You have to have a specific kind of temperament to read the comics of Renée French. You have to be the kind of person who would go to the Mütter Museum willingly, who keeps her eyes open for most of David Cronenberg’s films. Because behind that soft, milky artwork — all smudged pencils and dream imagery — lies something dark and not quite right.
In her last major work, the 2006 graphic novel “The Ticking,” a young boy named Edison Steelhead is born with his eyes on either side of his head. The father, horrified and ashamed, retreats to an island and tries to convince Edison to agree to corrective surgery. He later “adopts” a chimpanzee as Edison’s new sister.
It’s not for the faint of heart. The despair of being unloved and rejected is as disturbing as the sight of dear Edison being marked up by a surgeon’s pen. But this is French’s territory, and she’s comfortable there. She debuted with a work about the Soap Lady — a woman who was buried in a soil with a specific chemical make-up that preserved her corpse and turned it into something similar to soap (on display at that creepy but undeniably fascinating Mütter Museum). And since then she has not flinched with how nature can go weird, how the body can turn on you. It’s not a cabinet of curiosities, nor is it a freak show. She tells human stories based in fragile bodies, with an unexpected warmth and empathy.
In her new work “H Day,” she tries to find a visual representation for her own migraine headaches. The book is 300 pages but almost completely wordless. The silence hangs heavy, and is familiar to anyone who has been laid low by such a pain, the desire to shut out the world and its sounds, its light, its movement. And so the migraine becomes a terrifying creature that eats its way out of the patient’s head and settles onto its face. The other half of the book is a hallucinatory display of small scurrying creatures and unsettlingly strange buildings.
Here we present a sneak look at some of the art from “H Day,” but the book should be experienced in its whole. As it lacks the narrative storytelling of something like “The Ticking,” you don’t so much read it as enter a trance. So crawl into bed, shut out the world, and fall into Renée French’s odd little world. It’s more familiar than you dare admit.