Categories: Features, Interviews
His sequential work revels in the fantastically grotesque. He refers to his on-going mini-comic, Chrome Fetus, as the “central conduit for the UnderBrain.” The most widely circulated photo of him online is a black and white image of a man in a bowler and gas mask, strumming a ukulele. Even in the insular and oft-tightly knit world of indie comics, Hans Rickheit is an enigma.
This soon will change.
Due out in October from Fantagraphic, The Squirrel Machine will almost certainly thrust Rickheit onto the scene. The book is an odd sort of coming of age tale centering on two brilliant brothers growing up in a small New England town. Rickheit’s art tightly renders the grotesque with a matter of factness not often reflected in such surrealist works.
His images are those of strange biological and mechanical experimentation and disease, and no matter how they affect the reader on a personal level, are almost certain to stay with him for days.
Have you been doing many interviews, in light of the fact that the book is coming out soon?
This is the first interview. I was interviewed once for Rue Morgue, which is a horror magazine that I think comes out of Canada. That was about a year and a half ago. But that wasn’t really related to the book. That’s the only real interview I’ve done. I’ve done e-mail exchanges where people send me a battery of questions. I have a chance to edit myself and make myself articulate [laughs].
This should be a good prep for you, then. You’ve got a book coming out on Fantagraphics. I’m sure your phone will be ringing off the hook shortly.
You think so [laughs]?
It’s a pretty well-loved publisher.
I think a number of people have heard of them, yeah. I hope so. That would be unusual. I kind of live in my own insular world. The notion that anyone reads my comics other than myself is kind of weird and mystical. It’s very strange when I get letters and e-mails from people. Once I’ve done the comic and sent it out the door, I don’t know what happens to it.
So this is a good thing? You’re not attempting to toil away in obscurity?
As far as I know I’m toiling away in obscurity. It’s kind of unusual to realize that I’m not.
I wasn’t familiar with your work prior to The Squirrel Machine.
To be fair, I don’t exactly push myself out into the world that aggresivley. I really should. I’m very precious about how everything must be done in the proper way, or else I’ll wilt.
That includes publishing, publicity, and things like that?
I guess so. For the past week I’ve been fretting and worrying about what buzz phrases I should come up with, especially if I promote this book. I’m about to do a book release tour and I’m writing up these press releases. I’m realizing that I’ve got to come up with my own buzz phrases, my own terminology, or else they’ll come up with something and start calling it, “steampunk.” Nothing against steampunk, but I just don’t want that to be the tagline attached to the book, ten years down the road.
Is there a reason? Because people already have set notions about what such term means?
Well that and also there’s always buzz phrases that are the flavor of the month. I’m not necessarily opposed to those things. To me, what I’m doing is more important than that particular cultural movement. That’s my own aesthetic snobbery, I suppose [laughs]. I’m creating highfalutin works of art.
It’s interesting that you would chose to fight against that by creating your own soundbytes.
Well, you kind of have to. Otherwise they’re going to steamroll right over me. I’ve tired to come up with some but have drawn a blank thus far. Maybe you can have a contest for your readers. I’d be grateful.
Do you have any that you’ve been batting around?
One friend suggested “retro-futurist.” But that sounds kind of egg-headish.
Have you been influenced by the steampunk movement at all? It’s been around for a while.
I actually don’t know too much about it. I’ve seen some photos of costumes that people have made online and have been pretty impressed. And the way they sort of personalized their computers with doo-dads that they get at Home Depot. A lot of it looks really impressive. People are clearly doing a lot of really cool things with it. I have nothing against it, per se, I just don’t like being pigeon-holed, I guess. What I do looks to me like a proto-surrealist thing, where I’m just hanging on the coattails of a movement that died in the 30s.
I’m probably not the first person to tell you this, but I saw a lot of [William] Burroughs in the work. A lot of the grotesque science-fiction elements.
Oh yeah. I don’t hide my influences. I’ve read a lot of William Burroughs. And I actually used the William Burroughs cut-up technique to get ideas. I also keep scrapbooks, which I understand William Burroughs did, too. My scrapbooks are a little different—lots of medical photography and rare tidbits. There’s definitely a lot of that in there. I could list off writers that influenced me—I could just walk over to my bookshelf. Samuel Beckett, Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, Alfred Jarry, Bruno Schulz. That’s a random picking from my bookshelf, which, from where I stand, looks like the usual set of culprits.
[Continued in Part Two.]