Throughout her career as a comic artist and writer Renee French has taken the darker shades of human interaction as her focus: the absurdity of behaviour, the hidden meanings of gestures and the secrecy of language. Her stories are of the everyday, stories that frequently take flight into the unknown at the turn of a page.
Her near-forensic interest in the slightest emotional change in her characters is what distinguishes French’s work – her emphasis on feeling, even at its most repellent or macabre is nothing short of fascinating. French’s storytelling evokes the ambiguity of a fairytale, with the softest of pencil tones masking their nightmarish menace.
What follows is an interview first published in SALT magazine in 2003, which still ranks as one of my personal favourites during the course of running the magazine. Discovering French's work marked a turning point in my life as a comics fan and to this day I still remember the impact of Corny’s Fetish, a heart-rending experience that turned me into an immediate fan.
From the death obsessed Ninth Gland, to the solitary experiences of Edison Steelhead in The Ticking, French's work never fails to impress in both scope and depth. To my mind French is as important a piece of the modern comics landscape as Woodring, Miller or Spiegelman. The resulting piece is a testament to the generosity and passion of Renee herself, giving a remarkable set of answers to my over-analytical questions, with the same grace and humanity that her work possesses to this day. I hope you enjoy this brief glance into her past.
How did you get your start in the comics world?
Danny Eichorn, the creator of the comic series Real Stuff published by Fantagraphics, saw a self-published comic that I co-created with Dan Turner called Sociopath Comics and wanted to collaborate with me on a story for his comic. Then Gary Groth of Fantagraphics saw that piece on Real Stuff and gave me my own series Grit Bath. And that, as they say, was that.
Who are your biggest influences?
David Lynch, Ivan Albright, Maurice Sendak, Red Grooms, Chester Brown, Anke Feuchtenberger.
Have you found it difficult to develop both your writing and art skills as your career has progressed? Personally, I find that very difficult, and can only concentrate on the visuals, and so I wondered how you’ve maintained consistency in both?
Well, I’ve never really thought about that. I really love to tell stories but I’ve never considered myself a writer. I guess I am a writer, but not without the use of pictures – a Picturestoryteller, as the Germans say. For me the story comes first, then the drawings, then the words. But those elements are so tightly wound together that it feels like one.
Where did the inspiration for Cornelia come from?
Oh, Cornelia, I don’t know. I think she was a response to all the pretty characters in movies and books always being the good sisters. You know, Cinderella is the beautiful but mistreated sister and her two ugly sisters are, of course, evil. I was probably feeling particularly ugly when I first drew Cornelia.
I think Cornelia in the Pen is one of your most moving stories. The Rabbit giving its blood to the Cornelia in order to paint the cell walls seemed to be a metaphor for creativity, no matter what the obstacles. Is that what you were attempting to communicate?
Wow, thanks. You’re absolutely right. I had a bout with arthritis years ago and it was terrifying to me that I couldn’t draw during that time and even more terrifying that I might have that condition forever and that drawing would always be painful. I constructed a roundish cushion to go around my pen so I could hold it with less pain. It was really difficult and I could only draw for a few minutes at a time. I was treated aggressively by a brilliant doctor and a month or so later I was in remission; and still am. But I haven’t forgotten how fragile it all is. I guess it’s about that.
Mitch and the Mole reminded me of David Lynch’s short film The Grandmother. What is it that brings you back to stories about children and their initial confrontation with death?
I’ve been thinking about that recently because, while reading through all of the material that went into Marbles in My Underpants, I had no idea how much I’d been working through those issues. Of course, I haven’t really been able to figure it out, but I do keep coming back to an incident that happened when I was little.
We had lots of rabbits, one after another; I guess they were my first experience with death. When I was about 8 or 9 my black and white rabbit, Napoleon, was staying in the basement one winter and I went downstairs to visit him one night after dinner, but when I flipped the switch, the light didn’t come on. I guess I felt less afraid to go into the dark basement because I knew that my rabbit was down there and I wouldn’t be alone. I could see his white patches glowing in the moonlight coming through the basement window. As I got closer I noticed he was lying down and not moving so I stuck my hand out to him. He still didn’t move. I crouched by the cage and poked my finger into his side and felt he was cold and hard. I can still remember the feeling I had reaching out expecting to feel his warm, fuzzy, breathing body and discovering his dead body instead. I ran up those basement stairs so fast.
How would you describe your sense of humour to those who’ve not read your work? Your short pieces like Chocolate Bunny Head are incredibly dark!
Yeah, I guess I’d say, “It’s kinda dark.”
Where do the images you draw in soft pencil come from? Are they drawn figures? Portents of doom?
I took some of my characters and made portraits. For example, the drawing of the man’s chest is a portrait of Huey Kittentank, the janitor/surgeon in The Ninth Gland. You never see his chest or any part of his naked body in the story, so I guess the drawings are about the lives of the characters outside of their stories.
Do you have a background in medical or veterinary studies, given your fascination with animal anatomy?
I just study on my own and I’d love to take a gross anatomy class some time soon. Biology would have been the subject I studied if it hadn’t been for art.
The Ninth Gland had a lot of resonance for me: everyone recalls finding an injured animal and wanting to help it. Is there a reason the animals in the story are so strange, so dissimilar to real animals? Or am I reaching a bit by making connections to all kinds of historical events involving torture in the story?
I studied torture techniques at university but any historical torture connections in The Ninth Gland are not intentional. When you find a dead animal on the side of the road, sometimes there’s a second or two when you’re not sure what it is and I find that to be really creepy.
Also, I’m always dreaming of strange-looking tiny creatures that I’m assigned to protect and that always find their way into a dangerous situation. Like the dream in which I had a tiny monkey-like creature in a paper cup and was taking care of it, until I had to leave it for a few seconds. When I came back the cup was filled with ketchup and the monkey was smothering.
Do you plan to work with Penn Jillette on more stories for the wonderful Rheumy Peepers and Chunky Highlight?
We’ve been talking about it on and off. But right now I’m working on a bunch of different things and there’s no way I could fit it in. It was great working with Penn. We’ve been friends for a long time so it was easy and fun working together.
Reading Marbles in my Underpants, it seems to me that you’re striving to convey the pain your characters experience, both emotional and physical. How do you view your characters?
I want the reader to feel what’s happening in the story. It’s really important to me that my characters feel real, even if they are not realistic.
Does that make sense?
Movies and comics that do that for me when I watch/read them are my favourites. David Lynch’s movies definitely do that.
How does it feel to see everything collected in one volume?
It’s great! It was an interesting exercise for me to read over all of my work in preparation for getting collection together. I hadn’t ever read all of my stories back to back like that and certain things became a lot clearer to me. I shocked myself. It was such a strange feeling to be thinking, “wow, that’s disturbing”. Some of the older stories really disturb me. I think it’s because I was a different person when I wrote them.
Corny’s Fetish is a beautiful, subtle story. It also seems like the summation of all the themes of your past work, as ideas and images re-emerge and take on new forms. Do you see that story as a full stop to one period of your career?
Yes, I actually do.
I didn’t plan it, but after “Corny’s Fetish” I took a break from comics and did some travelling and thinking and just drawing for the sake of drawing, and when I came back to comics, I was using a different drawing implement and a quieter approach. Not intentionally...but now I can see that that’s what happened. With Corny’s Fetish I was really working on my storytelling and I felt really close to the story. That character (actually two characters – his dog too) were very real to me and the end was difficult for me to draw.
Can you tell us a bit about your book The Soap Lady?
It’s my baby. It’s a 112-page picture book done in the soft pencil style you referred to earlier. It’s a story inspired by the saponified (turned to soap) mummy in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia about a monster who befriends a boy. I don’t want to give the story away but it’s a picture book for adults in the form of a children’s book and it turns out that kids love it too.
Finally, what do you want to achieve in your future comic career?
I’m working right now on a graphic novel called The Ticking for Top Shelf. The main character is called Steelhead, from the story in the Marbles collection. He’s got a sort of deformed face and no ears, very much like Cornelia. I guess the story is about looks vs. heart. I’ve also got a story in the upcoming EXPO 2001 anthology and some drawings in “The Ganzfield”. I’d like to do more children’s books and graphic novels until I figure it all out.
Interview by Kevin McCaighy (2003).