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.
J: You’re very preoccupied with earlier century stuff, science and pseudo science, New England, antiquated technology.
H: 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.
J: What about the musical side to it? Like the pig organ?
H: 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.
J: It’s odd, though, because … well, at the end with the human horn system thingie …
H: 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.
J: 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)
H: 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.
J: There’s something very H.P .Lovecraft about the basic theme.
H: 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.
J: Who has influenced your work?
H: Favorite authors — Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, playwrights like Ionesco and Alfred Jarry. Another favorite writer is Bruno Schulz.
J: I’s interesting because you’re naming novelists and playwrights, but you’re treading the same territory visually — no descriptions required.
H: 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.
J: No concern for substandard effects, performances, or the other variables of film.
H: 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.
J: The reader adds a little bit, like any work of art, whereas movies can be passive experiences.
H: 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.
J: It’s like being at a shrink — your readers are interpreting your thoughts for you. The book is ripe for that.
H: I think the book is designed to drive other people mad and retain my own sanity.