Are reclusive, troubled brothers emerging as a cultural theme? Not only has E.L. Doctorow reworked the story of the Collyer brothers in his novel "Homer & Langley", but Hans Rickheit's newly released graphic novel, "The Squirrel Machine" (Fantagraphics), documents the relationship and habits of Edmund and William Torpor, a fictional brother duo dedicated to building odd musical devices from pig and cow carcasses in their secluded mansion.
Much like the Collyer brothers, the Torpors are a pair of misfits who come to depend upon each other for their emotional and physical survival. Novels, of course, are an ideal medium for exploring the consciousness of those we might not otherwise regard with close attention––freaks, outcasts, children. What's quickly becomes clear is that the graphic novel is a particularly apt form for inhabiting unconventional characters, and very few do this as well as "The Squirrel Machine".
Wielded skilfully, images are as expressive as words, and occasionally more so. Rickheit's drawings convey the boys' tortured feelings of persecution, elation and curiosity––as well as their uncouth creative urges––in a succinct and often gruesome way. Rickheit's frames vary from the cluttered to the stark, and his ability to pack detail into four square inches is rivalled only by his ingenious use of white space.
The author, who lives and works in Philadelphia, keeps scrapbooks of medical photography and counts Burroughs, Ionesco, Beckett and Kafka as influences, which is no surprise. It remains to be seen whether future novels, graphic or otherwise, will bring us further pairs of charismatically abnormal brothers. Whatever the case, "The Squirrel Machine" convinces anew that a picture is worth a thousand words.
"The Squirrel Machine" (Fantagraphics) by Hans Rickheit, out now