Interview conducted by smoky man, mainly focused on the Immonens' Moving Pictures graphic novel, on the occasion of the Italian edition published by NPE.
Answers received via email in September 2010.
Originally printed in Italy on the free press magazine Comic-Soon (N. 11, October 2010, Tespi Editore).
Presented here in English for the first time with the artists' permission.
Moving Pictures has been defined as “historical fiction”. Do you think this is a good definition, a good “label” for it?
Kathryn Immonen: It’s as good as any. And certainly, we’ve been extremely happy to have been positively reviewed by places like The American Library Association and it helps that there’s content in the work that can be linked to school curricula. But really, Moving Pictures doesn’t even fall into the category of what’s currently derisively being called ‘faction’ in some critical circles. It’s a small story that steadfastly ignores the larger events. I’m pretty sure there were no fetching Canadians doing curatorial work-study at the Louvre. And I’m sure we screwed up all over the place but, you know... there’s a big error in The Bourne Identity but it doesn’t stop it from being a terrific film. But basically, like all fiction I think, it’s an invitation to think about something differently for just a moment.
Stuart Immonen: It's always been our feeling that the "facts" shouldn't get in the way of the "story," that is, if a story -- a fiction -- is what you want to tell. The period is already well-examined; we don't pretend to add to the historical record with Moving Pictures, but I don't think we alter it, either.
KI: Well... not much, anyway.
The book is set in Nazi-occupied France and one of the key element in the story is Art in itself. What led to your interest in this subject and setting? Where did the original idea for Moving Pictures come from?
KI: Many years ago, I was reading Janet Flanner’s ... Paris was Yesterday, I think it was. She was the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine during the war. And she was talking about the cleaning of the Louvre as a by-product of the shifting of the art out of the city. It was just so strange and funny. I, like just about everybody, was familiar with those incredible photographs of the art hoard that was found in the mine in the Austrian Alps. But I really started thinking about those guys with the rags and the cans of Pledge and the buckets of ammonia water... small domestic activities that were a side-effect of big global acts of violence and, in a lot of ways, imagination.
Even if World War II is just mentioned in the story - and for example you don’t see any swastika but just black flags in the pages - MP is clearly “linked” to a well recognizable period of 20th century, but the focus certainly seems to be on the characters and their dynamics. What do you think the actual narrative core to be?
KI: At the beginning, the imagery was there on the flags and, initially, we got rid of it because it just looked so overwhelmingly obvious, somehow.
SI: Right, this was another case of self-censorship, obfuscating the setting deliberately. It happened in the dialogue, too. In the original script, there were names of well-known historical figures that we eventually decided didn't need to be there, and in fact, got in the way of the story we wanted to tell.
KI: As we continued to kind of keep erasing signs, it started to function in a lot of other ways. As a visual metaphor for blind spots (wilful or otherwise), as a literal reference to the actual blacking out of signposts during the war, as an impediment to wayfinding of all kinds.
KI: In many ways, though, the setting just provides a solid backdrop against which to talk about things which are important to us as creators, not the least of which is the hierarchy and valuation of objects. But also, it’s a historical moment that has been so explored, written and over-written that slippage seems unavoidable. By which I mean that the fictional characters, in this case, inevitably have a kind of fundamentally unlocatable nature which I find really compelling. You can write about the history all you want, I’m not sure you can ever make sense of it... even as a collection of events. And certainly, throughout the story, the characters in a lot of ways have their backs firmly turned to it. At its heart, it’s a story about desire.
I think one of the strong points of the book is that is a story that you have to read and read again because each word, each expression, each single panel, could be revelatory. The reader has to pay attention. What do you think about this? While reading it, I thought it could work as a very European black and white movie, maybe with a spot, a touch of colour in some scenes… I don’t know if this could make sense for you…
KI: Yeah. I know there has been some vague hope that this property may have another life somehow but I don’t really see it as a possibility. I think the best description of Moving Pictures is still “one long strangled inhalation”. For Stuart and me, it is so thoroughly a comic, conceived completely to exist in that form and, hopefully, make the most of the medium. It’s such an incredibly ‘still’ work. Everything is internalized. And I continue to be amazed at how Stuart compellingly handled the storytelling in a piece where ‘action’ means a character glances over to one side or, if you’re lucky, does something really crazy like sit down and take their jacket off.
SI: I know! It could be adapted, though. It's a very, very controlled reading experience, very deliberate in pacing and composition. For it to be re-imagined for a very collaborative medium like film would be interesting... but different. But that's the case with anything.
How much research did you do, both for the textual part and for the visual one? What about influences and references?
KI: The script was completed such a long ago and any time I glance back at the notes I kept, I’m surprised by how much I read, how much I knew. I think I’d categorize it more as ‘reading’ rather than ‘research’. Typically, I don’t keep stuff either in real life or in my head. So, while there was a lot of prep, I wouldn’t say that a whole lot of it found its way into the story in any kind of overt way. It’s not a work that’s overridden with those kinds of details... at least I hope not. There comes a point, too, where you just have to put a stop to the research and it’s mostly because you are in danger of finding yourself wanting to include things that you find interesting but that your characters couldn’t care less about.
SI: In a way, that applies to the art, as well. There are so many panels with simple black backgrounds that you might think very little research was required, but in fact, I collected as many period photos and documents as I could. But the drawing style I chose dictated how much could be shown. The details are so spare that when they are included at all, they represent a larger setting.
SI: I was thinking about the styles of German artist Ulf K. and French artist Stanislas when I began work on Moving Pictures, and there is something of Dylan Horrocks in there, too. Pretty shortly the style developed on its own, and drawing that way seemed natural instead of deliberate homage.
Originally MP has been serialized as a web-comics. You said - in past interviews - this was a way for you to be “forced” to meet a deadline. Then it moved to “classic” print. What’s the web for you? Is it a place for experimenting and to express yourself in complete artistic freedom?
SI: The internet is just a vehicle and doesn't necessarily influence the content. However, certain formats "feel" more appropriate than others. The half-hour comedy is no more suited to television exclusively than the daily strip on the web, but those platforms seem to work in those media. A cartoonist can certainly work without the conventions of print deadlines, sales, audience demands or editorial influence online and bandwidth is cheap, so experimental ideas are more likely to be explored, but I might suggest just as likely to fail as they would be in print.
SI: Right now, webcartoonists must supplement a frequent comic strip with sales of paraphernalia, prints or commission work, and they must be prepared to spend a lot of time promoting their product if they want to succeed. That's too much work for us; we just wanted to finish the work, and with both of us busy with jobs already, posting the comic on a schedule was a good way to ensure that would happen.
And print, in this modern digital era? I mean, the original plan was to have MP in print, wasn’t it? In any case, at least you were thinking to self-publishing as a possibility...
KI: The intention was always to have it in print. And certainly we thought about doing it ourselves, which we’ve done a lot. But this time, we really felt like we wanted someone else to take it over, although all the lettering, design and production work was still done by us. We started to approach publishers and were happy that Top Shelf was interested. It’s been a very good fit. The real benefit for us, though, was the editorial process. We had some long and profitable conversations with the amazing Chris Staros and there is absolutely no question that he made Moving Pictures a better book. The printed version is not enormously different than what appeared on line but it the changes we implemented as a result of the editorial relationship were invaluable.
Kathryn is credited as writer and Stuart as the artist; is it as simple as that or was it a more “complex” collaboration? I mean I am curious… for example who did the breakdowns and page layouts? Did Stuart do any editing of the writing process?
SI: The script was written with all dialogue and stage direction in place before I touched it. But it wasn't divided into pages or panels. We agreed to a simple format of three tiers of panels (or variations) which helped to determine the pacing. For example, if a scene didn't fit well in a multiple of six square panels, one might be given more "weight" by expanding it across the tier. So there was this intermediate collaborative step between writing and drawing where we both decided how to present the work visually. After the panels were drawn, sometimes I would do the lettering, and sometimes Kathryn would do it and there was usually an examination of the dialogue at that point. I guess that's complex, or at least, unusual.
Stuart, you are well known and admired, even in your superheroes works, for your “chameleonic” style, so in MP you used different approaches to the page: hatching for paintings, a clear but strong b&w line for the “real” story and spot blacks for photo collage. Why did you decide to use these three particular styles? Was it something you also discussed and planned with Kathryn?
SI: Well, thank you for the compliment, first of all. I'm trying to remember if we talked about it, or if I just "surprised" her... there was a period when the style was not concrete, and I drew the first half-dozen pages a number of times in different ways. I think I showed these trials to Kathryn as I worked, and she would tell me, as she usually does, that it was good, but I could tell that she knew I was still grasping at the final form.
KI: Sure. I would say that I always know when Stuart’s already made a decision even though he’s showing me options and, similarly, we’ll have conversations about things and Stuart makes a decision at the end but I know that the next day I’m going to find the whole thing in the garbage. I’m the same way. To each other, we’re absurdly transparent. It seems like 80 percent of our so-called collaborative process is just listening to the other person work through their own problems.
SI: Finally, I discovered a method of drawing I could maintain for the online serialization, but it wasn't right for the art. In the script, the art works are described as being shown to the audience, but not necessarily as tangible objects, rather like projections. It simply made sense to divorce them from the main characters and settings stylistically as well as compositionally.
In the Italian edition, we decided to maintain the title in English, as in the original book. Because, apart from its literal meaning of "pieces of Art packed and relocated" which is an aspect of the story in itself, I think it evokes more than that... For example, I think it's also connected to the people and their behaviour... it's intentionally "ambiguous", in a good way... What can you say about this aspect of the book?
KI: We liked the title because the literal meaning is the one that applies to the book but it is primarily used as an old fashioned term for film and movies which really has nothing to do with the story. I guess, in many ways, it was a way to defeat expectations right up front and it establishes an environment for the story where meaning and intentions can be slippery or difficult to locate.
Can you tell us pros and cons of work-for-hire jobs for mainstream, big companies and working on your more personal projects?
KI: The personal projects are, in a lot of ways, much easier, mainly because we don’t have to co ordinate with anyone or anything else. But we would both say that working in the mainstream has made our independent work better and vice versa.
SI: Yes, absolutely. The saying in English is, "A change is as good as a rest," and it applies in this situation. Thinking about storytelling in a different way prevents one from becoming stale, or from relying on convention or laziness to solve a problem.
Can you reveal anything about your next “big thing” Russian Olive to Red King?
KI: It’s about a woman who may or may not have survived a small plane crash (it’s clear that she dies at some point but exactly when that happens to a character, who’s still walking and talking all the way through, is for the reader to decide), the man who’s caught not knowing, and Chekhov. It’s a ghost story. With petroglyphs. And writer’s block.
What about your current or upcoming superheroes works? Uhmm… do you like superheroes, don’t you?
KI: I love superheroes but really, the most interesting thing about a superhero character is not the superpowered part. Patsy Walker is the strength of Hellcat and not the other way around. Bruce Wayne is a lot more interesting than Batman. I think that goes for most characters. Except maybe Superman... I still have trouble figuring out what’s interesting about him. But Lois is a smart girl... so there must be something. Stuart and I both have some really really fun and interesting work for Marvel in the pipeline (unfortunately, not together!) but I think this interview is going to appear before either of us can say what that is. Too bad!!
SI: But we did collaborate on a story for the Image Comics western anthology Outlaw Territory 2, which will be available in October 2010.
A “classic”, final question: what does it happen when your artistic partner is also your life partner?
KI: We’ve been together for an embarrassingly long time (so long that the number got applause at our panel in San Diego... embarrassing) and we’ve been making comics together for almost all of that time and sharing a work space while doing it. Both those things are our preference. Working together is the easiest thing in the world and, on the days that it’s not... the dog gets extra long walks.