Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I read, in an interview with Renee French (maybe this one with Tom Spurgeon? That's got other bits to recommend it) that she doesn't think of herself as good with comics pacing, and that's why her current approach does the thing a couple Chester Brown books do, of having only a couple panels to a page. But, looking at this Marbles In My Underpants collection of her early work, I find a couple comics that I think are impeccably paced, as an accumulation of horrors and force.

These are comics drawn in Renee's old style, marked not just by the presence of a six-panel grid, but by being in stark black and white. Currently, she draws using black colored pencil, rather than ink, and it allows for more shading and tone. It feels like her drawing got softer, from the harsh voids of crosshatched black, around the same time her stories got a little friendlier. They also got quieter, with a few silent comics giving way to comics where what dialogue that is available is not present in word balloons.

(She also has a style of plain tiny, simplified line drawings on display in her book Micrographica and a minicomic I saw the last time I went to Atomic Books. And Corny's Fetish, which closes Marbles In My Underpants, uses greytones in addition to line drawings.) (Both tiny line-drawings and gorgeous pieces of shaded pencil work are on display at Renee's blog.

But those stories done in plain black and white have their own momentum to them. I am particularly fond of the serial "Silktown" and the short "Mitch And The Mole." These comics are all over the place in terms of their plotting, weird cascades of cruelty and fetishism that keep the reader off-balance, with this sort of detached tone- It's empathetic for some characters, but there's enough details that make you think "what the hell is going on here" both in the strange distance of the dialogue and little details to panel composition, like a loaf of bread leaning against the outside of a bathtub, followed by a panel showing the table with a jar of peanut butter on it on the bathtub's opposite side. "Mitch And The Mole" sort of wavers its grid- it's there as a standard, but the panels adjacent to each other are not the same size, and what panel is bigger than the other see-saws from right-to-left with each tier. Um, not consistently, but the overall effect aids in the disorientation.

But "Silktown" is the comic I really wanted to talk about. It pretty much opens the book, and throws down a tough gauntlet to get past of fairly shocking material. Everything about this comic feels horrific, and each scene plays out fairly slowly. Some are scenes of conversation, with little details lingered on- a chocolate eclair, a dangling chain to turn on a lightbulb- while others are scenes of fast-paced violence, but the drawings freeze them and linger on them- reaction shots of people in pain or suffering trauma. It's beautiful to look at, for its textures, but its textures are also repellent, sweating and boiling on the page. It feels like a Richard Corben comic if Richard Corben were a woman, drawing David Lynch-style suburbia rather than barbarian worlds. It also kind of feels like Brian Chippendale's Maggots, actually, in terms of how it dedicates equal amounts of interest to acts of violence and more common movement. (Also cock.) But there's more depth of field here, and that allows for more shifts in the vistas being depicted.

Marbles In My Underpants rules. It's not a complete overview of the comics done in this style, and some of the selections I would replace, and it's out of print, and the cover makes it look like it contains some kind of Slave-Labor-style goth comics, but if you see it, get it. It's got other comics- like The Ninth Gland, which is pretty great too, despite having a kind of broken pace that does make it hard to read- from later in her career, so you can see how her artistry shifts, and see that the things that I highlight about "Silktown" aren't even really what makes her a compelling artist.

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