Moving Pictures
by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen (Top Shelf, 2010)

Individually and together, Kathryn and Stuart Immonen have created comics for just about everyone, with Stuart's run on DC's League of Superheroes and Kathryn's Hellcat series for Marvel being among the most well-known of their many projects. Moving Pictures, first serialized on their website in 2008, is like nothing they have done before.

The setting is World War II, and the place is France. Ila Gardiner, who is emotionally reserved to the point of impenetrable, is a sub-curator at a museum who is caught between her new duty of cataloging and removing the art collections of France's museums for the Nazi regime while secretly smuggling the old masterpieces off to safety via underground tunnels. This is complicated by her affair with one of the German officers responsible for collecting the artwork.

MP is emotionally dense, multilayered and complex. There are main characters but no heroes, almost no plot at all and an ending that's enigmatic at best. Most of the scenes are of people talking to one another about the state of their lives and how they are trying to cope with a rapidly shifting, off-balance world. There is very little physical activity and no real chronological order. It's more like a series of painfully beautiful snapshots depicting a life slowly stripped of what gave it definition, as the people of Ila's world literally disappear into the maw of Nazi Germany the way the museums are slowly stripped of their art.

Although MP is highly expressionistic, it is not the slightest bit romanticized. What carries the story is the dialogue, with the incredibly striking, very noir black-and-white images supporting the terse, poetic language. Sometimes life doesn't offer solutions, or even choices, and many people who were caught up in the war were not heroes, just ordinary folks who were forced to make one compromise after another in order to survive.

An unfolding series of compromises with no real conclusion eventually leaves behind a series of inchoate fragments only marginally related to one another. Like the homes and businesses and schoolyards of those rounded up by the Nazis, there are only shadows and memories of what were once living, breathing people. Immonen's stunning artwork, so rich in metaphor and motif, captures and elevates the shifting emotional alliances without shades of gray to mitigate the bleak reality, reflective of the near impossibility of being neutral in Nazi-occupied France during a surreal time when the entire world must seem to have existed at right angles to the world Ila used to know. A world that once had people in it before they, too, began to "disappear," catalogued and numbered and sent off on trains, never to be heard from again. Plain and simple, this story is more about a moment in time than it is about anything else.

I could see Moving Pictures being staged as a play. The incredible dialogue, the emotional complexity, the fact that most of the action happens in closed rooms and tunnels, all lend itself to the vitality of the stage. It's heavy but not heavy-handed. I predict that this will be one of the most-awarded graphic novels of the year, a no-brainer because it's certainly one of the best in many years. A fine, moving and not-to-be-missed story, excellently told by two of the best in the business.

review by
Mary Harvey

5 February 2011

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