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Hans Rickheit versus the novel

Exploding Cow Dept.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 30, 2009


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."

Hans Rickheit will appear at Million Year Picnic, 99 Mount Auburn Street, in Cambridge, on Saturday, October 3, from 2 to 4 pm. Call 617.492.6763 or visit for more information.

  Topics: Books , Culture and Lifestyle, English Language, Language and Linguistics,  More more >
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