No matter how odd, disturbing or horrific Renée French’s subjects become, there is always a beauty to their ethereal, gossamer draughtsmanship. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, French is a fastidious obsessive, whose pencil touches the paper’s surface tentatively, almost tenderly, and coaxes velvety textures inside her tiny panels, often crafted same-size as their printed versions or smaller.
Among French’s favourite painters is Georges Seurat and while French herself may work predominantly in black and white, her fixation on coalescing each individual tiny mark she makes into shimmering form is every bit as intensive and exacting as Seurat’s precise pointillism. French’s preoccupations, however, are altogether stranger and frequently unsettling, deriving from her early absorption of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, whose Tenniel’s drawings burned into her brain, and of Hieronymus Bosch. “When I was little, I found a picture of his Garden of Earthly Delights in one of my parent’s reference books. I ended up knowing it by heart.”
Majoring in fine art and drawing, French did not enter the American comics scene until her late Twenties after the epiphany of discovering the underground comix of Charles Burns, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown and others. From her first solo comic book Grit Bath in 1993, cross-hatched with crowquill and rapidograph, French has expanded her narrative and illustrative ambitions. In her breakthrough graphic novel The Ticking, back in print this year, she conveys the sad beauty of a fish-eyed, hairless, earless boy, whose mother dies giving birth to him and whose grieving father decides, “You have my face. So we’ll go away. Where nobody can see it.” The father never seems to accept his son’s possibly hereditary deformities and tries hiding them with animal masks, hats, fakes ears, large sunglasses, even proposed plastic surgery. French finally offers a hopeful coming-of-age as the son comes to embrace his appearance and builds a life on his own terms with his adopted monkey sister.
French admits that drawing with this much concentration comes at a price. “It does give me headaches, but I can’t quit. I find that if I don’t draw for a few days, I can’t concentrate and need to do it again.” After sketchbooks for her next project spiralled into impossible complexity, French became “pretty disgusted with words” and resolved instead to “diagram one of my migraines” using only images.
In H Day, she uses one picture per facing page to unfold two parallel, storyboard-style narratives in six ‘stages’. The left-hand side, derived from her real-world experience, shows in fragile outlines the sufferer standing and then lying on a bed, their head mutating, oversized, wrapped, bound tight. On the opposite pages, she visualises her internal world during an attack. In a city of oppressive blocks menaced by insect swarms, a lone dog finally falls victim too, becoming coiled in cable head-to-tail. Relief arrives eventually though, as French’s twin tales conclude with the same image of the bed, empty, at least for now.
What artists or writers from comics, children’s books or elsewhere in art or literature affected and influenced you when you were growing up?
well, lewis carroll’s books and sir john tenniel’s drawings for sure. those images are burned onto my brain. when i was little i found a picture of bosch’s triptych, the garden of earthly delights, in one of my parent’s reference books and developed an attachment to that image. i ended up with a poster on my wall and knew it by heart. the book i read the most was ‘of mice and men,’ and i did love c.s. lewis.
What brought you to making comics? Did you come to them from other artistic practices or schooling?
i majored in fine art/drawing at university and didnt really get into the comics industry until my late 20s. i’d found the comics of chester brown, charles burns and julie doucet while visiting a comicbook store in philadelphia and then read everything i could find that was “underground.” when fantagraphics let me do my own comic, grit bath i was figuring it out as i went along.
From what I’ve caught of your early comics, your drawing has come a long way from the ornate, rendered linework, to become increasingly refined, allusive and gossamer-soft. What motivated this transition? How do you achieve these subtle tonal effects?
in grit bath i was crosshatching with a crowquill and then later with a rapidograph, but always trying to make a velvety texture, then in 2000 i changed over to a black prismacolor pencil on canson drawing paper, and now i’m using graphite, in a .3mm mechanical pencil on canson vellum paper. the drawings for h day were about 2 inches on the long side, and made with tiny marks. i’m still trying to get that soft texture.
What for you makes a good comics story? What tells you that a comic you have made works, for you?
for me it’s important that my stories leave some questions in the end. also, i do like to be fond of my characters. but mostly i’m just trying to work through my fixations. pretty gut level. feels right or it doesn’t.
What did you hope to convey through your latest book H Day?
i don’t really think of it that way. seriously. there’s no real thing i’m trying to convey. it’s more about working through something myself, trying to figure something out and the drawings are the artifacts of the process. in h day, i was diagramming one of my migraine headaches so i could put it down on paper and maybe figure something out. the left hand side is the kind of real world experience of that headache, and the right hand side of the book is the internal world that happens during the headache.
You’ve said that drawing can give you headaches. Is drawing for you becoming an obsession - and perhaps not an entirely healthy one? Does this worry you?
drawing has been an obsession for a very long time. it does give me headaches, but i can’t quit. i find that if i don’t draw for a few days i can’t concentrate and need to do it again. not worried, no. haha.
You’ve made the transition to exhibiting in art galleries - what’s your feeling about making one-off originals to sell rather than narratives to be mass-produced?
i enjoy doing one off images. it’s what i did before i did comics, and i do like to do it. it’s not as satisfying as telling a story for some reason. there’s not as much problem solving in the process for me. i miss that when i’m doing stand alone images.
How did you arrive at the 8-panel wordless comic for this issue of Art Review? Is this a world you’ll be exploring and expanding?
maybe so. i’d rather not explain it though.Posted: April 10, 2011