RENÉE FRENCH MAKES CUTE THINGS UNCOMFORTABLE. TASTES LIKE CHICKEN'S DEBBIE MAKES US UNCOMFORTABLE. AND HE SPOKE BRIEFLY WITH HER ABOUT GERMANS, CROC HUNTERS AND CANYONS.
debbie: What were you doing right before you started this interview?
Renée: Watching a chipmunk stuff his cheeks with some unidentifiable food thing that was bigger than his head.
d: What was the first thing to pass through your mind when you found out a paper named tastes like chicken wanted to interview you?
R: Good name for a band. Think I'll say yes.
d: Where are you from?
R: I grew up in Jersey and then lived in Philly for eight years. I'm back in Jersey, outside of NYC.
d: You're about to present work in a group show in Hamburg, Germany. Can you tell us about that?
R: Anke Feuchtenberger (she's an amazing artist, check out her books) edited an anthology for Reprodukt in Berlin called Echolot that I was part of. There's going to be an exhibition of the original pages from the book in Anke's hometown of Hamburg.
d: You've been published out of France and Germany, plus you're currently on exhibition at the Swiss Institute in Soho. Have accomplishments like these always been a driving ambition behind your art?
R: No, I don't think so. Though I do know that one of the reasons I got into comics in the first place was to acquire a bigger audience for my artwork and that that might include other countries. But that's definitely not what drives the work.
d: Do you think the silence and strict use of imagery for storytelling in so many of your pieces contributes to it's universal appeal?
R: I love the idea that silent comics can be read by anyone. They need no translation because the pictures are the language. But, the German translations of Grit Bath, put out by Jochen Enterprises in Berlin, have very few silent stories in them, so I think it might have more to do with the style of drawing and the tone of my stories than the lack of words. I'm sure the translators at the foreign publishers celebrate when they see a wordless comic.
d: Was there a definite point in your life when you realized you wanted to make art the way you do now?
R: Before I got into comics, my drawings sort of told a story in one panel. Then, after seeing Charles Burns and Chester Brown and a few others, I saw that I could string together drawings, tell a story and gain a wider audience at the same time.
d: Do you have an aversion towards "cutesy" stuff in mass media and pop culture?
R: No! I cannot tell a lie. I have a pink Powerpuff Girls watch with cool sparkly stuff on the face. And Sanrio stuff sends me into a fit.
d: I've got a friend who's really into Hello Kitty and the Powerpuff Girls. I'm talking wall-to-wall toys, stickers, t-shirts, cookie jars, etc. What's the prize item in your collection?
R: One of my favorites is a Happy Meal prize: Hello Kitty with wings. You pull the string and she flutters and makes a gross buzzing sound.
d: Speaking of mass media, my friends and I love to watch really shitty movies and make fun of them. Do you have any truly God-awful film favorites?
R: My absolute fave is Godzilla vs. Biollante. It's the great and powerful Godzilla versus a Giant Flower.
d: Where did this Biollante character come from and what are his powers?
R: It's sort of a she. A scientist splices the genes of Godzilla with a rose and his dead daughter. So it's got some of Godzilla's powers but a kind, young heart.
d: I feel ashamed for not knowing about it. Who wins the fight? Not like I've gotta ask!
R: Yeah. Duh.
d: Do you get to meet a lot of the people who enjoy your work?
R: Yes, at the conventions. It's a lot of fun.
d: What about you surprises them most?
R: That I'm not a scary little person with dark circles under my eyes. I kinda hate to disappoint them.
d: Is there any other form of art that you wish you had more time to devote to or that you do on the side?
R: I make black & white photographs with a 4 x 5 large format field camera. I haven't been in the darkroom in over a year. My upcoming book for Top Shelf, The Soap Lady, took up most of my time last year.
d: What kind of stuff do you photograph? Does it parallel your drawings at all?
R: I do landscapes, but close-up stuff. Dead animals, insects, bones, etc. I guess they are related to my drawings but I think about the photos in a different way. It's a challenging medium because you have to find the thing before you can make the picture.
d: What artists are you most often compared to?
R: I've heard David Lynch the most. Edward Gorey and Charles Burns, too, who are also on my list of favorite artists.
d: You're a comic artist who's most often compared to a film director. Considering that, and that you shoot 4 x 5 black and whites, have you ever thought of making your own films?
R: Definitely. I don't have the funds or the training, but I'd love to make films.
d: Is music an important part of your life and your creative process?
R: I don't listen to music when I work. I have the TV on the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel or The Croc Hunter when I'm in the inking stage. I've always done that and it's part of my ritual now.
d: That Croc Hunter guy is nuts! My friend and I were just commenting the other day on how cool it would be if he went to the Outback and hunted down those damned Survivor kids. You know, sit on their backs and duct tape their mouths shut!
R: Or maybe he could transport some of his crocs to their waterhole.
d: I'm of the opinion that dogs have lips. Do you agree?
R: Yes! They definitely have lips! I love dog lips. And when dogs get older, they start to gray around the lip area and it makes them even more lip-like.
d: Do you think that dog lips question is stupid?
R: Uh, no.
d: Well, even though it's a mainstay of our interviews, some of the staff members think the question has run its course. I'm pro-dog lips and glad you are, too.
R: It's one of the best questions I've heard in a long time.
d: What one person, dead or living, would you love to meet?
R: I'm answering off the top of my head so I'm probably missing the perfect answer to this question, but I'd have to say Vermeer.
d: What would you say to him?
R: Can I watch?
d: What's the most exciting, yet frightening thing you've ever done?
R: I was on a photo expedition in Escalante Canyon, and on the hike down I injured my knee. We stayed at the bottom of the Canyon for a week or so, and when it was time to climb out there was no way I could do it. I had to ride a horse out, up the slickrock cliffs with two cowboys. They wouldn't ride out because, "If the horse goes over the edge, you go with him." There were spots where, when I looked down, all I could see was the belly of the horse and the bottom of the canyon. Then there were hairpin turns and stumbling and grunting and me talking to the horse: "C'mon, you can do it. Oh, sorry. I don't want to screw up your concentration." And then we were out. It really was the most terrifying but exhilarating thing I've ever done.
d: Any final words for our readers?
R: If you're ever in Chicago, try the prime rib at The Chophouse.