Russian Olive to Red King (2015) Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen (AdHouse Books)
Hardcover, 7” x 10.5”, 176 pages
While Kathryn and Stuart Immonen have worked on several superhero titles, I first encountered their work through a non-superhero book. Their independent graphic novel Moving Pictures (2010, Top Shelf) is a compelling black-and-white story of a museum curator’s attempts to hide works of art from a German officer during Nazi-occupied France in World War II. I was struck by both the book’s pacing and depth of characterization. Yet, nothing in Moving Pictures prepared me for what I experienced in the creators’ new book Russian Olive to Red King.
I read the book (an advance reader’s pdf from AdHouse) several days ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it. Yesterday, as Derek Royal and I were recording a publisher’s spotlight show on The Comics Alternative, I fumbled, stumbled, and stammered on about how much I loved the book, probably in a stream of utter incoherence. I’ll see if my writing about the book will make a bit more sense.
As the book opens, a man and a woman are awakened by their dog Pasha. The woman, Olive, awakens and puts on a black shirt while the man, Red, takes a bit longer to come around. “Olive,” he says, “Why do you always wear black?” “Because,” Olive says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”
Such an exchange could be taken several different ways, especially this early in the story, but it’s clear that Olive and Red love and need each other. Their relationship is neither overstated or understated; we get just what we need to know.
We also know that Olive is heading to northern Ontario to do some research at a church archive and that Red is a writer, and a reluctant one at that, since he frequently hears from his editor that he’s about to miss an important deadline. Without giving too much away, Olive is involved in an accident and can’t communicate with anyone, including Red. Back at home, Red doesn’t know if something’s happened to Olive or if she’s left him. He suspects the latter.
The middle portion of the book plays out as we see both Olive and Red struggling to survive, although in very different ways. Red’s despair and growing depression are wonderfully rendered though giant shadows and rooms filled with darkness, illuminated with more bleakness than a film noir. Contrast these scenes with those involving Olive and her stark wilderness surroundings. And although they’re apart and can’t communicate with each other, we still sense a strong connection.
Both characters also handle the situation in differently: Olive stays focused by quoting poetry, lines from literature, and remembered conversations with Red. Red retreats deeper into himself, with Pasha the dog as his only companion. Yet Red isn’t completely without human contact. One of the most heartrending scenes occurs when he returns a sweater – a birthday gift for Olive – to a department store. It’s what Red doesn’t say that makes this scene so powerful.
If the book had ended after the first two-thirds, I think we could safely say that the Immonens had given us a very good graphic novel about two people trying to come to terms with the possibility that they may never see each other again. Yet in the last third of the book, a prose element is introduced that’s nothing short of masterful.
I’m normally resistant to large portions of prose appearing in graphic novels, although the technique has been used successfully (and famously) in the past (Think Watchmen, among others). I’m also a big advocate for promoting the unique elements of sequential art as a format. I once had a discussion with a co-worker of mine concerning David Small’s graphic novel Stitches. Both of us agreed that Small’s story could have been effective either as a prose story or as a film, but that story told in sequential art gave the work a power and uniqueness that could not have been captured in any other way.
The Immonens have turned that around with Russian Olive to Red King. The prose element, written by Red, comes across as journal entries, or prose poems, or perhaps the essay that Red’s editor was hounding him to write. (“Write anything,” he tells Red in a voicemail.) This prose section gives us a clearer vision of who Red is and fleshes out those parts of his character that we would not fully grasp from the sequential art portion of the book. This is who Red truly is, taking a rich, honest and sometimes painful look at his own life without Olive. This section is not without illustration, however, the significance of those illustrations becoming clear at the story’s end.
Russian Olive to Red King causes us to look at our own lives and reminds us of the necessity of relationships, but it does so much more. It also reminds us that when two people become one, the act of separating that oneness can be devastating, causing us to wonder about our identity without that person. This is powerful storytelling that will stay with you for a long, long time. Don’t be surprised to see Russian Olive to Red King on many Best of 2015 lists. I know it will be on mine.