Very Moving Pictures
by Bryan Munn
Moving Pictures is the latest comics work from husband-and-wife collaborators Stuart and Kathryn Immonen. The graphic novel, originally serialized online through the couple’s website, was recently published by Top Shelf. The book is the briskly and inventively-told tale of a Canadian art historian trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris who plays a dangerous game of brinksmanship involving priceless works of art, French and German lovers, the Resistance, and assorted moral quandaries. Great characters and a smart plot combine with a very interesting use of black and white and sharp cartooning illustrate a dire period in the history of Europe and in European art. Stuart (pictures) and Kathryn (words) very kindly agreed to
be interrogated with Germanic vigour discuss the book and its background with me via email.
B. Munn: What lead you to tell a mixed-up love story about a Canadian art curator trapped in World War II Paris?
Kathryn Immonen: 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. Everybody should go read about the Monuments Men. It’s like the accountant character in the Untouchables… on steroids.
BM: What about the setting was important to you?
KI: It provided 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.
Stuart Immonen: Well, we took a deliberate stance against showing the setting too explicitly. In the online version, even certain names were censored; real places and people were not named. I think we found a number of ways around this conceit, which seemed awkward at times, and was not consistently employed. In a way, including a setting of any kind—at least visually—was something of a struggle.
BM: How much of the real history of the period found its way into Moving Pictures?
KI: It doesn’t even fall into the category of what’s currently being called ‘faction’ in 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. But basically, like all fiction I think, it’s an invitation to think about something differently for just a moment. I wrote a short Clark and Lois story for a DC anthology recently and there was a little bit of “Clark would never behave that way!” to which my response is “but what if he did? Just for these eight pages. It’s fun to think about, no?”
SI: For the images—particularly the exterior scenes—there was a lot of reference required, but nothing was slavishly copied with historical accuracy in mind. The pictures should just suggest a Paris of the period. Late in the book, there are panels drawn in a less abstracted fashion than the more “cartooned” story, but even these panels are fictionalized to some extent.
BM: Kathryn, how much do you identify with your lead character Ila. She’s quite complicated, combining cosmic indifference, dismay and disgust at the modern world, and love of art in one sardonic stylish package.
KI: She’s my platonic ideal. I think when I first started out with her, her indifference was coming out as apathy, no trace of which, I hope remains because it was a mistake. She cares deeply about who she is and what she does but it is absolutely cut through with the knowledge that none of it matters, ultimately. So, it doesn’t stop her from the doing but it probably deeply interferes with the being. It’s like her thoughts are always somewhere else. And it’s this aspect of the main character that, looking back, is probably largely responsible for the narrative structure. I’ve previously described Moving Pictures as one long, strangled inhalation. 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: Actually, there are one or two incidents of “real” action—Rolf smashes a drinking glass, for example—which were unusually difficult to stage. In that case, I ended up showing the raised hand, then the shards on the table—but not the “action” at all.
BM: The book has a very distinct graphic design to it that manages to combine a noir feel with a machine-age sparseness without skimping on character or emotional subtlety. The simple figures and many of the backgrounds have a cartoony, gestural look that simultaneously feels very formal and geometric to me. I know that Stuart has a great skill to tailor his graphic approach and style to every project he takes on. I’m wondering how much of what we see in Moving Pictures is consciously in service of the story and themes in this way, and how much is a function of the original web format of the book. Was that a factor at all?
SI: The design of the look went through a number of passes until we agreed on what would be right in the end. Style choices weren’t governed so much by being presented online, but by the schedule. I had to pick a look that I could come back to once a week, after drawing in a different way for the other six days, and remain consistent over a two-year-plus period. Even with that clearly in mind during the serialization process, I ended up changing something on almost every page for the book, in order to tighten up inconsistencies.
BM: Is the cartooning in Moving Pictures meant to evoke the art of the period? It is very Euro, in a way. Am I imagining it or do I see a reflection of cartoonists of the period, like Fougasse and Herge?
SI: Oh sure, there’s some Herge in everything I do, if I`m lucky. It`s where I learned everything about comic-making. But the drawing is not meant to be contemporaneous to the story, nor was the style choice consciously meant to reflect European sensibility, though that did “feel“ right after all. The final drawings fall somewhere in between those of French cartoonist Stanislas and German cartoonist Ulf K… not that nationality had anything to do with it.
BM: Can you talk a bit about the conceit of the black flags in the book. The story is set in Nazi-occupied Paris and we see alot of (presumably Nazi) flags, but they are usually blacked out. It gives the book a sort of timelessness, or at least makes the story more universal (it could be taking place under any totalitarian regime or occupying power) while also managing to skirt the issue of actually depicting and maybe glorifying Nazi imagery.
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.
KI: But 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 (willful or otherwise), as a literal reference to the actual blacking out of signposts during the war, as an impediment to wayfinding of all kinds.
BM: At one point in her interrogation with Rolf, Ila catalogs the types of art she is qualified to categorize, saying “I am only qualified to place things into known categories. Paintings. Furniture. Sculpture. Drawings. Engravings. Decorative objects. And the always popular to overflowing unclassifiable art objects.” Is it fair to say that a scene that makes reference to the Nazi theft of culture and the disappearing of ordinary people, that Ila is also referring to comics and narrative art?
KI: That is an actual list, in fact. I just liked the rhythm of it, but also its arbitrary nature. So, while it was not my intention at the time, you’re right, it does raise the ongoing conversation of where comics sit on the landscape.
BM: The book has a lot of mirroring and binaries. Not unexpected in a black-and-white book about moral imperatives, I guess, but can you talk about your use of this device a bit?. Ila has elliptical, almost flirty conversations with her French co-worker Marc and with her Nazi lover/interrogator Rolf. For every fluttering flag there is a piece of paper floating in the air. Priceless masterpieces are contrasted with bottles of wine and victims of the Holocaust, etc, etc.
KI: I think it’s the result of a lot of layers, some physical, some metaphorical. The narrative structure of Moving Pictures is that of two time lines: one in the past which takes place over a fairly long period of time and one in present which occurs in a shorter space of time. The first scene places the very end of the past events up against the beginning of the present. The present then continues and the past line starts back at its beginning and proceeds chronologically toward that first scene. So, the book itself is fundamentally elliptical. But at its heart, visually and narratively, it’s an exploration of uncertainty and loss. I think we made certain choices initially for their impact or their beauty but, of course, projects have a way of working themselves out, even if you’re not entirely paying attention.
BM: What’s next on your collaboration plate? Are you going to continue serializing graphic novels online?
SI: The next book-length project is underway, but for a variety of reasons, it won`t be serialized. Moving Pictures and Never As Bad As You Think really benefitted from the discipline required for that weekly commitment, but this one has different needs . Anyway, double-page spreads are tricky when they`re separated temporally as well as spatially.
KI: It`s called Russian Olive to Red King. 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.
Find the Immonen’s onine at immonen.ca
A preview gallery of art from Moving Pictures