H Day by Renee French
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Coming out of any Renee French book is a process. As a reader, you have to re-emerge from her mindscape and slowly find your way back to lucidity. Jump out too fast, and you might get the bends.
It's no secret I'm a huge fan of Renee's work. Editing her early career retrospective Marbles in my Underpants was the fuzziest of pet projects for me. That book marked the end of a certain phase of her career, and since then, I've been able to watch and read as a fan as Renee's cartooning has continued to roam into new and unexpected places. H Day reads like a delivery on everything she has done this century. In comparison, books like The Ticking and the oddly delightful Micrographica appear now as if they were bathroom mirrors fogged over by steam, and H Day is the reflection we find waiting for us when the glass is wiped clean.
To describe H Day seems kind of pointless. I am only going to make it sound literal, which is wrong and which kind of ruins it, but here we go: H Day is a dual narrative, at once physical and mental. French makes use of the printed book and its left-right capabilities. Open the comic and on one side, the even-numbered pages (verso), you have images of a human being at war with her own body, a migraine headache manifesting as a physical deformity that manipulates her and that she manipulates in turn. On the other side, the right-side, odd-numbered pages (recto), you have the story of a dark and foreboding city where ants are taking over, smothering the inhabitants and covering them in some weird cocoon of bandages. Within this narrative, you have a girl and her dog who get separated from each other and the dog's journey to find her again.
Flip back and forth between the pages, compare left to right and back again, and you will see movement, like watching a silent film on an old penny arcade viewmaster machine. Indeed, silent films came to mind throughout my reading of H Day, and not just because it's wordless. The city side is drawn in heavy detail, using lots of pencil shading and texturing to create a completely solid world. The blocky buildings, dark shadows, and imposing angles reminded me of the ambitious early cinema of Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang. The framing and construction are expressionistic and scary. In contrast, the headache side is drawn with less detail, the figures in pencil outline, the interior sometimes shown in x-ray. For anyone who follows French's daily sketch blog, certain images that seemed random once upon a time now make sense. Now we know why she was drawing those wicker baskets and traps.
The visual metaphors aren't overly complex on the surface. The headache girl's physical agony is driving the narrative of the city. You should hopefully get that right away. It's how the images develop, how the artist pulls you along and expresses herself, that is important. Complexities emerge, deeper meanings suggest themselves to you. Rational thought is your least effective tool for interpretation, you have to let the pictures work their magic. I actually read H Day as an advance pdf on my iPad, and so I was able to scroll back and forth, click through, move the drawings at my own speed, one picture morphing into the next instantaneously without any division. Too many avant-garde and abstract cartoonists are content to just play with the flow of images, to detail their hallucinations and the psychoses without concerning themselves with whether or not they ultimately communicate anything with their drawings. Renee French is in a class by herself; indeed, a class most cartoonists would do well to take. H Day schools each and every one of them. There is meaning here, there is feeling, Renee French never forgets that her audience wants to end up with something when they close the book. H Day is devastating and wonderful and the final images are too, too sublime. Dare I say, the conclusion is sentimental in the ways that people who decry all sentimentality forget that art should be? So many alternative cartoonists depict real life as caricature, whereas Renee abandons real life altogether and ends up being far more honest. For as “out there” as her stories and images always are, she never for a second stops being human.
Fittingly, this book is due out on Halloween. Preorder it now. And if H Day doesn't dominate end-of-year lists in a few months, I'm done with the whole stinking lot of you.
* All images takes from Renee's blog, the "story h" tag, and are not necessarily the finished drawings in the book.
* The review copy of this book provided by Picturebox.
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