Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit

The Squirrel Machine revolves around two brothers, William and Edmund. They are heirs to a fortune, living with their widowed mother in a rambling, Gothic New England mansion. They are gifted, eccentric children who become even stranger young men. The story goes back and forth in time between their adolescence and adulthood. It is around the turn of the 19th century, a time when rapid scientific progress -- including Darwinian biology and the industrial revolution -- mingles with slavish devotion to tradition and propriety.

William and Edmund spend their time creating wild inventions. They have built a sort of labyrinthine world under their mansion. They're outsiders, bullied and feared by the staid, traditional townspeople. This is partly because the boys do things that are disgusting and bizarre. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling sympathy for them. After all, "normal people" also do things that are disgusting and bizarre. They just keep it cloistered in slaughterhouses and labs and don't drag it to a public exposition.

As a child, William wears a pair of goggles, which makes him stand out even more. He says he needs them "to filter things." He seems to be  suggesting he can see things in his environment that others don't, and if he didn't filter out some of these images, it would be overwhelming. This is very intriguing but never fully explained. William is also a sleepwalker who roams the countryside at night.

I like this premise. I'm drawn to the Victorian setting, the outrageously eccentric characters, and the idea of two bizarre autodidactic boys creating their own world filled with wild, imaginative inventions. And the artwork is excellent. It's very visual, even for a graphic novel. The whole thing has a dreamlike quality, full of images that are never fully translated into words. I liked some of the surreal, dreamlike bits. For example, there is a frame where William is approaching the door to his boyhood home, after one of his nighttime ramblings, and finds his childhood bicycle fused with a tree. It's odd and hard to explain, but  love that visual, dream-like blending of past and present, and of the child and the man.

The imagery is captivating throughout the book, especially the labyrinthine levels, filled with odd devices and inventions. It has a steampunkish feel, and there's a slightly Jungian quality to the dream-like images of all those spiraling levels in the house.

But as intriguing as this was, I did not like the book. I was unable to follow the narrative flow; it was just too dang bizarre. Just when I'd think I was picking up on the rhythm of the story, I'd be thrown into something even more bizarre and incomprehensible. Maybe this is exactly what makes this book work for some readers. But I like a good story mingled with the odd, dream-like ebb and flow of a surreal piece (think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).

What really bothered me were the disturbing images -- inventions constructed of animal corpses, and things that were even worse.  I hated the animal cruelty. I couldn't discern the author's purpose in it, and I felt he was just trying to push the envelope, shocking and disgusting readers for his own sake. Others might read this differently, of course.  There could be social commentary in the grotesqueness and animal -- and human -- cruelty. After all, many attempts at scientific progress are predicated on mistreatment of living things.

There could be a wealth of  meaning camouflaged in this bizarre comic book. On the other hand, perhaps the author is just looking for an outlet for his grotesque nightmares and fantasies. Or maybe he's just trying to screw with our heads. :-) I couldn't tell.

If anyone decides to read this comic book, I'd love to hear your take on it!

Rating: I don't know how to rate this one.

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