Hans Rickheit’s “The Squirrel Machine,” published by Fantagraphics Books, is a beautiful 179 page hard cover graphic novel. It is an appropriate book to start out this new column since it sets the tone for the type of offbeat work that attracts me and I hope will interest you. The story involves two brothers who desire to build wondrous things but are destined to create monstrous gadgets made from animals.
Rickheit’s world of self-published works, notably the series, “Chrome Fetus Comics,” and the graphic novel, “Chloe,” follow the internal logic of dreams and do well by it. In “The Squirrel Machine,” a magical reality confronting a mundane reality leads to a lot of very real bumps and bruises. Edmund, for instance, may rely on a pair of goggles to filter out the world but does not fully realize how odd he looks to all the other schoolchildren, especially the bullies. It’s the turn of the last century, and while amazing technological advancements lie ahead, Edmund and his brother, William, are doomed to be grotesquely out of step.
The things that seem the most curious and promising may ultimately be the things best left alone. That is a line of reasoning Edmund and William refuse to follow. They are dreamers but do not know they are guided by nightmares. The Squirrel Machine, whatever it is, has its own needs and is certainly not going to tell these boys what’s good for them. Much is left to mystery in this book. We can let Rickheit’s exquisite drawings, with their ornate detail and patterning, speak for themselves. Down to separate panels, the art provides little gems of its own storytelling as in a notable scene of two lovers covered in snails.
“The Squirrel Machine” defies easy categorization, but I’d venture to say, “steampunk surrealism.” This is for mature readers as well as discriminating ones. And it’s also for those who love a good coming-of-age story. Edmund woos the local beauty by the most unconventional of means. William falls madly in love with the Pig Lady. Each will take a turn that will twist the fate of the other. The mundane won’t accept them and yet the magical is no more reliable. Very romantic and strange at the same time, like any good coming-of-age tale. Primarily, this is adult, dark and disturbing work provided to you in healthy doses.
You can purchase “The Squirrel Machine” from Fantagraphics Books and make sure to check out the marvelous Squirrel Machine site. You can find Comics Grinder here every Wednesday. And for further observations, you can always go to the Comics Grinder site.