French has been producing comix for nearly ten years, including the series "Grit Bath," "Corny's Fetish," and "The Ninth Gland," all of which are included in this thick black and white collection. Nearly every one of the twenty-odd, short and long stories contain grotesqueries, mutilation, death or all three. What makes her work different from the boring, violent books that crowd the shelves is that she actually gets to the emotional center of what repulses us.
In these days of media gross-outs, it's incredibly hard to provoke a visceral reaction in anyone anymore. But French does it, over and over again. The first story, "Mrs. O'Reilly's Class," sets the tone in the first panel. A grade-school girl, with gaping holes where her front baby-teeth were, whispers to her friend, "Ew, Calvin puts graham crackers in his milk and then he drinks it." Panel two: an alien-looking Calvin with sludge all over his mouth says, "So?"
Does the idea of drinking graham cracker milk gruel make you laugh or feel ill or both? What about accidentally crushing a mole's skull under your heel and hearing it crack and then putting its severed paw into water, like an avocado pit? Or watching someone shoot staples into their eyeballs for beauty? Or eviscerating a small-horse-like thing and discovering embryos? Your answers will go a long way in determining how you will take to this book.
"Wehk," indeed. "Duck," in its entirety, from the Renée French collection, 'Marbles in my Underpants'
Now imagine these scenes drawn with an almost vicious talent for illustration a talent that also applies to the storytelling. French works like a caricaturist, exaggerating the grotesqueries, and simplifying everything else. Her people are moon-faced, big-eyed creatures, often children, innocent until introduced to a world of cruelty or decay. She uses a variety of drawing techniques, from sharp pen lines that outline every dangling ligament, to softly shaded graphite works which give each popping vein a three-dimensional quality.
French raises the same questions of taste and the value of shock-art that have been the focus of much debate in the art world. But unlike Damien Hirst, a British bad-boy who chops up cows and puts them in glass cases, among other things, she works in a medium ignored by mainstream pundits and critics. In a way, she's lucky. In another way, she deserves the controversy.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of looking at stuff that makes me ill. It doesn't feel as important or profound as experiencing something of great beauty. Mostly I just get tired of it. But "Marbles in My Underpants," needs to exist, if not for the pleasure of aesthetic masochists, than at least for sake of debate. After all, once you are debating whether a work is art or not, you have already proven it is.
"Marbles in My Underpants: The Renée French Collection" can be found at superior comic shops both real and virtual. The publisher also sells it from their website: www.onipress.com