Did you ever come across one of those graphic novels that you admired tremendously but couldn’t quite decide if you liked? It’s a conundrum, because in the case of Reneé French’s The Ticking (Top Shelf Productions), whether or not I like it seems kind of trivial. I’m not even convinced that it wants to evoke that kind of simplistic response.
At the same time, it isn’t one of those books where you can smell the hunger for importance and weight. It isn’t some grabby, Oscar-bait comic, slathered with relevance and depth (though the marketing leans in that direction). It’s much more precise in its effect, and that effect is both familiar and unsettling.
It’s got the rhythms of a children’s book and something of the jarring tone of an early David Lynch film. But it isn’t comforting as the former or alienating as the latter. It occupies its own frank ground. French doesn’t really seem to want to disturb you too badly, but she doesn’t want to lie to you, either.
She follows the life of Edison Steelhead, a boy born with facial deformities. His mother dies during childbirth, and his father, Cal, moves with his son to an isolated island. Cal might be trying to protect Edison from the cruelty of other people, or he might just be caught up in his own pain and embarrassment, or maybe it’s a mixture of both.
Edison is thoughtful and observant, like French. He spends his days sketching mundane, even grotesque objects, not to beautify them but to record them and perhaps understand them. As Cal tries to conceal and alter Edison’s appearance, Edison becomes increasingly dedicated to accuracy (or honesty). He respects things as they are. (This even extends to the chimpanzee Cal brings home as a sort of sister for Edison. She understands things by eating them.)
The conflict between father and son is profound, but French never overstates it. She simply presents it with a weird kind of delicacy, using just a smattering of dialogue and narration. The emotional arc of the story, which is really all there is, seems to arrive in an almost off-handed way. There aren’t any flashes of naked despair or conventional uplift so much as captured moments that create a cumulative effect. It’s a fascinating approach, and it fuses perfectly with the visuals.
French’s illustrations straddle the line between endearing and bizarre. She looks unflinchingly at Edison’s disfigurement, though she almost discreetly averts here eyes from Cal’s pain. It’s a poignant visual representation of their different perspectives, the individual ways they’ve chosen to deal with life. She does lush, varied work with tones and shading. It adds depth and texture to the illustrations, grounding her odd, ugly characters in something almost normal.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a graphic novel that was so much of a piece. Words and images are perfectly in balance with story and tone. Every element serves every other element in some interlocking way. At the same time, there are enough contradictions in the work that it doesn’t seem static or pat. It’s creepy and sweet, funny and haunting, honest and sad.
Looking over what I’ve just written, I think The Ticking isn’t really something you can simply like or dislike. It’s much more elemental than that.
(Thanks to Greg McElhatton for sharing his preview copy of the book.)