The Ticking

By Renée French
216 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

“Edison Steelhead was born on the kitchen floor.” It’s the sort of opening you hear for legends, and of epic stories. It’s how Renée French begins the narration of The Ticking, her new graphic novel that like its opening words may make you believe it’s going in one direction, even as it quietly slides into something entirely different.

Edison Steelhead looked different than other children. His head was shaped like an egg, and his eyes were almost where his ears should be. Raised by his father on a remote island, Edison wore masks when deliveries arrived, and spent his days learning science and foreign languages, while drawing in his sketchbook. When Edison’s father decided it was time for Edison to have plastic surgery to change how he looked, though, it would be a turning point for Edison—but not the way that his father would have expected.

At a casual glance, it’s easy to try and predict The Ticking. You might quickly decide that it’s a book about isolation, or perhaps about strangeness. You may even get close to the core of The Ticking if you pick up that it’s about beauty, although once again it’s easy to try and predict the message behind it. What I loved so much about The Ticking was that it quietly sidesteps all of your expectations and beliefs, going its own distinct way instead. This isn’t a book where the general population screams in horror at the sight of Edison’s unmasked face, a book about the world ostracizing someone who looks different. This is in many ways a book where everything is internalized; Calvin Steelhead’s own fears of his son’s appearance, his own personal hatred of his past and what he tried his entire life to escape. Through Edison we see a much different view of the world, one that finds beauty in everything from a fly to a twist of toilet paper. This isn’t a clichéd “everything is beautiful!” story where there’s a huge cathartic moment where the world comes together; rather it’s a story where we see through Edison’s eyes what the world is really like.

The Ticking‘s illustrations are as breathtaking as its story. French draws The Ticking as a series of soft square panels, with delicate shading forming each illustration. There are very few actual hard lines in the art of The Ticking, French instead letting each entity in her drawings almost float into each other. It’s a very serene look for the book, offering an almost dreamlike quality up to the reader. It’s an important part of The Ticking; the book isn’t about the harshness of the world at all, but about the beauty that you can find everywhere. French really brings that idea across in her drawings; instead of making Edison’s visual appearance grotesque, it’s merely different. Even Edison’s drawings of surgical tools or insects showcase the attractiveness that they, too, possess; a critical part of the story. The Ticking‘s story and art are perfectly integrated together, providing a thoroughly unique package.

It’s a strange but charming story, with little offbeat moments that can’t help but make you smile. French peppers her novel with these, from Edison’s new “sister” Patrice being brought into the household, to the ill-fitting Zorro mask that Edison puts on at the doctor’s office. Amidst the most sorrowful moments of the book, there’s still joy, even if it’s something as simple as Patrice walking through the scene eating a bag of potato chips (which may not sound that great but trust me, it is). The Ticking is in many ways a “quiet” book; there aren’t any huge confrontations or fights, no heated debates, no big action scenes. For people looking for that sort of thing, you’ll be awfully disappointed. What we get, instead, is a very thoughtful and charming book that’s not quite like anything else out there. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a book from French, and I’m reminded here why her creations are always worth the wait.

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