Readers just passed the halfway point in the roller-coast ride that is the comic book event Battle of the Atom, seeing old heroes returning and new heroes emerging -- as well as a few surprises (President Dazzler, anyone?) Newsarama recently spoke with Stuart Immonen, one of the primary artists for bringing this cross-time caper to life, and found some secrets about his own origins and the X-Men.
Stuart Immonen is no stranger to superheroes or high stakes comics’ events, having drawn everything from pivotal moments of DC’s Superman to drawing Marvel’s 2011 event series Fear Itself. But with the launch of All-New X-Men last year, he and writer Brian Michael Bendis did what many onlookers thought impossible – bring back the classic X-Men and make it work.
Last week’s All-New X-Men #17 saw Bendis and Immonen peel back the curtain on future that the strange new X-Men from X-Men: Battle of The Atom come from, and added new wrinkles to this time-spanning story. Newsarama’s spoke with Bendis at length about Battle of the Atom, so this time out we spoke to Immonen about bringing the writer’s words to life. From juggling the various teams and various renditions of characters at different ages all the way to making the original X-Men convincing in those throwback suits. Immonen spoke at length about the series and working as part of a larger team.
Newsarama: Let’s start off slow on this, Stuart – what are you working on today?
Stuart Immonen: I just finished a cover— All-New X-Men #21—and the rest of a double-page spread from a different issue of All-New X-Men which had been left over from the previous day. I like the spreads—designing them is a welcome challenge—but for a dyed-in-the-wool page-a-day journeyman like me, it can be tough to leave a drawing unfinished at the end of the workday.
Nrama: Last month you had two of the biggest comic books on the stand, drawing both All-New X-Men as well as the pivotal final scene in X-Men: Battle of the Atom. In doing these “event” type books and the high sales that come with it, does it change the way you work or any outside influences on it?
Immonen: Ah, well, with all that was going on in Frank’s section of X-Men: Battle of the Atom, I would hardly call my meager scene “pivotal,” but it does set the stage for the rest of the crossover, I suppose. Regardless, sales don’t figure into my methodology, though I am keenly aware of the unit price of comics and desperately want to give the reader their money’s worth. For the four pages of X-Men: Battle of the Atom, for example, my personal priority was to try and match Frank Cho’s style as much as possible so that the transition would not jar the reader out of the story. I don’t know how successful I was—Frank’s such a huge talent—but I gave it my best shot, anyway. And even after a couple of decades in the business, I still get a little nervous starting a new project. I feel like I’m only just settling in to All-New X-Men now, but that has nothing to do with sales pressures, perceived or real.
Nrama: The crux of this event is the original X-Men team brought from the past, right off the cusp of Jack Kirby’s drawings of them to your modern interpretation of them. You’re well into a year of drawing them, so how do you think it’s been for you drawing them in these throwback uniforms --the gym shorts and balacava! -- without making them too old-fashioned?
Immonen: Some artists are able to pull off a very form-fitting, painted-on look that’s very modern, but I have actually come around to embracing the idea that that these costumes are more like athletic uniforms than high-tech skinsuits. I think just keeping in mind the textural contrasts (flat yellow over glossy black) is enough to keep the look fresh. Colorist Marte Gracia’s work is a huge factor here, of course.
Nrama: And going from past X-Men to future X-Men, you drew their official debut in that final scene of X-Men: Battle of the Atom. First of all, how’d you come to chip in with Frank Cho in getting this issue out?
Immonen: Nick Lowe asked—it’s that simple. I had (just) enough breathing room in my own schedule to be able to step in, and the scene, while character-heavy, was not overly complicated.
Nrama: And second – were the designs for these future X-Men already in place when you came aboard, or did you get a chance to design these at all?
Immonen: Those characters were designed by Arthur Adams. Ed McGuinness, I believe, did some additional character designs, some of which have been seen by now.
Nrama: And you’re not just drawing two X-Men teams, but really three – even four at some times. With so many characters on the page, how do you go about playing choreographer to make sure each gets some face-time – especially when they may just be in the background while others talk?
Immonen: The demands are different in every scene—often every panel. The story dictates. Sometimes you can have a quiet, personal moment between a couple of people even though there are 20 characters in the room, and those panels don’t require showing the whole environment; in fact, it’s better to eliminate everything extraneous, even the background, in order to provide appropriate focus. And at other times, you have to pull way out and remind the reader of where they are. It can be an overhead shot, or a wide mid-shot. It depends on who’s talking, what surrounds the panel in question, and what kind of compositions you may have already used. A constant variety of camera angles that is jarring in film works so well in comics, especially when the scenes have a lot of characters.
Nrama: I pulled out a little bit of history for this interview – it turns out one of your earliest Marvel works was drawing the original X-Men- - Cyclops and Jean Grey, at least – back in 1994’s Spider-Man Megazine #4 cover. What’s it like after all these years to return to that, in an expanded way?
Immonen: Oh, I don’t tend to look back very often, so I cringe when I see that piece. Besides, drawing a pin-up is not like drawing a story in any way whatsoever. It’s pure composition (in this case, pretty much an utter failure), whereas my concerns in storytelling have to do with character, emotion, naturalism, body language and so on. Actually, I might be a better pin-up artist if I employed some of those concepts in that discipline.
Nrama: I must say I’ve really enjoyed the way you’ve handled the Young X-Men, especially with the snowman-looking Iceman and his expressions. Is there any special tricks to getting him and his exuberant expressions down right?
Immonen: No tricks. Bobby’s just great fun to draw. Brian gives him great lines, and it’s easy to exaggerate the gestures and poses in a way that would seem absurd for the others. I deliberately downplay his features and push the body language, and it’s acceptable in a more naturalistic context because he appears less human. If he was to be more realistically rendered, I think he would fall into the Uncanny Valley in a way and the gags would fall flat.
Nrama: All-New X-Men is the latest in string of work you’ve done with Brian Michael Bendis, from Ultimate Spider-Man to Avengers to New Avengers and now here. You said last time we talked you and Brian (and wade Von Grawbadger, your inker) have developed a kind of shorthand for this. Can you peel back the curtain and give us some of that shorthand vocabulary you three have come to use?
Immonen: Did I say that? It’s frankly all very hands-off, which is maybe why it works. Brian does his thing, and it goes to me, I do my thing, and so on. We don’t noodle back and forth. I trust Brian to provide me with all the pieces, and I assume he trusts me to assemble them into a framework and we both trust Wade and Marte to make it a polished, finished, cohesive work. I guess that’s shorthand in the sense that at each stage there are probably minor gaps or faults that the next person in line is professional enough to resolve without oversight.
Nrama: You’re doing this all as the primary artist on All-New X-Men, but shipping schedules as they are, and with it coming out more than on a monthly the book has had some guest artists come in. As great as they are, is working on this kind of schedule and having to skip certain moments in the narrative hard for you to get back up to speed?
Immonen: I concentrate on the task at hand, so I don’t worry overly about what I didn’t get to do. I have all the scripts, even those I don’t draw, so I know what happens in between. It’s not like I’m taking breaks; I may jump directly from the end of issue 5 one day to the beginning of issue 9 the next; the characters have not radically changed, so it has the effect of being a continuum, at least from my perspective. I do wish with I was able to draw every issue, but that’s not possible.
Nrama: We’re about wrapped up, but I can’t help but ask you one last question – about something completely different. Your next creator-owned graphic novel, Russian Olive to Red King with your wife Kathryn; you’ve showed off some pages from it back in March on your blog. How’s that coming between this busy time at Marvel?
Immonen: Kathryn and I put Russian Olive to Red King aside while we worked on Snipe for Toronto’s Fan Expo this past August, and there’s another short piece we’ve been asked to do for a non-Marvel anthology that’s coming out next year, but as soon as we are socked for the winter and distractions fade away, I expect Russian Olive to Red King will get completed in fairly short order. We still haven’t settled on a publisher, but at this point, we’d just prefer to have the project done first.