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The Exquisite Strangeness and Estrangement of Renée French and Chris Ware

from Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, Pantheon, 2004

In seventh grade, at Lizzy Pond’s house, I saw my first comic books. She kept them under the bed, a location I had come to associate with other fathers’ Penthouses. I don’t know whether Lizzy kept her comic books there because her mother forbade them or because the state of Lizzy’s room made it the only reliable storage area, but their concealment lent a thrilling sordidness to the reading experience. Lizzy collected Elfquest and XMen, the former an inarguably girly adventure comic that included an elven romantic interlude in every issue, while the latter was one of the few superhero comics to include female superheroes. That afternoon I ignored Lizzy in favor of her comics, which I read with the abandon of a junk food junkie inhaling a bag of potato chips. The experience, pleasant as it was, reinforced my preference for the narrative complexity of novels, which remained my favored mode of escapism. For the next seven years I neither sought out comics nor did they cross my path. In the dearth of evidence to the contrary, I had no reason to expect any comic book could offer a reading experience commensurate to a novel’s depth and intricacy. My snobbery lasted until college, at which point it was obliterated by my discovery of alternative comics.

For the first thirty years of its existence, the comic book was primarily a commercial art form, providing continuing narratives that ended in cliffhangers, inducing the purchase of next week’s issue. Since the creation of a comic book required both acute visual and narrative talents, the comic book industry — like the film industry — was facilitated by a studio system. At least two and often as many as five people would, according to their individual strengths, divide the artistic demands of a comic to produce timely serials. This model was exploded in the 1960s when artists like Robert Crumb began to utilize the comic book as an instrument for individual expression, giving rise to the notion of the comic book auteur. If comic books, having essentially been invented in the 1930s, qualify as one of our culture’s younger art forms, then the alternative comic book — which has been on the scene for less than three decades — is its incredibly precocious infant child.

The alternative comic book shares literature’s lofty ambition to explore the human condition in original and resonant ways, with the added advantage that it includes the image in its arsenal. Unlike the passive experience of film, whose characters move and speak without any assistance from the mind of the viewer, the visual experience of a comic mandates outside participation, for it is still the imaginative, self-motivated act of reading that puts this world into motion and brings its characters to life. The result is an experience that inserts itself into the brain with both the intellectual force of text and the visceral force of the image, which at their best combine to create an intensity of experience mere text can’t hope to match.

The catch, of course, is that this is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. It’s tough enough to be a good writer or a good artist; either ambition tends to involve a lifetime of hard labor, isolation and self-doubt. Cartoonists are generally superlative artists and mediocre storytellers, or excellent storytellers and average artists; this is their curse. And while most people are perfectly satisfied to appreciate a pretty picture or to lose themselves in a good story when these two intentions are discrete, their combination creates raised expectations: merely enjoying one or the other will no longer do. The act of storytelling, no matter what its medium, contains the promise of escape, and for that escape to be complete there can’t be any flimsy patches in the means of transport. Images have to meet or preferably surpass whatever a reader’s imagination can supply, and narrative has to live up to the richness of the visual world that contains it. Most cartoonists are understandably unequal to such a task, consequently limiting their readership and their renown. For that reason, when cartoonists emerge who freakishly possess the ability to nest a complex narrative within a fully realized and compelling visual milieu, it’s time to sound the trumpets. And so:

Renée French!!
Chris Ware!!

Maybe because I am a novelist I treasure the experience of reading a novel above all other pursuits, or maybe it’s the other way around and I became a novelist because I could imagine no finer ambition than to attempt to provide for others the experience I hold in such supreme regard. Whatever the ontology, I’ve never been shy about my bias: I rank the novel first among artistic endeavors. This preamble is to make absolutely clear my admiration and excitement when I say that reading Ware’s work — more than the work of any other cartoonist I have encountered — is like reading a really good novel. The world he creates is utterly absorbing and multi-faceted; it possesses an inner life that extends far beyond the page; and it is a powerful conduit not only for the thoughts and experiences of its creator, but for its readers.

Renée French’s work amazes for precisely the opposite reason: it does things a novel can’t ever do. As a novelist, this makes me both jealous and giddy. A novel is immersive, luring a reader into a world page by page to deliver its truths, which must first filter through the brain of the reader, where the cerebral alchemy of translating words into actual thoughts and feelings occurs. French’s work is vascular in effect, confering an intimacy that is immediate and intense and utterly unachievable through any other medium. Her images require no mental translation because they’re already inside us, tucked into recesses beyond the reach of plain text. Reading Renée French can feel like uncovering a previously neglected sense organ — a second nose, perhaps, or a newborn strech of exquisitely sensitive skin. Her work is an essential reminder that comparing the alternative comic book to other mediums is of limited value: its intrinsic power demands reckoning on its own terms.

An exquisite paradox about reading is that while it represents an inherent escape from the self and the larger world the self inhabits, it is simultaneously a quest for communion. One of the most coveted reading experiences is that rare feeling of connection when a story unexpectedly taps into a thought or experience previously assumed by the reader to be so wholly personal or deeply secret that he or she alone possessed it. To discover such a particular experience rendered on a page can feel religious in intensity. A perceived barrier between oneself and the rest of humanity is suddenly removed, and this removal is an embrace. To have this happen is to be reminded that none of us are strangers, and that for all the world’s difficulty and obtuseness, we belong in it. The two most obvious areas ripe for this sort of communion — which not coincidentally are the two themes explored most often in stories of all kinds — are love and loss. But even rarer are those stories that touch upon something kind of weird, something not universally affecting, something that inhabits a dimmer, less frequently visited corner of human experience.

This is what Renée French does. By definition, she doesn’t do it for everyone. Not everyone enjoys the films of David Lynch, for example, but those who do are passionate about them. Like Lynch, French is explicit, she is brilliant, and she is unrelenting, making a tepid reaction to her work nearly impossible.

Renée French is one of the most beautiful renderers of the completely disgusting that I’ve ever seen. With pointillist ink or soft, fuzzy pencil she labors over all that’s strange and unsettling about bodies — their warts, their hairs, their loose or dangly parts. Her intent, however, is not to repulse her readers, but to call attention to the body’s delicacy and mortality and to our fears surrounding these truths. She brings to her work a child’s morbid fascination with disease, anomaly and sexuality but with an adult sensibility and perception, reminding us that the fact of having lived with our bodies for any length of time doesn’t make them any less bizarre or wonderful, and that it’s okay and even important to take a long, hard look at nostrils, skin, and moles. The guides to these truths tend to be children — children with freckles and large, Margaret Keane eyes — who inhabit a world ruled by unsavory urges and filled with misshapen animals and secretive adults. The uncertainty and pungency of this world is counterbalanced by its beauty. This is where the work’s specific power as a comic book comes into play, because the visual style that accompanies French’s stories absolutely defies expectation.

In her story The Ninth Gland, two girls come across a distressed horse-like animal with a strange lump on its leg. As the animal seems to be in great pain — and because their curiosity is too great to leave the creature alone — they bring it to their friend Mr. Kittentank, a hospital custodian with a penchant for the anatomical, who presides over the hospital’s basement. When Mr. Kittentank decides surgery is called for, the girls are thrilled and watch raptly as Mr. Kittentank slices open the bulge in the animal’s leg to reveal a strange fleshy sac containing an Eraserhead version of a baby horse. Were this story told in words alone, the images the mind would create to accompany it would doubtless be dark and menacing, but when French tells the story, the girls appear to have stepped out of a children’s book and Mr. Kittentank has a kindly face.

French is an unapologetic sensualist. Her surfaces are rarely ever neutral, instead announcing their moistness, their smoothness, their softness, their hairiness, or their firmness in every panel. French is obsessed with texture and has developed a drawing style to enable this obsession, her stippling and delicate pencil shadings providing a sensitivity to surface that a simple line would never permit. The results are beautiful and without imitators, likely because it’s not only an incredibly difficult style to perfect, but insanely labor-intensive. The resultant forms are lovingly, carefully, and cleanly rendered so that even as the reader is faced with the alien internal anatomy of a bizarre creature the beauty of the image is inescapable. Through her unconventional anatomies French reminds us that the world is larger and stranger than most of us, in our daily lives, care to admit. Though the specifics of her stories often lie outside the realm of daily reality, they are grounded in environments otherwise wholly familiar. The banality of the living rooms, cellars, and kitchens French’s characters inhabit suggests that anyone can rediscover the stranger side of things if they dare to look close enough.

Renée French’s fearless specificity can be simultaneously unnerving and comforting, a disconcerting union I first encountered in a short piece called “Autocannibalism.” Reading it, I felt I was being told something secret about myself that I’d never dared to confess because it was too private and embarrassing — something that French not only knew, but had the courage to reveal to the world at large. I will be the first to admit that the intensity of my reaction was odd, but that is French’s unique power: she can mine the small, strange urges that lie buried within us and polish their peculiar facets to a high shine. In “Autocannibalism,” French painstakingly describes the process by which a man bites off a small piece of dead skin from his thumb and plays with it in his mouth. The images that accompany this description are repulsive and largely distinct from the action being described: in a living room, a boy torments a daddy-long-legs while his obese father sits on an overstuffed chair with his legs spread wide enough apart that the reader catches a glimpse of his genitals through his oversized right shorts leg. There is nothing about this scene to win our empathy or our favor; everything about it elicits revulsion. And yet, by paying attention to such a minute, specific, and private act, French reminds her readers of the small, secretive rituals we perform on our own bodies, bringing us into a strange fellowship with each other and with this man that affirms the universality of even our most seemingly eccentric habits. I suppose there are people out there who don’t pick their noses or their scabs, who don’t squeeze pimples or clogged pores, don’t bite their nails or cuticles, or suck on their hair. These people will not enjoy Renée French. Even broader among people who won’t like Renée French are those who might do those things occasionally — or even habitually — but who are so personally ashamed or disgusted by these private acts that French’s work will read like an indictment. For those of us who remain, Renée French is that rare gift among artists — one whose work finds its way into the most guarded corners of our psyches and allows us to revel momentarily in all that is awkward, embarrassing, or sticky about being alive. The care French puts into her images and her clear-eyed, unflinching depictions of human curiosity, eccentricity, and emotion underscore her own wonder, fear, and fascination with the world and with the mysteries of human behavior. In her work the marriage of text and image is completely realized and both beautiful and frightening to behold.

Chris Ware’s comics are just as powerful and disturbing as Renée French’s, but they achieve their intensity through diametrically opposed means. Ware is an anti-sensualist: his line is precisely controlled, his figures flat. The world he evokes is coldly, poignantly beautiful, achieving its hold on the reader through its complete contrast with the welter of emotions and thoughts contained in the text. Since the mainstream press publication of Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth, Ware’s name is known to some literate non-comics reader types, but this small acclaim pales beside the celebrity status he has been accorded within the comics community, where his originality and brilliance are easier to parse because the language he speaks is more familiar.

A typical Chris Ware page teems with panels ranging in size from postage stamp to postcard. The pure density of information can be off-putting, especially to a reader unaccustomed to reading comics. The non-comics reader is, at best, prepared for an orderly page, one that contains perhaps six panels of equal size, divided into three neat rows that can be read from left to right. While this experience is qualitatively different from reading text, it bears enough of a resemblance to be comforting. Ware’s pages rarely afford his reader such comfort, instead challenging our most basic assumptions about how to read. Panel groupings confine the eye to the left quadrant of the page before moving the gaze to the right, or force the eye to describe a counterclockwise path around a page’s perimeter, the smaller peripheral panels amplifying or deepening a larger central image. Rather than assume in advance how a page is to be parsed, the reader is forced to pay attention to a page’s overall composition for cues, a deepened level of collaboration that provides Ware another way to impact the reading experience.

Just as Italo Calvino, Julio Cortazar, and John Barth delight in challenging a reader’s assumptions upon opening a book, Chris Ware pushes the limits of what a comic book is expected to deliver and how it is expected to be experienced. Using schematic diagrams, Ware places a single scene within the context of a dizzying chronological continuum that can include the various ancestries of his subjects, as well as their futures. Playing upon childhood associations, Ware interrupts his story with activity pages inviting the reader to create paper amusements of his devising, ranging from stand-up figures to zoetropes, which foreshadow or reflect the very adult events or settings in the continuing narrative. Encountering these devices was, for me, like reading Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy for the first time: in both cases I received the electric feeling that I was witnessing an artist pushing the limits of his medium beyond established boundaries, an artistic sense of manifest destiny in which previously unexplored territory was being claimed before my very eyes.

Ware’s narrative domain is the pain of isolation and loneliness and the impossibility of true connection or understanding between friends, family, or lovers. The starkness of his imagery magnifies these assertions, often to a painful degree. By varying his panel sizes and grouping them in such challenging ways, Ware achieves rare control over the pace and focus of the reading experience. Readers of text enjoy a certain liberty within the confines of a story: their eyes can linger in one place or speed past others as they choose, effectively drawing out certain moments while minimizing others. A writer like Gertrude Stein wrested some of this power away from her readers by repeating words and phrases, forcing them to take notice of language, words, and moments they might otherwise disregard. Ware achieves a similar effect through his repetition of images. In Jimmy Corrigan, an entire page is given over to a young James Corrigan gazing at a wasp resting on the opposite side of a window pane. A cluster of postage-stamp-sized panels shows the wasp from the boy’s point of view from inside his grandmother’s house, while the next set of images depicts the identical scene, but this time from outside the window, permitting us to glimpse James’s face as he stares at the insect and tentatively brings his finger to the pane to tap at the glass. By devoting a entire page to such a small moment, Ware effectively freezes time, forcing his readers to experience the terrible wait James endures as he stands in the hallway, doing whatever he can to distract himself while anticipating with dread the doctor’s call to him from inside his dying grandmother’s bedroom.

Ware’s images are classically “cartoony;” characters are evoked with a minimum of lines and shapes. Eyes are simple circles, lacking lids, pupils, or eyelashes; noses and mouths are curves. The simplicity of these images is deceptive. These are the sorts of pictures we enjoyed as children in the form of Sunday funnies and Saturday morning cartoons, images that were rarely threatening or challenging. Because of this we let our guard down when we first see Ware’s work; we think we know what we are in for. With our defenses thus lowered, we are confronted by a world of absent fathers and powerless children grown into powerless adults, a world in which companionship is elusive and love is either absent or suffocating. Betrayed by our own expectations, we are effectively thrust into the world Ware depicts, where people are betrayed as a matter of course, because betrayal is the inescapable result of being alive. While the specificity of Renée French’s images is what cements her readers in place, Ware achieves the same effect with his visual generality. Because Ware’s world is largely evoked in outline, the reader is invited to fill in the details, collaborating with Ware to flesh out the world he has presented in much the same way a reader of text utilizes author-supplied details of a character’s appearance to create within their imagination a unique creature of flesh and blood.

Like French, Ware is not for everyone. Ware explores discomfiting psychological realities with the same unnerving specificity and relentlessness that French applies to corporeality. Some find his work too relentlessly depressing to read. However, just as French has managed to combine artistic maturity with childlike fascination, Ware puts his impressive intellectual and artistic acumen in the service of raw emotions and thoughts that adulthood begs us to dilute. To become successful adults we are expected to put aside our fears of not fitting in; we are expected to be self-assured and confident. Ware’s work reminds us that the same insecurities that haunted us as children are still very much present in our adult lives; the scenes he creates validate and embrace the vulnerabilities we thought we had to ignore in order to be accepted into the world at large. Ware’s work reveals personal, internal terrains whose topographies I had previously sensed but had never so accurately mapped. His unerring ability to define and explore the very psychological bogeymen most people prefer to keep hidden bestows communion of an intensity that is uncanny and immensely satisfying.

In that Ware and French are not content to simply tell a story, but are continually searching for ways to expand what a story is, what it means, and how it engages its reader, they are very much products of the artistic foment that has defined alternative comics in recent decades. The birth of alternative comics marks the coming of age of artists like Jim Woodring, Jason Lutes, and Daniel Clowes who, as devoted comics readers, have been seeking ways to expand the capabilities of the medium that influenced and nourished them as children. Though our culture embraces the limitless possibility of paired words and images in its insatiable appetite for film, comics are just beginning to be recognized as a medium of equally expressive and intellectual potential. As a result, cartoonists are about as likely as poets to gain recognition or compensation for their efforts: they create comics only because they can’t imagine not creating comics. Perhaps the fact that so few people have been paying attention has fostered the lack of artistic inhibition necessary for the provocative and resonant works of French, Ware and their colleagues, but most artists are not Emily Dickinson: they want their work to be noticed. Now that the comic book has established itself as a medium of such enduring power, it’s time for more people to start reading.

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