Spandex Nouveau Heaven

1On July 30th, The Four Color Opera will be exactly a year old! Celebrating this first birthday early, I’m finally posting about my all-time favorite artist, Stuart Immonen. He is, like many Canadian superstars (Tegan, Sara, and William Shatner come to mind), a hard-working talent whose career demonstrates thrilling evolution.

I haven’t focused on him yet only because, in discussing that which moves you the most, there should be a healthy fear. If you can find the words easily, how much can you really love something? Well, I’ve plotted out the angles, and am ready to lay down some purty phrases in Stewie’s honor.

One of his first mainstream assignments was DC’s Legion of Superheroes, back in 1993. During this time, the Legion (set 1000 years in the future) sizzled on the solar-flare brilliance of writer/artist Keith Giffen, who’d relaunched the title in 1989 with a controversial twist. Five years had elapsed since the previous volume’s end, and the Legion (an interplanetary team comprised of Brainiac 5, Ultra Boy, and Duo Damsel, among many others) had been disbanded. A ruthless race known as the Dominators ruled Earth, and the known universe, governed by the United Planets, knew the savagery of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

2Giffen ended his Legion run by having the Earth’s core explode (thanks to too much buried toxic waste). Some cities collapsed into sinkholes, alerting our heroes to the impending disaster; other cities were thus saved, placed under domes and launched into space. It’s the most potent, poignant environmental statement ever delivered by a mainstream comic–period.

Tom and Mary Bierbaum, diehard Legion fans growing up, had co-plotted and written dialogue with Giffen. They continued the stories of colorist Tom McCraw, and that’s where we join Immonen. Issues 43-48 feature the villainous wizard Mordru, as he raises an army of the super-powered dead. By the standards of the day, this is fairly straightforward stuff. But because this is the Legion, tangled and tantalizing connections drawn from their decades-long history abound.

The tale opens with a page that is simply masterful. Immonen’s deft use of shadow, emotion, and texture–elements he wields with an increasingly jaw-dropping finesse throughout his career–swallows the reader whole like an orca. The redhead is Mysa Nal, formerly the White Witch of the Legion, and she’s on what’s left of the Sorcerer’s World (destroyed in the previous volume’s Magic Wars). “I can feel it calling to me,” she thinks, shifting boulders in despair. Mysa–with the help of the Justice League’s centuries-old Martian Manhunter–eventually finds the beckoning presence. It turns out to be something called Amethyst (a DC heroine from the 1980s), and it merges with Mysa, turning her hair raven and armoring her in lavender crystal.

3Immonen’s early art seems cut from the same hyper-expressive cloth as Keith Giffen, Kevin Maguire and Adam Hughes’. They all worked on Justice League in the first half of the 90s, a comic prone to run-on puns and sitcom shenanigans. But shadowy curves and believable facial expressions are all Immonen has in common with Maguire and Hughes. Since their heyday, they’ve only become slower and more deliberate craftsmen, incapable of drawing monthly titles.

In the Legion, Immonen routinely offers layouts so meticulously-balanced that you’re sure he dreams in sequential boxes. There’s even a rare instance of him honoring the nine-panel page that Giffen (and understudy Jason Pearson) used for most of his cinematic run. When Mysa confronts her former lover Mordru on Tharn, the new Sorcerer’s World, theirs is not the typical super-battle. As spells are cast, the panels themselves crack along with the stonework of castles and the psyches of each combatant. At the end of much chanting and billowing mist, Mordru absorbs Mysa, rejecting Amethyst and becoming more powerful in the process.

4Further details, including a team-up with Klingon stand-ins the Khuns against an army of super-zombies, mark this Legion tale as perfectly serviceable nerd-candy. But years later, it’s Immonen’s beautifully executed work–from rippled clothing to elfin smiles to rocky promontories–that’s continued their saga as nobly as possible.

Today, Immonen brings knock-out flavor to scripts by Brian Bendis (All New X-Men) that might otherwise go down like white rice. Likewise, his work with Warren Ellis (Nextwave), Bruce Jones (Incredible Hulk), and Matt Fraction (Fear Itself), has built comic worlds with a full-tilt sense of adventure that elevates the medium.

Immonen’s panels show me Art Nouveau sprites, wandering in woods of divine intricacy. They show me metropolitan bazaars, aglow with the exploits of figures both heroic and hermetic. They show me where I’d like to go after this life.

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