Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 5, 2014

CR Sunday Interview: Renée French



imageRenée French is one of my favorite people in comics and one of the most consistent, most formidable creators of her generation. French's latest is Baby Bjornstrand, from Koyama Press, her second book of the year following Hagelbarger And That Nightmare Goat, a Spring offering from Yam Books.

The following interview was conducted on the Saturday morning of SPX 2014. It is therefore a bit more casual than past and (hopefully) future conversations I've had and will have with the artist. I hope it brings out a different side of her than you see in some of our longer talks. She's a great friend to a number of younger cartoonists, and I think you can see her baseline curiosity and solicitousness shift to the surface in our talk.

I'm grateful to Renée for the time, particularly in that I'd rather her use every spare moment to make more comics for me to read. I tweaked a bit of what follows for clarity and flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I talked to bunch of people about doing this interview, and several of them wondered out loud about the course of your career right now, the fact that you seem to be moving from publisher to publisher while staying very prolific. I wondered if you could talk about why you've gone through this progression of publishers.

RENÉE FRENCH: Did they think that was really strange?

SPURGEON: I don't think strange as much as different. A lot of cartoonists settle in with one publisher, or with a few -- maybe one or two. It seems like you're doing books, one after another, with good, interesting publishers but definitely a different one each time out.

FRENCH: I feel like I've always been searching for... the old "searching for a home" kind of thing. I've always wanted to feel like a part of where I am. When I went to Dark Horse, it was at a time when the weirdos were there because Bob Schreck would bring some weirdos in because he loved their artwork but the upper people didn't like that as much. "Fantagraphics-like" is what they actually said.

Weird things happened. I went to San Diego one time with Dark Horse and when we got there my books weren't there. I went all the way out to San Diego and my books weren't there. Jamie Rich and somebody whose name I can't remember -- the rock star guy -- the guy who wears leather vests with nothing underneath it.

SPURGEON: I am immediately interested in this person but I have no idea who that is. [French laughs]

FRENCH: I can't think of who he is!

SPURGEON: This is definitely the most interesting person in comics.

FRENCH: He's shirtless and kind of a rock star. I'll think of it. [Editor's Note: It was Paul Pope.] He helped me walk around the floor and buy my own comic from Last Gasp and First Second to do signings. Dark Horse -- we just weren't that important, the people doing weird stuff. That was the beginning of the feeling that I didn't belong.


So are we done?

SPURGEON: Yes, that's all the time we have. [laughter]

FRENCH: "We had five minutes, and I couldn't think of that guy's name."

I think that I started off feeling I wasn't part of a gang. I saw other people with publishers who seemed to be with their tribe. I never felt like that. At Oni, I really didn't feel like that.


SPURGEON: At Fantagraphics you were solidly in that second wave of cartoonists that came along right when the rug was pulled out from under black and white alternative series. Dave Cooper, Jeremy Eaton, Jeff Johnson.

FRENCH: A lot of really good people.

SPURGEON: That second wave -- that second wave was just kind of beat down in terms of doing alt-comics series. Carol Swain, too, I think.

FRENCH: It was kicked in the face, yeah. "We have no money."

SPURGEON: So did those cartoonists feel like a group to which you belonged?

FRENCH: Yeah, but we were a group that was disbarred. It felt like a group and I felt like I was a part of that family. And then we got these like faxes saying that we were done.

SPURGEON: I never knew that was a fax.

FRENCH: Did I not tell you that?

SPURGEON: I never heard that. I was actually there at the time, too, although on a different floor than the fax machine.

FRENCH: I came into work and my friend was like, "Renée, you got a fax; it looks like it's from your other boss or something. From your Fantagraphics boss." What? A fax? He could have called me about whatever. He has my phone number. It's Gary [Groth]. It was a fax from Gary saying that for financial reasons and because of the way the market is right [they] were stopping all of the floppies; [they] will instead be doing graphic novels. Group F is canceled, and now you're going to have to do graphic novels.

It really felt awful. I was fired from this little gig that I had.

SPURGEON: There was tremendous economic pressure on them at that point. The mid-1990s were horrific for companies like that.

FRENCH: Yes. Definitely.

SPURGEON: I think the only comic that survived from that group was Dame Darcy's, maybe?

FRENCH: I think she was canceled and came back again. I don't think she made it through that bit, but they resurrected her.


SPURGEON: I remember having a conversation with you way back when you were doing The Soap Lady, 2000 or 2001, and you said your approach to publishing was going to be finding the people that made the nicest-looking books.

FRENCH: That's what I had decided.

SPURGEON: I wondered... is that easier now? More people make nice-looking books now.

FRENCH: It is easier, yeah. At the time, with Top Shelf, I remember looking for a publisher where their books looked like the way I liked things to look. I found their books to be consistently beautiful books. They were making pretty books with a style to them I was really seeing somewhere else. I wanted to be with them because of that. I just sent Chris [Staros] an e-mail. I was out at that point. I didn't expect him to say yes, but I wrote him saying, "I have an idea for this soap lady thing." And he said, "Yeah, definitely." So then I was with them.

It was very nice. I enjoyed my time with them very much. I still feel like they're my publisher. I love Brett [Warnock]. He's a great guy. They were always very nice to me. I don't have anything bad to say about Top Shelf. My problem was when I wanted to do something that was a little bit out of the box of what they do. I wanted to do something with maybe photographs and that was all over the piece. Not so regimented. Not so editable. Chris likes to edit. He really does.

SPURGEON: He's a very hands-on editor, particularly in the context of independent comics.

FRENCH: So I went looking for someone I could work with that made beautiful books but that would let me do what I wanted to do. That was Dan Nadel and PictureBox.

SPURGEON: Bill K. pointed out in conversation yesterday that you're one of those cartoonists with multiple opportunities to apply your skills in a variety of media. You've done children's work. You've done gallery shows.

FRENCH: I'm excited to be doing that more now.

SPURGEON: What keeps you coming back to comics? What is the specific appeal? It's not the financial reward.

FRENCH: Never that. [laughter]

That's interesting. I'm... getting older. I'm looking for a thing that I might do when I'm older that might not include books. Although I love books. I'm putting it out trying to see if books disappear -- which I don't want to happen, and would make me very sad and I don't really think will happen. The kids book thing for me is not really rewarding. It's strange. It seems like it should be. Even if I get letters from kids -- and I do. I get letters saying, "We do this routine every night we found in one of your books and we love it." That's wonderful. But it doesn't feel as good -- for me -- as The Ticking, as the stories I get from people with whom The Ticking resonated. It reminded many of their relationship to their father, and for many it was therapeutic.

My fantasy is to be a painter and a drawer that does exhibits. I'm around a lot of those people. In Sydney I'm around way more of those people. In Australia the painting is respected by the real guy, the regular joe. It's weird. The regular joe knows who won the Archibald Prize. It's like that. You hear people in the coffee shop that are like, "Did you see the finalists for the Archibald Prize?" "Yeah, I know." "Oooh, I didn't like that one by Margaret Olley very much." [laughter] It's amazing! These are regular people. I'm starting to get hooked into that. I'm friends with some painters and I've started to learn how to do portraiture... and I'm back here doing these little creature drawings which are practice for that stuff. What ends up happening is that I can't do it for very long without telling a story. I feel like I can. I'm like, "Why not?" All these friends of mine, all they do all the time is paint for exhibit. I can't do it.


SPURGEON: Remind me of the Yam Books' title again.

FRENCH: Hagelbarger And That Nightmare Goat.

SPURGEON: I love [Yam Books Publisher] Rina Ayuyang. It must be fun working with her.

FRENCH: Yeah. It is.

SPURGEON: The thing that sticks with me about Hagelbarger a few months removed is how tight the verbal interplay was. There's an economy to your writing there, couple with a force and urgency to the exchanges. We frequently trace an artist's influence, but do you have idols when it comes to wordcraft? How do you write? Who do you find funny?

FRENCH: I'm a huge Sam Beckett fan. I don't feel like I emulate him. Also Sam Shepard. I read all of Sam Shepard's stuff -- I still go back to it. Part of me is a frustrated playwright. I have part of me that wants to write a play. I've had meetings with people about it in LA, with actors.

I talked to Andre Gregory about it. [laughs] Hours and hours and hours. My Meeting With Andre.

SPURGEON: That's an all-time name drop, Renée. Congratulations. [French laughs] In the midst of talking about writing dialogue just casually mention working some things through with Andre Gregory.

FRENCH: It was My Tea With Andre first and then My Lunch and then My Dinner. [laughter] Andre Gregory -- talking to Andre Gregory, and becoming friends with Andre Gregory, I could see myself becoming part of that tribe. It involves really serious collaboration with people, which is difficult. At the same time, these are people that want to please the person who is responsible for the source material.

I kind of feel my dialogue is like a play, like I'm writing a play.

SPURGEON: It's pared down but in a way that retains its poetry, which is what made me think it distinctive in the first place and certainly fits in a tradition of theatre. How much do you work over the dialogue?

FRENCH: I love the dialogue. It's one of my favorite thing about working on books. Do you think they're too sloppy?

SPURGEON: Actually, quite the opposite. They're lean and mean, bordering on spare. Beckett and Shepard seem like appropriate names to invoke.

FRENCH: They're very, very, well thought out. I don't understand words, but I understand dialogue. It's crafted. If there's too much of one thing, I'll take out something and then to have rebalance... the rhythm has to be right, just like a play. I do not think I've ever had a line of dialogue that doesn't flow in that way, that is abruptly ended. One thing I love I don't know if there's a word for it. Somebody says to Cyril, "What if he doesn't come back?" And Cyril says, "He always does." And Marcel says, "Always ends." That kind of thing... I love that. There's another thing I like to do, which is change the direction of feeling in the middle of a sentence so a word works another way. So finding the skin floating in the water and saying, "Oh, are you..." And pulling it out, "Okay." With a period instead of a question mark. That's a shift in feeling by the time the sentence comes out. That's minutaie, though.

SPURGEON: Every word can be important. You know, Baby Bjornstrand's similarity to a play goes beyond the way the words might work; it actually seems to be staged on the front part of a proscenium rather than tracked through space like a comic that is film-influenced. There this whole series of vignettes that are staged, right there, in front of you.

FRENCH: That's how I see it, yeah.

SPURGEON: So given you have this recurring staging, how much then do you craft the multiple scenarios that play out there? How much do you have to think this through given that you aren't simply going to change the way we see these things play out in front of us? It seems to me that it would have to be a lot more thought out given that continuity.

FRENCH: It is. I should have brought my notebook. I have a slide I sent to [the writer and her SPX panel moderator] Marc Sobel that was the most diagrammatically broken down thing. Here it is:


SPURGEON: Oh my God. Okay.

FRENCH: That's a page or two from Baby Bjornstrand -- one part is just the math of it. Part of this is just figuring out the order, but part of it is some real thinking. Character D shows up in these ways... the idea is that I can see these things at a glance.

SPURGEON: Why make a book using that very specific two-tier structure?

FRENCH: I like it because you can get a wider shot, whereas if you have four on a page, unless your page is really long you end up with portrait-like drawings.


SPURGEON: The other effect that really jumps out is your use of color to designate speakers on the page. Where did that come from?

FRENCH: It came from that I hate word balloons. I feel if there's a word balloon floating around, with a tail, either you have to change your composition to fit it -- which you can do, and some people are good at it -- or you have to ignore this thing floating there. We all know it, so we can ignore it. Since we know it, it's a thing. The place these kids are, it's like Scotland. It's foggy. It's post-apocalyptic. I didn't want them to have any kind of thing like [word balloons]. Also they look alike.

I like not having a category. That's also made it difficult for me to find a place that felt like home, a publisher.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like you have peers, if not a family? Are there comics-makers with whom you feel a creative kinship? Maybe people that aren't comics-makers, just narrative-interested artists... Do you think of yourself as existing in a peer group?

FRENCH: I like Dave Cooper. I like what he's doing now. I understand it. I get it. [laughs] I think Laura Park... she's not being organized about what she's doing very much. She has a good drawing gig that pays well. So she's doing that. Her other stuff is very autobiographical, going through some shit, she has this new dog... it's so good. I don't do autobio, but she's just like me. She's constantly drawing, constantly making art.

SPURGEON: There's a quality to her drawing that can be astonishing.

FRENCH: Amazing. Totally amazing. Very old-timey but new. I love her. I think... Scott Teplin. I relate to him very well.

I had four posters at this show in LA; they sold before the show opened. The guy asked me to do a feature show and while I don't know what that means -- I don't know if that's a solo show or if I'm featured with a few other artists -- I've started a body of work for that.

SPURGEON: Do you prefer to come to your comics cold, or do they have a previous life as an idea or as a concept somewhere? I get the amount of work that's involved in the structure and making of the story itself, but I wonder after the concept, the impulse to do a story in the first place.

FRENCH: Did you read Bjornstrand, the thing I did with Dan Nadel?


FRENCH: I made this monster. A giant monster, with these little tiny people walking around... like a giant Godzila monster. These guys in the story, the knew him from before. They're like, "That can't be..." [Spurgeon laughs] So my thinking was that I wanted to make a whole book starting from when he was a baby and meets these kids. I talked to Annie [Koyama], and she was like, "Why don't we just that the book?" In my head, there was this whole arc where he goes away and returns. He shows up at this giant thing, this monster, and they're like, "Holy shit, that's him!" It's the monster they hung out with. Which is a big deal -- it's come back from their childhood.

SPURGEON: That's a facile platform for metaphor, something literally coming back from your childhood. In general, do you pay attention to that level of meaning at all when you write? Do you see these stories, these characters as vehicles for a second or even deeper meaning, or are you kind of immersed in the story you're telling to the point where the only reality is the one you're depicting?

FRENCH: I don't. If there's metaphor there... I just don't catch myself thinking like that.

SPURGEON: So if someone whines at you, "But Renée! What does it all meeeeaaan...?" You don't have anything for them.

FRENCH: No. After I do something I will later put together that it was about something else. But it's never thought out. It's just not.


SPURGEON: The shifting landscapes in Baby Bjornstrand... sometimes they seem to tie into what's going on in the foreground, but I can't figure out what you're doing at time with other background designs. Yet I figure it's as carefully planned as everything you do.

FRENCH: It's very heavily planned. Early on I use very spare backgrounds; it's still where they live. I want them to be in a place where there's nothing. There are no distractions. These kids are growing up in a place where they don't have anything, and they're surviving. The world has taken away all of their comfy stuff. Their toys. These are kids that after this war or whatever, are still around. So the landscape in general is meant to be grim. There's a place they go, where there's water. They head to the water. I really love Scotland. I really like Scotland when the light is going down and there's a haze in the air. There's a feeling that time stopped. You're alone. You're alone. Words don't move very quickly through that stuff. That's the feeling I wanted when Cyril meets him.

SPURGEON: So it sounds like there's a story/narrative demand, and then you work your way through the design to meet those demands. And maybe that part is a bit intuitive, although it has to work. There's an emotional effect there.

FRENCH: It's planned out, but there's a lot of feeling. It's all feeling. I've spent a lot of time in Scotland but also in my head in Scotland. Wanting that feeling. Because I love that feeling.

SPURGEON: Not to get into a specific metaphor, but the broader idea of meeting something that's inexplicable, this let's go see element to the story, does that appeal to you on a personal level? Do you have a childhood memory of any like encounters, on a much less fantastic scale? It's not uncommon in your work to see this kind of encounter.

FRENCH: I grew up where we spent most of the time in the woods. We spent very little time at home.

SPURGEON: The kid versions of people our age were very independent like that. "Mom, I'm off to the woods. Might be home for lunch, but maybe not." [French laughs]

FRENCH: "Be back at 5 o'clock." We spent most of our time out in the woods, hidden out there. There was all sorts of stuff to find. I used to put stuff in jars. I did steal the eyeballs from a frog in class. In sixth grade we dissected frogs, and everyone was expected to take the lens of the eyeballs out. They were to be disposed of -- but they wanted us to see the lens. I went around and collected all of the lens, and put them in a little jar. They were really cool. [laughs] I wanted to find stuff. I wanted to find tons of stuff.

SPURGEON: That's a significant element in a certain kind of writing: the desire to find something that will allow you insight into the reality that you see every day.

FRENCH: I think that's true.

SPURGEON: We're at SPX, and this might take us back around to where we started. We're having this conversation on a Saturday morning before SPX. I always think of you as someone fairly well connected to a bunh of younger cartoonists. You mentioned Laura earlier.

FRENCH: David King. Is he young?

SPURGEON: He is to me. I think of you as one of the late Dylan Wiliams' friends, although he's more of a direct peer.


SPURGEON: How do you orient yourself to these multiple personal relationships, Renée? Is that the point of making art? Is that a happy bonus you get from being near all of these artists? How does knowing so many other artists, how does that have an effect on the way you make art? Or does it? You seem more actively engaged with maintaining these relationships than many artists I know, who are more laidback about those friendships.

FRENCH: Maybe they're more laidback because they're more directly connected. Zack Soto, guys like that, they're in Portland. They can get together if they want. I live in Silicon Valley. [Spurgeon laughs] I live among people who are very literal thinkers... [laughs] people in the computer world. I know that every so often I need to be around people who don't think like that. You go to dinner with people, they're very nice, but you say what you do and it's like... nothing. That's fine, except it happens all the time. I would like one or two people in my tribe to be nearer to me. Laura... she's in Chicago! Rina is close by but I don't see her that often because of a bunch of other factors.

When I'm in Sydney I hang out with painters. When I'm in the US, I hang out with the computer guys. Going to something like this, where I know everybody is thinking about making things, and the challenges of making visual things...? I like being near those people.

SPURGEON: We talked earlier this weekend about getting older... do you ever think in terms of imparting your experiences on the people you meet that are younger? Is there anything you wish you could tell all the cartoonists that are in the hotel right now that maybe haven't had some of your experiences yet? What would you have people know about your artistic path that might be helpful to them?

FRENCH: Yeah. [slight pause] Well, I haven't come out of it with any money, even after all of these years. I've heard younger cartoonists talk in terms of making a living at it and I warn them to not even think of it like that. If anyone wanted to contact me about anything, I would be happy to help anyone that needs help or is seeking guidance. I got an e-mail from a younger cartoonist saying they just fired their agent and how is it that I had all of these projects, and what I thought about having an agent. I said I've never had an agent. I don't need some other person connected. Because I don't have an agent, I haven't had any bigger-money things come my way. What I have come towards me is based on what I'm constantly doing.

Chris Ware once said, "Just make it. Constantly do it, and the other stuff will come. Be obsessed with what you're doing."

SPURGEON: I get that prescription, but I do wonder sometimes if we forget about timing; it seems like with anything there's a time and a place where a bunch of people that stick with it are rewarded in some way, but then it seems like some people maybe working just as hard that came before or after do not see that.

FRENCH: The one thing that's new it seems to me is that there are TV shows working the same... area as the comics. Like Adventure Time. So there's a chance to work on something like that.

I love when someone younger with some chops asks me questions. I obviously know a lot about a lot of different kinds of publishers. [laughter]


* Baby Bjornstrand, Renée French, Koyama Press, softcover, 9781927668139, 132 pages, 2014, $20.
* Hagelbarger And That Night Goat, Renée French, Yam Books, softcover, 9780985413828, 109 pages, 2014, $18.


* cover to Baby Bjornstrand
* photo of French by me, SPX 2012
* comics by Dave Cooper, Jeff (now Jess) Johnson and French from Fantagraphics in the early to mid-1990s
* from The Soap Lady
* from Hagelbarger And That Nightmare Goat
* one of her sketchbook diagrams used in the process of making Baby Bjornstrand
* coloring to denote who is speaking
* work by Laura Park
* from Bjornstrand, the PictureBox book
* one of the intriguing backgrounds in Baby Bjornstrand
* image from Baby Bjornstrand (below)



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