Renee French’s work is unlike everything else in the comics medium. In desperate search for a salient reference point, reviewers oft cite artists from outside the field—the names David Lynch and Edward Gorey popping up, rather frequently. The former is fairly apt when discussing French’s artistic attraction toward terribly disfigured or otherwise deformed characters. The latter does a speaks more abstractly about her storytelling.
From time to time, she’ll switch gears and pen a fairly straight-forward children’s story, under the equally cheer nom de plume, Rainy Dohaney. Her first book as Dohaney followed the adventures of Tinka, a yellow sheep the artist describes as being, “the size of a cup cake.”
Her fascination with telling children’s stories carries over to the darker work she creates for publishers like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf. Books like The Ticking can easily be viewed as the natural progression of Grimm’s fairy tales or Gorey’s canon—what children’s literature might look like, in this day and age, were it not for the industry-wide lobotomization at the hands of Disney and his heirs.
Her stories are often dark and unsettling, but can offer up morals more pertinent than those that arise from the whitewashed post-Disney landscape, because, despite her tendency towards the fantastic, they revel in something mainstream children’s stories rarely do: reality.
We spoke with French, who was just emerging out of a post-Comic Con stupor, and learned something in the process that is easy to miss amongst the soft images and ethereal storytelling: the woman is hilarious.
Good—actually, I have a cold. I’m just really used to saying, “good! Everything’s really good!” [Laughs]
I suppose that’s a good thing to be used to saying.
No, it’s just a kneejerk—my head’s actually pounding. I’m fantastic!
You’re probably still recovering from the Comic Con, too.
I know what happened. I was shaking a lot of hands, and I tried really hard not to touch my face, but I know that somebody had something, and one of the four days I caught this. There’s too many people, and you can’t say, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to shake hands, because I don’t want to get sick.”
“I assume that you have a disease that I don’t want to catch.”
Exactly. “You look very germy to me. No thanks.”
Do you get up and walk around a lot?
I really tried to get up and walk around a lot, and I think I’m sort of known for not being around the table. A couple of times people said, “I waited here for you, for two hours, and you weren’t around.” I felt really bad. After I’ve been sitting around for a couple of hours, I get really antsy, and just want to get up and walk around.
Do you take in a lot of the sights, when you walk around?
What usually happens is, I end up going into the ladies room, sitting in the stall, and try to get two minutes alone.
Just crying your eyes out…
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly, right. When you’re used to being alone all of the time, and then all of the sudden there are 200,000 people around you, it’s crazy.
Are you a comic fan? Do you walk around and look at all of the other books?
I really like things like Sparkplug, and Global Hobo, and Buenaventure, and Picture Box, and Drawn & Quarterly—the artsy kind of stuff. There are a lot of really good artists in those that I’ve been checking out. I did go to the giant t-shirt thing at the end of the hall, where there were hundreds and hundreds of t-shirts, and I bought a Punisher t-shirt there.
Was that an ironic purchase?
No! I really like the Punisher movie. Thomas Jane. I’ve watched that…a lot.
Were you a comic fan, growing up?
No, nuh-uh, never. I think I saw Richie Rich when I was little, but that was it. I didn’t read any comics. After college, I saw Charles Burns, and Chester Brown, and Julie Douchet, and I thought, ‘this is fine art, it’s story telling, it’s in comic form, and it’s really cool.’ And it wasn’t related to comics. I didn’t see them as the same thing.
It hadn’t occurred to me, until just now, but every time I read a review of your work, people cite Edward Gorey or David Lynch, but very seldom do they actually mention someone in the comics field.
That’s true, which I’m sure is not an accident. I don’t actually look at mainstream comic books much. I can’t really be that influenced by them, because I don’t have that much exposure to them.
Were you an Edward Gorey fan, growing up?
I actually discovered him later, in my 20s, not when I was a kid. But the movie thing is definitely real. I’ve always been really into films, so it would make sense that my work would be more film-influenced.
The Lynch thing, definitely. I often think of Eraserhead, when I’m reading some of your books.
Exactly, and Eraserhead was a huge movie for me. When I saw it, it was a revelation. I just got the feeling that he was saying exactly what he wanted to say, with that movie, and he wasn’t following anyone’s rules. He was just expressing himself with pictures, and that’s what comics are, too.
So, then, what do you think Lynch was actually trying to say with Eraserhead?
Um…that’s the thing. I think he’s sort of trying to paint the inside of his brain. This is a problem that I have with artist statements. If you’re making visual art—even if it’s something with words—that film did have words, and the comics I make have words, but if you’re doing something a visual form of storytelling, that thing that you’re trying to explain is maybe not explainable in another way. If you take painting, for example, someone trying to explain a painting—which is what the critics do—is probably something you can’t verbalize, or why wouldn’t you just write it down on a piece of paper, or verbalize it? So with Eraserhead, I think he’s trying to say something that can’t really be said. It’s a feeling, more than anything. It’s a white-noisey feeling.
So, is criticism more appropriate when discussing a novel, because it’s actually is written down on a piece of paper?
I think it’s interesting that a lot of art criticism misses the point. In my experience, a lot of words that are written about my work are way off of what was intended. It doesn’t make it invalid—everyone who comes to a piece of art is coming from a different place, and they’re going to come to it from a different way. But sometimes art critics will write as though they know what was intended by it, though that’s not really possible.
Most of the people who are writing about your work are used to reviewing comics, so they’re naturally approaching it from a different standpoint.
Yeah, a lot of times. But one of the essays about something that I did that was the most off-the-mark, was something that was done by someone who wasn’t the usual comics person. It was a catalog for an art show. It was about a short story that I did, called Edison Steelhead, that was about Edison and this girl creature, and they were flirting, and he touches her butt, and then there’s a little rat-like dog thing, and then they separate and wave goodbye. It was this nothing, kind of atmospheric sort of thing, and she thought it was about man-boy love. She thought that Edison Steelhead was a man, and this thing was a little boy, but the creature was wearing a dress, and it wasn’t a boy at all—it wasn’t even a child. It was just a very strange interpretation. And she was pretty much saying that this is exactly what it was about, but that’s not what it was about, at all.
People sometimes bring their own baggage into it.
Yeah…perhaps she has some skeletons in the closet, or something. I don’t know.
[Continued in Part Two.]