Artist Renee French is one of those creators whose work is very unlike anything else that can be found in comics. Nowhere is this more true than in her new book “H Day,” just released through Picturebox. It’s a book that French herself describes as not like her typical book, though her style is apparent on the first page. The autobiographical tale of French’s own struggles with migraines, this wordless volume is a strange and beautiful story that’s not quite like any other comic coming out this year.
French is best known for books like “Marbles in my Underpants” from Oni Press and “The Soap Lady,” “The Ticking” and “Micrographica” from Top Shelf. Her short stories have been published in numerous anthologies including “Kramer’s Ergot,” “Rosetta” and “Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions.” She spoke with CBR over e-mail about her new book, the new upcoming editions of her books from Top Shelf and the new Slug Girl figure coming out from Meltdown.
CBR News: Where did “H Day”come from? Was it an idea, an image or something else? What’s your typical creative process?
Renee French: My typical process is to write the story down longhand, break it down into thumbnails and then finished drawings. But in this case, it started with a drawing. I’d put away another book project that I’d overwritten and had pushed me into a corner, and this initial drawing for “H Day” was a response to that.’There’s a place I visualize when I have a migraine, to get me through it, and it’s got blank buildings and water. I just sat down and made a drawing of that place. Then I realized that’s where I wanted to hang out for a while, on paper.
Did you always know that the story would be told without words?
Yes. There’s all this visual back and forth between the images, and words would muck that up. I was trying to figure out some things that I couldn’t explain.
What was behind your decision to tell the story through pencil drawings, one per page, in the style and format you used?
It’s been pencil for me for the last 8 years or so. Pencil’s got me by the balls. So, along with the tonal drawings of that headache place, I was making line drawings of the more physical side of the headaches – diagrams and figure drawings with fucked up heads. I started seeing relationships between the tonal drawings and the line drawings on certain days, and then it became a puzzle.
The back of the book describes “H Day” as an “oblique auto-biography.” I’m curious to what degree that was your intent when you first began or when it began to resemble that?
It’s sort of an inside-out auto-biography, I guess. It’s not about what I do, more about what I think about. I guess as soon as I decided that these drawings of my headaches would be my next project, I knew it had auto-bio elements.
For a book like this which is about the juxtaposition of the images, was there a lot of tinkering involved, either in terms of redrawing the images or needing to insert of eliminate images.
Tons of tinkering. The headache dude’s transformation and his real-ish physical experience create the buildings and the water and the swarm, etc., but the tonal drawings have hidden things in them, and the line drawings of the headache dude answer the tonal drawings, all in visual ways.
Wow, does that make sense?
So the process was pretty crazy. I spent months with prints of the drawings spread around the house on the floor and the couch, adding and moving and changing images. There’s a lot going on that’s hard to find unless you spend time rocking back and forth through the pages.
You describe the book as a place to hang out and not a literal story. I’m curious what you think of the difference, both as a creator and a reader. One of the challenges in reading the book and talking about it is in the fact that it isn’t a narrative, and yet, there is a story in the book. How did you get from an image about this place you visualize during a migraine to this book and this series of images?
There is a story, but it’s less structured than my other books. It was pretty straight forward in terms of drawing the place I visualize.Â I mean, part of dealing with my migraines is to imagine walking around in a place with giant blank buildings and enormous ships with nothing on them, and dogs. If I can concentrate on that place as purely as possible, I might fall asleep and wake up with at least a dent in the pain.
So I just drew this scenario I know very well.
Had you done any similar drawings to what we’re seeing in the book over the years to describe your migraines or express how you think of them?
Yeah, for sure. Especially the drawings of the faceless girl and the swarms of insects consuming life. Also, the bodies falling off the buildings. I hadn’t made a series a reader can enter and move around in.
How did you connect with Dan Nadel and Picturebox and what was the experience working with them like?
Dan and I met at SPX in 2000, and then I did some drawings for a couple issues of his anthology, “The Ganzfeld,” and we stayed in touch. A few years ago, when I had an idea for an art book, I took it to Dan. He’s got an amazing visual sense and It was great to work on a book with him finally.
You said that in the book you were trying to figure out what you couldn’t explain, and here I am trying to drag out of you an explanation for it all. Is that more annoying than a migraine or less?
Yeah, thanks tons. You rock. It’s way less annoying than a migraine!Â More frustrating because it’s like trying to explain the smell of your pillow.
I know that Top Shelf is publishing a new edition of “The Ticking” this month and is planning to do the same with “The Soap Lady” next year. Is it just a new printing or we will be seeing something new?
The second printing of “The Ticking” is just a second printing,Â but “The Soap Lady” second edition has new material, a new layout and way cool extra surprises. There’s an awesome intro/essay by genius film editor, Matt Chesse, and some extra drawings of soap lady affected objects and characters. The text is handwritten and there will be a few guest drawings.
So you went from working onÂ a book that you’d overwritten and wasn’t working to telling a non-story without words. What comes next?
Next in books? I’m going to be doing a TOON book for Francoise Mouly which is a book for beginning readers. But right this second, I’m putting a gallery show together for the Baumgold Gallery in NYC opening on December 7th, and some drawings for a group show at Meltdown in LA in november. [I’m] also pretty psyched about the launch of my Slug Girl toy figure there, too.
How did this Slug Girl toy figure happen and when is it available?
Gaston from Meltdown made it happen, and Monster5 in Japan did the sculpt which is amazing. The Slug Girl figure is based on one of the portraits in “Edison Steelhead’s Lost Portfolio,” that Sparkplug put out in 2008. She was a drawing I made for James Gunn after his film “Slither” came out, and it was part of an exhibition in Tokyo. The figure is going to be available starting November 27 at Meltdown, in LA.
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