For artist Stuart Immonen, he’s made it a point to balance his real-world commitments on New Avengers and now Fear Itself with smaller, more personal projects. Just like his Fear Itself partner Matt Fraction on Casanova, Stuart has been switching gears from super-heroics to independent work for several years with titles like Moving Pictures, Never As Bad As You Think and various anthology work both in America and abroad. In 2008 he collected some of his lesser-known stories, illustrations and one-off sketches into a self-published art book titled Centifolia. And now as Fear Itself descends on comic shops, Immonen is returning with a new volume to be published by AdHouse Books.
Centifolia II picks up where the first volume left off with an eye-catching assortment of sketches, concept designs, illustrations and comics. Debuting next weekend at Toronto’s TCAF Convention and hitting comic stores later in May, it contains several rare stories Stuart and his wife Kathryn did for some European publications and other special projects. As readers of his work on New Avengers will attest to, Immonen has an attention to detail that is on full-display in Centifolia II as the artist not only provided the art but also did the book design and packaging for the limited edition slipcase AdHouse will be selling as well. With the finished book back from the printers and the Immonens preparing for their appearance May 7th in Toronto, we talked with Stuart about this personal project that shows another side to the mainstream superstar.
Newsarama: Let's start with an easy one - what's on your drawing board today ?
Stuart Immonen: Big inhale-- I'm just starting on Fear Itself #4, which, amazingly, is right on schedule. Drawing an event is like drawing one and a half to two regular assignments. It might not actually show on the page, but it's like working in an undertow-- the amount of information that needs to be coordinated on a page-by-page basis can drag you under if you don't concentrate. I have a pretty good reputation for meeting deadlines, and that hasn't changed with Fear Itself, but it is a constant effort. I'm also conscious of wanting to do my best work, so there's a temptation to second-guess EVERYTHING, but having Wade [Von Grawbadger, inker] and Laura [Martin, colorist] working on the art with me is incredibly sustaining.
So, at the moment-- and, I suspect, until it's done-- Fear Itself is the only thing I've got going. Early on in the project, I was working for Jeph Loeb on the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, and Kathryn and I did a Hellcat/ Gambit story for the X-Men: To Serve and Protect anthology, but I'm focused entirely on the event right now. And with each issue being at least 23 pages, plus variant covers and the logistics of referencing and establishing and designing everything, it's plenty.
Nrama: For the past few years you've really been cooking when it comes to projects - it seems for every major project you have with Marvel or DC you also have at least one thing of your own on the backburner. That living and breathing of art seems to limber you up - even without mentioning how you typically like to draw standing up. Can you talk about that craft and labor of drawing as it works for you in a form of exercise or seasoning?
Immonen: Yeah... the desire is always there-- it can be a challenge to muster up the effort. Drawing a monthly is really a full-time affair. I like it, but can so easily turn into a seven-day-a-week grind. We can rarely scrape together more than a few days away, and often travel is work-related. Working with Kathryn has always been the goal, and we've been lucky to have been able to make that happen as much as we have. Right now, all my effort is concentrated on Marvel, but we have a project that's already begun which is waiting for me to me to return to. Come September, Fear Itself will be wrapped, and I don't know what my work schedule will be, but my aim is to incorporate some personal work into the mix again. The reaction to Moving Pictures was very encouraging, so we're both eager to release a follow-up book-length project.
Nrama: What's it like to be simultaneously drawing one of the biggest books of 2011 in Fear Itself and also being able to work on a personal project like Centifolia - and not just drawing, but also I assume editing, designing, and possibly more? In our interview about Centifolia I you called yourself a "packaging fanatic", so I can imagine you really sinking your teeth into this second go-around.
Immonen: Well, it's a monstrous amount of work. Fear Itself comes first, obviously, but after eight daylight hours working on that, I need a break anyway. Most of Centifolia was actually done by the time I approached Chris-- we worked on covers together and the design of the slipcase, and I did the illustration for the print. The rest of it, was just scanning. I mention in the introduction to the second volume that the majority of the sketches in the book were done while travelling to shows or appearances, or in idle moments on the convention floor. Maybe the best ideas don't come at such times, but hopefully, people will find them entertaining. The published sketchbook is meant as an adjunct to an artist's finished work, I think-- a window into process, so in this sense, it's an honest representation of the way I work, even though you won't find any pictures of Spider-Man in it.As far as designing the book went, the template was established with Volume I, so I was committed to that. The slipcase is a kind of variation on that sensibility, but I think it fits well. Kathryn had an amazing suggestion for
the slipcase which was much better-- and, as it happened, a lot less work-- that what I had originally planned. I'll leave it to the lucky few who are able to snag one to think about what it might have been.
Nrama: When we talked about the first volume of this years ago I failed to ask you about the title – I thought at that time it was just a playful spelling of “Centerfold”, but my wife tells me there’s a kind of rose called a Centifolia rose that was depicted numerous times by Dutch Painters in the 17th century. Where’d the title come from for you?
Immonen: I guess it is officially a series, now, isn't it?
Yes, the rose hybrid Centifolia is the source of the book title. I discovered the name while researching something else entirely (this happens to me often) and thought at the time, "if I ever publish a sketchbook, that'll be an awesome name for it." At the time, my brain was merely ripping off the similarities between "centrefold" and "centifolia"; It's also known as the cabbage rose, which is not so hot for a sketchbook. Later I found out that an early twentieth century hybrid was named after the floral painter Henri Fantin-Latour, whose painting was used by British designer Peter Saville on the cover of New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies LP. Saville's work has been a huge influence on me; if I'd had any sense, I would be in commercial design right now. What goes around comes around, apparently.
Nrama: Flipping through Centifolia I and the preview Adhouse gave of Centifolia II, besides the comics themselves I feel more influence on you here from magazine illustrations - especially
fashion mags -- than comic book artists. Where do you find - or receive inadvertently - inspiration and your own favorite art and illustration pieces?
Immonen: This is probably the easiest question to answer-- everywhere! I dig 20th Century book and magazine illustration like a lot of my peers, and there are loads of collections around, both in print and online. The original stuff is still available, too, and we are always looking in antique shops and flea markets for good finds. But my influences are wider-ranging than is probably good for me; I'm big on Manet and Sargent, Nathan Fowkes, Syd Mead, Lebbeus Woods, Hugh Ferriss, Stan Drake, Jiro Taniguchi, Otomo, Shirow, Toth, McCay, Herriman... the list is long, really long. I'm always adding artists to my blog reader.
Nrama: One of the pages features an elderly man sitting with a cane called "Papa Koyama". That really pulls at me, for its subject matter but also its technique - I notice you did the solid blacks with a sharpie I believe, and as a former artist I know that those work great at first but fade - and oh the smell. Can you talk about how each tool in a artist's toolkits has pros and cons, but how you're able to experiment more with these sketchbook
Immonen: I don't like to get too attached to tools, or methods for that matter-- the paper that companies supply is always changing and so are the qualities of pencils and pens. Some people find a brand they really like and then they're screwed when the company gets bought or goes out of business-- it's happened to me. You can't even get attached to software-- you upgrade your OS and your favorite program doesn't work anymore. The new version leaves out some tool you use everyday. It's a good thing I like trying out stuff.
Centifolia is kind of catch-all for trials with new pens and brushes and new techniques, so there's a lot of variety, and like I said, much of the drawing was done in transit, so there are certainly sketches that were done
with whatever was at hand. I don't know if that man was actually Annie Koyama's father, but he sat at her table at TCAF, and I liked his look, so I began to draw him. The Sharpie gave up pretty early on, but I tried to turn the failure into an asset. I know some artists who deliberately kept worn markers in their kit for texture effects... that doesn't seem to happen too much anymore. I'm terribly unprepared at shows. I don't draw much at all anymore, so I guess I figure I can afford to be. There's another page in Centifolia II in which I describe how Gene Ha had to supply me with drawing tools and a bandage while I sat next to him at the Emerald City Con in Seattle. He must have felt very sorry for me, unable to sign and bleeding all over my table.
Nrama: One of the most memorable parts of Centifolia I for me was the short comics you did in this - precursors of sorts to what you did later in 50 Reasons To Stop Sketching At Conventions and Moving Pictures, but in a looser style - both in line and in story. Not to cherry pick it too much - but can you tell us about any that might be in this volume?
Immonen: Really? That's great, actually. To be accurate, however, the eight-panel strips with the 50 Reasons me-avatar were done after 50 Reasons-- contemporary with Never As Bad As You Think. There were never enough to do anything with on their own, but I think they fit in the context of a sketchbook, even with computer-generated lettering. Centifolia is really a hybrid project anyway (I suppose that's fitting, given the source of the name), combining polished works with material that's in-progress or even still gestating. The Slightly Related strip that Kathryn and I originally created for the 2006 Semana Negra festival in Gijón, Spain is a finished piece, for example, and Centifolia is the only place it's been published in English.
There are more comics in Centifolia II -- a couple from the same series, and the Ghost Rider Moses strips I posted online with Jason Armstrong a few years ago, plus some longer strips we did for other publishing projects. The Trampoline Hall comic was done in a live setting, working alongside Steve Manale and Diana Tamblyn among other cartoonists, documenting a speaking event in Toronto. It was originally to have been published in the Montreal-based magazine Maisonneuve, but that fell through. We eventually adapted it for Liberty Comics, the Image anthology benefiting the CBLDF. Actually, a number of things Kathryn and I have done for ourselves have seen the light of day in various guises-- it pays to hang onto things.
While I appreciate sketchbooks that showcase illustrations exclusively, I also like the idea of incorporating something readers can spend some more time with-- i.e. comics. Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Datebooks, Jaques Tardi's Chiures de Gomme and Tatsuyuki Tanaka's Cannabis Works are prime examples of what I tried to achieve. I'm also a fan of the old British annuals, which combine prose, comics, activities and games. European kids' magazines still do that kind of thing, and the late Nickelodeon and Disney Adventures were excellent examples published here in North America. I wish they were still around.
Nrama: You and I both; maybe Marvel’s upcoming Disney magazines can fill in that gap.
You broke into comics self-publishing with Kathryn, and several years ago you did a spate of it again. What led you to partner up with someone to do a 2nd Centifolia - and why, specifically, Chris Pitzer at AdHouse?
Immonen: Kathryn's fond of saying that when we shopped Moving Pictures around, we were really just looking for someone to take the grunt work of printing and selling off our hands. We also live in a relatively small space, so warehousing books for mail order from our website became increasingly difficult to manage as we self-published. But when Brian Wood put us in touch with the Top Shelf crew, we benefited enormously in terms of editorial and design input-- Chris, Brett and Leigh absolutely made Moving Pictures a better book, and they got us into venues that would have remained inaccessible had we published on our own. A year later, they are still able to generate interest in the project in ways that we simply couldn't handle ourselves, so everyone wins.
So for Centifolia, it simply made sense to approach someone who not only had experience with art books and comics, but who might be willing to bring the book to market in an alternative way. Apart from selling Centifolia I at conventions and online, I developed a database of indie-friendly comic shops which I contacted individually, offering them a wholesale deal direct from our door competitive with traditional distribution. A lot of stores were cool with that, and in the end, I think fully half the print run sold through Direct Market retail. A couple of bigger stores actually came back with re-orders, which kind of amazed me. When it came time to assemble a new volume, I convinced Chris that my scheme had worked, and that a small print run could sell through in relatively short order, either direct to consumer or to stores which were willing to expand on their traditional distribution model.
Chris's enthusiasm is amazing-- he suggested a slipcase edition for both volumes with a signed and numbered print thrown in, and we worked many long-distance hours over the past couple of months to ensure that the books could be ready for TCAF at the beginning of May. I can only manage a few conventions a year and keep work on schedule, so we're pleased by the support Christopher Butcher has been able to offer for the launch.
Nrama: This new volume - as well as the limited edition slipcase of V1 and v2 - will premiere at Toronto’s TCAF on May 7th. Can you clue us in on what you’ll be doing there?
Immonen: I'll be there with AdHouse for the release of Centifolia, and Kathryn and I will also be appearing at the Top Shelf booth to support Moving Pictures. We'll be in also be attendance at the Doug Wright Awards. We've been asked to participate in a couple of panels together, but the schedule has not yet been finalized; people can find out more at http://torontocomics.com/.Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!