The Squirrel Machine
Hans Rickheit, writer/artist
192 pages, hardcover
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?