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An Interview With Renee French
posted April 16, 2006
 

By Tom Spurgeon

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Renee French is one of my favorite people in comics. I first read her work through her solo title at Fantagraphics, Grit Bath, in the mid-1990s. Grit Bath remains one of the few comics to ever make me physically uncomfortable. In that title, French specialized in mixing icons of magnificent cuteness with stories of boredom and acting out, and completely horrifying moments of physical violation. Unlike many artists whose productivity collapsed after their comic book was canceled, French continued to produce at least some work year after year: some short stories at Dark Horse and Oni (the best work from this early productive phase of French's career can be found in Marbles in Her Underpants), tons of work in multiple anthologies, some childrens' book/comics hybrids (The Soap Lady) and some straight-out childrens' book work under a related name. The latter two, I think, helped increase her thematic range, and certainly the visceral nature of her artwork is as effective in bringing out other extreme moments flashed through with great intensity by the younger mind and those that get caught up in their self-absorbed heat. Her latest comics work, The Ticking, may be French's best book. It's certainly her loveliest.

I asked French a lot of questions about her process because 1) I had no idea how she worked and 2) French is very different from the perception one might have of her from her work. This interview was the result. It was conducted last year and initially ran in an issue of The Comics Journal.

I Get Nervous

TOM SPURGEON: I've been looking at some interviews you've done. Everybody asks you bizarre questions.

RENEE FRENCH: It's true.

SPURGEON: I feel I should kick off with something like, "What is the last thing that wasn't food that you wanted to eat?"

FRENCH: "Do dogs have lips?"

SPURGEON: Is there some quality you have that makes people decide you're the person to go to for these things?

FRENCH: I guess people feel comfortable asking me the questions they always wanted -- no. I guess it's because of my work. I've always assumed it was because of my work, that somehow they feel they have to ask me weird questions.

SPURGEON: I was surprised by how many interviews you've done. Do you like that part of your profession? Do you like doing publicity?

FRENCH: No, I'm not good at it. I'm not very good at talking about my work or about me or anything. I get nervous. I don't like it much.

SPURGEON: So is it that you feel obligated? Because certainly there are artists who avoid all contact.

FRENCH: I just think it's a good idea. Since my work isn't mainstream, and since my audience tends to be really small, I just think it's a good idea to stay out there. I tend to fall off the face of the earth for a while when I'm working. I feel like I'm prolific because I'm working all the time, but I don't think I actually have a large output. The readers don't see a lot from me.

SPURGEON: Do you think there should be more work, or is there just a disconnect between how hard you work and what gets produced?

FRENCH: I think I heard Gary [Groth] say that once. [laughter] I think he put me on the list of -- oh, I don't want to get into it -- ok I think he put me on the list of female cartoonists who don't produce much. Maybe it was Kim [Thompson]. It was probably Gary.

SPURGEON: It seems to me like you've done a staggering amount of pages compared to some of your peers.

FRENCH: I really like doing anthologies. So what happens is I end up with a lot of short pieces and not a lot of long graphic novels or anything. I'm no Craig Thompson. I like these little vignette pieces, so they're scattered all over the place. I don't feel like I need to do more work for myself, because I'm actually always working.

SPURGEON: You're just attracted to that form of expression -- those short stories, those bursts?

FRENCH: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I think I would go that way, naturally. Every once in a while I have a long story I want to tell, but it's mostly these little pieces, rather than... The Ticking is 200 pages long. That was something that was sitting in my head for a long long time. Mostly I like little dreamy pieces better. I like reading those, too.

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Maybe It's the Soap

SPURGEON: Do you like going to the studio every day?

FRENCH: It's in my head -- I don't go anywhere. Sometimes I think I would like it if I had a studio somewhere else. Dave Cooper goes somewhere else and I think it really works for him. He can leave the house, and not think about home for a while. I'm just in the middle of everything. Right now there are guys in the backyard with a saw, working... it drives me crazy. At night I work in my studio and Rob works at the other end of the house in his office, and it's nice to be here. But man, I would like to get out of the house sometimes.

SPURGEON: I know you used to mull over your work during commutes or during downtime at work. It seems like a home studio doesn't allow you that dead space.

FRENCH: That's true. I get the most thinking done while I'm traveling. And we do a lot of traveling. The shower is still the best place for me. If I have a problem I'm working through, if I get in the shower, it's solved. I don't know why. Maybe it's the soap.

SPURGEON: What do you mean by "it's solved"? You see a solution for something on the page that's been bothering you?

FRENCH: Usually it's plot points. That's what gets me stuck. That's the stuff that's hard for me to work through. If I've got some character and it doesn't feel like he's doing what he should be doing, and I can't concentrate while I'm surrounded by the house, I get in the shower and I can figure it out.

SPURGEON: The reason I've started this off by asking you process questions is because looking at your work and reading you talk about it I can't tell how it gets done. I don't understand how you work from conception to publication. It seems like you have an idea you like, and then you ignore it, and then it comes to you while you're traveling, while you're commuting, or while you're in the shower.

FRENCH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: You work things out subconsciously by leaving them alone.

FRENCH: It's like astronomy. [laughter] If you're looking at some very faint object in the sky, in order to see it -- this is really corny -- in order to see it better it's best to look to the side. Right next to it. And then it comes in clear. It's something about the structure of the eye and how it works. It's really like that for me. I make notes in my notebook about, say, something that scares me. It will sit there a really long time, and then I'll have a dream or I'll be walking down the street and I'll see something that reminds me of it, and there will be a story that goes with it.

I don't think about how it happens, so it's really hard for me to pinpoint it.

SPURGEON: How much of a story do you have in mind when you start the actual physical process of drawing it, then?

FRENCH: Oh, a lot. I'm actually probably pretty tight compared to the guys in the '60s, R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and those guys. I don't know how they work, actually, so I should shut up about them. I write it down in words, and then I thumbnail it and then I might do tighter pencils and go from there.

Dialogue Really Bugs Me

SPURGEON: Am I to take it that when you do thumbnails, you're beating into shape something that's already essentially written? It's not a process of writing like it is for other cartoonists but a process of execution.

FRENCH: I don't know how other artists do it, but I'll go through a story in my head for months and months and then sit down and write it out longhand, and then change it a lot before I get to thumbnail stage. I think that's normal.

Things come visually first for me. Then the words come. Then the pictures come back again. I would always rather work silent. Dialogue really bugs me. I need it sometimes to tell a story, but it gets in the way; I don't like it in the panel. So in The Ticking, there's no dialogue in the panel, the dialogue is below the box.

SPURGEON: You don't like the way dialogue looks?

FRENCH: It's like it doesn't belong. In film, unless you have subtitles you have the entire screen to work with. I feel like it mucks up the composition, unless it's part of the composition. It never ends for me.

SPURGEON: Do you think that's maybe it's because you came to comics later, this lack of natural comfort with certain effects?

FRENCH: Maybe... I didn't read them until college or after college. So yeah, maybe it would have been more deeply ingrained or something. Or I would have gotten it. I still don't really get it. I enjoy reading comics with dialogue [laughs], but I don't feel comfortable making them.

SPURGEON: It doesn't look odd to you when other people do it.

FRENCH: No, not at all.

SPURGEON: With a longer work, it seems like it would be more difficult to keep the entirety of a longer work in your head. Does it work itself out in beats, or as a series of shorter moments?

FRENCH: It's frustrating. I really like doing those little short vignettes, partly because I can keep the whole thing in my head at once. It's like a painting. But the longer stories, I start feeling a little crazy sometimes, because I want to keep the entire thing in my head and it's impossible. So I have sections, I section it off into small pieces I can think about. I still feel like I should be able to somehow turn it into A, B, C, D, E and see them all simultaneously as one big piece. That's why I could never make a movie. It would drive me insane.

Acres Of Cows

SPURGEON: Where in New Jersey did you grow up?

FRENCH: Central Jersey, I guess. Northern Central. Hunterdon County, which is sort of woods and winding roads and it's pretty. I know people don't believe that Jersey can be pretty, but it's pretty around there. [laughter] We didn't have neighbors when we first moved there. We had cows the next lot over. "Lot" isn't right, but acres and acres of cows were surrounding our property. It was about a mile to the next anything. It was country. But the City [New York] was close. It was about 45-50 minutes to the City. So it was kind of nice.

SPURGEON: Were you there your whole childhood?

FRENCH: I went to the same school from kindergarten to eighth grade in the same building. And high school in the same area.

SPURGEON: Can I ask what your parents did?

FRENCH: My dad worked for Ford Motor Company and my mom was a stay-at-home mom and then a secretary later on.

SPURGEON: You have at least one sibling.

FRENCH: I have a little sister six years younger than me, Suzy. My brother Danny is really close to my age. He's one year younger. I'm the oldest. We fought all the time, but we did everything together. He's 13 months younger. It was just the two of us when we were little. We had our own world. We had this huge backyard, so it just became our place with our scary characters that we made up, and the tree house and the rabbits.

SPURGEON: Kids that are by themselves seem to invest the house and their surrounds with story and personality. I assume that was true of you and Danny.

FRENCH: Yeah. Mr. Tree. [Spurgeon laughs] He's in the picture book I'm working on right now. The kid's book. We fed him rocks. He had a face [laughs], when I think back it was probably some kind of tumors growing on the tree that looked like a face. And then in the back, the tree was all eaten out, probably some parasite, it had a huge hole in the back. That was the stomach, and we put rocks in there. I think my dad would come in and get them out, but we thought Mr. Tree was digesting them. [laughter] I think it was my dad.

SPURGEON: Were you artistically inclined early on?

FRENCH: As long as I can remember. My mom sent me to oil painting lessons when I was five. So there was this lady that lived down the street. Mrs. Hinchman. She was a retired Swedish actress. And her beekeeper husband Mr. Hinchman. She taught oil painting. So I had private lessons with her. This is one of my favorite things about it: when I think about going to those lessons, I remember that she would give me turpentine in one cup and iced tea in the other cup, and they were the same cup. [laughter] One on one side and one on the other. They were these tumblers, these opaque tumblers. One had turpentine and one had iced tea. She would always say, "Don't drink your turps, dear." She would always say that. I would inevitably stick my paintbrush in the iced tea.

SPURGEON: Were you a good five-year-old oil painter?

FRENCH: Yeah, actually. When I look back on those things, I think, "Oh, man, I wish I could paint like that." I can't paint anymore. I'm too tight to paint now. I would really love to be able to oil paint, because I could loosen up a bit maybe. I'm really too neurotic about it. Everything has to be really tight in my drawings.

SPURGEON: I had an artist tell me that he wanted to paint later on. I asked him why he didn't paint now, and he said that all the other stuff had to go away.

FRENCH: Yeah, that's right. I know. I have this real desire to do it. But I just know I can't. I can feel it. I can tell. I have some of those paintings from when I was five, and they're really pretty good. The one that I have -- my parents have some others -- is of an Indian girl with a bright yellow band around her head.

SPURGEON: Were there other kids around? I just imagined a houseful of children in North Central Jersey making oil paintings.

FRENCH: Some of my lessons there were two other kids, one named Honey. Then my mother sent my brother along, but it didn't work out.

SPURGEON: Is your brother artistically inclined?

FRENCH: Yeah, he is. But he didn't have the right personality to sit there.

SPURGEON: It sounds like art was valued in the home.

FRENCH: My dad's an artist. He worked at Ford but he was and still is -- oh, way complicated. He's a sculptor and sort of does painting. [pause] He has an obsession with American Indians, so he would carve telephone poles into totem poles, and make a teepee in the back yard, and a headdress that went down to the ground. He had an amazing workshop upstairs with all of his stuff. He'd come home from work and disappear into that room. He was always working on something, which annoyed my mom, I think.

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People Being Stabbed and Dying

SPURGEON: Is there a point in school you became "the art girl"?

FRENCH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Is there something different to the experience for girls that are good at art at an early age?

FRENCH: I hung out with the boys. In grammar school, I was sort of teacher's pet. And I made drawings all the time. When I was in high school, I hung out with boys. And I was always in the art room.

SPURGEON: Was it because that art was a boys' thing?

FRENCH: I never really knew girls that were into it. They'd take art and it was fun, and they would draw fun things, but the guys were more intense about it. I think that for the boys that I knew, it was their identity. That was attractive to me. I liked hanging out with them. They were really intense about it. It was a serious thing for them.

SPURGEON: Was there an age you decided what you wanted to do with your art?

FRENCH: When I was in high school, I was making really giant oil pastel drawings that were like people being stabbed and dying, holding a baby that was sort of blue. [laughs] That's when my Mom started really getting upset about my work, I think. She felt that she was doing something wrong, and that I was very unhappy.

SPURGEON: Were you unhappy?

FRENCH: No, I don't think so.

SPURGEON: Was there anything cathartic about your doing art?

FRENCH: I suppose all kids are really intrigued by death or are curious about it, but I really focused on it when I was 7, 8, 9. I focused on it but I didn't talk about it. It was an obsession. I always felt like I was right on the edge of dying. [laughs] I loved disaster movies, I would stay up late, get out of bed and come out to the living room and watch TV. I liked disaster movies and anything scary. Then I would go back to bed and be terrified. I always thought that somebody was going to break into the house and kill me. And so maybe because I didn't talk about it, when I made my drawings I made pictures of it instead.

SPURGEON: You had nightmares when you were a kid.

FRENCH: Yeah. Lots. All the time.

SPURGEON: Was it nuclear dread? You're the perfect age.

FRENCH: Yeah, I'm sure that's what it is. I'm sure that's what the root of it was. It was hanging over everyone. But I don't think I thought about it like that.

SPURGEON: The reason I ask is that otherwise, you weren't in a dangerous environment.

FRENCH: I was very safe. I think that's why my mom was surprised and worried that I was so obsessed with it, because we were in a safe neighborhood. There wasn't any crime, really. I just made it up.

SPURGEON: Did your mom's worries ever express themselves as being against your doing art?

FRENCH: No. I always had supportive people around me. My dad was absent a lot. So it was mostly my mom that was really supportive. My mom was not artistically inclined at all.

SPURGEON: Did you have good teachers?

FRENCH: I always did. The high school I went to was new, so they hired a lot of younger teachers, people right out of school. They really concentrated on their art department. We had a photography department and film classes. My teachers were great. I had positive experiences with most of them.

SPURGEON: Was it a practical knowledge or an express yourself kind of school?

FRENCH: It was both. One of my teachers, Ms. Sienkiewicz -- like Bill -- most of the kids in class couldn't stand her because she taught us composition. We had a whole term of sticking spots on a page. Most of the kids in class thought she was crazy. It wasn't important to them, but for me it was a huge thing. I really loved that class. She was so good.

SPURGEON: You were an hour from New York. Did that play a role in your development as an artist?

FRENCH: Not as much as I would have liked it to. I went there on field trips, but my parents didn't like the city and we didn't go in as a family very much. The books in my living room were my exposure. I loved Bosch, and I would sit and stare at his painting in the books that we had. We did have a lot of art books in the house, which was good, and a lot of medical and science books because my dad was into that stuff. So I spent a lot of time looking at that. Then I saw Balthus. I don't remember where that was, actually. That was sort of something big for me. Important. He's not painting landscapes, and his portraits aren't just portraits. There was something that clicked in my head that he just sort of said what he wanted on the canvas, and he didn't feel the pressure to tone it down. What I was drawing was always a little toned down, and I was getting this reaction from people that I was morbid, and what was wrong with me. What I wanted was to do my worst, and put what was really going on in my head on the paper. He seemed to be doing that.

SPURGEON: The influences were more about finding a context for your work or fellow travelers rather than people to mimic.

FRENCH: I didn't do the mimicry thing. When I was in college I met people who all they did was copy things and/or mimic someone's style. I remember being surprised by that. I hadn't been exposed to that through high school. I didn't know people did that.

Horse-Clopping Sounds

SPURGEON: Where did you go to school?

FRENCH: I went to university at this little liberal arts school, an old teacher's school called Kutztown University. I went there because one of my art teachers in high school went there and they had a great art program. A cool thing about this place is that it's a small school; it's really sort of conservative. It's surrounded by Pennsylvania Dutch country. When you first get there you're woken up by horse-clopping sounds. The horse-and-buggies around campus. It's a shock. You're in the middle of nowhere. But the art faculty is great. George Sorrels who made tiny drawings of ass cheeks and trees, gorgeous little trees, sex and landscape together in the same drawing, was sort of my mentor. His work was incredibly beautiful. My paintings always had some sex in them or something. So I was told to tone it down. Not by the faculty, who hung my work sometimes in the common areas of the art building, but by the dean of the art department. I was still told to tone it down in college.

SPURGEON: Was that disappointing?

FRENCH: Yeah! I thought that since I was going to college as an art major that it wouldn't happen. But of course I was in this really conservative atmosphere. So it made sense. If I'd gone somewhere else it probably wouldn't have been like that.

SPURGEON: How did your peers treat you?

FRENCH: I had a great friend, Erika, who I spent a lot of time with but most of the students there weren't doing anything I was interested in. You get really sick of hearing, "You're so weird." [pause] I'm sure you get that, Tom.

imageSPURGEON: Only because I look weird. But as you yourself have pointed out, you're very much not the cliche of someone who does your kind of work. You're presentable and personable. I could even imagine students getting behind your paintings.

FRENCH: Oh, yeah. People liked it. They thought I was weird, but maybe not because of me, because of the work. Actually when I think about it, three-quarters of the class didn't like my work. It was bad, wrong or something. Because most of the people who went there were conservative, too. I remember most of the girls thought I was naughty or something.

One time in sculpture class out of foam rubber I made a bust of a woman with a beehive hairdo and huge breasts. The bust was cut off underneath her breasts. So she was sort of resting on these giant knockers. There were no arms. I put sequined pasties with tassels and then had a pedestal under it. [laughter] We brought our projects in and put them around. I cut sculpture class a lot because I wasn't really into it. I was into the two-dimensional stuff. I wasn't present a lot, so most of the people in the class didn't know me. So we put our projects up, and I remember this one girl walked away from it, because she was sure some guy did it and was being a pig.

SPURGEON: Were you taking advantage of the quality your art had to provoke?

FRENCH: I didn't feel like I was doing that at all. I was impatient with the reaction. They didn't get it. I just kind of felt like, "Get over it. What is the big deal?"

Quiet and Personal

SPURGEON: Now I assume by the time you were at school you had started to pursue photography.

FRENCH: [slight pause] What are you, James Lipton?

SPURGEON: I am. I'm reading this off an index card.

FRENCH: [laughs]

SPURGEON: You've talked about photography a bit in some of your interviews, but very obliquely, in a way that suggests it's important to you.

FRENCH: It is, but it's very... private. Not private. Private's not right. It's sort of... a quiet and personal kind of thing that I don't show anybody. If somebody comes over to the house and is looking at Rob's photography, I'll show them a box of prints or something like that.

I started a long time ago. I did photography in school. I didn't feel that it went along with my drawings very much. But I suppose looking back that it did. It would make sense that it did. I did 35 millimeter when I was in school, because that was what he had the equipment for. When I got out I had sort of a series of photographic jobs. I worked for a medical photographer, I worked at a custom lab printing color photos for a criminal investigation photographer and the dental surgeon guy. Then I did actual hand re-touching of photographs. When I met my husband, rob, he was using a large format camera. 4 x 5, black and white. So I got into that, too.

It's hard to talk about it, because the work's not out there.

SPURGEON: When you talk about your artwork, you talk about piecing together some things that are inside of you, but with photography you talk about going out and finding the picture.

FRENCH: That's the bitch about photography. I find photography to be frustrating. [laughs] I really like it. It sort of releases me from the control that I have with the drawings. At the same time it demands this control, it releases me from the control, but it's frustrating to me I don't have that control. What? With the drawing I can make anything I want, and with photography it's got to be there. It's got to be something that exists. You can manipulate it, but only to a certain extent. So it's frustrating but challenging at the same time. But, it's not, "Oh, what a challenge." It's "Damn it, if I could only find what I want in this place."

I've been working with a pinhole camera for about a month. That's great because it takes away almost all of the control. You place the camera and you don't know what's in the frame exactly. You can't fidget around with it too much the way you can with a view camera. You have to wing it and I'm really enjoying that. Strangely, those are feeling more like my drawings than the large-format pictures.

SPURGEON: It seems a completely different way to approach your art.

FRENCH: It is. It's the opposite. I don't want to get into technical stuff, but the pinhole camera has an infinite depth of field. So the things in the foreground are in focus and the things in the background are in focus. But everything has a sort of softness to it. It sounds like a minor point, but when you see the pictures you can see it has a tone, a glow, it's not crisp, ... the mood feels like my drawings more, even though the technique is completely on the other end of the spectrum.

Sorry, that was boring.

This Neck Problem

SPURGEON: You become deeply immersed in your art while you're doing it.

FRENCH: It's so... it's so everything. It's really central when I'm working. [slight pause] That's not a sentence.

I liked drawing when I was a kid because it was fun and I could do it. Then, I don't know how old I was, I started drawing places. I wasn't looking to escape. I really did sort of draw a place so I could go there. To me it seems like everyone does that. You're creating these places so you can be in that place while you're drawing. Or painting. And I absolutely do that. I guess it's masturbation, really. But you're making a drawing and then you're in there. That's absolutely what it's about. Well, not completely. Part of it is about the final thing. The way I draw is so time consuming, and I get headaches from it, but the act of drawing is really comforting to me. Part of it is because I'm in that space. It's not necessarily in the place I'm drawing. It can be in the texture I'm drawing, or the feeling I'm drawing.

That probably sounds completely pretentious, but it's true.

SPURGEON: Now due to the nature of what you draw, are there consequences in terms of moods and feelings?

FRENCH: I'm in a bad mood a lot, actually. If I'm drawing something sad, I'm sad. For sure. But I don't see how you can separate yourself from that, really. When you're making something, drawing some sad situation, I can't see how you can be sitting there with a happy face on. I think that the creepy stuff, I really do end up feeling creeped out while I'm working on it. That just seems really obvious. How could you not?

SPURGEON: Yet you have these stories worked out in your head.

FRENCH: Yeah, but...

SPURGEON: Does the emotion come from a sense of revisiting it?

FRENCH: When it's in thumbnail form and the story's worked out, that's just the skeleton. When I'm drawing I'm fleshing it out so it becomes a real thing. When it's penciled, line drawings can have real volume to them, but I don't feel like my work has volume until it's colored in with all of the tones and everything.

SPURGEON: Does the intensity of the experience ever make it difficult to work on something?

FRENCH: It did with The Ticking. Yeah. Normally it doesn't, because it's really where I want to be. Even though some of the stuff is intense and gross. I like being there. With The Ticking, the story started making sense to me that it was something personal about me and my dad, so I would walk around the chair and not sit down for a while because I didn't want to go back into it.

SPURGEON: And you said earlier there are hangovers.

FRENCH: I get a headache because of the way I hold my body while I draw. I've worked on that for years and years trying to change it. I've drawn in the same position all of my life and developed this neck problem and stuff from drawing. [laughs]

SPURGEON: They've been training you since you were five. [laughter] You'd think you'd have the perfect form.

FRENCH: Yeah, you'd think.

SPURGEON: There is a physical cost to cartooning, even though people tend not to talk about it.

FRENCH: In the early '90s, Julie Doucet and I wrote back and forth a lot on paper. I remember getting a letter from her one time saying she had to stop, that she was late getting her book in, because her back was really hurting and that she was on bed rest for a little while. It sounded really serious. I can't remember what it was exactly that was wrong, but I remember she couldn't draw because of it. I hope I'm not getting the details of that wrong.

That scared me a little bit, because I always had this pain in my shoulder whenever I drew for a long time. I would draw for hours and hours and get up and have this pain in my shoulder from turning my head. When you're drawing, you're kind of in that moment, you're in this space where you forget what time it is and you don't realize how much time has gone by until something startles you and you look at the clock. So during that time, when I draw, I get really sort of kinked. I twist my neck around -- that makes it sound like I'm Linda Blair or something [laughter] -- but I sit in a really bad position. A couple of years ago because I was getting so many headaches I went to a physical therapist and he gave me a different way of sitting to draw. And it helped for a while, but now I'm developing bad habits again. I actually sit upright with a drawing board on my lap. I don't work at the table, because at a table I do that bad thing. I sit up in a chair with a drawing board and a pillow under my arm. And that's how I draw.

Hands are Hard

SPURGEON: Do you ever come up with something you let go of because it's not suited to you as an artist? Do you abandon ideas?

FRENCH: Yeah, I do. A lot. Four out of five.

SPURGEON: For what reason?

FRENCH: It seems like a good idea at the time, and then I don't care anymore. It's just not interesting anymore.

SPURGEON: Does what you come up with always match your artistic range?

FRENCH: Oh. I see. I was talking to Chris Ware one time and he said, "I don't do stories with cars in them because I can't draw cars." He's full of it, but I guess that's true. But you know what? I don't think about that while I'm writing. Sometimes I'll put somebody's hands in their pockets because hands are hard. I hate drawing hands and yet I'm constantly drawing hands. [laughter] I have so many shots of hands doing things.

SPURGEON: You're so mean to yourself.

FRENCH: I suck at drawing hands. And then I have an idea where I'm POV person building a tiny ladder. So I have to draw the hands. All the hands are mine, of course. They're lame, but I do them.

SPURGEON: Are there other artists where you look at their stuff and think, "That's an interesting range of effect," and you become envious of them?

FRENCH: Yeah, a lot. [pause]

SPURGEON: You can name names.

FRENCH: [laughs]

SPURGEON: There's a difference between admiring an artist and coveting their skills.

FRENCH: Jeffrey Brown. Because I would really, really like to be able to capture something with a few lines and have the gesture be exactly right and have this sort of pure feeling about it like that. My stuff is so noodly; I wish I could be loose sometimes. And his stuff is loose and yet you get the sense of him. I love every panel of his stuff. I'm sort of in love with his work and the honesty of it. It's so straightforward. I don't feel like I can do that.

Anders Nilsen, also, is sort of like that. There's something very pure about the birds stuff that I wish I could do. I wish I could let go a little bit and do that kind of thing. When you read Anders' stuff you get this light feeling. And his writing is so good. And Peter Blegvad -- his range, I love the fact that he's not afraid to do everything. And Ivan [Brunetti], too, he's so good at everything. He's a genius.

I love Dave Cooper's work, but I feel closer to it. He's a better drawer than I am, but underneath there's something similar in the wiring of it. So I don't have that feeling -- except sometimes I wish I could draw flesh in clothing the way he draws it. But mostly I feel close to it.

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I Love Animals Very Much

SPURGEON: Did you read much when you were a kid?

FRENCH: One book I read over and over was Of Mice and Men.

SPURGEON: There's a horrible feeling of inevitability in that book.

FRENCH: I think the thing that really got me, what interested me the most was the big retarded main character, Lenny. He's really strong and kills these animals without meaning to by loving them. He's petting the dog so hard he kills it. He has a mouse in his pocket that he carries around stroking it and he kills it because he's stroking it so hard. It's a really simple idea, but I read that over and over again because that rang true to me somehow. I'm not sure exactly why.

It might be because of that time I crushed the cat's head by accident when I was a kid.

SPURGEON: Someone wanted me to ask you: "Did she have pets growing up, and are they all right?"

FRENCH: I did have a lot of pets. I love animals very much. You can ask anybody who knows me well. I'm allergic to most of them, also. The cat story is, my cat, one of our cats, Bosley, had kittens. We named all the kittens. We were going to give them away, but we named them all. I was sitting on the couch, I don't know how old I was, probably drawing, not paying attention. I had socks on. The kittens were all over the place. This one kitten was under the couch and he had fallen asleep with his head under my heel. His name was Oscar. I was sort of sitting there and then I got up. When I got up, my heel came down on his head and I heard this crunching noise. I stepped on him. I felt like I was going to throw up and ran into my room and was crying. I was convinced I'd killed this thing. My mom brought it into me, and there was this stream of blood coming down from his nose. She said, "Look, he's okay." He was really retarded after that. He might have been retarded before that. To me he died. I killed him by accident. That was the only time I did anything like that. I was always bringing birds home and then infesting the house with lice. And I had a lot of bunnies.

There's the story of Bill the Bunny. I know I've told that story before. Bill the Bunny lived in a hutch my dad built. He got sick. One day I went out there, I was going "Bill, Bill." He fell to his side, and he had maggots eating his stomach. And he was still alive.

SPURGEON: [moans]

FRENCH: He died shortly after that. That was Bill. He was way cool.

Now I'm so sad.

SPURGEON: How did we get here?

FRENCH: It's your fault.

SPURGEON: We got there from Of Mice and Men. Did writing ever hold any interest?

FRENCH: I'm not verbal. I'm not good with words, obviously. I'm much better with pictures. I talk a lot, but I'm not good with words. I don't feel comfortable writing prose because I'm not good and there are a lot of people around me who are. I have an inferiority complex.

I Think It Feels Jerky

SPURGEON: Was there something about your art you had to change to make it work for comics? What were your first experiments like?

FRENCH: They were awful. My first stories I worked with a writer. My then-husband who was a writer. I was drawing his stories and I did my own little stories on the side when I was at work. They were one-pagers. So I could feel they were one piece. "Cindy" -- I don't know if you know that one -- the one where she staple guns her eyes? That was just sort of one little idea I thought of in the ladies room stall. I kind of learned by doing little pieces, one little thing at a time. The stuff I did with Dan, the first ones were such a struggle to figure out. The main thing was I had to figure out this character where each time it had to be the same character. That's something I never had to do before. That was just so difficult. I could have simplified them and given them broad characteristics, but instead I was drawing realistic faces back then. That was a major thing. Pacing was another thing I thought impossible to figure out.

SPURGEON: Were you looking at other comics very closely?

FRENCH: If I had been smarter, maybe I would have done that. I never sat down with a comic book and said, "What is he doing here?" Instead I stumbled through my own stuff trying to make it work. The early stuff is really awkward timing-wise. I think it feels jerky. The pacing is really uneven and not right, I think.

SPURGEON: Is there a comic you can point to where you think you finally got it together, even roughly?

FRENCH: Corny's Fetish, maybe. I think that story worked as a story, and the pacing is consistent. In The Ninth Gland the pacing was inconsistent.

SPURGEON: What was hanging you up with the pacing?

FRENCH: I was getting a little bit David Mamet-y in the stuff I was doing. You know how he repeats dialogue over and over again? Sometimes it feels really slow. You get to a certain scene and it just slows down. You think, "Why didn't he have her say it once instead of twelve times." I couldn't tell when I'd said it. It's still really hard. When you're making the thing, you know what you're trying to say. It's hard to know what the reader will get. I think in a lot of my earlier stuff I was over-telling and not trusting the reader to get something. Or maybe I was trusting the reader too much and nobody knows what the hell it's about at all.

SPURGEON: For an artist who gets an effect from her art -- not pared down, not symbolic, but from the quality of the drawing -- I would imagine that learning to economize in other ways so that your work reads well would be very difficult.

FRENCH: It is very hard. I don't think I've got it. In the new one, I'm not sure if anyone is going to get anything. [laughs] I have this fear that people are going to read it and just say, "What?" Not understand what happened. I think there's enough there that the story is told. So it's not really that. It's less linear than a lot of stuff I've done but not as far away as the really dreamy ones.

SPURGEON: You mentioned once in passing that you wanted a bigger audience, and that you thought you could get this bigger audience through comics. That doesn't seem in line with the specifics of your artistic impulse, which is extremely personal.

FRENCH: I think I wanted to escape my situation at the time. I think it was more about getting out of my life, then. I was in a really bad place and I wanted to get out of there and having a wider audience sort of represented that to me. I felt that I would be communicating with people who weren't right around me. But, yeah, you're right, I don't think about the audience when I'm working. I know that I do to a certain extent, but I don't like to. And sometimes, some of the earlier stuff I actually felt guilty it went out there. Not now as much, and not when it first came out. But in the middle I felt guilty that people had to look at that stuff.

SPURGEON: It was too self-indulgent?

FRENCH: Why would anyone care about that stuff? I was in a bad place, it was personal, and I couldn't understand why anyone would see value in it.

SPURGEON: You still feel that way.

FRENCH: A little bit.

Your Heart is Dead

SPURGEON: You have a very specific style. Have you ever wanted to break off in some radical new direction? Does your approach encompass all you want to say with art?

FRENCH: Yeah. Well... no. There are other things I want to say. I'm not done. I think what you're saying is the range of things I want to say seems to be narrow.

SPURGEON: Can you do anything you want within your style? Has there ever been anything you wanted to do where you've said, "That's just not me."

FRENCH: I have had ideas tossed to me by other people where I've thought, "I'm not interested in that." Where I'm not interested in dealing with that issue. I don't think about my work in terms of issues. I don't know if anyone does. Maybe that's just queer to say. I don't think, "Here's a problem. Here's an issue. I'll write about this." I know that my work is more internal, and that's why a lot of times I think nobody would be interested in it.

I remember Dean Haspiel talking about responding to other people's work one time at SPX or ICAF during a panel discussion. He was talking about some other cartoonist doing something and then he responded to that other cartoonist's work by making a comic. That to me was so Martian. I didn't understand why you would do that. I said something like, "I never thought about it like that." And he said, "That's because your heart is dead." [laughter] I can't remember what he said. It's in a transcript somewhere. "It's because you have a black heart." Or something like that.

SPURGEON: Have you figured it out since?

FRENCH: It just never occurs to me. It's not that I don't care what other people are doing. That's not what it is. I read other people's work and I enjoy it. It's sort of like why would I... I don't know!

SPURGEON: For many artists, they encounter a piece of art or a process that changes everything. You don't have anything like that. There's not that moment of radical change, that thing that caused you to see everything differently. So while most artists don't respond to every other artist they meet, there's usually one or two -- and you don't even have that.

FRENCH: I didn't think anybody did. Then I started reading interviews and talking to artists over the years. And it sounds like most people do. And I think, "What's wrong with me?" I also feel sort of selfish, like I'm inside my head and not paying attention enough. But I do look at artwork all the time. It's not like I don't look at it and idolize people's work, but I feel like I'm stealing. If I see somebody's work and I think, "Oh, man. That aspect of that person's work is amazing. It really moves me. Maybe I'll use some of that in my own work," that would feel like I was stealing. That's not what I'm saying, that's not my work, it's somebody else's.

SPURGEON: But you have talked about influences.

FRENCH: Sure.

SPURGEON: What is an influence for you, then? What does that word mean?

FRENCH: Well... like David Lynch. Not to be too cliche or anything. David Lynch when I was in college. When I saw Eraserhead I fell in love with it and thought, "You can say what you want." You don't have to follow some rule. You can say what you want the way you want it. Which seems obvious, but it wasn't to me at the time I saw that movie. It was a lot like seeing Balthus for the first time. With Lynch's stuff I always felt a deep comfort in seeing his work. It makes me feel that not only can you feel those things that he's feeling you can express them, and that's okay. I think before I saw his work I thought , if you have those kinds of feelings you should keep them to yourself. Even though I was drawing stuff that was disturbing my mom. In high school I still sort of felt like you wouldn't want to put it out there, really. For me, he's an influence because he showed that you can portray what you're feeling in work and it's okay, even if nobody's going to get it.

SPURGEON: So an influence is someone who is inspirational rather than someone whose technique you pick up on.

FRENCH: I think the thing with technique is that it feels like swiping from people. That scares me. I love Dave Cooper, and I'm always really aware, if I draw a line that seems sort of similar to his lines, I get afraid and pull back. I'm aware it might be a little bit like his lines. I'm incredibly aware of that stuff.

SPURGEON: Is it the lack of authenticity that bothers you, or being called out as a copier?

FRENCH: It's not about being called out. I don't want my work to be derivative, because I feel like what's the point of doing it if you're saying something somebody else has already said, or doing it in a way someone has already done it. It already exists; why should I do that? With Dave, I really relate to his work a lot, so I see a lot of danger there. I keep his books around almost so I don't do what he's doing. Just to make sure I'm not.

SPURGEON: Are there any others you relate to in that way?

FRENCH: No. [laughter] No, because I don't think I'm... no, I don't think so. There aren't any people I'm that close to.

SPURGEON: Because he's so close, that's the danger.

FRENCH: The story The Ticking, I wrote it years ago. In the story there was this floating fair/circus that had freaks and animals and stuff. It would float from port to port. It was all written out in the script. Then a few months later, I guess at San Diego, I saw Ted Stearn there. I bought his Fuzz and Pluck, and there was a floating circus in his story. I was like, "Oh, fuck!" You know? [laughter]

I thought of the circus in bed one night; before I fell asleep I thought of a floating circus. It would be really cool with the lights reflecting off the water. I was psyched about this image. And there it was in Fuzz and Pluck. I had to take it out of my book. Later I was on a panel with Ted and [David] Sandlin and Jonathan Rosen. I told Ted about it. He was like, "You could have used it. What's the big deal?" I had to take it out of the story. There's no way I could leave it in. It was already done. I was kind of glad that he'd done it far enough in advance that I saw it. That it didn't come out at the same time.

SPURGEON: How would you react if it had come out at the same time?

FRENCH: I'd be worried that he thought I'd copied it somehow. Not other people. I'd mostly be worried that Ted would feel that I'd found out that he had this thing and I'd used it. I would feel bad about that. He had this really cool idea and I took it and used it and didn't do it as well. And then I would also feel really crappy myself. Oh great, what's the point?

SPURGEON: Have you ever seen yourself in other cartoonists' work?

FRENCH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: How do you react to that?

FRENCH: I think it's cool on one level. I think it's really cool. I don't think it comes from looking at my work; I think these people just sort of think like me a little bit, I guess. I'm not going to remember his name... the guy who does Chrome Fetus?

SPURGEON: Hans Rickheit?

FRENCH: His work, when I saw it for the first time I really responded to it. And then it really started feeling like my earlier work to me. Better drawn than my early work, but it felt like that stuff. Like the Kirsten Twins in particular. It's very possible he had never seen my stuff and it's just sort of like that because that's the way he is. I kind of like that. I think it's fun to see that.

SPURGEON: Do you ever turn down commercial work? Can you even do a lot of commercial work given your process?

FRENCH: I don't get a lot of offers, because I... well, I don't know why. [laughter] Entertainment Weekly doesn't look at my work and say, "It'd be great to see a drawing of Tom Cruise by her."

SPURGEON: Let's say they did -- could you even do that?

FRENCH: If they would let me... see, if somebody comes to me, I assume they know my work and they would give me some leeway. I used to do illustrations for the op-ed and letters page in the New York Times. That was really fun that. I loved that. I had to turn it around in a few hours and get it out. I was working with Peter Buchanan-Smith, and he was great. So yeah, sometimes. But I'm not really that into doing that kind of thing. I don't feel... nyeh. I think it's only fun because of the fast turnaround time. I can't stand turning something in and having somebody say, "Well, it's not exactly..." But nobody likes that.

You Devil Woman

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SPURGEON: Grit Bath. Do you look back on that experience positively?

FRENCH: Yes. I love Gary Groth. He gave me the shot.

SPURGEON: Do you remember how that offer was made? They were doing a lot of comics at the time, this second wave of comics.

FRENCH: I did a piece in Real Stuff with Denny Eichhorn. Denny wanted me to do this story; it was like 11 pages long. And Gary sent me a letter saying that he really liked the piece and he would like to see some of my work that I had written myself. I hadn't written that much myself except those few little pieces. So I sent him a Christmas card with a couple of samples in there so he could see the kind of things I was writing. Not long after that I got a phone call from him. He said, "Would you like to have your own one-shot," I think he said. "Put a bunch of stories together and we'll publish a one-shot." Then it turned into a three-issue thing. And then I was part of that group of people that were told that we weren't going to continue the series we would do graphic novels now. The Ticking was a victim of whatever happened there.

SPURGEON: Was it enjoyable to have that kind of showcase, however briefly?

FRENCH: It was really exciting for me, because I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. I didn't have to worry about someone telling me, "No, that's too offensive." Or "That's not the kind of thing we're looking for." He gave me free rein pretty much. It was great. I loved doing it. The first issue had the fistophobia story in it. I got the most mail about that of anything, I think. That story was mainly why it was seized at the English and Canadian borders. The second and third issue, which I thought were pretty tame, people were still being shocked. I remember getting a box of my comics and I was working an office job. I remember the box coming to my work address. One of my friends there was like, "Let's open it." And my boss was standing around, "What is that? What do you have there?" Nothing! And started putting it under my desk. I kind of wanted to take it out and say this is my comic book and hand it around to people. But I was terrified my boss would read it. [Spurgeon laughs] I was terrified. I had these friends that were like, "Oh, come on." I would grab their shirts white-knuckled, "Listen to what I'm telling you. Do not show this to them."

SPURGEON: To be honest, I had to prop those comics on the dashboard of my car and read them from the back seat. [French laughs] And that was last week.

FRENCH: I never knew how anyone would react. I was single then, and I used to go next door and get food at this Japanese restaurant. There was this guy there, this Japanese guy and he was cute. We would talk whenever I'd go over there. My friend Vikki said loud enough for him to hear, "Renee does comics," and he said, "Oh, you do comics. I'd like to see them." I thought, "I don't know." I'm thinking, "He's Japanese, I've seen some of the Japanese pornography [laughter] maybe he's kind of open-minded." So what I did was I got the least offensive one, which was #3, at that point. Issue #3 had just come out and I looked through it and I remember thinking, "There's not much that's offensive in here." I brought it over the next day in a manila envelope and gave it to him.

I got this message from him on my voice mail at work, basically saying, "You evil woman, you devil woman. Why did you give this to me? You've cursed my family." [laughter] He was way offended. So, so offended. So after that I would warn people and I still do.

SPURGEON: Even though you're working from private concerns you have an awareness of how it's going to hit. Does that come later when you look at how things turned out?

FRENCH: I remember the first issue I just did the stories, wrote the stories. Then when the reaction came I was surprised. Some of the stories, I knew there were things in it that were rough to take. I just didn't know how rough they were. I didn't know how personal some people would take it. "Personal" is not right, but I wasn't expecting people to come up and yell at me. I just didn't expect that at all.

SPURGEON: I'd like to apologize for that.

FRENCH: [laughs] There was a guy one time that came to a signing in Philadelphia, who was wearing a PETA shirt. He was the last person in line. I was signing some books. People were saying these nice, sweet things. Then this guy ripped into me about animals. Why do you hate animals so much? Why do you abuse animals? I'm not good with confrontation and I didn't know what to say to him except that I love animals. [laughter] You know? I don't know what to say so I'll tell the truth: I love animals. But it didn't work. Someone who was in line started saying, "These are comics, dude. They're drawings of things happening to animals. They're not pictures. She didn't actually do that." But the guy was so upset and just hated me. I got really upset. It's okay if they don't like me, but in front of my face and yelling at me, I'm really wimpy that way. I can't take it!

SPURGEON: There are certainly people who will find it more traumatizing to see a depiction of an animal than a depiction of a person. Do you have any insight as to why animals are effective for you as characters?

FRENCH: I think we talked about the kitten.

SPURGEON: Not as it pertains to your stories.

FRENCH: I have to say I really do not do it for a certain effect. It's more out of... I'm so inarticulate when it comes to talking about my work.

SPURGEON: We're well matched. [laughter]

FRENCH: If there's a Chihuahua anywhere near me, I go into this spazzy heaven mode. It's like Shatner or chocolate or something. There's this feeling that I have when I'm putting an animal in a story. It feels to me, again, like it's because I get to spend some time with this animal.

imageThere's a chimp in The Ticking. Her name is Patrice. I love this chimp so much. When I draw her it's like I get to hang out with her. (I fell in love with a real chimp once, but that's another story.) She gets to be a character in the story, and I love to spend time with that character when I'm drawing it. Nothing happens to her. Nothing cruel happens to her, ok. Whenever anything cruel happens to one of the animals in my stories, it's devastating to me while I'm doing it. It's not because I'm trying to upset anyone, it's because it's the upsetting part of the story. And because I love animals so much I think, it feels more effective to me. If I didn't like animals, seeing a mole stepped on wouldn't matter. It would be no big deal. But I don't have this checklist. "I have to put an animal in this one." It's more like I go that way because I can tell the story better.

That sounds so retarded. I'm not Jessica Abel; I'd never be able to teach a class.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you a couple of formal questions about Grit Bath. You worked in a very rigid six-panel grid.

FRENCH: Yeah, I know. And I still do that. That six-panel thing for me is "I'm doing a comics story." The pacing for me is a lot easier to... if I give myself a formal six panels, all the pacing questions, all the time between panels, all that stuff has to work around that. I force myself to tell the story within those panels. So I make adjustments to what's inside the panels to fit that.

All that sort of breaking the page up like Chris Ware does -- he might not be the right example because he's so extreme. I don't want to worry about the layout of the page itself. I think I like the formality of the six-panels per page because I can forget about it. Once that is set, I can deal with the problems in another way. I kind of like the way it looks too. I like the really formal, rectangular thing. It feels a little more cinematic to me, although I'm sure others would disagree, than those comics pages where you have a really tall panel that fits from the top to bottom of the page, and then these smaller ones next to it. To me that's very much about the form of comics. I almost feel like I want to ignore that it's a comic book page and tell a story with pictures. I don't want the form to draw attention to itself. I want to worry about what's in the panels, not the panels themselves.

SPURGEON: The fact that you jumped right in and just started doing comics, was there a survivor's instinct to these choices as well?

FRENCH: Oh, yeah. I didn't know anything about comics. I had to learn the language as I went along. If I made a rule for myself like that, it was an easy place to start. It's really hard when you haven't read them all your life, you have to start from scratch. That's part of it. Now it's a choice. With Soap Lady I had had it with comics. I was kind of like, "Screw this!" I had spent time in Germany and in Norway and in Amsterdam and I was kind of looking at the German comics, and some of the other European comics, and I was noticing that, especially in Germany, they don't worry about that as much. They're called picture book storytellers or something like that -- the word for cartoonist there. They don't worry about format as much. Anke Feuchtenberger's work -- she has two panels per page. As many panels as she needs to tell the story. It's not about being comics; it's about telling the story in pictures. After I spent some time looking at that stuff, I was really finished with the comics thing. "Look, one panel per page. That's what I'm doing. The word balloons are going to be underneath so they won't get in the way; that's how I'm going to tell the story.

There's a Fax For You

SPURGEON: Is there anything you want to say about how Grit Bath was canceled?

FRENCH: Oof.

SPURGEON: I don't think the Journal has ever talked to anyone in that group of cartoonists that was being published right then.

FRENCH: So I'm going to be the one. [laughter]

I can tell you the truth about how I found out, but Gary's going to be pissed.

SPURGEON: So how did you find out about the cancellation of your book, Renee?

FRENCH: I came into work one morning. I went into the fax room. And my friend Vikki said, "Oh, there's a fax for you." And it was from Gary. He faxed me a little letter. It said something like, "I'm sorry, but we will no longer be publishing..." I'm going to get it wrong. "For financial reasons we've decided to change the format with many of the ongoing series to graphic novel format instead of the pamphlet format. Your Grit Bath is one of the victims of this. I'd like to talk to you about doing a graphic novel. And Grit Bath will be no more. Love, Gary." [laughter]

SPURGEON: Now, had you known the books weren't doing great?

FRENCH: I never and still never feel that I have much of an audience because it's a niche kind of thing. Issue #3 sold the most out of the three. Issue #3 sold out much quicker than the other two. But I don't know the numbers, so it's possible they only printed five. That one had a cute cover. These twin girls, one with a plastic bag over her head.

SPURGEON: That's a very striking cover.

FRENCH: I agonized over that cover, and called Jim Woodring during a dinner party. I was like crying over the phone, "I don't know. Should I do this? I don't know what to do." I thought if I did this and some kid put a bag over their head, it would be my fault. Jim talked me down. "Go do it. Do what you think is best." He was great. He was telling me, "If this is the cover you think should be there, do it." It's an adult comic book; no kids are going to be reading it anyway.

SPURGEON: Jim Woodring would be a good one to call, I'd imagine.

FRENCH: He was so amazing. He made me feel a lot better. When I got off the phone, I felt okay, but I had been freaking out. He was in the middle of something, and he took the time to talk to this ridiculous spaz. I don't know what my point was.

Kids really loved that cover. I got a letter from a woman saying that she'd gone into a comic book store looking for a comic book for her daughter, who was three or four or something. She was going to get her Wonder Woman or something like that. And the little girl kept running over to my comic and saying, "I want this." And having a fit in the comic book store insisting that this is the one she wanted. The mother ended up buying it and putting it in a bag and figuring the kid would forget about it. Which she did, but the mother read it and really liked it. She was writing to say, "You should know my three year old was attracted to the cover."

SPURGEON: Fantagraphics just marketed it wrong, you're saying. [laughter] That's really the last one-person omnibus comic book you did.

FRENCH: I had my number four all planned out and everything. The first one was fun but stressful. By the time I got to the third one I understood what I was going to be doing. I was planning for the next one, and I got "The Fax." So what I did was I decided that since they were looking for graphic novel ideas, I'd write a graphic novel -- Penn [Jillette] helped me name this -- Another Peeled Frog was the name of it. The story was ok. It was about a girl who was suffering hallucinations, and her little boyfriend who peeled the skin off a frog to see how long it would live without the skin. Then I went to Dark Horse and shelved that project because I started The Ninth Gland.

Bat Your Eyelashes

SPURGEON: With whom did you work at Dark Horse?

FRENCH: The lovely Bob Schreck.

SPURGEON: How did The Ninth Gland come about?

FRENCH: I was unhappy after the fax, and I was in Baltimore or somewhere with Peter Bagge, and Ellen Forney. I can't remember what show it is now. Maybe it was all a dream. It was some conference down there. Maybe it wasn't in Baltimore, but it was on the East Coast somewhere. I woke up in the morning and I didn't feel so hot. The guy who was the PR guy at Fantagraphics then -- I can't remember his name.

SPURGEON: Larry Reid?

FRENCH: Larry Reid was pissing me off. He was saying something like, "Hang around the booth and bat your eyelashes." I have no idea what he was talking about and I had sunglasses on. He was just being a dick pretty much. So I left the booth and I started wandering around the floor. The adorable Bob Schreck was standing in the middle of the floor at the Dark Horse booth. Angels sang. I introduced myself, and he said, "Oh I really loved Grit Bath. You should think of doing something for Dark Horse Presents." And I thought that sounded interesting. I could do it in installments instead of one big chunk like the graphic novel for Fantagraphics. It gave me that feeling that I could do something that would come out periodically, where I could do a bit and send it off. Almost like Grit Batch.

The other thing was they were paying money. They were paying as much for two pages as I used to get for an issue. It was actual money I could use to pay my rent and stuff. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

SPURGEON: You know, it's remarkable you stuck with it. A lot of the other cartoonists who had books canceled in the mid-'90s, we haven't seen a lot of comics from them since.

FRENCH: I was hooked on it. I was. With Grit Bath, by the third issue I'd really proven to myself that I could use this as a satisfying form of expression. It was more satisfying to me than drawing or painting individual pieces. To tell a story.

SPURGEON: With the Dark Horse stuff it seemed like you became more settled into narrative and story.

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FRENCH: I tried. The Grit Bath stuff, I was just going on emotion then. I was not in a really good place when I started that series. I was coming out of a bad divorce. I was depressed. I was angry. And so these stories, all I cared about was doing it. I really, really wasn't thinking about the finished book. I was just thinking about doing it. I would sit there in my bubble and make those crosshatches and, really obsess over the faces of the characters, obsess over the animal intestines, the jars and things. It was more in a desperate kind of way I was working then. I haven't read those stories in a long time because the last time I did, Eww! These aren't even stories, they're fever dreams.

When I went to Dark Horse I thought, "I'm going to try really hard now to be better with my storytelling." I wanted to see if I could tell a story and still keep that emotion in it. That was The Ninth Gland. The Ninth Gland has spots that are too long and slow, but there are parts that sort of work.

SPURGEON: How do you switch gears when you're averse to drawing on outside material? Trial and error?

FRENCH: I guess I could have gone and taken a course in writing or something, but instead I thought I could figure it out for myself. I'm a big movie fan. From the time I was little, that was my favorite art form. What I did was instead of thinking about the way a short story was written, the form of a short story, I would think about my favorite movie stories, what the plot is and how it works. What is the climax, what happens at the end? That's how I sort of tried to teach myself how to tell a story. It wasn't like writing; it was like filmmaking to me. Or screenwriting, I guess. I think that I still write my stories like a screenplay instead of like a short story.

SPURGEON: How much flexibility do you give yourself while filming/drawing?

FRENCH: I still have flexibility when I'm working on the finishes. I'm having to deal with the differences between that and kids' books. When you turn in the dummy, of a kid's picture book, that's it. You go with those exact pictures. You don't add any elements or take anything out. With my comics I have my thumbnails and it's all laid out. But then I change things as I go along all the way through it.

SPURGEON: What do you change?

FRENCH: Pacing mostly. I try to erase stuff, but it's hard to do that. If the pacing isn't right, it really bugs me. I don't think I have a handle on it yet. It bothers me when I'm reading someone's comics and the pacing is all over the place. Unless it should be that way, like it's speeding up intentionally or whatever. But the pacing is so important. I want to slow people down, and there's a real fine line. You have the amount of text, and if you have too much text people are just going to read the text and not look at the pictures, and if you have not enough text people are going to fly through it. I change dialogue to change the pacing, too.

SPURGEON: Is Ninth Gland the first time you worked with a lot of solid blacks?

FRENCH: I think so. I'm looking at it right now. Some of them are solid blacks, and some of them aren't. Gee, I don't know. [flipping through pages] God, my drawing is just awful. It wasn't intentional. I think it just felt right at the time. I was probably lying before and I saw Chester Brown or somebody working with a solid black area. It's not enough of a copy because everybody does it, so I felt okay doing that I guess.

SPURGEON: Does overall page design matter to you?

FRENCH: Not that much, no. Every so often it feels wrong and I'll change it. No. I'm not looking at the flow of the page even though it may be there. I may look without realizing it, but I'm not thinking about it.

They're Just Humans

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SPURGEON: Now the art in your next project, Rheumy Peepers...

FRENCH: Oh, God.

SPURGEON: ... looks very different from the rest of what you've done.

FRENCH: It's totally different. I did it on the computer. I thought that I could do some kind of thing where I would scan my pencils in, darken up my pencils so they looked like inks, and then drop gray wash areas in Photoshop. It wasn't about saving time; it was about a different look. I wanted it to have the spontaneity of the pencil lines without inking over them and flattening them out but I'm not happy with the way it turned out.

SPURGEON: What don't you like about it?

FRENCH: It's too simple. I want to go in there and add textures. I was trying to separate myself out from that, but it's not satisfying to me. I think if it had textures it would add a warmth that's not there. I don't know. It was a failed experiment in the art department. For me. Penn was fine with it.

SPURGEON: One thing that you developed around this time is a more distinctive grasp of character design -- the creature in The Ninth Gland, for example. Even your human figures became a bit more distinctive than they had been on Grit Bath. Do you design characters in your sketchbooks before you introduce them in a story?

FRENCH: In my sketchbook I'll do "This is what Rose looks like." I don't do it from the front, from the side, from behind -- I just get an idea: what are her eyes like, what is her nose like, what does she wear. I want to know who I'm dealing with before I start. I think the first thing before anything is the character drawing. Even before the story. Once I have an idea for a story I start drawing characters so I can visualize it better.

SPURGEON: Are there any character designs you're happy with?

FRENCH: Two of my favorite characters -- I don't know how anyone else feels about them -- I always come back to the Raccoon Kids. I really like them. If I were to make dolls of something, it would probably be them. I have not actually heard any response about them. People will talk to me about other stories, but not those characters. But to me, they have a ring to the way they look. Their little bodies, their oversized heads, their little shoes. Then: Steelhead. I'm a bit obsessed with him. He's come about over a long period of time. Cornelia was first. Then he sort of came out of her as a grown man version of that same character.

SPURGEON: A lot of your most memorable characters are children. You said once you found children interesting as blank slates because an experience quickly gathers itself together.

FRENCH: When there's an adult character, they've gone through so much in their life. They're complex. It's harder to know their motivation. You need a lot of back-story to know why they do something. Where with kids, there's less time for things to have happened to them. They're newer and purer and still they have this built-in darker side. But it's not because of things that have happened to them in their lives, it's just because it's wired in. It's about the way humans are, rather than the individual. When you start with kids, they're just humans. They're not as complicated, I guess. I don't think about it like that.

SPURGEON: How do you think about it?

FRENCH: I don't. I go to kids more but I don't think about it. In The Ticking, there's a boy and there's a dad. The dad has all this history that I don't go into, but it's there. And it's just sort of suggested. It's more difficult in a way to write the adult characters. Their actions require more explanation.

SPURGEON: Is it that you're not as interested in these motivations, or that it complicates your story?

FRENCH: I don't usually want to tell the story of the adult. It seems like it's a burden to have to explain certain things that I'm not interested in explaining. So I guess it's because it complicates the story I'm trying to tell. I'm really more attracted moments in time as opposed to the historical stuff.

SPURGEON: Where did Corny's Fetish come from, then?

FRENCH: It's about loneliness. [pause] With Corny's Fetish I was interested in trying to tell a story. I was concentrating less on the art, trying to obsess less, to have the pictures tell the story but not get fixated on certain elements the way I normally do. I decided to use a simpler medium. Pen and ink, but not a lot of crosshatching. I used gray washes for the tones.

SPURGEON: There's a ton of washes in there.

FRENCH: It was hard, because I wasn't used to something so loose. My tendency is to go tighter and tighter. I don't know.

I thought of the story one day; I was thinking about superstitions and the way people are when they're isolated: their superstitions become reality in that isolation. Their world becomes everything. The outside world doesn't come into it much. I wanted to isolate this character as much as possible, which I did with the deafness, the silence and the fact he didn't leave his house. His obsessions just got to him. It's about that.

SPURGEON: He doesn't seem too dissimilar from a lot of artists I know. But you're married.

FRENCH: Yeah, I'm married now. But I had quite a few years where I was by myself and didn't leave my apartment. Call for delivery and not go into work for a few days. Call in sick after the weekend so I could have four days straight without leaving the apartment. Your reality just skews. I know that guy. It's about that.

Giant Paper in the Mail

SPURGEON: You've done an incredible number of smaller features. Do you have a favorite among your short stories?

FRENCH: "Mitch and the Mole" is one of my favorites. It's a really simple story, but I feel like I got that kid. It could just be me, but I have a fondness for that story.

SPURGEON: Is it that you nailed it?

FRENCH: It's more an affection for it. I'm not sure it works any better than any of the rest.

SPURGEON: I like the portrait that kicks off that story.

FRENCH: Oh, yeah. Isn't he cute?

SPURGEON: I like the design of his head.

FRENCH: He looks like Alfred E. Neuman. He put a little hat on his mole! How cute... There's so many ugly drawings in there it's amazing.

SPURGEON: Some comics I hadn't seen from you before preparing for this interview are the shorts in the DC "Big Book" series. Is there anything worth telling about working on those projects?

FRENCH: I knew Sean Taggart and Bronwyn Carlton; she was one of the editors, I saw her at a party in New York one night. She asked me if I wanted to do some art for the Big Books so I did. Andy Helfer was editing.

I only did a few and it was a strange experience. I was all set to go and then I got this giant paper in the mail. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm like "What is this?" This giant paper with blue lines on it. It was an awful stock I would never draw on. And it was gigantic. I work at 100 percent.

SPURGEON: Do you really?

FRENCH: Yeah. And this is huge. It was strange. It was really hard for me to draw that big.

SPURGEON: Did you feel you had to? [laughs]

FRENCH: Yeah! I cut it in half so I could work on part of it at a time. I don't know how anyone can reach the top of the paper when it's on their drawing table. It's got to be like the star on top of the Christmas tree.

SPURGEON: Carmine Infantino used bungee cords.

FRENCH: Hah. That was difficult to do. But it was okay. I didn't mind it. It was the most editing I'd ever received and it was like two pages. Andy was like "Move this entire panel up. Take that out, change that..." The entire thing had marks on it.

SPURGEON: To good effect?

FRENCH: He made perfect sense. He was right about them. I never had anybody edit me before. I didn't know what it was like to be edited. I wasn't at Fantagraphics and I wasn't at Dark Horse.

SPURGEON:Do you learn from being edited?

FRENCH: That's a really good question, Tom, because the answer should be yes. But I don't think so. That doesn't mean that the editing isn't helpful and that it doesn't improve the product, it just means that I would make the same mistake again probably. I would make the same choices again. Then someone would make the same changes. My impulse is to do it the way I did it.

Never mind. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm like the Magic 8-Ball.

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I Was Devastated

SPURGEON: Sometime between 1998 and 2002 you stopped doing comics for about a year.

FRENCH: That was when I quit comics. Of course nobody knew I quit comics because the time between my comics is so long nobody would notice.

I quit in my own head. It wasn't really like quitting. That was the end of 1999. I felt like I was tired of following rules. It was an internal thing. It wasn't like I was angry at the community or anything like that. I was frustrated with what I was doing, these pen and ink stories. I would do pieces in anthologies, little short pieces in anthologies. I didn't feel I was getting any better or learning anything. I was really frustrated with it. Then we went traveling around again. I might have gone to Angouleme or something. My timing is probably off on all this.

It really happened when I went to Germany. I went to Berlin and I met Anke and some other people there. I saw that what they were doing was like what I said before. It was not like comics. It was telling stories with pictures. I stopped doing comics. I just stopped. I decided I was going to do kids' books instead. Because they would allow me to do these big pictures. Like one big picture per page. I had this idea that in kids' books I could really concentrate on the art more. I think I was just crazy or something. [Spurgeon laughs] It really doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about it.

After Corny's Fetish I was feeling the pull away from the obsessive cross-hatching and all that stuff. I was feeling this obligation to myself to think more about the storytelling than the art and I was frustrated. I felt like, "Screw that, I want to draw." That's what I want to do. Rob took a sabbatical from Bell Labs and we went to Australia for half a year. When I was there, I decided I was going to do a kids book. I thought, "I'll put some artwork together for a kids book." I bought some colored pencils and some paper. I wrote up this story, and I started drawing these characters in colored pencil and everything. It was really fun.

I came back to the US and I had an agent in New York, a literary agent. I talked to him about this kids book and he said "Well, I think we should add some extra characters so there would be potential for a spin-off. The publishers might go for it more if there's a potential for a spin-off." I remember feeling sick to my stomach. My head was like, "What?" He liked the artwork, but he was more concerned with making sure the publisher saw some potential for big money in this. Duh. That was the reality of this. I was devastated. I remember leaving there and thinking, "What the fuck?" I came from this spoiled world of comics where I could do whatever I wanted, I could tell whatever story I wanted and not have to think about that other stuff, not think about the potential for money. Because there's no money in the business! It didn't matter.

So L'Association in Paris sent me, along with a million other people, a letter to participate in their gigantic Comix 2000 project. I thought, "That sounds great." I 'm going to do a story for this Comix 2000 project, and I'm going to do whatever I want. I just had this liberated feeling. Like I'd spent half a year away from it all, and now I'm not going to follow anybody's rules and I'm just going to do what I want. Again, the psychotic self-imposed rules. I took the black colored pencil that I had been using in Australia on the kids' book and I did the artwork for this comic strip about the Raccoon kids in black colored pencil instead of ink. It doesn't seem like that big of a difference, but for me it was tremendous. That was the first time I did a strip in that medium. And so I had this feeling like I was back. I can tell stories here, I can tell whatever stories I want. No one's going to tell me to add extra characters to a story. It was fun again, after I'd been away for a while and got spanked by the kids' book people.

Another Little Piece

SPURGEON: So you followed up on this new feeling by doing no comics whatsoever.

FRENCH: That's right. [laughs] No, what I did was if somebody asked me to if I wanted to be in an anthology, I'd say sure. And I'd do a little thing for them. It was fun. At the same time, I was writing this story called The Ticking. But I was doing it sort of backburner. I had it in a sketchbook, figuring out the story. I wasn't thinking much about it just kind of fooling around with it.

Somewhere along the line Jamie Rich said, "Why don't we put a compilation together of all your stuff?" And I love Jamie. I thought it would be fun to work with him again. So we put together everything we could find. Then Marbles in My Underpants came out. I had been doing little things, Tom; what I was doing was just scattered all over the place. In Expo 2001, in The Ganzfeld, in Dirty Stories...

SPURGEON: You became Anthology Whore.

FRENCH: I still am Anthology Whore. I enjoy the anthologies. The only problem with that is that when people are reading a list of people in an anthology and my name's there again. And it's like, "Oh, God." But I get to do another little piece. They're scattered around, and it's really hard to find them all. It was so nice when Marbles was put together just to see a lot of that stuff in one place. There are ones since Marbles, too.

SPURGEON: Do you feel any sense of camaraderie with your fellow artists?

FRENCH: I hate them.

SPURGEON: Does that play a role in wanting to do anthologies?

FRENCH: No. [laughter] I do feel a sense of camaraderie, but that doesn't come into it with the anthology thing. The only person you deal with is the editor. I did Rosetta. I knew those guys, but we didn't talk about what we were doing in that book. I never thought of it as a group. I think Kramers is kind of like that. And Sammy, I get along really well with Sammy. He helped me work through a lot of The Ticking shit.

SPURGEON: Is he an intense young artist?

FRENCH: Yeah. He's intense. I'm not sure if he thinks he's intense, but yeah, he's intense. When I was working on The Ticking I got to a point a couple of times where I was really confused. I couldn't see it anymore. The really great thing about talking to Sammy is that he's thinking about art all the time. And he says what he thinks. It was very helpful.

I'm pretty isolated here but I try to hang around with the Bay area crowd a little bit. I'd like to see them more. I see everybody at these conventions. At the conventions I feel like it's an overload of information and I need to be social. I feel shut down. I go into this spaz mode where I don't remember anything afterwards. People talk to me and I don't remember what they're saying. It makes me sad. I want to be able to hang out with somebody without that extreme thing that happens at the conventions. I know other people who feel like that too.

SPURGEON: There are two successive generations of American cartoonists where the first is completely anti-social and the ones immediately younger are aggressively social.

FRENCH: I find it interesting the way the younger cartoonists talk to each other about their work and they work together and share experiences. We didn't do that. We did it ourselves and then we'd see each other at conventions but not talk about our work very much. I had a disagreement once with Dan Clowes about who was grosser. I believed he was grosser than I was at the time. That was all the talking about artwork I did that year with anybody.

Who Made the Prettiest Books

SPURGEON: Your next big project after all of these shorts was really different. You mentioned it before: The Soap Lady.

FRENCH: It was sort of a response to not wanting to fit into the comics form. Because I wanted to tell a story in pictures and have the pictures be bigger. [laughter]

SPURGEON: It sounds like DC had given you this opportunity with that giant paper.

FRENCH: But then they'd shrink it down! What I wanted was a bigger picture, the picture being something you could look at on its own. I wanted it to be isolated somehow.

I had pitched this idea in a joking way years before to Eric Reynolds just trying to make him laugh. As a kids' book, saying this scary woman made of soap was going to walk around the streets at night and she was going to lop off pieces of her body to give to the little children when they were good, and she was going to wash out their mouths with her fist when they were bad. I made a little promotional drawing and faxed it to him. He sent back a fax saying "Ha ha ha, very funny." Then I forgot about it.

SPURGEON: And then he changed his fax number.

FRENCH: Exactly. [laughs] So I'd been into the German scene. I pitched the idea for The Soap Lady book to the German publisher that I was working with. Dirk thought it was great and they started translating it. And I was really psyched because The Soap Lady was going to come out in German and be a really nice book. I was talking to Gretchen Warden -- she just passed away the end of last year -- at the Mutter Museum. She said, "No, no no. You have to do it in English. You have to have an English edition because I want to sell the book at the Mutter museum." The Soap Lady is based on an exhibit there at the Mutter Museum.

I had to find an English publisher. I tried to figure out who made the prettiest books. I'd seen something Top Shelf had done; I don't remember what it was. I liked the design sense and thought it looked nice. So I wrote Chris Staros and pitched him the idea. And he said, "Yeah, that'd be great."

So we went from there on it. The German publisher was translating from my original manuscript. Chris wanted to be an editor on the book. He likes to have an editorial presence on books. So I thought, "Sure, let's do it." And we did. He sent me back notes, suggestions and stuff, and I made some changes, and we put it together and then Soap Lady came out. Unfortunately Jochen went out of business as far as publishing. They still have a store, but they weren't publishing books anymore. So the German edition never came out. I still have the translated text, though. I still want to find a German publisher, because I think that would be very cool.

SPURGEON: In your pictures in Soap Lady, it seems like the figures rely much more on physical gestures. The Soap Lady herself has wonderful hands. Is that a quality of working with single pictures?

FRENCH: Yeah, I think so. If you look at some mainstream comics... You don't even know what superheroes are, do you?

SPURGEON: I'm dressed as one right now.

FRENCH: Wolverine's hot. Is he a superhero?

SPURGEON: Never heard of him.

FRENCH: He's pretty hot.

Most of the mainstream comics -- the one's that I've seen [laughs] -- there's a lot of action going on in each panel. There are full body shots and gestures and muscles and huge bulges and stuff like that. For me, when I'm working in comics, I have that little square. I don't feel like there's enough room. If I make my people smaller, the resolution goes down, and I don't like the lack of detail. It's because the people draw so big and shrink it down! [laughter]

I feel that I want the faces to be seen. I think they're more important than the body gestures though I'm starting to not think that's true anymore. So I had a bigger area to draw in, and I thought you can see more. [groans] It's kindergarten thinking. "You can see more of the body because it's a bigger square." C'mon.

I Love That Rollo

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SPURGEON: One thing I like about The Soap Lady is the lead boy.

FRENCH: Rollo. Named after the Buster Keaton character.

SPURGEON: He's a very exquisite-looking character. His features are more exaggerated than everyone else's.

FRENCH: Yes, it's true.

SPURGEON: Is that just to make the character distinctive?

FRENCH: We were watching My Neighbor Totoro the other night, and we were commenting about how her mouth takes up three quarters of her face, she's really exaggerated and his older characters, they're more normally proportioned. The bad guys have normal proportions and the good characters have the anime exaggeration. The style is inconsistent throughout, depending on who the character is. That's actually true of Rollo. Rollo's the hero, and he has the most exaggerated face. The townspeople are more normal looking. Especially the Anthony Newley guy with the sideburns and the sweater. He's one of my favorite guys -- he's got David Bowie eyes and Anthony Newley sweater and hair.

The only reason I did that is because -- and this is going to sound retarded -- I love that Rollo. He's the baby in the story and I love him. I remember Rob looking at it and saying, "Could he be any more cute? Could you tone down the cuteness with him? He's almost too cute." I don't think there is such a thing as too much cute. I think there's some reason you want the hero to be more exaggerated than the extras.

SPURGEON: Because you love them more.

FRENCH: I love him. I love his little hands. His hair like Gene Wilder's. And the boy, the bad boy, if you look at the bad boy in this story he's the same bad boy in the "Mitch and the Mole" story. That's because he's based on a kid I punched in the first grade because he's a jerk. He was a really bad kid and that's my memory of what he looked like.

SPURGEON: Did The Soap Lady find its intended audience?

FRENCH: Most of the feedback I got is from kids. They're still coming now. I'll forget about it and then I'll get e-mail from a grandmother who read it to her grandchildren. People are buying it slowly. It's getting out there, slowly trickling out. The ten-year-old kids... I get a lot of e-mail from ten-year-olds and nine-year-olds. They love it. It's almost naughty because it's a little bit scary. The people who talk about it being scary though are the adults. The kids never talk about it. They just really like it.

SPURGEON: The Soap Lady character reminds me of a much older person.

FRENCH: I think she's my grandmother. My grandmother died in 1988. I still really miss her. She was a hero in my life. I think about her a lot. She comes up a lot.

SPURGEON: When you're a kid and you look at an old person's body, it's not too far away from the Soap Lady.

FRENCH: The Soap Lady's body is almost like an old lady in a housedress, the breasts being really low and round body. The story is kind of me and my grandmother; she's still around. She's gone but in my head she's still around.

It's Made of Poo

SPURGEON: Of all your smaller projects between big books, you've also done one specifically for on-line audiences, at Serializer.net. What exactly is "Micrographica?"

FRENCH: It's about rodents who collect balls of poo. And one rodent is the outcast, and he breaks one of the balls of poo at one point and insects come out from the inside. And it's really sad and happy at the same time. There's a lot of dialogue. And then he finds a giant rodent with lots of nipples.

SPURGEON: What the hell?

FRENCH: He tells him to go to the mountain of poo. See that mountain over there? It's made of poo. Oh, thank you. And then he goes to get more poo at the giant mountain of poo.

SPURGEON: Why are you drawing these on paper towels?

FRENCH: You're looking at them on-line right now?

SPURGEON: Yes.

FRENCH: [laughs] No, it's on paper. Because they're only a centimeter square, that's what the paper looks like. You're so close up.

SPURGEON: This is horrible!

FRENCH: It's cute. How can you not know all about this? This is "Micrographica," my most awesome piece ever.

SPURGEON: It looks like you spent some time on the drawings.

FRENCH: I did. It's a real passion of mine, this little thing. It's not done by a long shot.

SPURGEON: "I got eczema around my nubbins." That's just beautiful.

FRENCH: What does it say?

SPURGEON: "I got eczema around my nubbins." [laughter] My estimation of you as a human being has gone up a little bit.

FRENCH: Then he's scratching it, right?

SPURGEON: How often do you do these?

FRENCH: I do them when I feel like doing them, because they're inspirational. When I'm really feeling like doing one, I do one.

It Has a Chimp In a Dress

SPURGEON: So: The Ticking, finally.

FRENCH: The Ticking has been coming and coming and coming for so long. Nice.

SPURGEON: It should be out this Winter, correct?

FRENCH: Jordan [Crane]
has it now. I was just in LA with Jordan, and we were talking about production and the cover and that stuff. It's been done for months now. He's designing the book. It'll be out in December 2005.

SPURGEON: Are you generally happy with the way your books have been designed?

FRENCH: I've pretty much always designed the cover. The design of The Soap Lady is pretty much exactly the way I wanted it. We had someone do the text on the cover.

SPURGEON: Why are you working with Jordan?

FRENCH: That's because Jordan's book The Last Lonely Saturday came out, and I fell in love with it. How simple it was and the book itself was this perfect little object that you sort of hold and carry around with you. And I carried it around with me for days, obsessed with the format. Like, "Look at this thing!" You could put it in your back pocket; the texture of the cover was really great. I was talking to Brett Warnock about it, saying how adorable it was. He said, why don't we do The Ticking -- I'd already done some installments for the Oni web site -- why don't we do it in book form in a little package like that? That was how it started. We could do this cute version, not many pages, one drawing per page, cute little package. And then it got out of hand after that. Wow, it's so not what it started out to be. Now it's completely different and I don't know what the response will be. I know it's finished and I know I'm happy with it.

SPURGEON: I'm sure we'll all hate it.

FRENCH: [laughs] I know! That's what I think.

SPURGEON: How is it structured?

FRENCH: Some pages have one panel; some have more. It's hardcover, 200 pages, and it varies -- one to three panels. It's all about how fast or slow I want people to go while they're reading it. Mostly two per page.

SPURGEON: Two per page would be a strange rhythm.

FRENCH: Yeah. I think it works for this. It's odd. It's... I don't know. The storytelling is not as straightforward as I've been doing lately. There are not a lot of words -- there are words, but not a lot. They're underneath the panels, like in Soap Lady. It skips around a bit; it's sort of vignette, vignette, vignette, vignette telling a whole story. But there are lapses in time. It's about a little boy who has a deformed face that he has inherited from his father. It's about the father's desire to change his son's face because he doesn't want to be reminded of his own deformity. I think it's kind of odd. It has a chimp in a dress though, which is always a good thing.

SPURGEON: The Ticking sounds like it will be an important book partly because it embraces a lot of things you generally avoid: it's very long, it's complicated, some of the characters are older.

FRENCH: Are you saying I'm an idiot?

SPURGEON: Is there some reason you're taking on these challenges now? Did the story demand it?

FRENCH: It happened by accident. I wasn't intentionally trying to do something different. The reason it went through so many changes is that when I went into it I wrote a story that was sort of like me. And then Chris Staros and I worked together on it and he wanted to make sure it was accessible in some way. He wanted to make sure it was understandable, and that it wasn't confusing. That's really an editor's job.

SPURGEON: Did you welcome that input?

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FRENCH: We had done that with The Soap Lady. I'd done it once already, so that was the way we worked together. I did welcome it. I wasn't sure about it. I was working by myself as usual. I kind of didn't know what the perception of it would be, or if anyone would understand it anyway. So when Chris sent back his notes, and we worked on it together, I ended up changing a lot of it and ended up being happy with it at the time. Then I went through this period where I was just hating it. And not really understanding it. I was going through the thumbnails, and reading through it, and feeling really uncomfortable with it. It took me a while, and I talked to some people, I talked to Sammy, I talked to my friend Sean Tejaratchi, and I finally sort of saw that it wasn't me anymore. It wasn't the story I had written, it was not what I would do. So I took out big parts of it to make it what I wanted. I called Chris, and he was "Okay, fine. Let's see what comes out of it." So this version of the book is like the third version. And it's me. It's my book. I don't know what anybody's going to think when they read it.

SPURGEON: You discovered a lot of your father in the book, and then you still had to work some more on it. What is it like to make discoveries of that magnitude with work yet to come?

FRENCH: That was after the edited version of it, and I was walking around the house just miserable. Reading through it, and having these emotional responses to the two characters, and to what the father was basically saying to the son. It occurred to me one day that it was about me and my dad. It wasn't literal. But it was emotionally about me and my dad. And I'd never written anything before about my dad. Not that I can remember. [laughter]

SPURGEON: There aren't a lot of fully present father figures in your work.

FRENCH: There's a father in the "Mitch and the Mole" story who is absent. He's there but not paying attention. So I got really upset. And every time I started working on it again, and I'd be drawing Steelhead and his reactions to what his dad was saying to him and stuff. I'd be really in there. I would start to think about my dad and get angry and upset. I killed a character off; I eliminated a character because there was no reason for that character to be in there.

And now when I look at the book, when I see the father, I see my dad. And it's kind of disturbing.

SPURGEON: What's your thinking about the book now that it's done? Is there any feeling you got out of finishing a book, staring down all those issues?

FRENCH: Uh...

SPURGEON: Say we all end up hating The Ticking. Was it still worth doing?

FRENCH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Were you able to work through those issues by doing this book?

FRENCH: It sounds really corny, but I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think it's interesting that some of the people who make really disturbing comics, when you meet them they seem to be the most normal people you know.

SPURGEON: I guess Dave Cooper is pretty normal.

FRENCH: Charles Burns. Jim Woodring. Jim is really, really sweet but his work scares me. He's a nice, sweet guy. Dave Cooper's really normal, and his work is really disturbing. And I think they get that stuff out on the paper instead of being really weird.

SPURGEON: So has getting it out on paper been good for you?

FRENCH: I take too long with my drawings for it to be cathartic. When would catharsis happen? The thumbnails? The entire year that it takes to make something?

SPURGEON: That's one slow-burning catharsis.

FRENCH: It's not like a painting.

I Was Shocked

SPURGEON: A portion of The Ticking appeared in Paris Review, the first comics pages they've ever published. How did the Paris Review appearance come about?

FRENCH: What happened was that, a few years ago, Oliver Broudy, who is an editor there, thought we could submit some of my work to the editorial board there to see if it would fly. He didn't think it would but it was worth a shot. I sent him some stuff I was working on and he showed it to the board, and they said, "No, we don't publish comics. We don't do that."

We did that a few times. Every once in a while he would send me mail and say, "Do you have something I could run by them." I would send him something and he'd do it and they'd say no. When The Ticking was finished, I told him that I had a graphic novel that was finished and would be coming out from Top Shelf. He said we could put together an excerpt and see if we could run it that way. He ran it by them, and I believe they said no initially. He brought it back and spun it a different way and they said yes. I was shocked.

SPURGEON: Wasn't the editor in chief when you were accepted 14 years old?

FRENCH: She's like 35.

SPURGEON: Does it look okay?

FRENCH: It looks great. I'm really happy with it. Oliver said [laughs] that a lot of the readers of Paris Review were really crabby about it when they found out it was in there. He said most of the people who were crabby came around and really liked it and were glad it was in there. But I haven't heard anything personally. I haven't gotten any mail or anything. No e-mail.

SPURGEON: Do you get e-mail or letters generally?

FRENCH: I get e-mail. I don't get a ton. I think I used to get more... no, that 's not true. I was going to say I got more when it was handwritten letters, but it's just that those things make more of an impact. When you get an e-mail you read it and then answer it or set it aside. It's not an actual object.

SPURGEON: Did you used to get strange ones?

FRENCH: Really strange ones. The other thing I think is you could tell they were really strange because they were written in crayon or they had little presents in the envelope. Stuff like that.

SPURGEON: Did you ever get anything nasty?

FRENCH: No, nothing nasty. It was always nice things. A lot of times they started out, "Dear Sick Fucker" or stuff like that. Then they would be really sweet. They thought they had to gross me out. [laughter] Like that would make me happy, and that's the only way you can talk to me.

No Glasses Please

SPURGEON: I find it interesting that right now you're stuck between these two publishing worlds: children's book publishing and comics publishing. Tell me about your picture book work.

FRENCH: My pen name is Rainy Dohaney. That's my grandfather's last name, Martin Dohaney. My first picture book was called Tinka, about a sheep the size of a cupcake. My editor was Ann Schwartz. She found me because of an illustration I did in the New York Times. So it came back to kids' books. Even though I wasn't looking to get into kids books after that experience with the agent.

SPURGEON: Do you like working in that industry?

FRENCH: The thing is, I need the comics to balance it out. In the kids books it's an ultra-collaborative kind of thing. It's you, the author-artist, the editor and the art director. The three of you work together. It's very editor heavy.

I thought that because it was a picture book and so were comics that there would be a similar process going from manuscript to finished book. But the differences are huge. The editors are really active in the process. With comics, it can be like at Fantagraphics where you don't -- I'm going to get in trouble for saying this -- but you don't have very much editorial input. At least I didn't.

SPURGEON: There's almost an absence of industry in comics. You've told a story about when you started doing children's books of going and pitching in an office in New York City. That seems almost old-fashioned.

FRENCH: It is old-fashioned. It's surprising that it's still like that. At least with my editor. My only experience is with Ann Schwartz. She's really great. She had an imprint at Simon & Schuster. It did feel old-fashioned when you'd go to her office and she'd have pictures by Ian Falconer on the wall. When you walk into Atheneum, there are picture-book pictures all over the place. It's this warm, fuzzy kids' book atmosphere. It feels like it's out of a movie or something. Like Big. It doesn't feel real in a way. It's not at all like a comic book publisher's office.

SPURGEON: With the asbestos hanging from the ceiling and the scary bathrooms.

FRENCH: Yeah. It's different.

SPURGEON: Was it difficult to learn how to negotiate children's book publishing? There's a really high threshold for participation, and a lot at stake.

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FRENCH: I went into it really open. I just made a decision early on that I wasn't going to fight it, because I didn't know anything about the business. They did and I didn't, so I really gave up control right away. "You tell me what's right." I kind of went into it like that, and then as the process went on I fought certain things. I picked my fights, though. The one conversation we had about something in the Tinka book was that I wanted one of the sheep to have glasses. The sheep is named Myla after Myla Goldberg, who has little glasses. She's a friend of mine. Anyway, I wanted the sheep to have little glasses, and I put little glasses on the sheep [laughs] in my pencils, in the dummy book, and I got little notes back that said, "No glasses please." With a little smiley face. From my editor and the art director, also. They believed it was too anthropomorphic. But my sheep were talking. [Spurgeon laughs] There's a line, but it's not clear what that line is. I would have the sheep standing up on its hind legs in certain drawings, and that was too anthropomorphic. But certain other things were not. So I argued about the glasses, and eventually convinced them that the glasses were a good idea. But there was talk about "How does the sheep put them on?" Or "What does the sheep do with the glasses while she sleeps?" She puts the glasses on a little pillow of hay. What else? I don't know how she puts them on and takes them off.

SPURGEON: I suppose like all sheep, she asks somebody for help.

FRENCH: [laughs] There were certain things I won, and ones that I didn't. Really, when I look at the final book it is very close to my dummy book. It's very close to my manuscript. It just felt like I didn't have control at first because it was so different from the comic book business where depending on your publisher you pretty much put the thing together and send it to them and then they'll make spelling changes.

SPURGEON: Was there a follow-up to Tinka?

FRENCH: Right now, I'm finishing up my second picture book for Simon and Schuster called My Best Sweet Potato. That will be out in 2006, because the way they work is much slower than comics. It's under my pen name. I had to come up with a pen name. I wanted to make sure there wasn't any confusion. I didn't want someone going and looking for all of the other books by this author of the cute Tinka and finding Marbles in my Underpants and thinking, "That's really cute" and ordering it for their kids.

SPURGEON: So fear drove you.

FRENCH: I didn't want anyone ordering Marbles in My Underpants for their four-year-old and giving them the Amazon box to open up in their room...

SPURGEON: How much of your time goes into the kids' books?

FRENCH: A lot.

SPURGEON: The majority?

FRENCH: Right now. The thing is they take up a lot of time, and what I ended up doing with The Ticking is that I started it and put it aside and worked an entire year on Tinka and then came back and picked it up again. Then My Best Sweet Potato started, and I was just going to do the first part, the dummy, and I put The Ticking aside again for a couple of months while I did the dummy for the My Best Sweet Potato. So it's taken a long time partly because of the children's book. Sweet Potato has taken a long time too. I'm going to present the finished art in New York. The next thing is a picture book for Random House. My editor, Anne Schwartz is now at Random House and I'll be doing something for them.

I've also got a graphic novel that's sort of written that's called... Towcester Island. Though I'm changing it all the time. There are parasites, and behavioral changes and claustrophobia. Brain worms. People suddenly acting like interior designers. Infected goats. Someone lying dead, having bled to death from stabbing herself in the nose trying to get the brain worm out. That sort of thing.

SPURGEON: That sounds really different than your usual areas of exploration.

FRENCH: It's because I saw that George Clooney movie.

SPURGEON: Killer Tomatoes?

FRENCH: The one on the spaceship.

SPURGEON: Solaris.

FRENCH: I hadn't seen the first one, but I thought this had such potential to be really, really killer. If something changes your personality, are you the same person? If someone has a brain tumor and their personality changes, it's the same body, but are they the same person? Are you married to the same guy if your husband has a brain tumor and his personality changes?

SPURGEON: It sounds like you have a lot of work to do.

FRENCH: I'm not sure how to manage it yet. I always have too many things on my plate at the same time.

Not Bad Like That

SPURGEON: One thing we've barely touched on that I wanted to ask you about before we end this. You've worked with an eclectic group of collaborators: Denny Eichhorn, Penn Jillette, Gahan Wilson on a Big Book page, your more active editors... Isn't collaboration difficult for you because of the deeply personal way in which you work?

FRENCH: Yeah, I don't really like it much.

SPURGEON: Have you ever learned anything from a collaborator you've applied to the way you work?

FRENCH: Uh... I don't think so. [laughs] They were valuable experiences, but I don't think I took anything to my work now, to be honest. It was fun working with each one of those people, but I don't think... when I'm collaborating I always have this feeling I'm going to fail the writer. That I'm not doing a good job of capturing what the writer wants. It always becomes this nightmare while I'm working on it. I think the book with Penn, the Rheumy Peepers thing, was the least difficult emotionally. Penn is really easygoing to work with. It was not bad like that. But I still had this feeling I was failing even though he totally left the imagery up to me.

SPURGEON: Have you ever written for someone else to draw?

FRENCH: Sammy Harkham and I did a little story together but it never got done.

SPURGEON: Sammy is kind of lazy. [laughter]

FRENCH: That's the only time. It was supposed to be something for Ben Catmull's anthology -- I'm going to get that wrong and Sammy's going to call me up: "You idiot!' We did a short story where I wrote it and he was going to draw it but it never happened for some reason I can't remember now.

SPURGEON: How was that experience?

FRENCH: It was weird! It was a short little piece, but I want to draw it. I still have thumbnails, because I wrote it with thumbnails because there was no dialogue. It sits there, scanned into my machine. I go by it every once in a while and think, "Oh, I'd really like to draw that." The other part of it I thought would be fun is to see how Sammy would draw my ideas.

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SPURGEON: In general, what keeps you interested in your work?

FRENCH: I really love drawing. I love the act of drawing. So when something's finished, I put it aside. I don't think of it anymore. When I'm doing it is when it's fun. I've had some shows of drawing and thought about stopping this comics thing and just starting to make stand-alone images. I've tried that. I've done that. And I always come back to telling stories. And comics seems to be a really good way of doing that.

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Renee's Web Site
Renee's Other Web Site
Renee's Lambiek.net Entry

Selected Renee French Bibliography
By Renee French
(I think I swiped this from her site)

Stand-Alone Books
The Ticking (Top Shelf, 2005)
The Soap Lady (Top Shelf, 2001)
Marbles In My Underpants (Oni Press, 2001)
Corny’s Fetish (Dark Horse Comics, 1998)
The Ninth Gland (Dark Horse Comics, 1997)
Grit Bath #3 (FBI, 1994)
Grit Bath #2 (FBI, 1994)
Grit Bath #1 (FBI, 1993)
The Adventures of Rheumy Peepers & Chunky Highlights (Oni Press, 1999)

Anthologies
The Big Book of Bad (Paradox Press, 1998)
The Big Book of Death (Paradox Press, 1995)
The Big Book of Freaks (Paradox, 1996)
Comix 2000 (L’Association, 1999)
Dark Horse Presents #100 (Dark Horse Comics, 1995)
Dark Horse Presents #107 - #112 (Dark Horse Comics, 1996)
Dark Horse Presents Annual 1997 (Dark Horse Comics, 1997)
Dirty Stories Volume One (FBI, 1997)
EXPO 2001
Fidus #5 (No Comprendo Press, 1994)
Free Speeches (Oni Press, 1998)
The Ganzfeld #2
Lallapalooza Magazine (Lallapalooza, 1996)
Last Gasp #4 (Last Gasp, 1996)
Last Gasp #5 (Last Gasp, 1997)
Legal Action Comics Volume One (Danny Hellman, December 2000)
Paris Review (November 2004)
Real Stuff #10, (FBI, 1992)
Real Stuff #17 (FBI, 1994)
Rosetta Volume One
Slant Magazine (Urban Outfitters, 1997)
The Stranger June 2000
Tokion (JAPAN, August 2000)
A Vast Knowledge of General Subjects - Book One (FBI, 1994)
XX (Jochen Enterprises, July 2000)
Zero Zero #17 (FBI, 1997)
Zero Zero #23 (FBI, 1998)
Zero Zero Final Issue (Fantagraphics, July 2000)

About Renee French
Strapazin Magazine (2000)
The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium - American Culture on the Brink (Grove Press, 1999)
World Art - Issue 18
The Village Voice (1995)
The Comics Journal #174
The Comics Journal #159
The Utne Reader #59

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