The Wonder of Comics: Hans Rickheit

Christian Sager

From COCHLEA & EUSTACHIA, by Hans Rickheit.

Here's what I see when I peruse through Hans Rickheit's comics: creepy men with animal heads opening into new universes, bio-organic tumorous growth machines, balloons that hatch armadillos, trees fused with bicycles, musical instruments made from animal organs. Rickheit is simultaneously horrific, humorous, precise and astonishing. All of us know the bewildering nature of dreams, but few spend their waking life trying to emulate them. Reading Rickheit's comics is like waking from a curious nightmare, reaching for a pencil to write it all down, and then promptly falling back asleep again. He even says, "I have no rationale for them, nor can I explain them. I am ill-equipped to describe them adequately." But when reading critical reviews of Rickheit's work, three descriptive terms do rise from the disorientation: dreamlike, Victorian and Obscurantist.

Rickheit started producing comics for the public when he was only seventeen. He confesses that he used to keep a dream journal, because it seemed important to record the third of his life he spent in that state. And like many dreams, his work is permeated with sexuality. These comics aren't pornographic, but they're certainly not safe for work. He has an obsession with anatomical bodies (animal and human) and the mysterious widgets he might find inside of them.

From "Mother's Day" by Paul Slade and Hans Rickheit.

Influenced by Burroughs and Kafka, Rickheit describes their works as "mechanical devices," confessing that he likes "watching machines doing things." That's evident from the various apparatuses throughout his work, a synthesis of organic and mechanical parts. This industrial obsession might be part of the "Victorian" aesthetic ascribed to his comics. They seem to both long for a simpler time, while still being fascinated with the results tasked to strange anachronistic Rube Goldberg machines. Rickheit finds that "the contemporary world is a very ugly and crass place." So he fills his stories with the aesthetics and architecture of history, peppered with morbid devices not meant for mass production.

From ECTOPIARY, by Hans Rickheit

Trying to decode Rickheit's stories though is probably beside the point. Some have defined him as an "obscurantist" because his work is purposefully dense and mysterious. He doesn't withhold information from the reader. In fact each panel can be overwhelming with the visual data he supplies. But it's not designed to make traditional sense. Yet despite being so obtuse, Rickheit frames his storytelling perfectly, so we can always tell what is happening in sequential order. We just can't decipher why it's happening.

Where to start with Hans Rickheit? Well, his webcomics Cochlea and Eustachia and Ectopiary are both available entirely online, and the former's first chapter is available in print through Fantagraphics. He's also published two graphic novels: Chloe and The Squirrel Machine. Finally, Rickheit's earlier self-published comics work has recently been collected into a giant volume titled Folly.

Take a journey into his gallery of dreams... though don't expect to wake up understanding them any better than he did.

From THE SQUIRREL MACHINE, by Hans Rickheit.