ALONE AMONG HER PEERS, Renee French possesses the disturbing ability to portray the frightening space between reality and the subconscious. As we daydream through her meticulous draftsmanship, odd and unsettling dialogue, and surreal creatures, she provides little background information or explanation for her peculiar characters. We eagerly follow along, yet constantly wonder: Where the hell did this thing come from? What is it? Should I be disgusted by its unnatural gaze or charmed by its adorable eyes?
A note on the indicia page of Hagelbarger and That Nightmare Goat reads: “no seamonsters, snakes, or goats were harmed in the making of this book,” suggesting what these creatures are — an unusual move for French, since she doesn’t like to assign classifying names and restrict the definitions of her repulsive/attractive creations. “Seamonsters,” we can assume, are our oblong, lumpy protagonists, and the other creatures are goats and snakes. But French, who’s been published in international anthologies and rewarded with nominations and prizes, does little else to support our expectations of behavior, narrative, or outcome, creating ambiguities she mines for all their potential.
Hagelbarger and That Nightmare Goat was last fall’s addition to the prolific creator’s oeuvre. It is the story of innocent seamonsters and their vicious enemies, locked in a struggle over resources. Actually, the “resource” here is an object discovered by our protagonist, referred to in the text as the “fancy stick.” The stick is not made of any particularly valuable material, nor does it have a larger meaning to our odd team of characters. Its only apparent worth is as a building material, and protagonist seamonster Hagelbarger discovers it in the depths of the murky, watery world in which our cast resides. The snakes he interacts with are elongated eels crossed with noodles. Their gnarled and buoyant nest looks like entrails ripped from a body, tangled and twisted, housing the phallic creatures. For unclear reasons, That Nightmare Goat is drawn to the body of water by hunger. He wants seafood, but becomes obsessed with the fancy stick, thinking it might assist in his hunt. Perhaps because he is so hungry, That Nightmare Goat’s tongue hangs out, like a dog panting after a run, and his stature is only slightly bigger than the seamonsters. His disturbing rectangular pupils paired with his flailing tongue assist in the unnerving portrayal of That Nightmare Goat as our villain. Hagelbarger is unfazed.
French’s deftness in character portrayal is her brilliance. Her blog, where it is possible to scroll through image after image and get a snapshot of the stages of a story’s fruition, keeps audiences apprised of the development of her characters and ideas. Disfigured and inhuman humans, hair spewing from what would be a face, are encompassed and perhaps extruded by layers of grotesque, scrotal wrinkles. These portraits seem to offer previews of future books. The cover of the soon-to-be-released Baby Bjornstrand has been posted, along with drawings from the process of creating Hagelbarger. Bjornstrand, we gather, is a creature (part bird and/or part dinosaur?) towering over an unknown onlooker amid an ever-present dark haze.
Watching the development of Hagelbarger, we see he has maintained his shape since he first appeared; he is a jelly bean with small thin arms that do not appear capable of holding his own weight. When swimming, Hagelbarger’s tail is like a stubby beaver’s. His round, glossy eyes are accompanied by a mouth represented by a single line — these, together, are cute. In the posted images, Hagelbarger looks down in shame, with clouded eyes, as stink juice is emitted from his abdomen; he slides his body ashore and sits (or perhaps lies on his stomach?) and contentedly stares out past shadowy trees lurking in the distance. None of these images appear in the book. They simply deepen our awareness, giving what French creates a depth and history, even if we may never fully understand.
We come to French’s work with preconceptions about goats and seamonsters: a goat typically docile and somewhat purposeless, all monsters — by virtue of the name — malicious. That Nightmare Goat, however, is our story’s trickster. He causes calamity and demonstrates the irony of life and circumstance through disruption and bad behavior. That Nightmare Goat is solely interested in provoking the seamonsters, with little purpose. Hagelbarger’s day-to-day life consists of looking at flying things and wandering in search of sticks for nest building. That Nightmare Goat is hotheaded and offensive to all he encounters in the story, and he exists in the mythic realm of the Yeti, El Chupacabra, Bigfoot, Mothman, the Loch Ness monster, and the ever so infamous under-the-bed-dwelling and/or closet-lurking shadowmonster. The prayers murmured from the lips stretched over the parasitic mouths and anthropomorphous teeth of our sea creatures in the late hours of the night are about That Nightmare Goat.
French trades in the banality and charm of horror. An earlier wordless comic, ZZZ, from 2000 (published in the anthology Comix 2000), is the tale of masked, wide-mouthed children discovering a dead raccoon, its entrails depicted as misshapen lumps, twisted up into the hole of its dead body. The cast revives the carcass with two wires stuck into each side of an electrical outlet, whereupon the zombie raccoon becomes part of their toy collection, seated at a table beside a doll and in front of a teacup. The brief tale ends with the children contentedly asleep in bed, a concluding panel juxtaposing the calm of resting children pitted against the repulsive image of a dead animal (x’s in his eyes and all), strapped to a chair, its mouth wide open, emitting a constant moan of pain in an otherwise wordless comic.
Hagelbarger and That Nightmare Goat is not wordless, but the conversation is unusual and seemingly trivial. Almost all the illustration pages have a visually similar children’s-book layout, each image in an elliptical frame surrounded by empty space, followed by a few lines of text. Dialogue appears on separate pages from the images; next to each line spoken there is a small simplified drawing of each character, to identify who is saying what. The meaning of the characters’ dialogue is elusive: abrupt and truncated, as if something was overlooked. Flipping back, a reader will realize, that’s all there is: few words, the drama of language, and smartassery left and right from That Nightmare Goat. When Hagelbarger asks him, for example, “Could you please stop licking me?” That Nightmare Goat replies, “Aw, c’mon, you know you like it.” In the next image, That Nightmare Goat is kicking his legs, surrounded by swirls of dark fluid, tongue out, as usual. That Nightmare Goat exclaims, “Oh rude! Cool it with the stink juice, Gordo.” Hagelbarger apologizes, and That Nightmare Goat replies, “Grow some stones. I was just being affectionate. I like you, Fatty.” Not quite sexual, but replete with weird overtones, it’s unusual dialogue, and perturbing for a book that otherwise passes as kid-friendly. Fittingly, the paper of the book is an overly calming “eggshell,” the color of many public spaces and hallways, places where the interior architecture does not solicit a relaxed state of mind without such an intentionally mellowing color.
The conclusion of the story has That Nightmare Goat successfully purloining the fancy stick. He stands in heavy fog, or perhaps is still underwater, shrouded in the darkness of the vast sea. He holds out his tongue as if expecting sea creatures to simply fall between his jaws. A seamonster pal of Hagelbarger’s emerges to retrieve the stick; the goat reacts quickly and bites off his arm, which he strips to the bone and wears around his neck in exchange for the fancy stick. A penultimate haunting image of Hagelbarger shows him standing ashore, alone and introspective, considering the damage wrought. We glimpse his nightmares — encompassed by swirls of stink juice, and the terribly disturbing rectangular pupils of this vile, vindictive goat.
Finally, in the manner of children’s books, we read “the end”: a soothing phrase paired with a comforting illustration, dissimilar to others in size, of Hagelbarger curled in sleep with his fancy stick. We have our happy ending and our catharsis, making Hagelbarger and That Nightmare Goat perfectly fit to read to children after all, if you’re a particularly awesome parent.