World War II, both as an event and also as an ideological construct, has greatly impacted the creative output of the late 20th and now early 21st century. Whether it is the cinematic fantasy of The Great Escape, the epic documentary Shoah, the writings of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel, or even video games such as Call of Duty or Medal of Honor, the average contemporary person is steeped in a legend of the heroic in the face of atrocity. In this way, it is tempting to combine the totality of the creative outputs, whether fact or fiction, into a stand-alone genre of World War II based artwork.
Comic books are no stranger to this genre either. Comic books came of age during the period of German occupation. What is now considered the “Golden Age of Comics” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Comic_Books) began in 1938, the same year that Germany annexed Austria. For comics, this provided a plotline for the many stories of the early Golden Age imprints, where superheroes fought Nazis and Captain America could win the hearts of the American people, acting as the stand-in for their brothers and uncles on the front lines. It was, and still is, a perfect match of form and metaphor. In comic books and in real life, a world where the reign of chaos had become the standard and ordinary people were endowed with the capabilities of making decisions that had great and important impact on the lives of themselves and the society in which they lived. Though the Golden Age of comics had been over for many years, these echoes of World War II can still be felt in the general construction of the heroic dilemma, and also more directly in construction of comic book stories such as X-Men and Maus, as well as many others.
Moving Pictures, created by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, is a graphic novel that is part of the WWII genre, but utilizes the topic in a unique form. Though both of the creators have spent plenty of time in the depths of the superhero form (working for Marvel and DC on titles such as Superman: Secret Identity, Ultimate Spider-man, and Patsy Walker: Hellcat), Moving Pictures instead takes on the idea of world gone wrong where ordinary people make complicated decisions in the world of pre WWII Paris in the hands of a museum employee.
The historical setting accurately depicts the removal of France’s great masterpieces displayed in the Louvre to storage in the countryside. Historians have debated whether this storage was to prevent it from Nazi theft, which was prevalent, or if it was just to remove it from harms way of heavy artillery and bombing. The graphic novel fiction of these events created by the Immonen’s focuses on the character Ila Gardner, a Canadian employed at the Louvre, during this period. She, along with her coworkers, is in charge of this packing, inventory and removal of the art. As a Canadian, she has the papers to leave the situation that she and everyone else know will only get worse. She stays, gives her passport to her sister (who has lost her own passport), and enters a delicate and dangerous relationship with the Nazi officer, Rolf Hauptmann, put in charge to oversee the Louvre.
The simple black and white line drawings render the space as Paris, but more importantly, Paris as understood through the personal space of Ila. The lines of the day-to-day are rendered easily and understandably. The only items represented differently are the images of the missing artwork, drawn in sketchy form that represents a replication of an object to create a memory when it is not present.
In this graphic novel, absence becomes the reoccurring undercurrent of the story: the removal of the artwork from the Louvre, the disappearance of Ila’s baker whom she knows will not return, her sister’s departure from France, and the absence of a known future. The images reinforce these concepts with sweeping darkness and shadows that fill large sections of panels.
It is in this personal space of Ila that this book differs from so many of the works of the WWII genre. In Moving Pictures, we do not directly experience the tragedies of war, but rather the effects of the decisions the main character has made because of these circumstances. The World War II genre is often filled with large stories of heroics and survival that easily be meld to the traditional narrative arc. The Immonen’s instead create a work that perhaps closer to what was felt by millions across Europe, a story of the everyday where the war is always present but as part of the general situation of life.
In an interview with Avoidthefutre.com, Kathryn Immonen mentioned her desire for WWII to stay out of the forefront of the book. “There were so many reasons why we really turned away from the event itself. It’s such well trodden ground and I don’t think that either of us has anything to really contribute in the way of trying (and most certainly failing) to address it in any meaningful way. And I think if you purport to be creating an historical work, the second that you make a mistake (and you certainly will), the whole thing has the potential to be evacuated of any meaning.” (http://www.avoidthefuture.com/2010/05/interview-kathryn-and-stuart-immonen.html)
Pushing the war to background allows the complicated individual issues of Ila to have more weight without feeling ridiculous compared to many of the larger issues of the time. In contemporary media terms, we see a parallel in the Sound of Music in the story of Liesl, who is a young woman that needs to make decisions about her life, love, and the encroaching Nazi occupation.
In the end, after many of the personal, intimate primary scenes involving Liesl and Rolf (also the name of the Nazi love interest in the Sound of Music) have passed; the Sound of Music brings WWII into the forefront of the film in a large and dramatic way like many other films of WWII. Moving Pictures resists this. There are no deaths or prison breaks. There is however, a story of survival. We see how Ila makes her way in this space and time, which is a strange constructed emptiness. It is a story about the rest of society, neither the aggressor nor the victim; but yet somehow a little of both. Ila can see herself in the shadow of Spider-Man, as she is an ordinary person who needs to make extraordinary choices due to circumstances that are beyond her control.