Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fit the Sixth … snarkus interruptus, squirrel resurgens!

More half-truths, demi-lies and outright double-cross-hatchery, a tapestry of black and white shot through with the glittering threads of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial By Jury, Heideggerian sophistry, macaronic etymologies, barnyard humor and other assorted bits of legalistic slapstick.

I believe it was Kafka who once noted that an artist always strives to align his internal world with his external world; the thoughtful reader can make of that what they will (serial killer? psychotic third-world dictator?) and no one will be the wiser. Judging from the above farrago of ink and words, this artist has much self-adjustment to do in the Internal World Department.

However, the appearance this week in bookstores of Hans Rickheit’s comix masterpiece, The Squirrel Machine, is a genuine milestone in the above-mentioned artistic business of reconciling one’s inside to one’s outside, so much so that I must confess that I am truly taken aback by Rickheit’s entire effort, in the best sense of the word.

This carefully constructed tale of two pariah brothers in turn-of-the-century New England, both of them obsessed with oneiric experiments of an unsettling and fascinating nature, strikes me as being one of the few original works of art that I’ve seen published in North America over the last two decades, on a par with the better work of Dan Clowes or Charles Burns. It possesses a nicely syncopated structural rhythm moving betwixt various opposites: dream-matter & quotidian reality, concealment & performance, decay & lust, sentient & sapient, even animate & inanimate.

The two brothers experiment upon themselves and others in their hermetic quest, which begins as musical efforts of a Grand Guignol nature and then metastasizes into the most floridly baroque variations upon the ancient themes of lust, power, love and fear.

This is not a tale for the squeamish nor is it a tale for the literal-minded; it is very much a bravura performance in the tradition of Surrealism, or Fantastic Art, or even Symbolism; a anti-realistic spectrum which ranges on one hand from the Mozartian heights of Carrollian Nonsense to the nihilistic abyss of the Comte de Lautréamont. In particular, Rickheit has drunk deeply at the more obscure Central European and German waters of this undercurrent : the younger Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, Bruno Schulz, Jan Svankmajer, Jan Lenica, Max Klinger and even deeper in the past, E.T.A. Hoffman, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Baldung Grien, etc.

Rickheit's methodical draftsmanship in the service of the
Underbrain, a sample spread from the Squirrel Machine

The ultra-logical transformation of the ordinary detritus of everyday life (Biedermayer knick-knacks, farm implements, medical devices) into the supercharged playthings of the Underbrain’s Dreamworld was the special preserve of Bellmer and Schulz, and their exquisitely corpse-like juxtaposition of animal sentience upon the human sex drive was their supreme gift to Surrealism; Rickheit has deeply absorbed this lesson and incorporated it into his work.

I am also relieved to say that except for the nihilistic ending of the tale, Rickheit eschews histrionics; the Squirrel Machine is emotionally controlled in a suitably automated sort of way, its precision of tension between meaning and white noise is so well-calibrated that the observant reader unconsciously ceases to resist Rickheit’s oneiric anti-logic.

To those readers who might be wondering what all this has to do with the Snark, I would caution them that behind the respectable and healthy facade of Carrollian Nonsense lurks an unfathomable abyss upon which the former depends for its very life. This behind-the-scenes darkness is not to everyone's taste but it is essential to the health and maintenance of the larger enterprise, it nourishes Nonsense and much more besides in art and literature.

Rickheit has furnished us with a Baedeker to the darker rooms behind this Anti-Naturalist facade, a few doors past classical Surrealism, further down the hall to an unmarked anteroom frequented by the cognoscenti of the Underbrain, a semifurnished room where something deeply unsettling yet still basically logical waits for us. This thread of elemental logic binds us still to Carrollian Nonsense and Rickheit’s teasing of its strands may be cruel at times, but never destructive towards the larger artistic project of imposing meaning upon the unknown.

In short, strongly recommended! In addition, kudos to Fantagraphics for publishing Rickheit. Despite the current renaissance in North American comix, a lot of comix work is still intellectually provincial and dominated by threadbare pop-culture aesthetics. When it comes to putting out quality comix, Messers Thompson and Groth still get it. Show ‘em that you also get it by buying this work, and others in the same vein!

The Squirrel Machine, by Hans Rickheit; 179 pages with an introduction by E. Stephen Frederick; available for purchase from Fantagraphics here. Not recommended for younger readers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fit the Sixth, Page 41, Panel 2 … the hills are alive with the sound of snark

The Witnesses proved, without error or flaw,
That the sty was deserted when found:
And the Judge kept explaining the state of the law
In a soft under-current of sound.

If you’ve been assiduously following our nonsensical res publica, The Hunting of the Snark, you might have noticed that there has been a steady accumulation of visual details as the story progresses. Such a gradual amplification of things is what the critics call fritter-my-wig or even what-you-may-call-um and believe me, it’s all the rage in the right sort of literary circles.

However, we ‘umble visual artists, (fixated as always on more alimentary matters) call such an accumulation of visual tchotchkes "chicken fat". The late, great Will Elder coined the term whilst inking a drowned fly into a late night rendering of Harvey Kurtzman’s matzoh-ball soup as a practical joke. After a bit of the usual overheated vaudeville cross-talk-cum-haberule®-brandishing and some soft-shoeing with the Pro-White on Elder’s part, the moniker stuck and generations of artists have been ladling the chicken fat (or even schmalz if it’s germane to the proceedings) into their more soup-like drawings ever since.

All of which is a very convoluted and uselessly byzantine way of saying that you should keep a close eye on the progression of our Snark Hunt for it’s growing ever richer in unsaturated animal lipids such as chicken fat and Martin Heidegger. Naturally, one wonders what Lewis Carroll would have made of all our messing about with his otherwise perfectly normal recipe for a bowl of soup … would he have smacked his lips appreciatively at the our addition of the accurately-besmocked and bestyed pigherder Witnesses demonstrating the swineless vacuity of this comic operetta of a legal farce? Would he have slurped greedily at the tasty bits of the timeless humour of Mister Piggy’s magnum opus hoisted aloft before the proceedings like some sort of philosophical pearls before swine?

Or would Mister Carroll have paused in mid-luncheon, his spoon poised at his lips, and angrily demanded this artist to explain post haste what this other bird, this nonchicken and perhaps even swan-like bird masquerading as a legal bagpipe is doing in our collation of a Snark Hunt?

Alas, for Mr. Carroll and his delicate Victorian sense and sensibilities! This unexpectedly swannish creature is probably the grotesque and unexpected consequence of this artist using second-grade-fresh chicken fat in his cheapster drawings, a fly-by-night chicken fat cunningly adulterated with etymological preservatives of unknown provenance.

Yes, dear reader, this sudden outbreak of swans and bagpipes is no accident, on the contrary, it is a Significant Detail! Curiously, the word "sound", deriving as it does from the Old English word "swan," (properly, the sounding bird) seems to provide a perfect excuse for this artist to wreak further havoc on the entire chicken fat paradigm and perhaps even clear the way for a future swan-fat thing-um-a-jig. Or something along these metaphorically miscegenated lines of reasoning which so bedevil this production of the Snark

Without error or flaw indeed, eh?

NB. The very talented Tatiana Ianovskaia has just made available on-line here her charming and graceful renditions of Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, they are really worth the price.

In addition, Oleg Lipchenko’s highly detailed and complex version of AIW is coming out shortly from Tundra Books; it is really superior work and also strongly recommended! The Slavic approach to Carroll is so vigorous and incisive; Tatiana and Oleg have approached the same texts with absolutely opposite strategies, and yet each one is accurate, aesthetically cohesive and emotionally satisfying. Perfect Christmas gifts!

… and the equally talented John Coulthart has just produced his 2010 Artist's Calendar, the theme is AIW! Calloo, callay, it's a '60s psychedelic trip and quite well done … he's intimating at the possibility of more Carrollian work, whether calendars or something more substantial remains to be seen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fit the Sixth, Page 41, Panel 1 … my object all sublime, to make the snark fit the crime

He dreamed that he stood in a shadowy Court,
Where the Snark, with a glass in its eye,
Dressed in gown, bands, and wig, was defending a pig
On the charge of deserting its sty.

Melodramatic courtroom scenes are the crack cocaine of modern cinema and television; the average viewer must have a regular dose at certain intervals or they will soon lose interest in whatever televisual dog’s-breakfast is being served ‘em by the sweaty-palmed, hysterically gibbering minions of Hollywood or Bollywood or whatever-wood they happen to find themselves lost in quasi-Dantesque peril.

However, our watchword for today is — eschew the obvious! Pester me not for your cheap thrills of courtroom antics leavened by lurid, torn-from-the-headlines social issues! You shall have none of that here and I do not care if you lapse into oddly compelling convulsions. Instead, you shall have a wholesome bit of this week’s episode of Lewis Carroll’s Snark Hunt, in which we find the Barrister heaving onto his hind legs before an English judge and jury, all for the benefit of a porcine defendant of no fixed address. There are no lurid social issues being mooted about in this courtroom, just the sweaty business of Man vs. Swine with a pinch of Desertion to lend it all an air of forensic veracity,

Good lord, I hear you mutter, everyone looks like everyone else, what’s going on here? Fret not, dear reader, you are not hallucinating nor is this artist suffering from idiopathic monofacia, in fact this is a prime example of what legal experts call habeas corpus (or more correctly, habeo corpus, for the benefit of congenitally officious readers).

Yes indeed, we have here the body and the face of the Barrister, AKA Martin Heidegger, multiplied ten-fold so that he can simultaneously play all the necessary roles of this Carrollian nightmare of a courtroom drama. In doing so, not only do we cut down on unnecessary expenditures of our favorite brand of second-grade-fresh, reheated cafeteria-style india ink but we can also avoid the bothersome necessity of accurately drawing the many different faces of a full complement of judge, jury, defendant, spectators and string section.

Good lord, I hear you mutter, string section? Why yes, a string section and I think they are playing something rather jolly, a spritely tune which could even serve as an overture to the impending legal machinations of Messers Heidegger, Heidegger, Heidegger and Heidegger (gesundheit). It sounds rather like a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan and the hypernaturally eagle-eyed reader will have already noted the bit of foolscap in the Barrister’s hand upon which we can observe that hark, the hour of ten is sounding!

Cryptically sound advice indeed, for it might serve as both an indicator of the numerical quantity of Heideggers facially cluttering the landscape and more to the point, perhaps even the opening verses of Gilbert and Sullivan’s forensic benchwarmer, Trial By Jury.

The well-oiled Carrollian will sigh appreciatively at all this, knowing as they do that Carroll once harbored designs of collaborating with Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. These designs were crushed by something or the other, such was (and is) the topsy-turvy world of the crushing theater.

It is only now, over 130 years later, that the reader can judge for himself what such a collaboration might have looked like as he peruses our artistic reconstruction of a Carroll and Sullivan collaboration. I suggest that with glass in eye, you observe in a melodiously crosshatched manner that Heideggers with anxious fears are abounding, breathing hope and fear — for to-day in this arena, summoned by a stern subpoena, the Snark shortly will appear.