Just as George Lucas passed the torch to Irvin Kershner to direct Empire Strikes Back, John Cassaday is passing the art duties on Marvel's Star Wars series to Stuart Immonen.
Immonen takes over the Top 10 title with August 19's Star Wars #8, and is among the few who can actually say they've built their own (prop) lightsaber before. Although he's never drawn Star Wars before (in neither the Marvel or Dark Horse eras), Immonen opens up to Newsarama about his detailed appreciation and knowledge of Lucas, as well as others, in the movie franchise.
Newsarama talked with Immonen about taking on the Star Wars assignment, and brandishing his skillset and professional approach to something he's spent a lot of time with as a fan -- and a fan of the fine details of that universe.
Newsarama: Stuart, before we get into the thick of it, can you tell us what specifically is on your drawing board today?
Stuart Immonen: Ah, well, I just wrapped up an issue of Star Wars, so for the first time in a while, the table is free of clutter. I generate a lot of pencil dust and eraser shavings—a lot of eraser shavings—over the course of an issue, so I look forward to taking a day reorganizing my reference and cleaning my toolset once a month to get ready for the next issue.
But yesterday I was drawing Chewbacca.
Nrama: Ok, let’s let the Wookie win the conversation. Your first issue of Star Wars, #8, is due out August 19. Coming into this project, how did you get a frame of reference for what was needed for this particular series and Jason Aaron's scripts for this?
Immonen: I'm not sure what you mean... Jason's a great writer generally, obviously, and I always look forward to making a new collaboration click. More specifically, he's demonstrated an almost uncanny knack for capturing the Star Wars characters' voices, so I felt some performance pressure going in; if readers don't connect for some reason, it's basically down to me. But I didn't do anything special before starting work, except buy a few books I'd been meaning to pick up anyway.
Nrama: Can you say what those books were? And did you go back and watch any of the Star Wars movies for this assignment?
Immonen: I bought the three recent Making of... books by J. W. Rinzler which were all great reading. And the original trilogy is never far from the DVD drive, but mostly I spend my time scrutinizing thousands of screencaps from those movies, which has only served to reinforce how remarkable the films are.
Nrama: Unlike most superhero series you've worked on the past few years, with something like Star Wars it would seem like the reference material is largely outside of comic books -- movies, reference books, etc. What would you say were your most used reference sources for nailing the mechanical designs, costuming and such?
Immonen: I don't think it is different, really-- most of my go-to reference material is photographic, no matter what the project, or drawing style. I don't really look at old issues of Uncanny X-Men to figure out how to draw Cyclops, for example. Decisions I make regarding body language, facial expression, any kind of human interaction are made through observation of the real world. Don't get me wrong, I like other artists' work, but the foundational referencing part comes from primary sources-- people, not drawings.
Now, the Episode IV era of the Star Wars universe is pretty well laid out. Roger Christian's aged found-object set decoration, John Mollo's decidedly un-fantastic costume design and the rectilinear kit-bashed prop and model work of Joe Johnston and Colin Cantwell are all profound influences, and all that work is pretty well documented, from Carol Titleman's Art of Star Wars paperback (mine is in tatters from years of use) to Brandon Alinger's Star Wars Costumes coffee table book. There is also seemingly a never-ending resource of behind-the-scenes and production photos available online. Just when I think I've gathered everything there is, Pinterest, Tumblr and various fansites continue to surprise.
Nrama: Now, I happen to know that you have a personal interest in Star Wars going far far back -- even being an active participant in the fan community of builders, even building your own lightsaber among other things. Can you tell us about your personal interest in Star Wars over the years?
Immonen: Well, I've seen all the films, and read some of the novels, and, as you say, I've had a passing interest in replica prop building, but the latter probably had more to do with exploring the mysteries of the scrap source material used in the original trilogy than my interest in the story. Maybe it's a function of my age, but if pressed, I would have to say that my devotion to Star Wars begins and ends with the first film. I like the rest of the original trilogy; I like things from the prequels; I'm sure I will like The Force Awakens. But if the saga consisted solely of the '77 release, I would be satisfied. Everything is there in that kernel, and I kind of like that there are larger things hinted at but not explored, and I like the honest performances and the feel-good quality of the story. I'm a simple person, I guess.
Nrama: The preview pages for Star Wars #8 open with a horizontal two-page panel of an imposing Star Destroyer, done in great detail. The pages itself remind me of the opening moments of Episode IV: A New Hope with its framing -- was that in the back of your mind -- or front of your mind -- when deciding how to break down that sequence?
Immonen: Sure, I don't think I could be helped but be influenced by such a striking image. It's part of the collective unconscious at this point. The main difference is that I have a limited amount of space to dedicate to establishing the design of the ship, the scale, and tell the story at the same time. There are two panels that show the Star Destroyer, and I have to assume that there are people-- heretofore living under rocks, I guess-- who haven't seen the ship before, so it's not possible to just show the massive underbelly as in the classic opening shot, nor is it possible to intercut several different angles. Two panels have to cover it.
The one specific easter egg I did throw in is that there is a particular superstructure seen on conning tower in Episode IV: A New Hope not seen in any of the other films. Jason asked for an older ship, and this was one way to show it was a Mark I version.
Nrama: I also know that you come into your work in comic books on a very professional level -- but did the fact that this overlaps with personal interest of yours, either nostalgia or current, have any impact on the project?
Immonen: I admit that there were a lot of nerves going in, but once I got going, I focused on the job at hand pretty quickly. As I said, Jason's character work is impeccable, so it was easy to get lost in the "acting," and not make the work too self-aware. I love Star Wars, but I'm not nearly as dedicated a fan as a lot of people, but I don't think that has any bearing on my ability to do the job. I think I am driving the rest of the team a little nuts with accuracy notes, though, picking on the right number of grips on Luke's lightsaber, and getting all the greeblies in the Millennium Falcon cockpit just so. Geek, sure, but a professional geek.
Nrama: For this project you're not just adapting Star Wars, but adding to it. Does that kind of thing have any bearing on you differently than when you were part of changes to the Marvel U?
Immonen: No, like I said, I know there are people who are more fannishly aware than I am, no matter what the project is. I learned that twenty-odd years ago on Legion of Superheroes. But that's what keeps my attitude professional. I just try my best. Now, if I thought too hard about adding to the canon of one of the biggest media franchises ever, I'd probably choke. Hopefully, whatever professional distance I'm able to maintain is actually an asset.
All that being said, I think by definition, everything we are doing is in addition to what has existed already.
This Star Wars series is arguably read by a much different, more casual audience than someone reading, say, All-New Captain America. In terms of page composition, panel transitions and such, do you adjust that for what you think the audience might be?
Immonen: No, I'm pretty careful about clarity in storytelling. I'm not brave enough or smart enough to experiment too radically with page compositions or storytelling devices, anyway. One of the first things I usually ask a writer is if it's OK if I add or subtract panels to make sure things get shown in a clear and comprehensive way, and everyone I've worked with so far has been cool with that, and honestly, it's almost never necessary. But if I feel that the script needs a "bridge," I want to make sure everyone's on board. That's part of collaborating. But I also feel like readers are pretty savvy. Anyone reading a mainstream genre comic pretty much "gets" the way the medium works, even it's only on an intuitive level.
Nrama: Do you think something like Star Wars asks for a different kind of approach to storytelling choices with your art than superhero comic books?
Immonen: Maybe, but not necessarily. I like a page to be pretty, so I'm happy to be able to dress it up with layered elements, highlighting certain panels with scale, or overlap, things like that, but Jason's scripts pretty consistently ask for four panel pages, and often they just feel "right" if they are four widescreen tiers. I don't do it every time, but frequently, and maybe that is a function of how I perceive the material in my head.
Nrama: And some people may not know this, but for Star Wars you're shifting to a new editorial desk -- that of Jordan White. I know he was with the X-Men books for sometimes, but how is it different for you than working under the Avengers and X-Men umbrella as you've done recently?
Immonen: I'm frequently asked about what character I'd like to draw, and I've been fortunate to have already tried my hand at my own childhood favorites, so increasingly, the decision to accept new assignments is more based on who I get to work with. Getting to develop a relationship with someone new can be invigorating, but it's great when you get to "come home" and work with someone familiar. Jordan's a hundred-percent pro editor. He smooths over all the rough patches, and supports us and encourages us while traffic managing the whole stable of Star Wars titles. And Heather Antos has been a rock, quick with answers and results and reference, and a joy to work with.
Nrama:Marvel hasn't confirmed this yet and the previews don't list, but is Wade Von Grawbadger and Marte Gracia continuing to ink and color your work in this new project?
Immonen: Wade is most definitely on board-- at this point, we are basically a four-handed single organism. I simply couldn't get it done without him and his track record and industry accolades speak for themselves. And Marte is undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic and talented colorists in the business, but Justin Ponsor is handling Star Wars, and is eminently suited to the work. Not only does he have one of the best palettes in the industry, but he probably has more published Star Wars reference material than I do, and that's saying something. He's turning in pages that could literally be stills from the films, having fine-tuned his approach to match the documentary style inherent in the originals. Justin is taking it to another level-- we're lucky to have him on board.