Women’s History Month: Kathryn Immonen by Kyle Ross

Kathryn Immonen will likely be remembered in the tomes of comic book history, and many fans’ memories, as “the wife of Stuart Immonen.” That is certainly everything that her creator profile on marvel.fandom.com has to say about her.

And that absolutely sucks.

Kathryn has been creating comics since the late 1980s. Kathryn was one of the only female writers working at Marvel in the late 2000s/early 2010s. And Kathryn just seems like an all-around cool and bad-ass person, who wishes “people would stop insisting that smoking hot chick creators are some kind of anomaly.”

Kathryn should be known as more than just “wife,” and if she’s anything like her characters, she’d probably kick your ass for suggesting otherwise.

From Operation S.I.N. #2. A lot of Kathryn’s female characters will take no bullshit, and Peggy is no exception.

Now, that’s not to say I can easily discuss her career without mentioning Stuart. They are partners, both creatively and personally, from the beginning of both of their careers in comics. They both describe their origins as comic creators the same way in interviews: the comics community in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where they lived, combined with the black & white comics boom of the 1980s (most notable for giving us Cerebus and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), made creating comics seem possible. They took a rejection from a local publisher as a challenge, and started “breaking photocopiers,” making comics like Playground and Headcheese.

Stuart would go on to break into DC Comics while Kathryn was focusing on school and a career in Ontario’s theatre and film industry, but they would still find time to make more comics together. If anything, Kathryn is the creative partner that pushes Stuart to grow and challenge himself as an artist, with their creator-owned work being more experimental than corporate work. Never As Bad As You Think was a webcomic where they challenged themselves to create a new strip every week based on a one-word prompt from an online forum, that would also continue the narrative. Moving Pictures is described by Kathryn as a “fucked-up love story” that she wrote the script for without knowing what media she wanted to adapt it to – perhaps a one-act play or a short film – before they ultimately decided to make it a webcomic, drawn in such a simple yet evocative style that Stuart could do it consistently every weekend while still doing his mainstream work every week. After those two webcomics-first projects, the couple worked on Russian Olive to Red King over several years without serializing it, finally releasing it as a complete finished product in 2015. It’s one of the best examples of Kathryn’s undiluted writing, with the final chapter (which takes up almost half the book) being a long, in-character letter about life and loss, although many reviewers found this stylistic shift from graphic storytelling to something more like prose jarring. Most recently, they experimented with running Grass of Parnassus on Instagram, formatting the strip to fit Instagram’s image dimensions, and play with the platform’s display features, and also had fun adapting ideas from the comic into a couple of flash-based online games (https://scratch.mit.edu/users/grassofparnassus/).

Stuart describes many of the projects he has done with Kathryn as “an exploration of morality and coming to terms with profound loss…” and says they’re about “the people who have to deal with the mess left after the dust settles.”

The same themes are prevalent in many of Kathryn’s Marvel comics as well.

From Patsy Walker: Hellcat #3, where Patsy, who has actually been dead canonically, explains that there are other ways one can feel dead as well.

Kathryn’s Marvel work is how I first became familiar with her, although it would start years before I discovered it. In 2002, she collaborated with Stuart on a backup story in Captain America vol 3 #50, a short story for Mutant X: Dangerous Decisions #1 (based on the Mutant X TV show, no relation to my beloved Mutant X comics), and, in 2005, co-wrote a story for The Flash vol 2 #226. Then, in 2007, Marvel editor Nick Lowe, who Stuart describes as a friend, brought the couple in to do a story for the new launch of a Marvel Comics Presents anthology series.

Hellcat: The Girl Who Could Be You featured in the first 4 issues of the anthology. A magic spell gone sour gives life to all of Patsy Walker’s old fantasies about who she might have been, and Patsy is forced to confront these alternate versions of herself while also trying to navigate a date with a cute guy at a restaurant owned by her former Defenders teammate, Gargoyle. It’s a madcap fun story about how every dream or aspiration you’ve had is still a part of you, even if you think you’ve locked it away. And more importantly, it was good enough to lead to Kathryn’s first published Marvel comic without Stuart (excepting covers) – and the first time I took note of her credit – Patsy Walker: Hellcat.

Patsy Walker: Hellcat #5. This is the energy I aspire to when speaking to the youths.)

I love this 5-issue mini-series so much. I told Kathryn as much in-person, once upon a time, at a convention in Toronto. She was sharing a table with Stuart, and he was swarmed with fans looking through his pages and asking him to sign issues of this and/or that, but nobody was talking to Kathryn at all. It just did not make any sense to me. Hellcat was one of the best books on the stands that year, and I was sad I hadn’t brought a copy with me to get signed (and she didn’t have any at the table). She told me that she really hoped that Marvel would include the Marvel Comics Presents story in the eventual TPB, and in hindsight it feels like she may have thought this would be all of her Patsy Walker stories and wanted them together. Of course that’s not the case, as Kathryn was able to write Patsy again in Heralds, X-Men: To Serve and Protect, and Marvel Comics #1000, and Patsy cameos in Girl Comics and Journey Into Mystery. It’s probably unlikely, but a complete collection of all these stories and shorts would be absolutely wonderful, although I’d settle for a new printing of the old TPB.

Now, it would be absolutely indulgent of me to go through all of Kathryn’s Marvel work (and the one DC short-story she wrote alone – part of Superman: 80-Page Giant #1) and describe them all, so I won’t. But I am absolutely going to simp for my faves.

From Journey Into Mystery #649. I just really like this panel. Valerio Schiti with Jordie Bellaire colors.

After Hellcat, Kathryn took over as the writer of Runaways, working with then-rookie Marvel artist Sara Pichelli. This run is entirely too short-lived, running for only 4 issues (volume 3 #11-14) plus a short story in Breaking Into Comics The Marvel Way #1, and it ends on a never-resolved (seemingly completely ignored by future writers) cliffhanger. Despite this short tenure, I feel Immonen manages to make the series about how hard it is to be a teenager, especially in a series of memorable captions about how adults will keep telling you everything is fine and you’ll be fine, and how they’re right, but not really.

“Because just once, I wanted someone to acknowledge how hard it all really was. The crying and the dying and the headaches and the heartaches. To say it out loud so that I could hear it. Just once. And then I’d just get on with it. But I’d know that they knew that it wasn’t fine at all and that it probably never would be. But we’d just get on with it. Like we always do.”

I am 35 years old and I still feel that.

From Heralds #4.

In 2010, Kathryn wrote Heralds, with artist Tonci Zonjic. It is a random ensemble of characters getting swept up in a convoluted return of the Frankie Raye version of Nova, but what it is really about is the expectations others and society place on you and how hard it can be to see them and break free of them. It has some good Emma Frost moments, some good Fantastic Four moments, and Patsy Walker gets to punch Einstein (or a reasonable facsimile).

Also in 2010, Immonen was the writer of X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back, again with Sara Pichelli. It is a manic series (as one led by a character named Pixie should be) about how your illusions of an idealized life may not be so ideal for everyone, especially if they’re forced into it against their will, but also how things you believe to be true may be an illusion of their own. Steve Morris of Shelfdust pointed out recently that it pairs nicely thematically with Marvel Studios hit Disney + series WandaVision, although instead of sitcom aesthetics and tropes, it trades on teen high school drama à la Mean Girls.

From Avengers Annual #1 (2014). “The arm was not mine” is a great punchline on its own and I have to wonder what a full Kathryn Immonen Black Widow story would be like.

Now, besides Hellcat, Immonen worked with David Lafuente three more times at Marvel and they are all awesome. A + X #5 features a short story about Iron Fist teaming up with Doop. It’s called “Epic Matryoshka” and it is, to the best of my ability to define such things, literally insane. Avengers Annual #1 (2014) is a Hickman-era Avengers Christmas special. It introduces a teenage girl, Zamira, who hides out in Avengers Tower during a tour, looking for somewhere to be alone for Christmas. There are two problems with the plan – all of the Avengers lied about having plans, and the voices in Zamira’s head manifest as duplicates that harass her constantly while wreaking havoc on the tower’s voice-recognition security system. And in Spider-Verse #2 (2015), Anansi makes Billy Braddock (AKA Spider-UK) dress up as a sheep and get mauled by a lion to play a trick on Mr. Mighty. These are all highly recommended.

From Journey Into Mystery #654. Bill is coming to terms with profound loss.

Kathryn’s longest run at Marvel is Journey Into Mystery, from issues 646-655, with artists Valerio Schiti and Pepe Larraz (651 only). The first storyline features Sif seeking out a “berserker” spell, and then going on a wild rampage, seeking to fight and destroy the strongest monsters in all the realms (and ending up accidentally teleporting many of them to earth). The twist, though, is that she was never under the influence of any berserker spell. Believing she was simply allowed her to give herself the permission to act as she really wanted, and hey, it’s really a story about how we repress ourselves to meet others’ expectations. The second storyline sees Gaea, the Earth-mother, fall ill and Sif desperately try to save her, leading her to space and an encounter with Beta Ray Bill, who also almost loses people along the way. It is very much the story about “morality and coming to terms with profound loss” that Stuart describes in talking about the themes that Kathryn and he keep coming back to.

Lastly from Kathryn’s Marvel work, I would also recommend checking out two of the greatest Spider-Man team-ups of all time – Avenging Spider-Man #7 and Amazing X-Men #7. In Avenging, Spider-Man can’t stop joking as She-Hulk grows a tail and begins to uncontrollably attract cats. And it’s drawn by Stuart Immonen. In Amazing X-Men, Paco Medina draws the story of Spider-Man teaming up with his “amazing friends,” Iceman and Firestar to try and take care of an alien demon baby thing and reunite it with its parents. Both stories are as good as they sound.

From Heralds #1. I, too, want to punch the bomb-maker

Other fun facts about Kathryn Immonen:

– She “fell in love” with Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil in the ‘80s and cites this as one of the reasons she started making comics.

– She claims to make “excellent maple syrup,” which is peak Canadian.

– Ed Piskor allegedly describes the Immonens’ indie comics as “too serious,” and if you’re anything like me, this makes you want to read them more to spite him.

– She rewarded herself for finishing work on Operation S.I.N. (a tie-in to Marvel’s Original Sin event that was better than the main series) to “something small that starts with an ‘A’ and ends with ‘lexander McQueen.’”

So there we go. Kathryn Immonen – breaking photocopiers and making comics in fun, unique ways for 30 years; a contributor to a ton of absolutely great Marvel comics between 2008 and 2016, at a time when they were very lacking in female representation (not that they still aren’t, but it has gotten better); and an all-around cool, bad-ass, maple-syrup-making, Alexander-McQueen-buying, “smoking hot chick creator” (her words, not mine).

From Journey Into Mystery #655.

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