not so much a matter of tracing, but of maintaining consistency over a 200-plus page story. If I want character to look the same from panel to panel, there's no reason in my mind not to use a point of reference. I'll also use reference to establish visual credibility; I don't know what the Maine coast or an F-15 look like off the top of my head-- of course I'll look at photographs.

"I maintain that there's still artistic intervention between the reference and the finished drawing-- I don't think you can look at a panel in 'S:SI' and say it looks like a photograph."

While "Secret Identity" is garnering its own heavy praise, Immonen says he's going to leave Superman on a high note and move onto some new projects. "I know the regular Superman stories have been receiving lots of notice recently. I'm glad that we haven't been swept under completely.

"No, I don't have any desire to do more Superman in the immediate future. This project took two years from contract to completion. Prior to that, I wrote and/or drew Superman for a number of years, so I've done my stint. There's a whole world of stories out there-- I think I probably have said all I have to say about Superman."

So what can fans look forward to from Immonen? He's happy to share, saying, "I'm drawing a six-issue arc on Marvel's 'Ultimate Fantastic Four,' with Warren Ellis writing, Wade Von Grawbadger on inks and Dave Stewart on colours. It's a pleasure to work with such very talented people.

"I'm also doing the art on a European album series called 'Sebastian X' for Les Humanoïdes Associés. It's been written by Michelangelo La Neve, and it's great fun-- a really unique story, much different from anything I've done up to this point. I'll be in Mandelieu, France for the Festival BD at the end of April, and will have a number of pages with me there."

Alex Sinclair this coming Monday where he takes

you on a step-by-step journey coloring a Jim Lee cover.

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