For years, Renee French’s macabre, compellingly bizarre cartoons won her a cult following , first with her series GRIT BATH, and later with THE NINTH GLAND, CORNY’S FETISH, and THE ADVENTURES OF RHEUMY PEEPERS AND CHUNKY HIGHLIGHTS (with magician/performance artist Penn Jillette). Last year she broke through in a big way with her critically acclaimed children’s storybook THE SOAP LADY, which has been nominated for a Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work. She took time out from her schedule recently to talk about the book’s success and the road that led her to it.
RICH WATSON: Well, first of all, congratulations for the Harvey nomination for THE SOAP LADY. It’s a timeless fairy-tale story but it’s got this Tim Burton-like edge to it. How have children reacted to it?
RENEE FRENCH: Kids seem to love it. I’ve gotten more e-mails from kids than I have from adults at this point. They really love the idea of a person made entirely of soap and what fun that might be. Also, the only accurate bunny counts came from a nine-year-old and a ten-year-old. [On the dedication page, there’s an invitation to count the number of bunnies within the story.]
RW: THE SOAP LADY is inspired by a true story involving a 19th century corpse that had turned into a soap-like substance. Did the article inspire the storybook format, or was that a direction you already wanted to go in?
RF: It started as a joke actually. I spent lots of time at the Mutter Museum when I lived in Philadelphia (a great place that everyone should check out when they’re in the area) and one of my favorite exhibits was The Soap Lady. Her body was found in the late 1800s and, yes, she’d turned to adipocere when the fat in her body reacted with the chemicals produced during her decay. Her body is in a glass case and she’s way cool.
I was working for Fantagraphics at the time and as a joke I made up a proposal for a kids book called, “The Legend of The Soap Lady,” and I drew a scary picture of the lady looking very much like she really does look, black in color, mummy-like and [with a] broken jaw hanging from her skull. I wrote up a paragraph about the story which involved The Soap Lady walking the streets at night, lopping off pieces of her body to give the little children to wash with, and washing out the mouths of the bad little children with her fist. I faxed it to Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics and then put it in my drawer and forgot about it until just a few years ago when I was looking for a new project to work on. I re-wrote the story a bit, changed her look and pitched it to Jochen Enterprises in Germany, and Top Shelf and they said yes.
RW: Now in addition, you recently did two September 11th-inspired pieces, one for Alternative Press’ 9-11: EMERGENCY RELIEF and the other for the Dark Horse-published 9-11: ARTISTS RESPOND. How long did it take for you to get back to the drawing board after the terrorist attacks?
RF: I think I started drawing a couple days after the attack but I couldn’t work on my normal stuff. I couldn’t even look at it. So I started making a drawing just try to feel a little better and more like a person again. That’s the drawing that ended up in the Dark Horse 9/11 book on the last page. I don’t really remember making that drawing. It’s all sort of a fuzz.
RW: Which piece means more to you in terms of how they express your thoughts on that day?
RF: I’d have to say that the Dark Horse piece does, only because it was a direct reaction to what was going on, before I could really think straight. The one pager I did for the Alternative book is about the night before the attack, when my husband and I were flying back to Newark Airport from Copenhagen. We had an incredibly rough flight, and then when we got through the bad air it was crystal clear, and the city looked beautiful. My husband and I and the little boy in the seat in front of us were all looking out the window amazed at how gorgeous the city looked. It really was the most beautiful view of NYC I’d ever seen. Then the next morning my brother called with the “Turn on the TV” call.
RW: What drew you to making comics to begin with?
RF: I wanted to get my work out to a larger audience than I had just showing drawings in small galleries. I saw the work of Charles Burns and Chester Brown and decided to try comics.
RW: You went to school with Jim Woodring, right? I get the impression he was influential to you.
RF: Jim has been a big influence on me for sure. He’s a genius. But we didn’t actually go to school together. I think you’re probably getting that information from an introduction Jim wrote for my Oni collection MARBLES IN MY UNDERPANTS. He wrote this brilliant intro that was a piece of art itself and it’s all metaphor. I have one of the coveted Japanese toys he designed to be sold in vending machines in Japan and just bought his Queen Bean charcoal drawing.
RW: Do you feel like you’ve turned a corner in terms of your popularity? You were around for quite awhile before your star began to rise in the industry, though you had been getting good press from places like THE VILLAGE VOICE and WORLD ART Magazine.
RF: I don’t know. I can’t tell. I’ve been making comics since 1992, I think, and I’ve always gotten pretty good press. I think my work may be tricky to market though.
RW: Looking at the course of your career, you’ve taken on several different styles, from the simplest to the most complex. Is this dependent on the project, or are you following your muse?
RF: I think the only time I really changed my style to fit a project was for the Rheumy Peepers book for Oni Press. The other changes in my style were just whatever made me happy at the time. When I was using pen & ink to do crosshatching and stippling, I was trying to achieve a kind of softness by creating a texture that looked like it might feel really cool to the touch (at least that what it looked like to me). Now that I’m using the black pencil, I can get the softness I was looking for with the pen & ink, and I love the way the pencil on the paper feels when I’m drawing. So soothing. The quality of line you can get with pencil is more spontaneous and more lively I think, so the finished drawings have more movement and life in them. I like the way it looks a lot.
RW: Is reproduction quality ever a consideration?
RF: Definitely. It’s incredibly tricky. Black ink is black. The printer can oversaturate the blacks causing the lines to be a little heavier than the artist might want, but that’s not likely to ruin the look of the drawing completely. Pencil (even my black pencil) is gray and there are lighter and darker grays within the drawing. It’s hard for the printer to match what the original looks like exactly, and sometimes the final books vary from book to book (I’ve seen evidence of this recently), and just a little change in the lightness/darkness can make a huge difference in the look of the drawing. Right now I’m getting about one out of four of my pieces coming out correctly and the other three are either too dark or too light.
RW: What do you think entices people to your work? Personally, I think your images have this dream-like hyper-reality to them, like they’re expressions of the unconscious mind.
RF: I try to not think too much about my audience so I don’t start reacting to what they want. Does that make sense? Many of the images in my stories come from my dreams, just the images, not the storylines. Then I try to bring those images into a real world setting (well, not quite real) and make them convincing within that world.
RW: Are your influences more in the realm of fine art and classical illustration than in comics?
RF: Yes. Actually, fine art and film more than anything. Ivan Albright, David Lynch, Balthus, Sergio Leone, Charles Laughton (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) and Maurice Sendak.
RW: Okay, talk about your characters Cornelia and Steelhead a little bit. What part of your mind did they come from?
RF: Well, Cornelia came about before I got into comics, during a time in my life when I was pretty unhappy and felt trapped in [a] bad living situation. She’s this little girl, in little girl clothes, a pretty bow in her hair and a oversized deformed head and a mask of a face. Everything she does is just a bit over some edge that she’s not aware of. And I mostly use her in my short comics stories with abstract storylines because that’s her world. Steelhead is sort of the grownup, male version of Cornelia, and he’s the main character in an upcoming graphic novella I’m doing for Top Shelf called THE TICKING. Again with the deformed head but in his case, he’s very aware of how different he is.
RW: Children in general seem to be one of your recurring themes, especially lonely, alienated ones.
RF: I like to tell stories about kids because they’re a cleaner slate to work with than with adult characters. They’re right on the edge of innocence just about to, or in the process of, falling into the complications of the grown up world.
RW: Tell me about your collaborations with Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. How did you meet him? Or did you know him before he got big?
RF: Well, my comics collaborations with Penn consist of a short piece that appeared in DARK HORSE PRESENTS called, “The Adventures of Rheumy Peepers and Chunky Highlights – He Should Feel Good About His Chicken,” and then a one shot for Oni Press just called THE ADVENTURES OF RHEUMY PEEPERS AND CHUNKY HIGHLIGHTS. I met him back in the ‘80s, but we became good friends after I asked him to write the intro for a book in the early ‘90s that actually never got made. Penn helped me name it, “Another Peeled Frog,” and I just never finished it. And it was Penn that introduced me to my husband Rob.
RW: Has he always been a comics fan?
RF: No. He admits that he doesn’t really “get” comics. The reason he did the Rheumy Peepers thing in comic book form was because I’m in comics and we thought it would be fun to work together. And I know he did an intro for PREACHER but that was most likely because of all the sacrilegious stuff in those books.
RW: In the Rheumy & Chunky one-shot, there was a superhero angle introduced into their characters, whereas before they were just performers. What was that about?
RF: Well, the plan from the beginning was to have these Borscht Belt performers be crime-fighting superheroes who wear really boss Mexican wrestling masks and capes when they’re not performing. The short piece in DHP was a quiet background story to let you know what their relationship was like before we got into the superhero stuff. They don’t have any superpowers; they’re just a couple o’ comedians/singers with street smarts and cheating chops.
RW: Do you know of any plans for another comic from him, or him and you?
RF: It’s always on the back burner. Every once in a while we talk about the next one but I’ve got so much I’m working on right now, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Right now I’m working on a 7-foot tall drawing that’s part of a prop in one of the Penn & Teller bits for their stage show. That kind of stuff is a lot of fun.
RW: A lot of indy artists have been getting work from the corporate comics lately, even the ones with styles that are completely unlike superhero books, like Jim Mahfood and James Kochalka. Do you think this cross-pollination a fad, or will it have long-term benefits?
RF: I hope it’s not a fad. I might start reading superhero books if people like Dave Cooper and Thomas Ott were drawing them.
RW: If Joe Quesada called and asked you to do something for Marvel, would you?
RF: I doubt that’s ever going to happen. I do like Wolverine though. He’s pretty sexy.
RW: So you said your next book will feature Steelhead? What’s gonna happen in it?
RF: Well, I don’t want to tell the whole story but it starts off with Steelhead’s dad, who has had cosmetic surgery to try to look less like a fish and more like a man, [and ends up] marrying a beautiful woman in hopes that his offspring might inherit her good looks and end up better off than himself. But when their child is born, it’s clear that the boy looks just like his father, like a fish, eyes on the sides of his head, thick neck leading right to his shoulders and no hair at all. Little Steelhead. The story follows Steelhead through his childhood and teen years and into manhood. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s even got a chimp.
RW: Finally, apropos of Jim Woodring’s little text piece – what does move like the mind? Have you found out yet?
RF: I’m still trying to figure that out.