Talking Comics with Tim | Stuart Immonen

This weekend marks Toronto Comics Art Festival 2011 (TCAF), where among the many great storytellers appearing, Stuart Immonen celebrates his "return to his eclectic collection of work" with the premiere of Centifolia II (and the return of the out-of-print Centifolia I). To mark the debut/return of Centifolia, I contacted Immonen for this hellaciously enjoyable interview. This exchange was a blast for me, particularly given that Immonen indulged numerous follow-up questions in our email exchanges.  A great many storytellers are immensely funny people, but I genuinely think Immonen possesses a rare wit and wealth of knowledge that reveals itself not only in this interview, but more importantly, it informs his work. I wish I was attending TCAF, for numerous reasons, but the fact that "there will even be a limited (100) slipcase edition [available at TCAF] that includes a special S&N print and custom slipcase design" is the ultimate "damn I wish I was going" talking point for me. Need more convincing how great these books are? AdHouse's Chris Pitzer (the publisher of Immonen's Centifolia) offers consumers nine-page previews of Volume I and Volume II for everyone's enjoyment.

Tim O'Shea: When one hears that the book is culled from your sketchbooks, it might seem a bit misleading. Not every sketchbook sports pages with fully designed logos ("9 Nuts and Why I Hate Them" for example).

Stuart Immonen: Well, I think that's probably due to the term "sketchbook" being more often used to describe a collection of finished pinup drawings and not so much actual sketching-- i.e. ideas in development, visual note-taking, idle doodling and so on. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the former-- I love being able to enjoy and study the completed work of my favourite artists, but I'm also interested in process; the journey of how an artist gets to the final piece, and that's what Centifolia tries to be.

Some of my most well-thumbed artist's books fall into this category: Tardi's Chiures De Gomme, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Datebooks, Ashley Wood's Sencilla Fanta... even Dupuy and Berberian's Maybe Later qualifies.So... I'm interested in pulling back the curtain and showing readers a little of how I work.

When I first thought about making a sketchbook, I also wanted people to be able to spend some time with it, so it had to be substantial as far as page count goes, and there had to be stuff to read, which is why there are comics and gags and things that amuse me as well as more polished illustrations.

O'Shea: Can you think of techniques or narrative aspects (or other kind of storytelling lessons) that you've learned/taken away from reading such works as Tardi's Chiures De Gomme, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Datebooks or Ashley Wood's Sencilla Fanta?

Immonen: Nothing specific comes to mind... the process of absorption is organic and free-flowing. I'm sure I pick up ideas subconsciously, but actually try to avoid actively biting someone else's rhymes. Besides, there's only so much Chris Ware I could incorporate into New Avengers.

O'Shea: Did you ever pitch Ghost Rider Moses to Marvel? I love the concept.

Immonen: Ah, no... first of all, the idea wasn't mine, but Jason (Ferro City, Doc Thunder) Armstrong's, and I just joined in the fun. Secondly, it just skirts what I consider acceptable in terms of toying with copyright. It's a mashup parody; I can only guess that Marvel and Disney would probably prefer to distance themselves from it.

O'Shea: Some of the sketches, your art style reminds me of Bill Plympton (and at other points Edward Sorel), are either artists you've ever admired or am I imagining a connection there?

Immonen: Oh, you mean for the Flickr People portraits? I wasn't thinking of either of those artists particularly (actually, I have to admit I didn't know Sorel at all-- now having looked him up, he's great and I'm flattered by the comparison)-- at that time, I was probably thinking about Joe Bluhm, who I'd seen work at TCAF in 2009 and 2010. I wasn't trying to mimic his style, particularly, but I was thinking about caricature and technique and trying to see what I could accomplish within the form. It's a very different kind of challenge-- I've go so much respect for anyone who can pull off a likeness.

O'Shea: Your art style defies any classification, because you're always seeming trying different styles and approaches over the years. Does it make your craft harder to work on, because you challenge yourself so much--or is the challenge what makes it enjoyable for you?

Immonen: Well, thanks. I do like a challenge, but that might not be the sum total of what's going on. It's a combination of things; restlessness, frustration, desperation-- all negative feelings I try to corral into something worthwhile. I'll work in one way for a while and feel like I've plateaued, or worse, slid back. Rather than work out what the problems are, I'll throw it all away and set off on a tangent. I guess that does make it harder-- I really do try to strive for the apex of whatever I'm doing at any given moment and sometimes feel like if I'd just stuck with one way of working, I'd have achieved that a long time ago. As it is now, I feel fortuante to be working with understanding people; editors who are tolerant of variety, and fellow artists-- in particular Wade-- who are up to the task of reinvention.

O'Shea: When on earth have you recently ever thought you might have "slid back" as an artist? I guess those slips/slides (in quality) never get published?

Immonen: All the time. And they're all published. I mean, I erase a lot-- like, a LOT-- but this is the price I pay for not working out compositions in great detail before going to the final. It's difficult to describe accurately, and it's not just one thing. I can tell if the work is not moving forward, or if I start to rely on old habits or tropes; working on a monthly title requires one to make compromises all the time-- not every page can be A Work Of Art, nor can every panel. Sometimes it just needs to get done; sometimes flash gets in the way of good storytelling. There are all kinds of reasons. Luckily I work with consistently great people; talented inkers, colorists, letterers, and of course writers allow temporary lapses to mostly go unnoticed.

O'Shea: When you mention "fellow artists-- in particular Wade-- who are up to the task of reinvention", I'm curious what are some other qualities that you appreciate/admire about collaborating with Wade von Grawbadger?

Immonen: Well, Wade and I have worked together for almost as long as we've both been in the business-- close to twenty years now. I'm not sure he "gets" what I'm doing all the time, and he'll tell me if he prefers one style over another, but he's super-flexible in his own ability, and has an arsenal of tools to support it. He's comfortable with pen or brush; I've tried to get him to try digital inking, but he's against it-- that's his prerogative. You know, I'm not the only penciller he works with, so I can imagine that every time we start a new gig, he probably considers me an artist he's never worked with before. I've worked with other inkers in the past, and keep coming back to Wade. We're the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of comics.

O'Shea: In the opening of the book, you express your pleasure with getting to work with AdHouse and Chris Pitzer, writing "hope this is only the start of a long relationship making stuff together." Care to share some other ideas you are considering pursuing through AdHouse?

Immonen: We don't have any firm plans at the moment. Kathryn (Immonen--his frequent collaborator and his spouse) and I are working on another long-form OGN called Russian Olive to Red King which we hope to have completed by December for which we don't have a particular publisher in mind, but AdHouse might be a good fit. Chris is really dedicated; to his cartoonists, to production values, to the industry. He's an adventurous eater and he likes baseball-- what's not to like in a publisher?

O'Shea: For folks who want to see your artistic ideas as they evolve and cannot wait for a Centifolia III, is your Tumblr page a good place to visit?

Immonen: Oh, yeah. The site is actually very much in tone the same as Centifolia-- it's a grab-bag of finished art, sketches, layouts, photos from and of the pair of us... just randomness. Actually, if you look at the archives, it creates at a glance a very comprehensive picture of what our working lives are like.

O'Shea: What's the story behind the "World of Primitive Comb Collecting" piece?

Immonen: Charles and Ray Eames were a crazy couple who were very modern mid-century designers but also keen on aboriginal cultures-- I had this idea for an ongoing strip-form comic about them in a Remington Steele relationship (does that reference mean anything to anybody? I'm really showing my age here), with Ray being sensible, smart and in charge and Charles playing Wacky Inventor. An ongoing strip is a lot of work, and I didn't have time for it, so I "bookmarked" it in my head by drawing up the cover to the imagined collection in a kind of European album style.It's actually the second draft-- the first had them looking at a chimpanzee smoking a pipe in an Eames-designed Herman Miller rocking chair... this is just the way my mind works.

O'Shea: Some of the ideas you explore in your book are fully colored--were they originally colored in the initial sketches--or did you opt to color them when you pursued the book?

Immonen: I didn't finish anything specifically for Centifolia-- the coloured illustrations are mostly from a collection of drawings licensed by Getty Images, plus some short comics Kathryn and I did for various clients. There are one or two paintings in there, too, going back a few years. I don't have much time to paint these days-- I really wish I did.

O'Shea: What will it take for you to get the time to paint--is a period like that several years away. And creatively how frustrating is it that you do not have the time to paint?

Immonen: Perhaps if I was working on non-consecutive books, like longer-form works, or a mini-series that's not tied to a firm schedule-- basically, I'm saying it's probably not going to happen. I make time to paint for my Mom occasionally-- she likes my watercolours, and the subject matter is very traditional. But most of the time, I'm working 8-12 hour days, six or seven days a week. That is just how monthly comics get made. And to be honest, if I have extra time, I want to do other kinds of comics too, and probably prefer that to painting, which is a very personal, meditative task. It almost feels like a selfish act; I don't really get to share it.

But my contract will be up in a few years-- maybe I'll be ready then. Or rich.

O'Shea: Do you wish you could do efforts like Trampoline Hall again, or was once more than enough?

Immonen: No, we had a great time at Trampoline Hall, but it required a lot of forethought concerning what we anticipated we could accomplish in real time, and then dedication to note-taking during the performance; during the intermission, we kept on working. We were certainly not there to be passive audience members, which of course, compromises how (much) you enjoy the event, but it was interesting, in a 24-hour comic/Oubapo way.

O'Shea: Can you explain how you and Kathryn conceived of "Say You're Dead"--and what prompted you to include it in this colllection? (As an aside, I love the use of red in the story--as you intended I assume)

Immonen: Michael Woods contacted us by email, asking if we'd be interested in contributing to the follow-up to his Outlaw Territory western anthology. Kathryn worked up the script, which-- as is her particular expertise-- plays with non-linear time and parallel structure, and I drew it. As I recall, I think Kathryn also wanted to write a scene with a little girl riding a pig.

We own the story, so we can re-publish as we see fit; it made sense to maybe get it in the hands of readers who might have missed OT2; it also served to fulfill the mandate of providing more reading content in Centifolia. We also included a perhaps more obscure black and white story we did for an curriculum-based anthology featuring a character we created years ago called Jeopardy Jones.

O'Shea: How did you pull off the effect in the photograph (where Galileo the fish is looking at a picture of himself) in Jeopardy Jones?

Immonen: Oh, it was easy-- I drew it in shades of gray marker, scanned it and applied a half-tone effect in Photoshop. It's actually based on an idea I cribbed from Wally Wood's work on the Outer Space Spirit. He did the same thing (though using different technology) to illustrate a "photo" in a newspaper.

O'Shea: What kind of things stick out in your mind when you compare your work in Centifolia I versus Centifolia II?

Immonen: I've very critical of my own work, so this is a loaded question. I think maybe because Centifolia is a collection of rough work, I'm a little more forgiving, but mostly I'm pleased with the package. The design doesn't look dated (yet) and the paper stock was really good choice; the uncoated texture and off-white colour made the book seem "sketchier", more honest, appropriate to the content.

O'Shea: Are any sketches from Russian Olive to Red King included in Centifolia II, or did you intentionally leave it out of the mix?

Immonen: I'm scratching my head, trying to remember without looking-- yes, I think there are some developmental sketches included, but I didn't point them out in any way. Similarly in Volume I, there are character sketches and layouts from Moving Pictures, which the reader would only recognize if they'd read that book, too.

O'Shea: Has it been decided who will be publishing Russian Olive to Red King? How do you find time to work on it, considering how busy Marvel keeps you these days?

Immonen: No, as I mentioned, we haven't locked down any prospects at the moment, though there are some interested parties. The script is complete, of course. Before starting Fear Itself, I got about a quarter of the way in, but right now it's definitely on the back burner. With Fear, and the prepartory work for putting Centifolia together, plus the summer con season, there really aren't enough hours to dedicate to it. In the fall, things will have settled back down and we can pick it up again. I think three or four months to get a "working copy" in shape, and then we'll shop it around and finialize a version for publication. Even so, I'd think it wouldn't make sense to go to press before winter 2012. That would give us time to fine-tune the project and promote it properly.

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