By Steve Morris
For everything else that they might be, mainstream comic books aren’t the most spontaneous creatures. Usually they feature at least one writer, who hands off to an artist, who gets inked, then flatted, coloured, and letterered – then depending on which letterer you talk to, usually the editor steps in before asking for a last-minute second set of corrections because the writer now wants to change all their dialogue. And comics are announced three months in advance, so they can be pre-ordered by a precarious delivery system to retailers around the world. All the while, editors are constantly trying to keep an eye out in case one of their characters has unexpectedly been killed off in a totally different series, or this month they have to make sure the sky is red.
The static, lasting nature of reading a comic also means that there’s a feeling of clockwork catharsis in place for readers. A recurring familiarity to keep things comfortable. It’s how you hook a returning audience. It’s a process which has allowed writers like, dominantly, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to sink their particular approach deep into the bedrock of the American medium. Every panel is layered in with meaning and importance, hand-crafted by some form of modern British wizard who chews thoughtfully on a stick of rhubarb whilst pondering the meaningful importance of STORIES. Those two in particular have had such an impact on the craft of comics: the idea that there’s a particular approach which everyone else needs to follow if they want to also tell a powerful STORY, usually about STORIES.
There’s no point in trying to repaint the past: Kathryn Immonen wasn’t warmly received as a writer when she started out at Marvel, especially as she took over Runaways from a dull Terry Moore-written run and immediately turned the comic into a confusing, complicated maze of a series. Under her hand, the characters died and returned to life seemingly at random, part of a bizarrely-paced storyline which never had time to unwind itself and be anything more than a vastly overcomplicated curio. Her run was canceled after only four issues, leaving several unanswered questions – the main one being “what just happened?” She was in and out so quickly that readers still haven’t had chance to keep up with those four issues – and Marvel, it seemed, were as confused as the rest of us.
But I love her crackpot flair, which is endlessly re-readable. Immonen’s writing lives firmly in the moment, and often seems to forget that it’s meant to be part of a pre-structured comic book script. Immonen writes the things that make her laugh, the things she thinks are interesting in that spur of the moment. Comic book readers are attuned to the long-form pondering of white men, inspired by all those flipping Vertigo comics from the past and still living on today at Image or Avatar or any of those other publishers that wish the anglophilic eighties were still here. Structure, form, syntax.
Kathryn Immonen, on the other hand, was more about exalting the unstructured.
During Runaways the main complaint from readers on forums (a concept which was the style at the time) was that the characters went round in labyrinthine circles with one another rather than… well, finding a villain, punching them, and maybe kissing somebody they shouldn’t. Y’know, the expected thing for stories with the characters. But Immonen didn’t seem to be phased at all by that, and relished going off on the tangent, her approach to teenagers being: hey, maybe let’s write them as if they’re teenagers.
Idle fixations come and go, and their understanding of the literary greats was – shock – not the same understanding that Neil Gaiman’s characters would have. In fact, in issue #14 of Runaways, Immonen’s narrator quotes King Lear: “Mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes” Cool, eh? Literature! Classicism! And as readers we’d obviously expect some clever revelation about Shakespeare’s work to follow, the writer using their characters to express their own personal opinions. Likewise, Marvel’s editors would probably have assumed that invoking King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia would lead to some kind of girl-power narrative about progressing from generation to generation. But Immonen, always unexpected, has her character turn on Cordelia instead. The narration bluntly says that Cordelia was a “bitch” who didn’t appreciate that her father was honestly trying to appeal to her for help and she ignored it.
The result is a character-beat which feels much more authentically awkward than readers may have been expecting. The teenage girl narrating their experience of King Lear doesn’t do so to be superheroically empowering: she does because she’s overcomplicated and clunky, just like the rest of us. We’re not witnessing Immonen rework her sixth-form coursework right in front of our eyes, as normally happens when a clever literary writer decides to invoke the Immortal Bard: she writes what a teenage girl might well thing at the time, even if it’s clunky, insensitive, and self-loathing. It’s unexpectedly natural because it goes against the comic book formula we’re used to.
Every other line in an Immonen comic is either a brilliantly funny non-sequitur or surprisingly deep character moment. Often it’s both at once, like the moment Patsy Walker tells her designer “did you know the French word for ‘enthusiast’ is ‘amateur’?” It’s a perfect summary for the character, and it’s delivered in the second panel of the entire series.
I can open up a copy of Patsy Walker: Hellcat at any random page and know I’ll see a conversation which jumps from moment to moment rather than carefully pacing itself. In fact, let’s do that now!
Here’s the page I just opened my trade paperback to, from issue #3:
Okay, so Patsy is sitting in a smashed-up car with a talking polar bear, who seems more than anything else to be harassed by the experience. Patsy isn’t thrown off by her current companion, and jumps straight into conversation, and it’s exactly the kind of rapid-fire patter I’ve been talking about. Patsy goes from asking for the polar bear’s name to discussing the time she died and came back to life within the space of five panels. Having an artist like David Lafuente obviously helps, as the man never saw a conversation he couldn’t turn into a chase sequence, but look at the way in which the creative team speeds things up further. The first panel fires off several simple-sentence questions at once which letterers Dave and Natalie Lanphear crowd into single word balloons rather than splitting out into separate thoughts, for example. The lettering backs up Patsy’s spitfire approach to interrogation, speeding up the reader on the page.
In the second panel Patsy starts a sentence before correcting herself and then repeating it with a slight alteration because she’s used “man-slain”, and that’s not a word, but a pun. In the background, David LaFuente starts putting kinetic lines behind the car, to show how literally quickly the duo are moving, even as the bear is locked in position within the car. Patsy doesn’t pause in the third panel when she streamrolls through her “dead is dead” speech, which definitely should have had a comma before the first use of “but”. The full balloon doesn’t quite make grammatical sense, but that shows us the rush in Patsy’s speech, as she naturally speeds through her thoughts at around the same time she articulates them. The bear speaks slowly and deliberately, but that only serves to show how Patsy is always the brightest spark in the room. Or in the broken-down car, whatever.
The fourth and fifth panels demonstrate that thinking-to-speaking ratio for Patsy. First we see her car speeding across to the far-fight of the panel, covered in fast-motion blurring. Then the page cuts back to Patsy, and the blurring effect happens in the background rather than the foreground. Patsy is literally faster than the speed of the car she’s in! And this is just a random page I opened the book at – you can find this throughout the miniseries, and spread out across Immonen’s work as a whole. She operates at such a quick pace that readers have to match her, and it leaves them open to surprises and shocks which otherwise they might have seen coming pages and pages before they happen.
Those surprises don’t happen in the conventional way, either. Perhaps understandably, Immonen gets just as wrapped up in her conversations as the readers, and there are so many examples of her extending a discussion sequence past the expected point because she’s simply having so much fun with it. has a crackling approach to dialogue which revels in the unimportant and unnecessary, twisting words around each panel to create a uniquely awkward sense of screwball. It’s as off-putting and idiosyncratic as it is brilliant and unprecedented. Most readers struggled to find the appeal, but for the readers it hit home with, Immonen’s dialogue stands as some of the most entertaining and clever that the characters have ever seen.
But you can’t be surprised that Immonen is a different kind of comics creative. Any writer who can list The Canada Council for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation and the Institut Français in Paris as backers is a writer offering something different. There’s a flighty, experimental nature to her work, clearly seen with her webcomics Never As Bad As You Think and Moving Pictures. They move to her own tempo, and not the metronome of tradition. The same is true with her work for hire projects. Everything Kathryn Immonen wrote for Marvel seemed designed to throw her heroes and readers off-kilter. Her characters felt clunky, awkward, and – most crucially – authentic and earned. The endless snap of her dialogue, designed to throw a bit of energy into her largely-female lead characters, and her high-energy approach made her stories unpredictable and surprising, with plot twists hidden inside wild character concepts and scattershot ideas.
She exists outside of logic and reason, and laughs wildly in the face of that overcareful Alan Moore approach to scripting which every other male comics writer apparently holds as gospel. Things simply happen because she wants them to happen, and even though every story has an intention and purpose, she sneaks that inside whatever crazy nonsense she thinks will be most entertaining in the spur of the moment. There’s a spontaneity and joy to her scripting which left her an outlier against the wider medium – I suppose we simply weren’t fast enough to keep up with her.
Patsy Walker: Hellcat #3 “Snowball Effect, Part 3”
Written by Kathryn Immonen
Pencilled by David LaFuente
Coloured by John Rauch
Letterer: Dave & Natalie Lanphear
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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