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November 30, 2008


CR Sunday Interview: Kathryn Immonen

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*****

Almost everything that's interesting in mainstream American comic books goes on in the marginal titles far from the full spotlight of fan attention. Kathryn Immonen's scripting in their current Patsy Walker: Hellcat series shouldn't work at all: the story tumbles forward like so many brightly colored banner unfurled on a mountain-side as opposed to a three-act movie, there's no brooding or pausing or pontificating in anticipation of a story moment to come, it's tied into one of the harder to parse elements of recent Marvel continuity (the heroes-for-every-state Initiative), the lead acts in capricious fashion that dances right up to the edge of cruelty, and the structure of each makes it just as like your reading experience will end in a revelatory moment that buffets our hero as it might a punch in the jaw. The fact that Hellcat feels like work both modern in its sensibilities and 1960s prime-time House of Ideas in its execution indicates that like recent Marvel grooming projects Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, Immonen has a grasp of character and a lively enough authorial voice that she may be allowed to break the rules for years to come. I met Immonen at Charlotte's Heroes Con and she was nice enough to agree to answer a few questions. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: We're doing this interview to coincide with the resumption of your Hellcat mini-series this week. Why was there such a long interruption? Does that tend to happen with mini-series? Has it enabled you to take another look at the project creatively or to reload in general in terms of getting the word out? Is it an experience you'd recommend?

KATHRYN IMMONEN: At the time of writing this, I think it only amounted to a month's delay though it probably seemed longer. David Lafuente took the break to do the USM annual. And, you know, it's probably not ideal but those annuals are very important for Marvel and it was certainly good for David. I guess you could just call it 'resource allocation' and leave it at that. The scripts for Hellcat have been done for a while and I'm in the middle of some other projects, so the impetus (and time) to go back and rewind/review was not really there. Besides, I think the series has all four wheels solidly on its own idiosyncratic track. I'll make minor changes as the art comes in and then again after the first lettering pass but that's about it.

SPURGEON: For that matter, what has been the reaction to the series as you've experienced it? Has anything surprised you about what you've heard in response, say people responding to it you didn't expect or people seeing something in it you might not have seen or thought might not get across?

IMMONEN: It's been a little ridiculous. There's a deeply weird and wonderful seam of Patsy Walker/Hellcat love that's been re-opened, first with the Marvel Comics Presents story and now the mini-series. There seems to be a true and thirsty affection for her and it's so gratifying because it means that I'm not alone. People, so many guys, have not been shy in telling me how much they love Patsy and how happy they are she's not in a coma or getting dragged backwards through some hedge somewhere. Every time someone tells me they've given Hellcat to their girlfriend to read, I just want to stand up and cheer.

I hope that we've been able to put to bed some of the initial reservations and, in a few cases, hostility. For whatever reason, the tone of this series has struck a positive chord and I'm so glad. And it's such a beautiful looking thing. David and John [Rauch] are getting this book to the cash register, that's for sure.

SPURGEON: Something I've always wanted to ask a writer working on a project like this one: Comics is a tremendously rigid market in a lot of ways. I have to imagine when you get an assignment for a Hellcat mini-series, this comes with a certain set of expectations regarding how it might sell or be received. Does a project like this come with its own set of expectations, and if so, how would you describe them? While Mark Millar and Brian Bendis are thinking, "I'd like to get this next one over 125K," do you have a number that you're trying to meet, or maybe not go under? Is Marvel up front about those kinds of concerns?

IMMONEN: Ha! I maybe would say that Bendis does have to rack up those numbers so that doing books like Hellcat is actually a possibility. I don't think anyone had any illusions that this was going to post monster numbers and, in fact, I think it has pretty much exactly met expectations in that department. I think Marvel is very up front with itself about these things but it was certainly never proposed to be something I had to be concerned about. And, in fact, I don't think it's anything that I can have a statistically significant impact on aside from doing the very best job I can and keeping the interests of Marvel and their editorial needs in the forefront. As opaque as company (and I don't just mean Marvel) decision-making can seem from the outside, I think it would be a mistake to think that every person concerned is not committed to the well-being and viability of the characters involved. And I truly hope that one of the things this mini-series has done is contribute to the ongoing health, welfare and potential usefulness of Patsy Walker and Hellcat.

imageSPURGEON: Can you talk in as explicit terms as possible how you landed the mini-series? I'm guessing that it developed out of the Marvel Comics Presents work, so first of all, how did you end up working on that, and then second, how did you proceed when you saw encouragement on Marvel's end for you to submit something? What factor do you think ultimately landed you the book?

IMMONEN: This is the last time I'll say this. Privately, I think everybody hit their collective head! Publically, however, editor Nick Lowe has been long aware of Stuart's affection for Patsy and, when MCP was relaunched, asked if he would be interested in doing a four part story. Partly to lessen his workload but largely more because we are never happier than when we're working together (except when there's yelling and pencil snapping and loud erasing) Stuart asked if I could submit the pitch to write it. You know, there was no commitment and no risk at all to saying 'yes', so Nick did and I did and it was a hit and off we went. I already had a page rate established at Marvel because of the work I'd done on Captain America #50 and Mutant X with former editor Andrew Lis, so that was one less hurdle. And while I'm on the subject of Andrew Lis, it was really Andy that not only championed me doing some work for Marvel but Stuart as well, as I recall, and he was also a fan of us being on projects together and for that, we owe him a big thank you.

The MCP story went over refreshingly well and I was told that, while there were no guarantees, Marvel would be receptive to a proposal for a mini. I really just started to think about what would be my ultimate Patsy Walker/ Hellcat story. And on the planet of which I am benevolent dictator, it would have been a double-sized Christmas special full of icy fun and adventure and skating parties and recipes and making out under the mistletoe and fashion and a ham sandwich. I then went about turning it into something in which Marvel would be interested and to which they could conceivably say "yes." There were some revisions with Nick to bring the story into line but it was extraordinarily painless.

I know Patsy has friends in high places at Marvel and that certainly helped. But I was also not screwing around. I brought my very best game to the proposal and tried to write something that was as spirited and energetic as I hoped the book would be. And also to give them a story that did not deviate from the style and tone of the MCP piece. I know that Nick was ready to get in there and fight for this series at the meeting but it turned out to not be at all necessary.

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SPURGEON: Kathryn, I'm not aware of anything you've done before Never As Bad As You Think. Can you talk a little bit about the elements of your background that contributed to you becoming a comics writer? Why has this recently become a professional interest of yours? What changed?

IMMONEN: Stuart and I have been making comics together for more than 20 years. We were heavily invested in the black and white "scene" in the mid to late 80s and produced two titles, Playground (best described as a punk murder mystery) and Headcheese (an anthology). We self-published three issues of each and Playground went on to have a kind of epilogue published by Caliber Press. I graduated from university right around the time that Stuart was ditching his day job to make a go of comics full time. I worked as a costume designer and builder for film and theatre for a number of years and we were living in a tiny apartment over a bar in a northern Ontario town (I was doing the season for the local theatre) when Stuart first started working on Legion. In between then and now there have been other sporadic projects: the Captain America story, a tribute piece for Editions Albert Rene for Uderzo's 80th birthday, a piece for Semana Negra (which appears in Centifolia), some work in Imagination Rocket, all slotted in between my own freelancing as well as working for the Immonen Illustrations cabal.

I returned to school a few years ago to do my MFA in visual art and pretty much walked away from my studio practice seconds after I defended my thesis. I don't have the stomach to make a go of sculptural installation and to say that I'm not interested in teaching is a massive understatement. So that pretty much put pay to that. In the meantime, Stuart and I had been on the road to returning to self-publishing after feeling like we'd both gotten sidetracked in the past while (in different ways and for different reasons). We produced the hundred copies of Criminal Insects and then Never as Bad as You Think. Stuart put out Centifolia and 50 Reasons. And then we started in on Moving Pictures (which will be published by Top Shelf in the Spring of 2009) and we both felt like we were swinging back to centre.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk about how Never As Bad As You Think developed? I seem to remember that it came about from a formal exercise in which Stuart participated but I don't quite recall how you became involved. Is it true you did full script for those?

IMMONEN: NABAYT was a joint project from the beginning. We had been hanging out online with friends in a (now defunct) private forum started by Christine Norrie and thought that participating in Illustration Friday over there was a fun idea. We started doing little strips every week which incorporated the IF word. To our delight, it actually started to turn into something. At some point during the week, usually while walking the dog, I'd compose that week's strip in my head, come home, work it out on a 3"x5" post-it note and then Stuart would take it from there. If the dialogue and description fit comfortably on that piece of paper, then it seemed to take up the appropriate amount of real estate in the final product. About halfway through, we decided to cut it off at 52 strips, one year. The hardcover that's coming out in December from Boom! Studios will actually contain two additional strips which act as bookends to bring the whole thing back around in a loop.

SPURGEON: What kind of audience did you have for NABAYT? Did that audience change or grow when you took it to Webcomics Nation? How does making work for the Internet prepare you -- or I guess, spoil you -- for writing for mainstream print publication?

IMMONEN: We've sold through the original print run, so I guess 500 people liked it. There's no question that it's a quirky thing and taken in small bites, one week at a time, it's a little peculiar. All together though, it was pointed out by a number of people that it's actually full of a lot of really angry and frustrated individuals. I would say that Webcomics Nation was largely a dead end and a poor fit for us. About halfway through, we realized that, for us and what we were offering, exploiting the advertising paths wasn't working and, as with comics on the internet in general, it was largely impossible to get people up to purchase velocity. Additionally, there had been some other arrangements discussed but when they got lost in the shuffle, we were content to simply offer it for free on our own site and reap the lateral benefits there. It all worked out.

The work we do for online publication is, by default, the work we do for ourselves. Of course it's easier! The only context in which it needs to function is its own. I'm a person pretty much held together by my own anxiety. Creating work for a publicly-held company keeps a body up at night.

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SPURGEON: I want to make sure I ask a few questions about the mini-series itself. One thing that's noticeable about it is that it deals in details of current Marvel continuity: Hellcat goes to Alaska as part of a plan to give every state some sort of superheroic representation. Now is that dictated to you by Marvel, or is that something that you grab onto and then bring to them? How is that negotiated?

IMMONEN: The tie-in with the Initiative was not the starting point for me. Because it was Hellcat, there had to be magic involved and I was casting around for a geographic location where that was likely (in a highly fictionalized sense) to happen. I was reading a lot of accounts of early 20th century survivalists or subsistence homesteaders and at the same time was obsessed with the durational rally races in Mongolia and Siberia. I really wanted to do a winter story, as an extension of my first thoughts on the matter. This led to a pile of reading about the traditional magic and storytelling of Canada's Inuit peoples and then, you know, north to adventure and all that. As much as this story stands alone, the tie to current continuity is good business and I think it keeps everything whizzing around in the right orbit. It did nothing but add to what I was proposing and I got to write a little bit of Iron Man which was crazy fun.

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SPURGEON: If I had to pigeonhole your take on the Patsy Walker character, it's that you portray her as an irrepressible, all-American girl, the kind that people seem to like no matter what how she treats them. What led you there? How has that factored in to the way you write comics about her? In the mini-series, at least, she seems to steamroll past some of the problems that would stick to a more standard angst-ridden superhero's heels for years.

IMMONEN: For me, there's no getting away from Patsy Walker's roots in romance comics and girl's comics with Miss America and then her eponymous title. For me, that will always be who Patsy really is. Even though it became her fictionalized past, once she came into continuity, I think that it's too entertaining and fertile to dispense with entirely. Her publishing history is a testament to her resilience and I think that needs to be manifest in her character. And then when you couple that with the fact that she kind of black-mailed her way into the costume and that she doesn't (aborted psychic training notwithstanding) really have any substantive superpowers... my choice remains varsity all the way. I think everything she really knows about fighting she learned from homecoming football and wrestling finals. Her slew foot is probably pretty effective too. Initially Patsy just really wanted to be a superhero, wear the costume and have a good time. Nobody had to die, she didn't have to make some costly mistake for which she must forever pay, she's not out for revenge and she and her pals once kicked that dirty commie Khrushchev to the curb and laughed while they were doing it. I mean, come on!

SPURGEON: How much of working with a character like that is a work in process and how much is set in stone from the start of a project? A lot of cartoonists in the alternative end of comics talk about not knowing a character until they do a bunch of comics with that character. Is that true of writing a character like Patsy Walker? Is your understanding different in the later issues than it is in the beginning? Are there dangers to being open to new ideas like that?

IMMONEN: The story is set. I mean the plot's there and fairly carefully outlined but how everybody gets from a to b seems something of a surprise page by page. My take on Patsy is rooted in what I already know about her and where she came from and what's already happened to her. That makes a huge difference when it comes to writing her as opposed to any of the other characters in the book who are all, with the exception of Iron Man (of course)... bespoke, I suppose. There are certainly days when I have no idea what's supposed to come out of anybody's mouth but you just start and as long as you've got a handle on who they are at some core level, it will start to flow. The most fun I've had is writing the exchanges between Hellcat and the kidnapped heir, whom we meet in issue #4. As far as learning to "know" a character... I don't know. I mean, I understand the sentiment but I think I'd still have to get with learning to "write" a character. It's facile but they're not real. They don't exist without you and you just keep chopping away and hope that your initial instincts were right. And that things were well set up.

I just read all of that back. I retract. It's just semantic. But I am reminded of something Lawrence Block said. When asked if Scudder was autobiographical, he went on to say something about writing a character as they would be if you were that character. It may not be entirely or always true but there's no getting away from the fact that you can't get away from yourself. But I could be wrong.

SPURGEON: Speaking of process, you're again writing full script. Is that how you're directed to do it, or is that your option? Do you like working that way?

IMMONEN: It's what was requested and it's fine. I'm new. Everybody needs to see it on the page. And David and I are still getting to know each other.

SPURGEON: Your scripts have an almost conversational tone, especially when you're describing something specific when you want done, which makes me think you're either consciously or subconsciously trying to be solicitous or just plain nice to the artist at that point. How conscious are you of that creative partnership in terms of your being a good person with whom to work? How much are you open to artists working away from your script?

IMMONEN: Honestly, it's just me talking. Scripts aren't works of fiction in and of themselves. They're just part of the puzzle. What I'm trying to do is be as descriptive as I can in the absence of actually being able to stand in front of David and gesture wildly. To me, effective scripting means producing a document which is lively and inspiring and capable of producing some excitement or, at least, engendering some interest. I cannot tell you how crazy it makes me when I hear writers say things like "I let the artist have..." or "I allow the artist..." freedom or latitude or whatever. If that's my attitude, then I should probably just learn to draw... which I can't... uh, learn. Once I turn that script in and it's approved and edited and sent on, unless I've made some horrible mistake that everyone's missed, it's no longer my property or my purview. I'm just not at all precious about it. And if I've done my job well, and the partnership is sympathetic, then the result will be something as terrific as what's been happening with Hellcat. It's a four-week relay up a huge flight of stairs with, if you're lucky, Georges Guetary waiting at the top to kiss and congratulate you.

I think when you get wild, non-functioning deviations between the start and the finish, it means that the project has been broken from the beginning. Of course, everybody needs to be on the same proverbial page and the editor needs to be engaged and have put the right team together in the first place but all these things just seem to add up to the expectation that everyone's capable of and is doing their job. I'm not trying to be nice to anybody... don't make me come over there and prove it.

imageSPURGEON: You do something very odd with the violence and fighting in your mini-series. In a lot of Marvel comics, there's a lot of talking that builds up into some sort of violent action or fighting in order to resolve the issue at hand. You seem to reverse that: Patsy Walker dispenses with some violence in order to clear her path to get to the central problems, which she tends to solve by talking her way through it and convincing people of doing the right thing. Is that a fair assessment, and how do you feel about superhero comics' tendency to rely on some sort of violence as a resolution technique?

IMMONEN: Ha! Funny. I think that Patsy really wants to be her best self and I have this feeling that she sort of feels like she's let herself down when she has to land one on somebody's beak. But I think that I'm doing this because I have a notion that the character doesn't feel like she's taken seriously a lot of the time, like no one is listening and so she'll bust you in the chops in order to make you shut up and take your seat. I think it might be her super hero equivalent of "My face is up here". Part of the problem with the Hellcat character is, of course, aside from those stupid springy claws, she doesn't really have the physical resources to win, under the usual extraordinary circumstances, with her fists. I guess that's not really a problem. And again, she really wants people to like her. She's a lover, not a fighter... but she kinda loves to fight.

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SPURGEON: Given the tendency for very heavy-handed comics, were you worried at all about the generally lighthearted tone of the series?

IMMONEN: Of course. There's clearly an unspoken equation, in some camps, that funny equals can't be taken seriously equals mainstream comics can't be taken seriously. I think the suspicion that the desire for barbarically serious books is a thinly veiled attempt to validate what has become an adult hobby is not exactly a best kept secret. Which is not to say that I think that 'seriousness' is not crucially important for the health of stories and characters. But just because something's funny or light on its feet, it doesn't mean that it doesn't genuinely aspire to have warmth and heart, or importance... just in a different way. It's not always necessary for someone to have to lose an arm or a loved one in the most graphically brutal way possible. And, most importantly, I would submit that it would be inappropriate for this character. On a different day, I might argue differently. But that's how I'm feeling right now.

SPURGEON: You spend a lot of time in the last couple of issues working through what are pretty nuanced family and community troubles that Hellcat encounters. Can I ask what you might want the reader to take away from the way you've set up these relationships and how you moved towards a resolution? In some ways, I can see this being a very generous look at a non-traditional family arrangement, and at the same time give Hellcat's relative happiness I can also see the whole thing as a kind of commercial for being largely unattached. Either way it seems like a very different area than is usually explored in a mainstream comic book and I wondered how you looked upon it as a writer and now that you have some distance from it.

IMMONEN: Yeah, the family situation gets weirder before it gets a little weirder. Thinking about it right now as I'm trying to formulate an answer, I am realizing that the associations I have with comics are strongly tied to unconventional families... whether it's the X-Men with the family chosen for you in an exceptional way or Archie (where Betty and Veronica and Archie et al always seemed more of each others' family than the parents did) or Tintin and his strangely-selected family. Any suppositions I might have are, of course, largely rhetorical because the story reasons for all of this are patently obvious. And, actually, I don't think that it's a particularly deviant course as compared to other mainstream books. In the particulars, the family structure and relationships and world view all grew directly from the reading I did in preparation for writing this story but, in general, I think the larger issues of responsibility and obligation are what's at play. Maybe it all just comes down to my parenting philosophy which has, from day one, been "Always do what you say you're going to do and there are certain things for which there will be no negotiation and I will decide what they are." But I'm fair, too. I promise.

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SPURGEON: I meant to ask this formal question earlier but I forgot: the later scripts contain nothing in the way of page design notes, while the earlier issues display a lot of variety in terms of the different structures used. For instance, you use a page of panels that run the width of a page when she first gets to Alaska , and use a lot of middle, larger panels that break up the rhythms of your grid work. Is this something you leave to the artist? How important is that sense of physical placement to you when writing a comic book?

IMMONEN: If I'm remembering correctly, the initial page design stuff had a lot to do with wanting to make sure that the book continued to nod to some of the stylistic tropes of the Patsy comics or fashion comics of the '40s and '50s. It quickly became clear that David had similar enthusiasms and it became unnecessary to continue to bring it up. It's my responsibility to make sure that what everybody's saying and doing fits on a page. How that actually plays out is David's particular genius. Of course, there are certain images that are important and panels that are key and I need to make sure that I'm clear on those points and to ensure that it's physically possible. The pacing and energy of Hellcat has, from the get go, been modeled largely after a ski jump, I think. Patsy just kind of pulls on her gloves and throws herself down that hill with verve and elan.

With, say, Moving Pictures, the way the pages look is constantly and carefully under scrutiny but that's because it's a totally different kind of project. Stuart and I are constantly talking about it... the black shapes that are in danger of decapitating the characters, the poetry of the recurring pieces of paper. He gave me a page recently to look over and one of Ila's expressions wasn't quite right. I think I moved the dot of her eye over about 3mm and she went from disinterested to really pissed off. When your story is being contained in the way someone takes off their jacket over the course of 20 pages, you've got a whole other set of problems.

SPURGEON: When I told you Nick Lowe had sent me the scripts for issues #4 and #5, you expressed the notion that this made you feel overly exposed. You said it was like having someone root around in your underwear drawer? Are you self-conscious about your comics scripting? What is your general orientation towards your work and how much do you feel settled in as a writer? When will you be?

IMMONEN: I think I was just taking, yet again, the opportunity to talk about my underwear. It's actually not that I felt self-conscious. It's just that, as we all know, scripts are not meant to stand on their own and when Nick reads it, I know how he's reading it... what he's looking for. The same with David. I know what their context is, what their needs are. It's part of the process. So, again, any discomfort I have is just not being sure of context or having concern with the kind of currency it's perceived to be required to carry outside of the framework of being part of the work in progress. Having said that, I'm pretty comfortable. Except when I'm repeatedly hitting my head on my desk. Then, not so much.

*****

* Patsy Walker as Hellcat
* photo strip provided by the writer
* cover from the ongoing mini-series
* a Never As Bad As You Think installment
* the Moving Pictures cover
* north to Alaska
* everybody likes her
* she enjoys violent resolution
* the light-hearted tone of the series
* page mentioned of wide panels as Patsy Walker hits Alaska
* (below) cover image to forthcoming issue, which you can tell your comic shop right now to get for you

*****

* Patsy Walker: Hellcat, Kathryn Immonen and David LaFuente, Marvel Comics, five-issue 32-page comic book series, 2008, $2.99 each (next issue). Hunt your recent comic racks, please.

*****

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