Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit Review


Set in a steampunk-ish 19th century New England, two brothers, Edmund and William, create musical instruments from scrap and animal carcasses which are unsurprisingly greeted with horror by the townsfolk. They also fall in love and grow up and apart. It’s like, life and junk. 

Yep, it’s time once again to dip into the unimaginative, dull mind of Hans Rickheit who can’t help but tell the most straightforward stories ever conceived. Oh wait, I mean the opposite. That said, The Squirrel Machine is probably the most accessible of Rickheit’s books, which really isn’t say much considering how utterly batshit insane his comics are! 

There’s the usual surrealist horror and nightmarish imagery. There’s a musical organ made up of pig’s heads, disgusting skin growths are eaten as food, machinery and flesh are meshed together in unholy ways. Some of the dialogue is utterly incongruous, eg. “Vessel es nuxtual” is repeated throughout, and there are a lot of uncomfortable sex scenes set in some really disturbing places. 

It’s also really beautifully drawn in Rickheit’s strong line with utterly creative backgrounds and objects appearing throughout - full marks as always on the skilful artwork. The book also gives the reader the impression of a sort of coherent coming-of-age story. I was interested in seeing how these two boys’ lives ended up in such a bad place and Rickheit doesn’t go completely overboard on the obscurantist storytelling (but he goes pretty far regardless). 

As for the meaning, who knows? Maybe we’re viewing the story from the perspective of Edmund or William, two troubled kids, one of whom is wearing goggles quite a bit, and we shouldn’t take what we see as literal but more metaphorical? Maybe Rickheit identifies with the boys’ misunderstood art? Is it an exploration of a mind? Maybe Rickheit just gets a kick out of people trying to figure out his nonsense? 

All I know is I really liked it! The Squirrel Machine is dark and weird, it’s barmy but in a quasi-intelligible and, yes, enjoyable way and is full of striking imagery. You’re in the hands of an artist who fully understands the language of comics and who can keep the reader invested in his madcap story even if they don’t know what’s going on most of the time - and that quality in itself shows how talented this guy is. Still, I get the impression that if he wanted to, Rickheit could easily take the mundane approach and tell a standard narrative. 

I have no idea what any of it meant, which inevitably ends up making me feel a bit unsatisfied, but it was a really good abstract comic. Clearly this dude needs to be Scott Snyder’s successor on Batman!

The Squirrel Machine

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