A husband-and-wife team of graphic novelists move from superhero tales to a stark, quiet story about art and the Holocaust.
All I knew about Moving Pictures before reading it was that it was about World War II and written and drawn by the wife-and-husband team of Kathryn and Stuart Immonen. Kathryn recently wrote the Patsy Walker: Hellcat miniseries for Marvel Comics; Stuart has drawn both Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers, also published by Marvel. Based on this pedigree, one might assume their collaborative graphic novel, Moving Pictures, put out by boutique comic publisher Top Shelf Productions, would be a lighthearted tale dense with action and intrigue.
One would be completely wrong. Moving Pictures is one of the sparsest World War II texts I’ve ever read, and this is to its credit. Not once are terms like “Nazi,” “Holocaust,” or even “World War” uttered; the Immonens assemble the story like an intricate puzzle, using nonlinear sequencing and not giving readers any time stamps. Drawn in a sketchy black and white that suits the melancholic atmosphere perfectly, Moving Pictures tells the story of Ila Gardner, a Canadian student who moves to France to study art. She chooses to stay in France during the German occupation and is given a job cataloging and assessing paintings in a wine cellar.
The occupation is stunningly rendered, yet not once do we see soldiers, guns, or other typical images of war. Instead, the Immonens give hints: darkened flags bopping across the horizon, smoke from chimneys billowing up from an urban neighborhood. The book opens with Ila being questioned by Rolf Hauptmann, a Nazi officer and fellow art connoisseur. The two are lovers, but this is no over-the-top love story à la Casablanca— the Immonens are too clever to settle for the tropes of middlebrow war romance. The central concern of Moving Pictures is what it means to assign value not only to art but to human beings, and through Ila’s judgments of art the specter of the Holocaust casts a pall over the entire book.
Moving Pictures is a slow, quiet novel intended for thoughtful readers. Nearly every scene is comprised of two or three people talking, usually about art, occasionally (and very vaguely) about the madness unfolding all around them. Ila cannot think of a correct way to live in light of the war, while Rolf argues that he’s merely following orders, sensing he’s a cog within a structure of power he can barely comprehend. Characters routinely deliver monologues while staring at art, and Kathryn Immonen’s dialogue is ruminative and often loaded with multiple meanings. “I can’t imagine anyone has ever stood here this long—ever—to take a good look at you,” Ila says.
Do you know what the average time is that people spend with any one piece? Well, it’s not long. So I suppose those of us who’ve had the pleasure of your company in descending order would be the artist, then me. The cleaning staff is tied with whoever hung you. And then the rest of the world. All of them, collectively.
But the highlight of Moving Pictures is the artwork by Stuart Immonen. Forget the fact that he has to produce representations of the complex, recognizable works of art Ila encounters—what’s most impressive is his complete mastery of body language and shadow. The character models of Moving Pictures are cartoony and minimalist, so that even small adjustments to mouths and eyes drastically alter mood and expression. The result is breathtakingly emotive characters who seem to be in a constant state of movement and thereby become eerily human. Immonen never settles for the talking heads so often used in modern comics. His characters are startlingly alive.
Though the plot of Moving Pictures leaves something to be desired, to read this novel for narrative alone is to miss the point entirely. The Immonens have created a work focused primarily on high art, and their text itself aims to be taken seriously as an example of such art. Moving Pictures ponders, ruminates, grows thick with complexity; questions are left unanswered and characters are, for the most part, left in medias res at story’s close, perhaps as an expression of their desire to stop labeling things, to end the process of classification which is a kind of death. The search for meaning through artwork does not provide answers because, as the characters discover, there often are none.