An Interview with Stuart and Kathryn Immonen

An Interview with Stuart and Kathryn Immonen

Cover for Moving Pictures - click through to be taken to publisher's website for sample pages

Kathryn and Stuart Immonen are an enormously talented couple living in Southern Ontario who have been working in the comics industry for over 20 years. Kathryn writes and Stuart draws, and together they have worked on such well-known series as Spiderman, Superman, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. If you visit their website at immonen.ca you’ll find that their output of work is astonishing. It’s no wonder they are both up for Joe Shuster Awards next month, in the Writer and Artist categories.

Their latest collaboration, Moving Pictures, published by Top Shelf, offers a rare opportunity for the Immonens to showcase their more personal work. Moving Pictures tells the story of a Canadian living in Paris, working to clean, catalogue, and perhaps hide some of France’s art treasures during the city’s occupation by the Nazis. It is an engaging story that comments on art and value, decency and free will, and what it means to follow your convictions.

Last week Kathryn and Stuart took the time to answer questions for Books@Toronotist via email.

Torontoist: Where did the idea for Moving Pictures originate?

Kathryn Immonen: Years ago, I was reading Janet Flanner’s Letters from Paris. It collects the journalistic letters she wrote as the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker during the Second World War. And at one point she mentioned that the cleaning of the Louvre was a by-product of the efforts to protect the individual works. It was just so strange and funny. But I really started thinking about those guys with the rags and the cans of Pledge and the buckets of ammonia water, the small domestic activities that were a side effect of enormous global acts of violence. So, I guess, I’m not really interested at all in the big subject of the art theft but in the really small moment. There are so many personal memoirs from the time that seem to exist in the gaps or interstitial spaces. MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf is another work, in the same vein, that I really love.

Torontoist: How long did process take to create Moving Pictures? How long was the writing process for Kathryn?

K. Immonen: I think it was about three years from start to finish.

Stuart Immonen: That doesn’t include the couple of years waiting for me to find the time to start drawing. But yes, actual time spent working on it was almost three years to the day.

K. Immonen: We’ve been asked a lot about the difference between Moving Pictures as a web comic and as a book and really, we never considered it to be the former. It was a comic on the web and I think that’s a different beast. We serialized it weekly and put it online simply as a way to impose a deadline that would ensure that it got done.  The script itself, if you can call it that because it really was composed almost solely of dialogue, was completed quite some time ago. So by the time we got around to turning it into a comic, it was kind of a new and unfamiliar work for both of us.

Torontoist: Moving Pictures is historical fiction. Why did you choose occupied France during the Second World War? Is it because it’s easier to distinguish good from bad in this way?

K. Immonen: I wouldn’t say it’s historical fiction, actually. It’s a story set against an historical backdrop that the characters, in a lot of ways, turn their backs on. I wanted to talk about value and commodification and desire, and the setting provided a context within which to do that.

S. Immonen: I think it’s pretty clear in the art as well that the “France” and “World War II” elements are secondary to the very personal story being told. At almost every turn, we took the opportunity to avoid photographic realism in the setting; this also points up the renderings of the art works throughout.

Torontoist: How much historical research did you have to do? How did you approach it for this project?

K. Immonen: The script was completed such a long time 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.

S. Immonen: Again, the picture-making demanded at least a nod to what Paris looked like in the 1940s, and there was a considerable file of clippings, website references, and books, but in the end, there was a persistent effort to strip away the literal.

Howard: Was there any further editing of the writing process on Stuart’s part, once the page layouts and breakdowns were done? Can I ask who did the breakdowns and page layouts?

S. Immonen: As Kathryn said, the original script was practically dialogue only, with spare references to specific, necessary actions and/or places. The interstitial sequences, for example, which are entirely visual, were collaboratively decided on. I would suggest page and panel breaks on the script given the three-tier grid we’d set up, and we’d usually have visualized it the same way anyway, so there was very little conflict. But when your collaborating partner is right there, there’s no reason not to discuss every step together.

Howard: I find it interesting the different styles—hatching for paintings, a kind of clear line for the “reality” of the story, and spot blacks for photo collage. Can I ask why these three particular styles were chosen?

S. Immonen: The bulk of the story had to be drawn in a way that I could come back to at intervals, after having spent several days drawing other comics in a different way. I was particularly influenced by the works of European cartoonists Ulf K and Stanislas, and the very quiet story Kathryn wrote seemed to demand a style with a lot of stillness. At the same time, we wanted there to be an element of internal reality—the characters’ reality—that allowed the reader to see things as they saw them. This also gave me a chance to experiment and show off a little.

Howard: Moving Pictures is edited by Chris Staros, publisher of Top Shelf. How did you guys break down the editing process?

K. Immonen: The print version is absolutely different than what appeared online and it’s down to the really fantastic editorial input that I had from Chris. We had a couple of very long conversations and he was able to put his finger on some problems. The finished work is stronger and more focused for it. As often happens, the way an editor suggests you fix something is not necessarily the way you end up solving the problem, but the instinct that there is an issue is something that you need to listen to. In the end, the fixes were relatively minor with a little bit of redrawing but it made a substantial difference.

S. Immonen: I don’t think it was a little bit of redrawing. If I recall, there was something on almost every page that was altered, hopefully for the better, certainly to make the pages more consistent.

K. Immonen: Yeah, but honey, that’s your inner editor.

Howard: Stuart is nominated for a Joe Shuster Award in the category for Artist for your work on, among other things, Fantastic Four, Ultimate Spider Man, and the New Avengers. Congratulations! Moving Pictures is out this year, and so not applicable for this year’s Shusters: how did you like working on your own project as opposed to (I’m guessing) “work for hire?” Can I ask the pros and cons?

S. Immonen: Kathryn and I have, for the past twenty years, continued to do our own projects alongside more commercial work. It’s an integrated part of our schedule, and I think necessary to refresh the mainstream work and to remind us of why we started doing comics in the first place. Moving Pictures has gotten more attention than some of our other personal gigs, but it’s also taken more time and effort on our part, so we’re grateful for the acknowledgment.

Howard: Kathryn, you’re also nominated for a Shuster in the Writer category for your work in 2009 on Runaways and Patsy Walker: Hellcat 5 among others. How did you like working on a project for yourself? How do you like working on other on other properties?

K. Immonen: Working on your own stuff is just easier in a lot of ways. There are, at least initially, no editorial constraints or deadlines or need to try to keep yourself afloat in the rushing torrent of continuity. Working for Marvel certainly pays better, and I think Stuart would agree that the working in the mainstream has made us both better creators across the board.

Howard: Looking at your impressive list of credits on your website http://immonen.ca, my goodness there’s so much work. Is there some kind of secret or work ethic you can talk about that helps to keep the pace up?

K. Immonen: Somerset Maugham said “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Maybe it’s art but it’s certainly work, you just have to do it. There are other people waiting on you.

S. Immonen: Sure, there are some people in the business who can’t get up a head of steam unless they’re inspired by the muse, but I don’t think admitting commerce plays a factor is crass, it’s practical.

Howard: Can I ask some of the pros and cons of having your artistic partner also your life partner?

K. Immonen: I think it makes us get over ourselves more quickly. We work together in a small space and we basically spend all our time together. Everybody has bad days but when your bad day is going to negatively and directly impact someone else’s productivity, you just have to suck it up and get on with it or take the dog out for a two-hour walk. I would also say that we’ve been making work together for a long time and we have a common bank of experience which translates in some ways into a kind of short hand. But we’re also interested in the same kind of stories and have similar approaches to telling them. It’s a productive relationship in every sense of the word.

S. Immonen: A lot of couples who are together for a long time finish each other’s sentences—there have been studies about communal knowledge showing it’s beneficial, like redundancy in network storage. We just also happen to finish each other’s comics.

Howard: Can you pick two or three comics to recommend for others, ones that have had a particularly strong influence on you?

S. Immonen: Everyone should have a copy of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, which has tighter storytelling than Akira, more powerful themes, and beautiful art. Tintin in Tibet is one of Herge’s most mature works, with a sensitive, uplifting ending (better than Barks’ treatment of similar subject in The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan), and Jaime Hernandez’ Locas, particularly The Death of Speedy, which is haunting and sad and funny, perhaps my all-time favourite comic.

Howard: What’s your next big project? Any other graphic novels you’re planning?

K. Immonen: Working for Marvel fills our days but in the cracks we’re just starting on something called Russian Olive to Red King. It’s two parallel narratives detailing the final days of a relationship. Red King is the man left at home struggling unsuccessfully with an overdue deadline and the unexplained disappearance of his partner, Russian Olive, who may or may not have survived a plane crash in the northern bush. It’s also got petroglyphs and Chekhov. Sounds like a scorcher, right?