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The Squirrel Machine
posted September 9, 2009


Creator: Hans Rickheit
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, hardcover, 192 pages, October 2009, $18.99
Ordering Numbers: 1606993011 (ISBN10), 9781606993019 (ISBN13)

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.

imageFalling 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.