There's a horrific beauty to the art of Renée French. With her most recent work, H Day (published by Picturebox and set to ship on October 15), the beauty is built on pain, given that the book's creation was partially fueled by French's struggles with migraines. The last graphic novel that both challenged and engaged me in such a manner as H Day did is likely Joshua Cotter's Driven by Lemons. I've been interviewing French for a number of years, and I never tire of discussing her craft with her. Back when I last interviewed her, we briefly discussed a (then upcoming) project, Towcester Lodge, and I was glad to find out the fate of that project (as well as how H Day grew out of that creative effort). French is one of the special guests at this weekend's APE 2010. My thanks to French for her time, and to Robot6 6's own Sean T. Collins as well as Picturebox's Dan Nadel for helping make the interview happen.
Tim O'Shea: How early in the development of H Day did you realize the bed scenes would play such a pivotal part?
Renée French: I'd been doing line drawings and diagrams of the inside of heads, sort of diagrams of the pain that comes with a migraine, and once I decided to try to draw the stuff I visualize when I've got a headache, (the city drawings) the diagrams progressed into the sequence that is in the book (the bed drawings). How confusing is that?
O'Shea: Am I correct in thinking the "bed" pages are drawn in a different style/medium?
French: Everything in the book is drawn with a .3mm mechanical pencil using 2B graphite, including the bed scenes, but they are in very different style from the drawings on the city side of the book. The line drawings are meant to relate over to the tonal drawings and back and forth visually even though the narratives are paced differently. There are a lot of different ways to read it.
O'Shea: Did you hesitate at having narrative constants throughout the tale (the lead character stands for the early stages of the book, appearing in almost every other page, with the action happening around the character's head, while the rest of the body maintains the same pose).
French: Well, a migraine whites out pretty much everything except for your head. I mean, your head becomes the center of everything. Those lead character drawings represent the real-ish physical world of the person with a migraine.
O'Shea: Have you battled migraines all your life?
French: I'm not sure how old I was when I had my first one but I'm guessing, 12. They run in my family.
O'Shea: It's been around three years since your last graphic novel (2007's micrographica), and yet you've maintained a blog since 2008. Did having the blog to maintain your presence in the market lessen the urgency to publish again?
French: I hadn't thought of it that way, the blog I mean. It's more of a compulsion at this point. Sparkplug published my book, Edison Steelhead's Lost Portfolio in 2008 which wasn't a graphic novel, so I haven't done a storybook since 2007 but I have been writing the whole time. So it seems like I haven't been away from storytelling.
O'Shea: How did H Day land at Picturebox, instead of one of your previous publishers?
French: A few years ago I'd started a project that involved both drawings and photographs, called Towcester Lodge, and I took it to Dan because it felt like a Picturebox book. And that book, after making me crazy, lead to this book.
O'Shea: What's the status on Towcester Lodge?
French: I filled two notebooks cover to cover with dialogue and story and drawings for Towcester Lodge and then one day a friend came over and we did a timeline of the story on a roll of tracing paper. It took all day. Totally ridiculous. And then I unrolled the timeline and no kidding it went down the hall and hit the far end of the house and there was still more to go. I realized it would take me like 10 years to finish a book like that, and I didn't feel I could spend that much time on that book. so it's in my closet now. Maybe it'll end up in some other form but as an illustrated book I don't know...nuts.
I started H Day as a sort of response to that overly detailed, backstory-heavy work in progress.
O'Shea: I found it curious that in terms of the "thank you" for the book, you emulated the title "H Day" by referring to everyone as first initial and then last name ("r ayuyang, e baek, a baumgold...).. Did you consider listing yourself as "r french" for this project?
French: Yeah, no, but I like how the thank yous look.
O'Shea: There are no words in H Day (except for identifying the different stages to the story). Did you ever consider adding words at any point, or was the plan for this always to be mostly a silent book?
French: No, seriously after the Towcester Lodge thing, I was pretty disgusted with words. I mean, I love silent storytelling so it's not a stretch there are no words in the book but it was a deliberate move to start a story with the images, instead of writing it down first.
O'Shea: Should we keep an eye on your blog for an idea of your next project?
French: The next book project is a TOON book for Françoise Mouly. It's in very very early stages so it doesn't have a title yet or anything. I've got a group show at Meltdown in LA coming up in November and a solo show in NYC at Baumgold Gallery in early December. The blog marches on day after day for now.