Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Victorian Body Horror: The Squirrel Machine

An interesting subgenre that's popped up in comics over the past decade is that of body horror. It's a genre that internalizes the usual tropes one associates with horror; i.e., of an external, supernatural force that moves with inexorable force against you. Body horror turns that around so that the enemy turns out to be you, frequently in the form of monstrous transformations. It's a genre that's flexible, allowing for political, social and cultural commentary while still delivering truly discomfiting images. There are a number of interesting cartoonists working in this genre, including Josh Simmons, Michael DeForge, Julia Gfrorer and one of the earliest to work in this area, Hans Rickheit. His 2010 comic The Squirrel Machine is perhaps his ultimate statement on the themes he has long explored in his work.

Every one of these artists works a different corner of body horror. Gfrorer's comics frequently focus on the disturbing human and emotional elements surrounding moments of horror, moments that are frequently far more disquieting than the actual horrific content. DeForge doesn't flinch at depicting brutal, shocking images, but there's an almost playful quality to his comics that keeps the reader off-balance. Simmons' comics are visceral and brutal and often tend to focus on backwoods, primitive cultures and families. I see his comics as most similar to Rickheit's in this group, more of a difference of certain aesthetic flourishes than actual subject matter. Both are fascinated by family dynamics and how they can get impossibly warped, but Rickheit's stories tend to take place in a more upscale, reserved and even Victorian setting, which befits his delicate, sensitive line. Simmons is simply more raw than Rickheit, even as both artists delve deeply into taboos, sexual transgression and generally deviant behavior.

The Squirrel Machine is a book-length subversion of familiar tropes. At its heart, it's a distortion of a Boy's Adventure story, closely following the childhood adventures and inventions of Edmund Torpor, a goggles-wearing young oddball with grand dreams of following in his dead father's footsteps as a creator. Only the things he creates with his brother William (all told in flashback) are horrible: pipe organs constructed out of the heads of pigs, whole cow carcasses serving to amplify another musical instrument, and complicated machinery that serves dehumanizing ends. The local oddity, the Pig Lady, serves as a kind of misunderstood outcast figure, one dwelling in disease and filth even as she is tormented by wider societal circles. When we meet Edmund at the beginning of the book as an adult, he's a shell of a man--constantly sleepwalking and in a fog. He's far from the clever go-getter we see as a child. William is bloated with a kind of skin disease that surrounds him entirely, no longer the beautiful and sensitive boy.

Rickheit teases the reader with images of Edmund beating the system. He finds a network of laboratories and machinery hidden in the house (presumably belong to his father), including plans for something called "The Squirrel Machine". He befriends and later beds a high-society teen-aged girl, who becomes fascinated by his web of weirdness and leaves her old life. For a while, it seems like everything is under control, as his union with a variety of grasping and searching machines (themselves a sort of nasty take on steampunk fetishism) gives him a great deal of power. However, that spirals out of control in horrific ways: the death of his mother, the degradation of his brother, and the ways in which the machines themselves caused Edmund to act. There's an implication that most of the horrible things that happen in the house are Edmund's own fault, leaving the events of the denouement fairly easy to grasp: Edmund must be punished, and it must be by his own hand. Exploitation is punished, even as innocence itself has little chance of flourishing for long. Rickheit's world is a dark one, contrasted by his exceptionally crisp and clear line that remains naturalistic throughout the book. The fact that he varies his line weight so little makes the truly horrific aspects of the book all the more effective. Horror and beauty converged in the mind of young Edmund, both in terms of what he saw and what he dreamed of seeing on a daily basis. Rickheit strikes at the heart of what it means to be human: connecting with other emotionally and physically, seeking to express oneself through art, investigating the world around us--in other words, to be emotionally and intellectually curious. He takes that and presents the worst case scenario for every one of these urges, blended through the frequently merciless and occasionally sociopathic lens of childhood. Rickheit makes the reader understand that not all adventures are noble ones, and that unfettered, unmediated desire can lead to degradation and ruin.

1 comment:

  1. Hans makes some interesting comics to be sure, I have a shelf at home of books labeled "Do Not Read After Dark."

    Fantagraphics is reprinting Squirrel Machine as a softcover book next May!