Interview with Hans Rickheit

Transcription of the interview with US cartoonist Hans Rickheit at the Napoli Comicon 2017, where Eris Edizioni premiered the italian edition of his book “The Squirrel Machine”.

by Serena Di Virgilio e Nicola D’Agostino


What is ‘The Squirrel Machine’ about?
I was hoping my readers would be able to tell me that. [laughter] I don’t really have a cogent answer. I guess it’s a sort of metaphor for growing up in New England and it’s very much about my own life, my own experiences, growing up. A lot of people in the book are based on real friends of mine, albeit very… concealed in the characters. Any deeper meaning, if I had one, I wouldn’t tell you, because I find it much, much more interesting when readers come and tell me what they tought it was and they’re usually much more insightful than I’ll ever be.

The impression is that it’s a book about growing up, and changing. I don’t know if in a good way or in a bad one.
I can’t say if it’s good or bad. It’s an attempt to try to relate the human condition as I see it. I know it’s probably not relatable to most people, but I think it’s a sort of book of empathy for weirdos and misfits like myself, people on the outside of mainstream society.

Is any of the characters of the book you?
They’re all me. [laughter] All of them. I mean, the character Edmond is very closely based on a friend who also builds things out of dead animals and machinery and so forth and it’s very smelly art. that’s one thing I couldn’t communicate in the book: the smells. Maybe we can make a special olfactory edition [laughters].

This mix of the mechanical and the biological seems to be one of the recurring themes in your work. ‘The Squirrel Machine’ is not the only book in which you combine those elements, you use them. Where does this fascination come from?
[…] I see machines as extensions of people and that machines are replicants of people in my eye. I’m not sure how can I explain that.
I was reading this piece about objects, and somebody was complaining about objectifying people. People are objects. Objects which are gifted with consciousness. I’m not sure where the spark of energy comes from, but they’re all objects of value and there’s very little… there’s a blurring of lines between objects and people. I think there’s some of that in there [in the book]. I don’t really have a good answer for that question. [laughter] It’s mostly what’s visually appealing to me. […]

What about the music element? Some of your machines, at least in ‘The Squirrel Machine’, some of these constructs are made to, we can’t call it music, they are made to… emit sounds.
I think the idea is from the aforementioned friend who makes art out of dead animals. He discovered that if you move a carcass around, they still grunt. A pig carcass still grunts and makes noises, as if it is alive. And so […] this idea “You know, if we could get enough pieces together we could build an organ”. [laughter]
He actually builds instruments from dead animals?
Not as of yet. But the idea was there and it’s easier to draw than to build. [laughter]
I don’t know if it’s a new idea, making musical instruments out of a dead animal. I’ve certainly seen old Victorian drawings where they have done the same thing.

Another theme in your book is that the pursuit of one’s own passions and creative act are in some way very dark and to be led in secrecy, that these kind of interests and passions should not be pursued in the open and usually people don’t appreciate them.
I think that’s mostly because that resonates with my own experience in making comics. Certainly what I do is never been embraced by the mainstream.

So people usually perceive your comics as a bad thing?
Well, people here in Italy seem to like them, which I appreciate, and it’s very exciting. I certainly experienced a lot of negative backlash. A LOT of negative backlash, actually, because of the imagery in my work. And they’re not always wrong. Sometimes I agree with them and I shouldn’t be drawing these things, but it’s necessary to me to do that. So I think that’s sort of what’s the book about: being the artist who does things and who might never be embraced by the public. I’m not sure that it’s the purpose of art? To be embraced by the public. […] I know it sound pretentious, but art is bigger and better that our temporary lives. I’m just a conduit. I just do it. I don’t generate it. I get it from some mysterious atmosphere. [laughter] A conduit for the underbrain. AThe collective unconscious.

What about the danger in your book? There’s a perilous aspect in exploration. You seem to say that one needs to go exploring but there’s always a danger and that sometimes you will succumb to it.
You said it better than I could do. [laughter] Art is dangerous. Art should be dangerous. It’s not there to make you feel safe.

Do you actually feel that sometimes you’re going too far?
It just seems to resonate with my view of the world. Maybe I have a rather dark view of the world. To me it looks dark and it looks evil and scary. To me it’s actually a work of compassion, in a sense. I have a certain sense of empathy for others like myself or just anybody who feels that way. It’s maybe a bit of the gallows’ humour, the laughter of the damned, I don’t know. [laughter]

I was asking this because a couple of days ago I was reading your webcomic telling the adventures of two girls
Cochlea and Eustachia
…and it looks like they are explorers and they pass through worlds, machines, worms and various places and there’s always a lot of danger.
Cochlea and Eustachia are much closer to my heart than anything, because those two girls are me. They are the two parts of my brain yakking at each other constantly. So, I drew these two girls because girls are fun to draw [laughter]
Their names, they’re two parts of the human ear, are they?
Yeah. I was stuck for a name so I grabbed a book off the shelf and it’s a medical book and I said ‘Eustachia: that sounds like a nice girl’s name!’ [laughter]
They just do what I’d do. I mean, when I was younger, friends and I would like to break into abandoned buildings. Not to steal anything but just to look around. And they were never as interesting as my books, so my books are always about how I wished it was interesting when I did it as a kid. I wish it was that interesting. And there’s always a sense of danger when you go into a place where you don’t belong, and that’s part of the book, part of all the books.

Looking at your works, you have a very consistent art style. Even your older stuff doesn’t look very different from ‘The Squirrel Machine’. You were already very accomplished.
[…] There was always an aestethic that I was pursuing. […]
What were your inspirations? What books or cartoonists?
Jim Woodring is a big influence. A guy who is in Canada, Mahendra Singh. I think he lives in Quebec now. He’s a big influence. My friend and I saw the films of the brothers Quay when we were young. I think they’re english. So that aesthetic, I guess, comes from other people. It’s nothing I originated or developed. It sort of resonates with me.

Did you have formal art studies?
I tried but I’m a very poor student. I tried my best to get out of school. [laughter] I’m totally self-taught in everything. […]
When I was living at the [Zeitgeist] Gallery [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] I did live-drawing classes, I mentored live-drawing classes. I studied a lot of human anatomy there, that kind of thing.
But I’m using my own observation, trying my best. I’m glad you think I do good work. I don’t think so. [laughter] You have many many superior artists here, in this building [at the Napoli Comicon], and I’m jealous. […]

What kind of comics did you use to read? Or: what are you reading now?
These days I read mostly science-fiction books, not so many comics. When I was a kid I read lots of comics. From everywhere. Comic book stores were just starting to become popular in the US. You could get everything. You could get European comics, you could get old underground comics. I fell in love with underground comics when I was a teenager. US underground, mostly, but there were other countries coming in…
What kind of stuff? Authors such as Crumb, Shelton (of the Freak Brothers)?
Usually I like things by artists who weren’t very good artists and didn’t know what the hell they were doing and as a result they were kind of brilliant. They hadn’t a clue what the hell they were doing. There was one comic called “No such thing as monsters”. It came from New York. A very small publisher. I think they maybe printed only 600 copies of each issue. This guy did not how to draw, he didn’t know how to write… and it was brilliant! It was the best I ever read! [laughter] […] His comics were just completely bizarre. […]
I usually like the things by… I guess you call it the ‘naive’ artists of comics.
I’ve just rediscovering a lot of european stuff that’s probably old hat to you: Philippe Caza. I like his earlier stuff where he featured himself as a main character. Solano Lopez: there’s wonderful porno comics [laughter] but he also draws beautiful women, period. Whatever he’s drawing, and I wish I could as well as he does.
You bought those books in the US?
Yeah. My publisher [Fantagraphics] publishes a lot of these guys. It’s convenient. [laughter]
In the States there are some artists who are doing exciting and interesting work. There’s Josh Cotter, doing this interesting sci-fi called “Nod Away”. […] I don’t read so many comics these days, I’m just drawing myself. Very little time in a day. I have a day job and then I spend the rest of the day drawing. Then I go to sleep. [laughter]

So making comics is not your main job?
Oh, no. I have this boring day job. I’m a manager in a grocery store. I don’t make any money doing comics.
Most of the guys here [at Napoli ComiCon] have day jobs.
[laughter] Yeah, it’s not different, yeah. Nobody makes money on comics unless you’re Robert Crumb.

Do you draw on paper or digitally?
It’s all on paper. I can’t look at a computer screen too long.
Do you do pencils and then ink or you just go straight to inks?
If you look online there’s a link to a video of my process. Lately what I do is that I break it down to where I drawn one panel at a time. I don’t draw the whole page, like a sensible person. I do one panel at a time and I actually break it down further and I draw the characters separately on a sheet of paper and then I transfer them to the page. […] It’s laborious. […]
I’ve been publishing my own comics since I was eleven years old and that’s the best way I can visualize it. If I think of myself as a professional I won’t be able to draw so I keep trying to think of myself as an eleven year old kid drawing their comics. […]

How do you work on the story? Do you just draw and improvise?
I tried working from a script before and it doesn’t work. I draw the first panel and then the script becomes irrelevant, because what I draw changes the whole story right there. So as long of it’s improvised and you keep notes scattered in my messy room of what I think I want to draw next. That’s why my comics don’t have proper plots. [laughter]

What are you working on now?
I’m working on three different projects right now. I’m working on another Cochlea and Eustachia [book], which I’m posting online as I’m going. I’m very slowly working on a “science-fiction” [book]. I say that in quotations. It’s called “Ectopiary”. It’s not like regular science-fiction. It’s sort of like what I think science-fiction would look like if I drew it. I don’t do genre, you know. […]
And this is a long story?
This is a long story. When it’s done I think it’ll be 600 pages. So I’ll be… 70 years old [laughter]. And I’m also working on a project with my wife. She’s an artist. […] She draws. I do the pencils and I hand it to her. She says my pencils are so very slight it’s most up to her to do the visuals. It’s a light-hearted comic about squirrels, cute and happy animals getting destroyed by monsters. [laughter] And that might be getting done in another year or so. See how it goes. I hope I’ll work with her on some other strips.

So you’ll keep working on short stories but will also do longer projects?
They are all long projects. There’s no such thing as a small project. [laughter]

I’d like to ask you about [your page on] Patreon and about trying to have people help you to devote more time to comics. How is that working for you?
[…] It’s great. Patreon is doing very well. I think I have been on Patreon a couple of years, now, and I just have a handful of people contributing but all get something out of it. My room is littered with these pencils, because I draw on sheets, so I just mail them out to people who contribute. […] Technically free. If you want artwork from me I’ll happily mail it to you if you support me on Patreon.
I hope it continues and gets stronger. I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the another. It is a useful resource and I’m grateful for it. I do wish more people’d buy books. [laughter]
Did you ever do a more traditional kickstater/crowdfunding?
Not really. I’m not very web-savvy. I didn’t do too much. I just put it out there. If you contribute I’ll send you artwork and I’m grateful that people have contributed. I don’t know what else.

I know you’ve been here [at the Napoli Comicon] just one day but let me ask you: what’s been the response to you work?
Well, I’m surprised.
What do you mean? What kind of people have been buying your book?
There’s a wider range of people I noticed [here]. Back home it’s usually the stereotypical nerd [laughter]. Here it seems like I get all kind people coming. And it’s kind of exciting that people are actually buying my book. I never had such a surprise! It’s great! Thank you! [laughter]
I think I’ve said it before but I was wandering around the tables and I see superior artists and the quality of the work to me it’s just stellar. I’m just blown away and feeling kinda small right now. [laughter]

I think your work stands on its own. And there’s clearly an attention to detail.
Ah yeah. It’s all masturbation. [laughter] […]

Thanks to / Grazie a: Hans Rickheit; Sonny Partipilo, Anna Matilde Sali e Gabriele Munafò (Eris Edizioni); Maria Rosaria Giampaglia e Noemi Barricelli (Ufficio Stampa Napoli Comicon)

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