Truth, beauty, and depravity must all share the same frame. I read that somewhere. I wrote it down as a note to myself: the goal of emotionally rich art. Marbles in My Underpants, the collected work of comic artist Renee French, does exactly that--puts truth, beauty, and depravity together on the page. The drawings and narratives in this collection move between the grotesque of the real word--pimples on an uncle's neck, a bandaged face, pubescent facial hair--and the beauty of the surreal: A helpless, horse-like creature with a lump on it's leg appears as every girl-child's horse dream, until two girls take the animal to their friend the janitor's basement apartment for "surgery."
Of course the animal dies, but not before delivering a tiny baby that turns out to piss hallucinogenic and scarring pee. The brilliance of the story is given added dimension through a second narrative, from a few flights up in the same building. A dentist drops a patient's bridge work down the heating grate. The girls, before finding the horse, steal psychotropic medicine from elderly patients. Later, a nurse interrupts her make-out session to search for the bridge and ends up in the basement apartment, with the janitor and the dead extra-terrestrial horse. The stories collide, creating a mysteriously interconnected world.
In "Cornelia in the Pen," a big-headed, delicate Cornelia sits alone in her jail cell, until she's joined by a Beatrice Potter-like Peter Rabbit of a bunny. The bunny, cute and accommodating, creates a brush and ink from its own fur, blood, and bile. There's an insane drawing of the bunny with its tongue out, concentrating, happily tying fur into a brush as his arm drips blood. He gives this present to Cornelia because, as she says in a line reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's dying words, "These blank walls are killing me." In some passages, depravity looms larger than anything like beauty: A man turned on by his brother-in-law's advances via animal intestines in a jar, a woman with her nipple bitten off by the teenage object of her lust, a dog's penis cut off in a misguided effort to repair the missing nipple, and the teenage son downstairs dying of rabies contracted through his best friend, a raccoon. Collected together, the range of French's work is clear. Some pages show carefully rendered single drawings, such as a close-up of a man's hairy chest. Others are fantastical, complicated, and nightmarish. The final panel in the sequence "Nadine," about a girl with a wart, shows the child sleeping. The girl's curled figure, in pajamas, is painfully vulnerable. Certain characters and images, such as Cornelia, or an animal with a catheter, resurface. They're part of the landscape, part of French's beautifully depraved, evocative, and heartbreaking world.