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Don’t They Know It’s ‘H DAY’? [Review]

If the back cover copy hadn’t told me, I probably never would have realized that Renee French’s new Picturebox graphic novel, “H Day,” was about her struggle with migraine headaches, although the adorable shelving classification “migraine / graphic novel” might have tipped me off. Not that it matters much for the work whether I would have figured it out or not, since the book is “about” French’s migraine headaches the same way the film “The Shining” is “about” massive cocaine use. Kubrick gave us endless snow, claustrophobic compositions, and paranoid hallucinations of dirty pig-humans having obscene sex in the room right next door CAN’T YOU HEAR THEM?

French, for her part, gives us a fleshy gun-shaped creature with a stinger that lives inside your head disguised as part of your brain, like one of those parasite bugs that crawl into the mouths of fish in order to eat and then replace their tongues, except that instead of just hanging out and eating part of your food for the rest of your life, French’s brain-creature just stings the hell out of your gray matter and then grows tentacles to try to strangle you in your sleep. But horror is relative, and maybe that sounds like a trade up to you from having a parasite live in your mouth. I wouldn’t know.

“H Day” is split into two equally strange narratives, each presented one image per page, side-by-side on facing pages throughout the book. On the left hand side is a glacially-paced, simply-rendered view of a faceless person being overrun by the aforementioned brain creature. On the right hand side is a dark, painstakingly shaded and textured fantasy story about a city overrun with clouds of little black bugs (according to the back cover copy, analogues for an infestation of Argentinean ants that recently plagued French).

The two stories have some interplay (the brain creature is seen early in the book poking its stinger up out of a lake and releasing the black bugs, suggesting that the fantasy landscape is internal to the person suffering on the left-hand pages) but mostly they stand in stark contrast with one another, creating a bifurcated reading experience more conflicted than complementary. The pages interrupt each other, and the two narratives — directly opposed in use of pacing, shadow, texture, setting, and action — become hard to process simultaneously. This could easily be intentional, an evocation of the mental state brought on by intense migraines, but it nevertheless makes for a frustrated reading experience.

One of the beautiful things about comics, though, is how modular and malleable the “reading” experience can be. Unlike prose books, most of which have a linear flow from word to word regardless of visual presentation, comics are made up of discrete visual units, and units within units. Panels, pages, facing pages — any and all of these things can be taken as individual experiences, and in any order. Artist’s intention counts for something, sure, but as Eddie Campbell says, all the pages of a comic arrive at once.

As a reader, I have the freedom to dip into those pages wherever and however I find most useful, and unlike cinema or music, the ease with which I do so is not restricted by technological presentation. All of which is a long way around to admitting that I liked “H DAY” a lot more once I realized that the comic on the left worked best as a horrifying flipbook, which is how I’ve now experienced it numerous times. Detached from its partner on the right and flipped through at a brisk pace, the sparsely drawn migraine session pulsed and undulated with motion, and actually managed to startle me, which is something comics hardly ever do.

Having isolated and sped up the left-hand story, I found myself psychologically freed to go back and linger over oblique passages, beautiful compositions, strange juxtapositions. I read through the right hand story at a slower pace and savored the narrative beats — a harrowing moment where the main character, a small dog, is washed about in the current from a raging drain pipe sticks in my mind, as does a sequence in which a mysterious young girl (or at least I think it’s a young girl) lowers an ominous package into the heart of the city from a high rooftop.

That the two halves of the book support such radically different styles of reading is, to me, a strength. You get two books in one, a quick one and a slow one, and because they exist on facing pages a little piece of the other drifts in your peripheral vision no matter which story you’re visiting. Once I found my way into “H DAY” it was easy to get lost in the rich visuals and strange imagery. I just hope Ms. French doesn’t mind that I had to break a window before I could unlock the door.

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