I have a frustrating relationship with Renée French's The Ninth Gland, beginning with the circumstances surrounding my purchase of it. As some of you may know, I write a column on The Chemical Box called "1987 And All That" focusing on comicbooks with a publication date from 1987 (the year I was born). I came up with the idea when I noticed that I already owned a fairly large number of issues from that year, but my supply is not infinite, so I sometimes do a bit of back issue digging and/or online shopping for more. Now, The Ninth Gland is from 1997, a full ten years later than I was looking for, but whatever website I found it on—I'm pretty sure I know which one it was but it doesn't seem worth it to call them out—had it listed as being published in 1987. I was eager for early Dark Horse stuff (they were founded in '86) and since this was a one-shot it seemed like the perfect way to get my feet wet without a major financial commitment. Ten seconds of further Internet research could've told me I was ordering something that came out a decade too late, but I trusted the online store, so I added it to my cart, and like a week later it arrived. The first thing I did was double check the date on the inside cover, and boy was I deflated when I learned of my mistake. My budget's not flexible enough to be screwing up like this, plus I had one fewer possible topic for future Chemical Box columns. Bummer.
But fine, it was just one issue, and now that I had it, I figured I might as well read it. No point in buying something and then letting it go to waste just because I thought it came out earlier than it did. I've read it two, maybe three times since then, and I'm afraid it's time to admit that I absolutely do not get it. It's not that I think the book is bad, but I definitely don't like it, either. I'm not sure how I feel about it, because I'm not really sure what the hell it is. I don't what it's doing, saying, or going for. I know it makes me squirm, and sometimes a little sad, but I'm not sure what the point is, if indeed there's any point at all. I like to think of myself as an intelligent enough reader to at least get a vague sense of what any book is about, not just narratively but thematically as well. In the case of The Ninth Gland, neither are entirely clear; I don't understand what happens and I don't know what it means.
I mean...I do know what happens, in terms of a beat-by-beat plot breakdown, but I'm not sure why any of it happens, even within the context of the story. Two young sisters (possibly twins) named Helen and Pearl find a bizarre animal outside their house, which appears to be ill and/or in pain, and definitely has a big gross bump/growth on its leg. The girls bring the creature to Mr. Kittentank, the janitor of the local hospital, and he cuts open the leg bump and finds nine little blobs (or glands, I guess, based on the title) inside. He removes them one by one, and the last one reveals itself to be a tiny living being, not necessarily a baby version of the original animal, but not necessarily not that, either. Pearl takes the little guy, whom she names Gus, outside so she can keep him as a pet, but he pees on her, and it makes her trip balls. She faints, her sister and Mr. Kittentank bring her back indoors, and when she wakes up the big animal is dead and Gus is missing. Kittentank won't tell Pearl where he put Gus no matter how many times she asks, so she assumes Gus has died, too. Pearl gets really mad at Kittentank, but nothing comes of that, and then she and Helen leave. They go home and perform surgeries on their stuffed animals, mimicking what Kittentank did to the real animal earlier, while we see that he has Gus strapped down to a table with some sort of IV or feeding tube stuck in its mouth and another coming out of its genitals. Essentially, Kittentank is collecting Gus' hallucination-inducing urine for himself. The end.
Oh, also there's an itty bitty subplot about a doctor and nurse who are having sex in the hospital upstairs and drop one of their patient's dental bridges down the grate that leads to Kittentank's basement apartment. At the end of the issue, the nurse goes downstairs to retrieve the bridge. Kittentank is super evasive about it, but then he lets her in anyway, which is how we see Gus tied down with the tubes coming out either end.
So those are the basic facts of what happens, but why any of it happens is hazy, and what I'm supposed to make of it is fully obscured. The sisters seem to be pretty normal little girls, both of them curious about the world, but with Pearl more easily disgusted by its horrors. She faints during the surgery as well as her Gus pee hallucinations, while Helen is fascinated and even delighted by these things. That's a simple enough dynamic for sister characters, but there's not much to them beyond that. They don't have the space to do anything other than fiddle with the critters they find, and neither one of them has very much emotion or personality in their dialogue. Kittentank is even harder to decipher. He's kind enough to the girls, and helps them with the problem they bring him, but then he also steals Gus so he can harvest its pee...what's that about? Is he keeping it for personal use? Planning to sell it as a new recreational drug? Did he know what he was getting into when the girls showed up with a bleating animal that had a bump on its leg? Who is this guy, and what is he after?
And why did Helen and Pearl go to Kittentank anyway? We know their mother was inside when they found the animal, because we hear her tell them to be home by nine. Why not bring the beast to her? We don't know what their relationship is to this bizarre hospital janitor. Not that girls shouldn't be hanging out with grown men who live in basements, but...should they? It does seem like the creepiest possible setting, and maybe that's the point. Perhaps all The Ninth Gland wants to be, top to bottom, is something to make its readers uncomfortable and grossed out and on edge. Certainly the nurse-doctor sex scene supports that theory: they kiss by just pressing their tongues together, he puts his finger in her mouth awkwardly at one point, and they neglect their professional duties to keep fooling around, which doesn't make me feel great about ever going to a hospital again.
The art is also extremely eerie. Everybody's eyes are too big for their heads, and Gus is one of the weirdest little monsters I've ever seen, with his stubby hooves and widely-spaced teeth. It's a black-and-white comic, and the backgrounds of many of the panels are all black, so every page is exceedingly dark. They also all have six panels, more often than not in a perfect two-by-three grid, so that there's a claustrophobic atmosphere to everything. Lots of the panels are extreme close-ups, which adds to cramped feeling. And there are a lot of shots of the animal's innards after Kittentank cuts it open, all rendered with intense detail and realism so that they are truly hard to look at.
So if all The Ninth Gland wants to be is an exercise in discomfort, I'd say it's a huge success, but wildly overdone. I'm super disturbed by the first few pages, and nothing ever gets worse or better. I stay just as creeped out all the way through, and almost fifty pages of that is too much for such unpleasant feelings, at least for my taste. And I suppose ultimately my taste is what it's all about. I'm clearly not the audience for this book, and that's ok. Sometimes a work of art just doesn't connect with somebody, and that's me and The Ninth Gland all the way. I can't get past its surface ugliness and lack of plot; I don't have an inherent problem with non-traditional narratives or comics that make my skin crawl, but the specific balance of those things in this book misses the mark for me.
I wouldn't tell people not to read this comic, nor would I recommend it. If asked, I'd tell them that it's unique and disgusting and a little unfilling. Given the choice, though, I'd rather be challenged and affected by something like this than bored by another piece or regular old mass appeal junk. The Ninth Gland may not be my cup of tea, but it's still tea instead of just water. That's as commendable as the comic is inscrutable.