Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sanitary Friends

The Soap Lady
by Renee French
Top Shelf Productions, Inc., 2001.

The Soap Lady is an outlandish, heartwarming story of friendship, hope and sanitation, written and drawn by Renee French.

The story opens as the Soap Lady rises gently from the sea in a disconcerting parallel to the birth myth of Aphrodite. She is a lumpen, shambling horror; a bloated and dessicated body supported by skeletal legs, with a skull for a head. She meets Rollo, a young boy who can't seem to stay clean, and the two become instant friends. When the villager adults discover her presence, however, she is driven back into the sea, but not before leaving Rollo with a truly disturbing parting gift to remember her by.

Renee French's artwork consistently straddles the border between the uncomfortable and the charming, evoking the ticklish morbidity of Edward Gorey and the visual social criticism of Jhonen Vasques. However, French's imagery is much softer and more soothing than Gorey's, and far less frenetic than Vasques'. Moments that would be revolting if they were handled by any other artist become touching and somewhat sweet in this book... until you realize what exactly just happened. The beauty of The Soap Lady is in French's deft balancing of themes of loving friendship and rising horror.

According to a short blurb in the back of the book, the story was inspired by the real-life discovery of a corpse in a Philadelphia cemetery whose fat had turned to adipocere (aka grave wax) after burial. Adipocere derives from adipose - the multi-function substance found throughout the human body which builds up in excess in obese people.

For those of geek persuasion: you may also remember that the Tenth Doctor faced down an army of adorable Adipose aliens with Donna Noble in the first episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. Apparently, there's just something about this substance that makes us giggle (and wiggle), even as we're horrified by it.

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