Okay, so we spent a chunk of the second part of the interview railing on Disney, but very few people in world of indie comics are as unique qualified to log such complaints as Renee French. You see, while her work for publishers like Top Shelf and Fantagraphics is perhaps among some of the darkest—or at the very least, most ominous—in the medium, French also moonlights as Rainy Dohaney, the author of such books Tinka and My Best Sweet Potato, following the adventures of a tiny yellow sheep and a little girl and her doll, respectively.
Her adult work, meanwhile, oft focuses on far less kid-friendly (if every bit as kid-relevant) themes of deformity and alienation. Naturally, we had to get her take on the current state of children’s entertainment in the United States.
Given that much of your work seems so far removed from what other people are doing in the medium, do you have a lot of people approaching you, saying things along the lines of, “I’m not a big comics fan, but I like your stuff?”
I get e-mails from people saying things like that. At comic conventions, not so much. I get e-mails from people, saying that they found it, in some weird way, like they were in a store, and they saw it, and it sort of jumped out at them. When they read it, they could actually relate to it. But I also get people who are comic book fans, who like it too. But I think it’s harder for people who are into mainstream comics, because you kind of have to slow down with them, when the book focuses on the atmosphere, rather than the action.
There may also be an initial repulsion, with some of the art and subject matter, when you’re accustomed to looking at these books about really beautiful people.
That’s true—I was going to say, “Isn’t there repulsion in mainstream comics?” but you’re right, all of the superheroes have these really perfect bodies. With The Ticking, a comment I got a lot was that people picked it up and thought it was a sketch book. Actually at Comic Con, more than one person asked, “is this a story?” when they picked it up.
It doesn’t have panels…
Right. There are sometimes two panels per page, but it looks kind of like a book of drawings to some people, I think.
What draws you to these…repulsive creatures?
Are they that repulsive, really? [laughs]
You don’t think so? I was reading a lot of reviews online, and people bandy about words like, ‘terrifying.’
Yeah. Edison Steelhead started because I’ve always been interested in what makes attractiveness. Where do the rules come from? What makes someone attractive and what makes someone repulsive, and how far can you go, before someone is repulsive? You can actually go the other way, and distort someone’s features and they’ll be cute in a strange way.
Like a Troll doll…
Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting that something can be cute on paper, but if that same thing was walking around, it would be freakish. [Edison is] sort a study is what is attractive, and what happens when you’re not attractive. What kind of a life do you have, when you’re not attractive? I don’t mean to pick on the evil empire of Disney—
Go right ahead.
I know it’s been said a million times, but the good character is always the blond pretty characters and the bad characters are always really ugly. Little kids watch the movie, and the bad character is always evil. And in real life, that’s not true, is it? Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t a bad looking guy. There are a lot of people who are unattractive, who are very nice people, but that’s not the way we tell stories.
It’s funny, because many of these Disney movies are based on far less “wholesome” stories, like Grimm’s fairytales.
Right, and then they pretty them up.
You were doing children’s books for a while.
Yeah, for Simon & Schuster—picture books.
That has to be completely removed from everything else you do.
It absolutely is. I had to pull back on the reins really hard. The first book I did was as ultra-cotton candy sweet as I could possibly go. Anything that was even close to being offensive, I just elimintated, because I’m not a good judge of what’s disturbing and what’s not to most people. My first book was about a little sheep that’s the size of a cupcake. A cute, little yellow sheep called Tinka. I do that under a pen name, so no one accidentally trips over my other stuff. The second one was a little bit edgier, even though it’s really super-cute. The main character is a doll with no face, but it’s not scary. But it was hard. Dealing with the editors telling me “no,” all the time, but it was also kind of fun.
[Concluded in Part Three]