Renée French has been producing comic books since the early 1990's. In fact, I first encountered her work in her comic Grit Bath, a three-issue series published by Fantagraphics Books in 1993-94, and, later, in The Ninth Gland (Dark Horse Comics, 1997). An accomplished and acclaimed cartoonist, Ms. French is known for her layered, heavily textured art. Drawn in a detailed style that might make the pointillists smile, her pictures make even the unattractive and disgusting alluring.
Top Shelf published her graphic novel, The Ticking, just last year, and will publish her new book, Micrographica, in late Spring/early Summer. Much of her early work, Oni published in Marbles in My Underpants - The Renée French Collection, a 2001 book that is out of print and apparently commands a high price on the collectors' market (Ain't that a blip?). Ms. French is also a writer of children's books, and her work has appeared in a large number of anthologies including Dark Horse Presents, Last Gasp, Real Stuff, and Zero Zero, among others.
As the Bin will spend the next month or two focusing on women in comix, we'd be coming up weak if we didn't have a Bin Q&A with one of the shining lights of American cartooning and comix, who is, of course, a woman:
CBB: How would you describe Micrographica to readers?
A page from The Ticking
FRENCH: Well, I suck at describing my work. It's a screwball story about talking rodents and a day and a half in their lives. Poop, farts, jokes about your mom, rejection and sadness. The art is doodly, during the storytelling part of the book, and then detailed and soft in the portrait gallery, and there are lots of little extras including guest poop artists.
CBB: Were you working on Micrographica and The Ticking at the same time? Was it a challenge to work on both so close together, or did they influence each other?
FRENCH: Yes, I was working on them at the same time. Micrographica was meant to be a way to relax and get away from the detail in the drawings of The Ticking, and from the intense subject matter too. So, instead of being a challenge, it was helpful. I would work on The Ticking and then take a break and do a few tiny panels for Micrographica to be posted online. The drawings were so small (about one centimeter square) that I couldn't possibly go crazy with detail.
CBB: In The Ticking, an unattractive character comes across as beautiful, both in body and in spirit. On the other hand, in Micrographic, a story about friends comes across as… nasty. In both books, are you challenging readers' assumptions about how they should react to familiar images?
FRENCH: I don't ever feel like I'm doing anything to the readers, but I know it happens. It probably sounds lame but it just ends up that way. I just finished a story about a velvet duck on wheels for a group show and book coming up in Paris and I really wanted it to start out sad and end up so happy the duck would have tears in his eyes. The end.
But as the story went along and as the drawings were finished, at about the halfway mark, the thumbnails were bothering me. So, in an auditorium, waiting for Keith Carter to give a lecture, I re-did my thumbnails and now it ends badly for the duck. He starts out bored and lonely and ends up worse. Now I can sleep. Wait, that doesn't answer your question at all, does it?
A page from the gallery section of the upcoming Micrographica
CBB: I'm curious about your education and training as an artist. Looking at the larger body of your work and how effective it is beyond mere surface appearance, I'm assuming that you studied theory or the disciplines of art structure… or are you just a natural born killer when it comes to drawing?
FRENCH: Wow, nice question, but I'm not sure how to answer it. I did study fine art in school, not commercial design or comics (there weren't comics classes when I was in school… at least I don't think there were), so yeah, I had some art theory, but mostly I had lots of drawing studios and painting studios and was just able to build a body of work. Didn't start telling stories with sequential art until a few years out of school.
CBB: When I look at your comix, I get the sensation of physically feeling the images - as if my mind has convinced me that I'm touching the images. Part of it may be that your work has texture, but is it essential that the reader engage the work or is it okay if they choose to be passively entertained?
FRENCH: Oh, it's fine for the reader to respond however they do. Yeah, being entertained is fine, but your response of feeling like you're touching the images is the way I feel when I'm making them. Also it's the way I feel when I look at them afterwards. I love that you respond that way. Thanks.
CBB: In The Ticking, it seems as if Calvin Steelhead's life is about accepting the status quo, which he does with his cosmetic surgery and running away from the mainland, while his son Edison engages the world with a sense of wonder and discovery. What are you sharing with or communicating to the reader through this father/son dynamic?
FRENCH: It's hard to talk about, which is why the best way to tell it is through writing and drawing The Ticking. The Steelheads have a lot in common with my father and me. At least in how they relate to each other.
From the main body of Micrographica
CBB: I like quotes about your work such as "sweet fiendishness" (Jim Woodring) or "freakish delight" (Pam Fischer). I think you also speak about the human condition - the way people live. When creating a story, are you interested in how real people live their lives?
FRENCH: For sure, especially the way people are when they're alone. What they do when it's just them, alone in the house, alone in life, even if they're with someone physically. Edison was alone, even living with his father, and then with Patrice. And when he was alone in a room, his toys and drawings were more alive to him than his family. Or, warmer to him. Also, I like to think about life for people who have nobody. If you look at novels or movies or songs, it seems that if you don't have someone, you don't exist. You're nothing. I don't believe that.
CBB: If I'm reading this correctly, Micrographica has appeared online (and the story may continue online), so how are readers reacting to it compared to your other work?
FRENCH: Not much of a sample yet. I never heard much from people about the online comic, and then it was nominated for an Ignatz this last year, so it was sort of talked about a bit, and I mostly did it for myself, and for Rob [her husband] to make him laugh. Now, in book form it'll be interesting to see how people react to it. It's way different than my other work, and I hope people can see it for what it is and not as a follow up to The Ticking or something. There's a lot of dialogue and as you said earlier, it's sort of nasty and there's sadness and some bonding, but it's way different.
CBB: In closing, what other work is coming within the next year?
FRENCH: I've got a few pieces in anthologies, in Meathaus, and then in a French book put out by L'Association which will feature Anke Feuchtenberger, Thomas Ott, Max Andersson, Tom Gauld, Jim Woodring and a bunch more great European artists and all of the pieces will be in an exhibition in a wing of the Louvre in November. That's what the duck on wheels piece is for. My big book project for Picturebox won't be out within the next year.
Oh, there WILL be a book coming out for San Diego for Sparkplug of my deformed and challenged girls and rabbits, which I'm pretty psyched about. The title is Edison Steelhead's Lost Portfolio: Exploratory Studies of Girls and Rabbits.
Top Shelf Productions will gladly sell you selections from their Renée French library via their website, topshelfcomix.com. You may, however, buy them from your local comics shop… if they really want to sell them to you.
A CBB review of The Ticking: