Hans Rickheit - Underbrain's dream: the entity that resolves all issues regardless of the rules: it’s through the looking glass: it’s your brain open

Hans Rickheit, The Squirrel Machine, Fantagraphics, 2009.

“Are reclusive, troubled brothers emerging as a cultural theme? Not only has E.L. Doctorow reworked the story of the Collyer brothers in his novel "Homer & Langley", but Hans Rickheit's newly released graphic novel, "The Squirrel Machine" (Fantagraphics), documents the relationship and habits of Edmund and William Torpor, a fictional brother duo dedicated to building odd musical devices from pig and cow carcasses in their secluded mansion.
Much like the Collyer brothers, the Torpors are a pair of misfits who come to depend upon each other for their emotional and physical survival. Novels, of course, are an ideal medium for exploring the consciousness of those we might not otherwise regard with close attention––freaks, outcasts, children. What's quickly becomes clear is that the graphic novel is a particularly apt form for inhabiting unconventional characters, and very few do this as well as "The Squirrel Machine".
Wielded skilfully, images are as expressive as words, and occasionally more so. Rickheit's drawings convey the boys' tortured feelings of persecution, elation and curiosity––as well as their uncouth creative urges––in a succinct and often gruesome way. Rickheit's frames vary from the cluttered to the stark, and his ability to pack detail into four square inches is rivalled only by his ingenious use of white space.
The author, who lives and works in Philadelphia, keeps scrapbooks of medical photography and counts Burroughs, Ionesco, Beckett and Kafka as influences, which is no surprise. It remains to be seen whether future novels, graphic or otherwise, will bring us further pairs of charismatically abnormal brothers. Whatever the case, "The Squirrel Machine" convinces anew that a picture is worth a thousand words.” – Molly Young

“In high-school English class, we're taught that literature features three basic types of conflict: man versus man, man versus environment, and man versus himself.
"Well, I think there's a fourth type of conflict, which I'm working with," says cartoonist Hans Rickheit. "I call that fourth type of conflict 'exploding cow.' "
Pressed to elaborate on this notion, Rickheit — who was born in Ashburnham, lived in the Boston area for a decade and a half (including five years dwelling in the basement of Cambridge's Zeitgeist gallery), and now calls Philadelphia home — replies with cryptic finality: "I think it's rather self-explanatory."
Er, fair enough.
For more obtuse readers, hints are offered by flipping through the gorgeous, enigmatic, disquieting pages of Rickheit's new graphic novel, The Squirrel Machine (Fantagraphics) — a book that could and should be his breakout work.
Set in some leaf-strewn 19th-century New England town, its story line, such as it is, concerns two eccentric, reclusive brothers, and the inventive uses they come up with for animals' taxidermied remains. As Rickheit tells their story, he conjures an aberrant world of shadowy Victorian attics, whispering woodlands, and strange, Steampunk-esque retro-futurist gewgaws, reveling in the collision of the organic and the mechanical. Plot is hinted at, but, like a phantasm, never quite materializes. Page after entrancing page, the book is an exercise, he says, in challenging "presumptive barriers of conventional narrative."
It's a remarkable piece of art ? one that percolated in Rickheit's gray matter for more than a decade, and took more than five years of working in earnest to complete. Even so, the story shaped itself organically. "I like leaving it vague," says Rickheit. "I like to surprise myself with each new page."
In turn, the reader is also continually surprised — and at times shocked and repulsed — by some of the more surreal and visceral imagery. (A dancing chicken spine, a head drawn tight in a vise.)
Rickheit draws in an obsessively detailed style that evokes the textured complexity of a woodcut (though one that uses simple Pilot V-Ball pens). "Every frickin' line is a lot of work," he says, admitting he sometimes spends a week inking a single page.
But he can't help but suffer for his art, cramming each pane. with laborious rococo detail. "When I read a novel, I like pages and pages of long, sumptuous prose," says Rickheit. He aims to create a visual analogue of that experience: "You can sort of read it once very quickly and get the narrative, and then you can go back and drink in all the detail. That's the book I wanted to make." – Mike Miliard

“Hans Rickheit has always been an enigmatic authorial figure for me - I fittingly discovered him at MoCCA a few years ago while he was absent from his table, but whoever was manning it facilitated the sale of a couple volumes of his Chrome Fetus minicomics to me. His new graphic novel from Fantagraphics is a drastically more linear and cohesively dialoged story than those volumes, but the same spirit of steampunkish surreal exploration between internal and external relationships still pervades.
In its simplest terms, the Squirrel Machine narrative is the tale of two brothers, Edmund and William, and their quest to master an organ assembled from pig heads. Edmund is a bit of a mad scientist, consumed by constructs that transhumanistically merge mechanics and biological systems for these grand sculptures of form and sound. The quest puts him at odds with his own family, however, and results in his own renewed efforts to help them — perhaps out of guilt. I was a little unclear on that, though.
The result is something along the lines of Alice in Wonderland meets Clive Barker’s Hellraiser in a visual spectacle that revives motifs from Rickheit’s earlier work, such gasmaskish facial interface devices, adolescent sexual discovery, and intimate relationships with animals that are not necessarily sexual. His storytelling style is a brilliantly paced series of chapters, that leave as much to the imagination between panels as they unveil in his larger scenes of Rube Goldbergian invention and menacing surprise shots that lie between M.C. Escher and H.R. Giger.
There’s an ongoing refrain of physical penetrations and external community confrontations that kicks off from the very beginning where Edmund finds himself awakened outside of his house. Most of these events explore major changes in his life brought on by what lies through the given scene’s metaphorical rabbit hole, and how that new discovery complicates his life further.
Rickheit’s linework is utterly astounding throughout, and his imagery is densely compacted in many circumstances. There’s an obsessively completist urge that appears to fuel his pages and balances well with the central character’s innocence, though the elegance of the story really resonates in the challenge to that innocence forced by the ending.
I always enjoy revisiting Rickheit not because he makes artwork that’s easy to consume, but because he makes visual narratives that issue these kinds of challenges as you get drawn in to his children’s quests and motivations. Those who appreciate Max Ernst’s work or the cold subjectivity of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence should gravitate handily to Rickheit’s style. Actually, some of the dialog in The Squirrel Machine came across eerily similar to the old man at the hotel in The Silence.
This book was well worth the wait, and I was happy to see him get a publisher like Fantagraphics for it, who will hopefully open up his work to a wider audience.” - Brian Warmoth

"I'm not wholly familiar with the past work of cartoonist Hans Rickheit, although my lingering impression is that he's an artist with a first class visual imagination, craft chops to spare and an eye for the grotesque. So while I'm not the person to place where The Squirrel Machine fits into the arc of Rickheit's career, the velvety ease of the narrative and the facile blend of sexual, familial and natural intimacies on display suggest one of those steps forward with which the comics medium has been blessed over and over again this past decade. One falls through The Squirrel Machine as much as reads it, and the collection of feelings it imparts is as much due to the clarity of its narrative as it is the horror show that occasionally surges toward the reader from some deep place in Rickheit's mind, righteous and angry and wet.
Falling is a minor motif in The Squirrel Machine, or at least the threat of gravity and the honor won in a lengthy climb. So is sleeping, I think, from several angles: the loss of consciousness, the gift of dreamed insight, the helplessness of the prone body and the similarities between the sleeping form and one suspended in liquid. Most of the falling and sleeping comes from the book's protagonists. The Squirrel Machine tells the story of two brothers, William and Edmund (as in Barrett, maybe?). We meet the brothers as their relationship has settled into an overly-dependent torpor. William is physically trapped in a horrifying, jelly-like body and Edmund directs the majority of his attention to his brother's care buoyed by the simple A to B conviction of his love for him in doing so.
William's apparent escape sends the narrative scuttling back to their days as children under the care of a controlling mother from whom the children derived some significant portion of their love for transgressive art. A lot of the fun of these sections is how boldly disgusting Rickheit makes their forays into artistic expression. I imagine it might even lose him some readers who may see those moments as overly flamboyant, even frivolous or obvious. It's not unlike the reaction that the boys and their audiences stumble through, although there it comes with faintings and beatings and yelling and the opening up of magical, physical interiors. Rickheit seems to equate art with a state of mind that flutters between total mastery and absolute loss of control, a statement that shouldn't be underestimated when it comes from an artist whose precise pacing at times recalls that of Jim Woodring and Rick Geary.

I would imagine that finding a through-line is a task best left to every reader. The Squirrel Machine could certainly be enjoyed as a set of over-the-top moments and boxes opening, a fable with some very discouraging things to be said about familial ties. My attention was drawn specifically to how Edmund's first musical instrument (made from pigs' heads) produced a more glorious sound than one from several years later (made from a cow's body). By the time we see an older Edmund in the framing sequence he's a million miles away from the boy that grasps at goggles that may not show anyone else anything remarkable or the teenager that romps, vigorously and hilariously, through a sex scene surrounded by the creepy detritus of his artistic pursuits. In the end, both brothers are transformed, one through suffering into something more that appears more than human, the other as settled material to be reconstituted into art. It's unclear who gets the better end of the deal. I like how unafraid this book is of being silly or obvious or over the top, and I hope it's met with equal bravery.” – Tom Spurgeon

“Hans Rickheit is described on the dust jacket of his new book as a "legendary obscurantist." It's hard to argue with that assessment. Throughout all 179 pages of The Squirrel Machine Rickheit tells a rich, fluid tale, all the while approaching, but not quite revealing any implicit meaning the story itself might have. The result, a daring, surreal, often grotesque work, is more visceral than it is cognitive.
There isn't much about The Squirrel Machine that doesn't seem like everything you've just read is one giant dream, or hallucination. Many scenes contain nothing that could feasibly be referred to as "the literal", relying only on symbolism to tell the the story, or perhaps not even that. It's possible Rickheit's intention was to craft a story with no intrinsic meaning, leaving different interpretations up to the reader; the author daring his audience to take part in the creative process.
This isn't to say the story doesn't contain "facts". On the contrary, its foundation is somewhat straightforward: the tale of two brothers who are societal outcasts due to their odd behavior and freakish inventions, The Squirrel Machine follows its protagonists Edmund and William Torpor as they grow older, becoming slightly more eccentric as the story progresses.
However, it's what isn't said that seems most interesting.For example, we're shown the blueprints to the Squirrel Machine, the titular invention, only in passing, and we're never quite given an impression of what it might do. Even as Edmund is about to explain his discovery to William he cuts himself short as he sees his brother's bruised and scraped face, implied to be a result of a run-in with local crazy person the Pig Lady. The machine is never again mentioned by either character on panel for the rest of the book.
The Pig Lady herself is a remarkably surreal entity, part homeless loon and part female shaman. Her speech is little more than a series of gibberish words and grunts, her actions nothing short of hypnagogic. She's seen eating the boils off of sick animals, and scooping the brains out of a crushed human head. Still, she serves as sort of a vessel of change throughout the book for each of the boys, first supplying the means with which to create their "pig organ" (an organ with pig heads rather than pipes to produce sound), then acting as the trigger for their eventual sexual and spiritual awakenings. Their attempt at creating a second organ, this time with a cow rather than her trademark pigs, is met with disaster.
Of course, if none of this makes sense it may be due to one man's misguided attempt at applying meaning to that which has none. Still, meaning or not, Rickheit's work feels far too personal to ignore. His artwork is crisp and detailed, and he can turn a scene on its head with just a few panels. Even if you're unsure of what he's saying Rickheit demands your attention as he says it.” - Paul DeBenedetto

“Given what I've been reading lately I can't help but compare Hans Rickheit to Fort Thunder. Like Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, Brian Ralph et al, Rickheit spent the late '90s and very early '00s living and working in a combination art gallery/performance space/flophouse in a New England college town--theirs, Fort Thunder, in Providence; his, the Zeitgeist Gallery, in Cambridge. Like them, he saw his one-time shangri-la end before its time--theirs by municipal diktat, his by fire. Like them--and, like them, perhaps unsurprisingly given his years-long conflation of room and board with bristol board--he creates comics centered on the exploration of space, rooms, houses, environments. And like them, he fills that space with marks, so that reading one is almost a tactile, exploratory experience itself.
But the similarities are not complete. Unlike Ralph's cavemen or Brinkman's monsters or Chippendale's warriors, Rickheit's Edwardians are observers at least as much as explorers. Though they move about in his strange, gristly world, they are not of that world. More often than not they're limned by a fine white void; it serves the purpose of making them pop against his often overwhelming backgrounds, yes, but it also reinforces their separateness, their otherness. They wander through strange environments constructed by unknown architects, gazing through lenses and orifices at any number of bizarre transmixtures of human, animal, and machine. They are constantly seeing things, to borrow the title of a book by Rickheit's visual and thematic kindred spirit Jim Woodring. When we see what they see, the effect is reminiscent of catching a glimpse of an older family member as he or she masturbates, or strips to reveal what Rickehit's friend E. Stephen Frederick refers to in his memorably Kenneth Smithian introduction to The Squirrel Machine as "secondary hair."
In the comics of the Fort, exploration is, at worst, value-neutral. In Ralph's comics they lead mostly to mischief and lessons learned (though that changed somewhat in the bleak zombie comic Daybreak), in Chippendale's they usually lead to freedom or adventure, and in Brinkman's, for every bleak wordless parable of creatures lost in an endless maze, there's another LOL-inducing story of a beast barging into a castle to take a dump on the king's throne. In Rickheit's comics, though, the explorations and the visions waiting at their conclusions are unmistakably disturbing. They reveal creatures and creations of arcane origin and dubious value, frequently hidden inside a smoothly artificial or warmly organic surface like a grotesque parody of birth, or a Cracker Jack prize. When you end up at the end of one of Rickheit's wonderings, there's a sense that, to quote Trent Reznor, "Now I am somewhere I am not supposed to be, and I can see things I know I really shouldn't see." That's no less true for our desire to see them. In this, he has more in common with Josh Simmons than with the Fort, though unlike the House author, up until this point the damage incurred in Rickheit's characters' travels is more psychological than physical.
This changes in The Squirrel Machine, Rickheit's Fantagraphics debut and for all intents and purposes a simultaneous coming-out party and summation of all that has gone before. In the past--his Xeric-winning erotic coming-of-age nightmare Chloe, his dewily sexualized surrealist gag strip Cochlea & Eustacea--Rickheit imbued his character's journeys into what he refers to as the Underbrain with a sliver of redemptive power. Chloe finds something that replaces what she lost; Cochlea and Eustacea's antics are as funny and horny as they are freaky. But here, the downbeat direction hinted at by C&E's fate in the last issue of Rickheit's self-published anthology Chrome Fetus emerges in full flower, and the result is awesome to behold.
In Rickheit's story of the brilliant brothers Torpor, William and Edmund, art does not provide the antidote to the encroaching cruelty of the civilized world, as it does in Chippendale's Ninja. On the contrary, the art of William and Edmund is wholly dependent on the taking of life. Their childhood games aren't free-spirited enactments of the struggle of good against evil, and they're not really games, either. They're attempts to follow their brains as far as they can take them. Other beings--the animals who are their chosen medium, their hapless mother, the angry townsfolk and mocking bullies--factor in only as means rather than ends. Even exploration itself is represented as a frightening loss of control by its most prominent exponent here, Edmund's sleepwalking. There seems to be no escape from the power structure of oppressor and oppressed.
The one exception to that rule is for those with whom they can form a sexual connection--but even that will only be allowed to take them so far. Visually, Rickheit tips his hand after the book's first big sex scene. It's weird, hot stuff as always from Rickheit, rooted in memorable details that serve to knock you off balance and make you vulnerable like the characters themselves. But in the middle of the act we cut to a stunning two-page spread, silent, no people present--simply incredibly byzantine images of the Torpor family home, utterly cluttered with the detritus of their inventions. Pipes and chains and ropes and stairs and beams and wires crisscross the panels, creating along with the gutters a dense thicket of tangents and congruences. The eye is led everywhere and nowhere all at once. The message is clear: Sex offers no escape. And like art, it can, and likely will, destroy and degrade and subjugate. When life and love, of a sort, finally do reassert themselves at the book's end, it's horrifying and drawn in a fashion that makes it look less like a natural thing and more like a terrible apparition, or a special effect.
It's strange, but of all the dizzying details Rickheit deploys in The Squirrel Machine, the one that stood out the most to me came early on in the book: A distant water tower topped not with the usual tank, but with what looks like a giant version of the old-fashioned, grated helmets divers once wore. It sits atop a tower and beside a train trestle that are both as realistic as you please, but there it is, a mute monument to illogic. In Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum, Amadeus Arkham recalls his fateful initiation into his mad mother's "other world":
A world of fathomless signs and portents. Of magic and terror. And mysterious symbols.
This has long been the world Rickheit has chronicled. The allure in both cases is that these portents can be scryed, these symbols can be decoded, this world can be mapped. But it's only in reading this book--a painstaking chronicle of the lack of solace provided by art to the powerless--and thinking back on the diver's-helmet tower that I realized that in our darkest moments, it's easy to see that world as our world too--only the symbols can't be read. When exploration is punished, when everything we see feels like something we oughtn't, when theoretically life-affirming forces are either nipped in the bud or exposed as brutal frauds, doesn't it all seem as maddeningly inscrutable as a giant diver's helmet on top of a water tower? That there's some reason for it all, something lurking beneath the surface, something we will never, ever get to?” - Sean T. Collins

“Hans Rickheit cannot be introduced without an introduction to the ‘underbrain’. The underbrain writes the preface for The Squirrel Machine and has made other appearances throughout Rickheit’s career. I, too, have an underbrain but I call mine my ‘inner bunny’.
For all intents and purposes, the underbrain/inner bunny idea is the entity that resolves all issues regardless of the rules. It’s “through the looking glass”. It’s your brain on open. All day long our lives are generally run through the mill, contained in boxes, stifled by morals. The underbrain sets you free. When Rickheit arts, he lets his underbrain free (or perhaps his underbrain frees him, hmmm).
The Squirrel Machine should be called nothing less than a masterpiece: a true culmination and maturation of illustrative style and story. The atmosphere portrayed in black and white is meticulous and unsettling. Even the banal moments of the story have depth and direction. The underbrain has seen fit to render this machine with reverberation.
The Squirrel Machine is a dream: a dream that culminates all of your ideas (the good, the bad and the ones you should have kept to yourself) and threads them through the loops and whirls of cogs and bolts to end up in the eye of a needle. This is a dream with that moment of falling and realizing you are at the bottom of the rabbit hole. This is a dream that though you try and wake so that the inevitable does not happen in the next second, you can’t and it does. It’s impossible to take your eyes off the next horrifying moment for fear that you will end up in the dark.
Rickheit’s history will only amaze you more; as you can see his art and themes bloom into this lovely and blasphemous affair. He makes available online an earlier version of this story that does not nearly come close to the genius depicted here. His other works in his series Chrome Fetus and graphic novels Kill Kill Kill and Chloe were intriguing but didn’t yet have the attention to detail in art or plot as that of The Squirrel Machine.
It’s music that carries this story forth. Music winds its way down off rooftops from unexpected sources. Music can not only soothe a savage beast but be drawn out of domestic beasts with the right tools and know-how. Edward Torpor and his brother, William are the conductors in a love story. As brothers can do, they hide their predilections from their mother and as they get older, from each other. This hiding is the key. The more you hide something the more illicit it becomes. The more illicit something becomes, the more you have to hide it. They are in secrecy together regarding ‘the squirrel machine’ and because of this they sabotage not only their own relationships but each others as well. Their socializations become distorted. Edward wears goggles because they shield him from reality. They separate him from his own personal responsibility for his actions. His somnambulism is either the cause or the result of his off-kilter mental health. The quiet yet willful William just prefers not to know about responsibility and follows Edward blindly.
Their sexually repressed artist mother, Emma the pig-lady, the curious Morgen, and the giggle-goggle girl unknowingly try and stop ‘the squirrel machine’. When they can’t they are either then included in the machinations or become conspirators and compelling forces. The female presence upsets the hum and whir of this mechanical composition. The brotherhood is desperate but unwavering in loyalty, down to the last orchestration.
The squirrel machine itself is a metaphor for life, albeit a bizarre and surreal life. All the escapes we build into our lives, the regurgitation of information and experience, our dreams and fears – the melodies of these tiny animal lives we lead. We attach the correct nozzles, crank the wheel and hope that something comes of something. It’s the fuel we pay for, with our sacrifices and with our lives to keep the machine running. Hopefully in the end, unlike the Torpor brothers, we find that we run the machine and that the machine does not run us.
Rickheit creates and destroys the squirrel machine with an attention to detail that borders on fanatical. If Rube Goldberg had a ménage a trois with a taxidermist and a Luddite at the World’s Fair in 1851, the offspring might look like the squirrel machine. With that said I, personally, hope to see much more from Hans Rickheit and his underbrain. My inner bunny awaits.” - R.M Rollson

“Occasionally, there are works of art or literature that defy simple classification. The brain breaks upon them like waves and they give up different secrets with each tide but never all the secrets and never all at once. These creations challenge as much as they entertain and ask for obsession as toll on the road to understanding.
The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit is just such an enigma. At face value, it is the tale of two brothers, Edmund, the elder, and William. They live in a small New England town at approximately the turn of the 20th century, and the village’s desperate normalcy acts as backdrop for the boys’ increasingly strange explorations. The Torpor brothers are creators, Edmund an inventor and William a musician who plays bizarre instruments of his brother’s design. There are organs created from organs, music that emanates from pigs’ heads and cow carcasses, and an attempt at a recital on the “Bovine Resonator” results in a riot. Misunderstood by the town’s inhabitants and desperate to escape the attentions of their widowed mother (whose principle hobby seems to be painting stylized pornography), the two brothers eventually discover and retreat to a labyrinthine complex hidden beneath their home.
Plot is a nebulous concept here. How much of the story is metaphor, how much literal, and what part hallucination, all remain unclear and seem to shift during and between readings. The tale here lies in the telling. It is the characters’ journeys, the enigmas that they encounter and create, that ultimately compel the reader onward to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unclear.
The art is fantastic in many senses of the word. It is clean yet complex, always intricate but never overwhelming. Mechanical and organic forms are interwoven in complex creations. Rickheit’s vision is consistently compelling. Strange clockwork creations are fused with biology and windup toys are wedded to dissection samples. This is biotech steampunk where forms seem to whirr, click, and ooze right off the page.
The Squirrel Machine is ultimately an exploration of the mind. It delves into the imagination, unearthing fear, sex, repression, and finally, if not redemption, then reconstitution. Surreal, gorgeous, and both satisfying and confounding, The Squirrel Machine is a hypnotic, occasionally repulsive, always entertaining, and wildly creative graphic novel. It does not invite rereading so much as demands it, and each encounter reveals new and different details and interpretations. This book is a wonderful mystery, a basket of questions, a wealth of enigmas, and it looks utterly arresting every step of the way.” - Christian Zabriskie

"Some comics (along with works in other mediums, of course) are near-impossible to describe, or even understand, really. Or maybe that's just an easy way out: "I don't get it, so I'll just say it's too weird to understand!" Hans Rickheit's The Squirrel Machine seems to lean in that direction, but as strange as it is, it's interesting and seemingly substantial enough to make examination worthwhile, even if a final summation will probably come up lacking. The story, such as it is, involves two brothers who pursue weird experiments with technology and organic objects, mostly animal corpses, although to what end, or even what result, is mostly left up to readers to discern. One could accuse it of being willfully obscure and an excuse to present an array of grotesquerie without much in the way of explanation, but there's more to it than that, and while a final answer is difficult to discern, it's a book that compels re-reading and attempts at interpretation.
One thing Rickheit does here to make the work so compelling is to present everything in a realistic style, full of minute, exhaustive detail:
His settings seem fully realized, packed with grittiness and dirt, decay and collapse. The people move through it believably, fitting into what seems like a normal Victorian-era town on first glance, until more and more strange imagery is floated before our eyes and we get creeped out at the entire thing. The two brothers, Edmund and William, don't present very good reader-identification figures, mostly approaching their world inexpressively, committing weird acts without much of a show of emotion at all. But that in itself is a bit of a damper for all the weirdness; if they go about their actions without any indication that it is extraordinary, then one almost thinks of it as normal, to some extent. But their creations are so inhumanly inexplicable, with intricate machinery (clockwork gears, pipes, tubes, tanks, light bulbs, and so on) connecting to bloated carcasses, aquariums full of dead things, or cages enclosing skeletal fauna. And their laboratories themselves become increasingly impossible, cavernous rooms and tunnels whose walls are bursting with arcane mechanisms that stretch below their house that seem to connect to exits all over the town:
There's also a semi-feral young woman who raises pigs, a town populace increasingly hostile to the boys' creations, a mother who disapproves of their actions but can't seem to bring herself to do anything about it, and another young woman who takes up with Edmund without much of a reason outside of animalistic attraction. And that's not even getting into the odd visions that periodically appear, the young girl who haunts the caverns, the rampant vaginal imagery, and the strange creatures that present themselves:
One could come up with any number of explanations for the imagery here, from the encroachment of technology on the 20th century and the perversions of nature that followed, to the awakening of sexuality in the adolescent and the fascination with organic processes like reproduction, birth, and death that can dwell in the mind. Or maybe it's all a trip into Rickheit's subconscious, a slaved-over jaunt through the nightmares that haunt his waking mind. Whatever the case, it's a compelling, fascinating journey through an often creepy and always striking world, one that's regularly quite hilarious, as when Edmund, having a sexual tryst with a young woman who willfully accompanied him back to his mad scientist's lair, turns a spigot to release hundreds of snails upon their contorting, commingling bodies. What can one make of that sort of thing? You might be able to attempt an interpretation, one that will be just as valid as any, but it's just as legitimate to go along for the ride and see where Rickheit takes you. It won't be where you expect, that's for sure.” - Matthew J. Brady
“Hans Rickheit has been making mini-comics for as long as he can remember, right up to the point he won the Xeric Grant in 2001. The graphic novel that resulted was “Chloe.” His new book, released by Fantagraphics, is called “The Squirrel Machine.”
With an art style and period preoccupation very reminiscent of Rick Geary — just with a lot more psychedelics involved — Massachusetts native Rickheit spins a creepy little drama in the new work.The story follows inventive 19th Century brothers whose skill takes them to the edges of sanity as they fashion sickening and absurd musical instruments. Faced with the ire of their community and dysfunctional relationships with their mother and other women, the brother’s plunge into madness order to achieve obsessive heights.

You’re very preoccupied with earlier century stuff, science and pseudo science, New England, antiquated technology.
- I think a lot of the antiquity and so forth — objects, places, and people from that time period in New England …. kind of grabbed my imagination. I find them visually more interesting than modern trappings, modern buildings. And they’re more fun to draw, because they’re just so ornate. There’s a lot of baroque detail to draw on. And there’s conveniently a lot of photographs of New England from that time period that I was able to work with — which is also a lot of fun. It’s an interesting way to do that and I thought it would be an interesting setting for some strange stories.
What about the musical side to it? Like the pig organ?
- The pig organ is an idea spurred on by a friend who makes art work and multi media installations, but sometimes his work dabbles in the grotesque and uses actual animal carcasses. He was telling me how when he uses a pig carcass and he moves it around, it still makes noises. Even though it’s a dead husk of meat, it’s still grunting and squealing every time you move it around because there’s still oxygen inside that’s released. I thought, ‘Gee, if you had the inclination, you could build an instrument out of that.’ I’ve got to stress at this point that I do not endorse cruelty to animals. If I had the strength of will, I would be a vegetarian. I do eat meat, but if I had a little more discipline, I wouldn’t. I think it’s kind of important that people know that.
It’s odd, though, because… well, at the end with the human horn system thingie…
- Sometimes I’m not quite sure why I’m drawing what I’m drawing at the time. Retroactively I view it as we use animal parts all the time for everything. It’s like the old farmhand who would say, ‘We used every part of a cow.’ It seems like, yes, if we had the means, somebody probably would use animals to make musical instruments out of. And then I started to think about transposing that on people — people using other people for those kinds of things, like the hideousness of what happened in the Holocaust and so forth. Maybe subconsciously, that was the theme I was playing out, I don’t know. I believe that those sort of things are open for interpretation by the reader, which is ultimately what the book is about — it’s a series of events that are open to interpretation.
What you were saying about using every part of the animal in terms of turn of the century scientists, it makes me think of forbidden knowledge and Frankenstein and all that kind of stuff - but also we do go places that we just don’t talk about - vegetarianism, meat eaters don’t think about where their meat comes from)
- I do think there’s a lot about the idea of probing into places and seeing things we’re not supposed to see. That’s definitely a big theme of the book — at least to me it is — the idea of opening cupboard doors in houses that you are trespassing in and seeing things that you were not meant to see. The idea is that the two characters in the book find what I call the Infinite Basement. It’s the idea that somewhere under the catacombs of the earth, there’s a mythic mass of structure that nobody really should have access to, but these boys have found it and they’re probing around where they don’t belong. I thought that would be a fun thing to explore in a book. It gets dark and takes them weird places where they just shouldn’t be. I like the idea that the reader is seeing things that maybe the reader would feel like they were seeing something they shouldn’t be seeing.
There’s something very H.P .Lovecraft about the basic theme.
- I actually haven’t read any H.P. Lovecraft. I got a collection of short stories and dipped into it, but I can’t seem to actually seem to concentrate and read it.
Who has influenced your work?
- Favorite authors - Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, playwrights like Ionesco and Alfred Jarry. Another favorite writer is Bruno Schulz.
I’s interesting because you’re naming novelists and playwrights, but you’re treading the same territory visually - no descriptions required.
- I’m a terrible writer. I’m not particularly articulate. I find that if I have an idea, it’s better for me to draw it. I think part of these is that these are movies that I want to make, but there’s no way I’d ever get the budget to build any of this stuff.
A lot of those ideas, they wouldn’t work if I tried to describe them. Any of those things that you see in the book, if I tried to write it down, nobody would come up with the same images I had in mind. It’s the beauty of comic book storytelling — you can be more direct, more specific, especially when you’re dealing with such odd subject matter.
No concern for substandard effects, performances, or the other variables of film.
- What’s weird about a movie is that people look at movies and they expect you to trick them a little more. If you look at an old movie where it’s clearly a Hollywood studio and somebody’s standing in Egypt, the person sitting at home watching it on their video screen is going to think to themselves, ‘That’s not Egypt, that’s a Hollywood studio!” whereas in a comic book, they’re not going to look at a drawing and say “That’s not Egypt!” because it’s just accepted because it’s part of the story — they’re reading a comic book. The willing suspension of disbelief there is actually stronger and I can get away with more.
The reader adds a little bit, like any work of art, whereas movies can be passive experiences.
- It’s definitely not a passive book. It requests — gently and politely requests — the reader to come half-way and bring themselves to the story. The story is deliberately enigmatic and the book is deliberately a little bit difficult in that I want the readers to work and think about what they’re looking at and come up with their own conclusions, because whatever the reader comes up with will be much more interesting than what I give them.
I find it very rewarding when someone comes up and explains parts of the book to me, and they have ideas that I never would have come up with on my own. Just the other day, a friend of mind explained the ending to me and it was a perfect, concise interpretation. I just could not argue with it, and it had absolutely nothing to do with what I thought the story was about. That was exactly what it’s all about.
It’s like being at a shrink — your readers are interpreting your thoughts for you. The book is ripe for that.
- I think the book is designed to drive other people mad and retain my own sanity.” – Interview with John Seven

Intrview at The Daily Cross Hatch

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