Renée French's 'H Day' Is a Surreal Exploration of Narrative Ambiguity—or Maybe Not
While migraines are known for their staggering (if temporary) disabling of the sufferer, some artists, like French, fearlessly explore the fantastical element of the migraine experience.
While wordless comics date back to the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward of the '20s and '30s, and Max Ernst's 1934 A Week of Kindness, "A Surrealistic Novel in Collage", revealed the non-naturalistic potential of sequential art, one of the most successful explorations of wordless surrealism in graphic form is the more recent H Day (PictureBox 2010) by Renée French. Though French also publishes children's picture books under a pseudonym, H Day is hardly for children. There's no overtly violent or sexual content, and while the imagery sometimes evokes children's genres—a cute dog, a round-headed main character—the sequence is quietly disturbing in tone, with a narrative logic that teeters provokingly on the inexplicable.
French divides the novel into seven sections or, as she subtitles all but the first, "stages". The shortest is five pages, the longest 24. After an initially and especially ambiguous introductory set of single images, each stage consists of full-page images paired on facing pages. The pages are atypically small, 6" x 7", and so well suited to single images. (French worked with even smaller pages for her earlier Micrographica.)
The spine divides the novel in half both physically and narratively. Lefthand pages feature unframed white spaces with a recurrent human figure composed almost entirely by outline. Its only interior marks are dots for nipples, a curved line for ambiguous genitalia, and occasional curved lines for knees. The figure has no ears, hair or facial features. It appears on roughly 80 pages. For the first 30, the figure stands in empty white space, interior and exterior defined only by its outline. Shortly before the novel's midpoint, French draws a lone bed, and on the subsequent page, the figure reappears and soon lies across it, where it remains until the sequence's penultimate page in which the figure stands to leave, after which the bed is featured alone again in the concluding image.
H Day / Céphalées
The figure, both while standing and lying, undergoes a range of surreal metamorphoses. An undefined circle appears within the figure's head on its second page. Though composed of the same kinds of lines that indicate exterior body features, the circle suggests a physically interior element, as if the head, unlike the rest of the body, is viewed in cross-section—an effect created by the absence of facial features. The circle might also be understood as metaphorical, until it takes on overtly physical qualities, soon expanding beyond the outline circle of the head itself. The figure punctures the circle with its hand and extracts a ribbon-like object that possesses more interior shading lines than anything else on the page. The ribbon retracts soon, leaving a pucker mark from which a straw extrudes, wrapping itself around the head-replacing object. A range of even more extreme transformations follow: pillowy worm-like objects grow from the head and crawl about the bed; cage-like tendrils wind from the head to form a lattice of ropes with the headboard—all while the figure remains otherwise motionless. Because the setting is also stationary, the left-hand pages create a partial flip-book effect, with each metamorphosis occurring incrementally.
Righthand pages feature a radically different narrative, both in content and style. Where lefthand pages use stark open space, all righthand pages create fully defined rectangular panels. Though frameless, the panels establish borders through meticulous pencil shading that also defines rich spatial environments of ocean, sky, clouds, curving hills, and, most prominently, a city-like landscape of uniformly shaded building-like monoliths creating street-like spaces between them. Though this ambiguous world is initially peopled by darkly shaded human figures, the protagonist of the sequence is a small, dark dog who possess the only facial features in the novel. It wanders alone, struggling against a set of antagonistic forces: swirling black smoke emitted by an industrial-sized chimney, swirling gray water emitted by a sewer-like drainage pipe, and swirling, ant-like dots that either swarm around dead bodies or emerge from them to merge with the smoke.
Though surreal, the narrative effect is still largely naturalistic as the dog makes various attempts at escape. But French at times undermines even this quality when figures, including the dog, transform between pages into similarly shaped objects that appear to be formed of wound string—with no contextually implied explanations. "stage 5" also abandons the dog and its environment entirely to depict a sequence of transforming birdcage-like objects with no earlier presence in the right-hand sequence. "Stage 6", however, returns to the surreal worldscape as a new monolith sails toward the dog to open a door-like passage and extend a plank which the dog walks to vanish within the monolith's unknown interior before it sails away.
The final righthand page features a version of the bed from the lefthand sequence, only rendered in the more finely detailed style of the righthand drawings and with crosshatched walls and floor of a more fully naturalistic space. The effect is not only a surprising merger of the two otherwise unrelated sequences, but it retroactively suggests a metaphorical link between them throughout. Because the bed does not appear earlier on righthand pages, it is understood to be the lefthand bed, which, given its concluding primacy, refigures the entire righthand sequence as an expression of the lefthand sequence. The dog and its worldscape are not "real", but are figurative representatives of the transformations of the lefthand character. Though those transformations may themselves be understood as metaphorical, within the logic of the two-sequence pairing, they are the novel's baseline reality and so are "real" in that sense.
Despite all of the surreally ambiguous imagery, the two-fold narrative concludes clearly enough: the dog's sailing away and the human figure's leaving the bed are linked, positive outcomes. H Day has a happy ending. And while the imagery is open to interpretation—are the shapes that extrude from the human figure's head visual embodiments of "thoughts" and the dog's narrative the content of those thoughts?—French's not-entirely-wordless novel does provide one unavoidable interpretation. The back covers states: "the artist illustrates her struggles with migraine headaches and argentine ant infestation." While I appreciate the pleasures of a narrative hook, I wish the marketing team who wrote the summary did not include so reductive an explanation.
French has made similar statements in interviews; she told WOW x WOW:
My book, H Day (the version in France is called Céphalées, and it's silent so that only effects the title) is an attempt to show what it's like to have a migraine, from the outside and the inside. There's an ongoing series of drawings on the left hand pages that take you through the pain part of it, showing a character who eventually merges with the bed in a pretty violent way. And then on the right hand pages there's a story that I'd visualized for years, in order to distract me from the headaches. Even with that entire book, I still go back to that subject. Most of the portraits with things exploding out of the face or the skin warping around the head, are based on the migraines.
But the back-cover summary, even aside from its erroneous emphasis on an ant infestation, does the novel a disservice. French's decision not to include her explanation in an introduction or afterword establishes the novel as independent of the creative history that produced it. Yes, French suffered migraines and those migraines led to these images, but the novel is more than that personal chronicle. It both contains those autobiographical facts and exceeds them—an aesthetic effect undermined by the back cover.
And yet, while the title H Day is inherently ambiguous, the French title, Céphalées, means simply "headaches". The difference of a single world—the novel's only word—overwhelmingly defines its content. Where Céphalées is the impressionistic tale of a migraine attack, H Day is a surreal study in narrative ambiguity.
I recommend H Day.