In 2001, Hans Rickheit gained some notoriety when he won a Xeric Award for his first graphic novel, Chloe. More recently, The Squirrel Machine was published by Fantagraphics in 2009 to an excellent critical response. Late that same year, he launched his first webcomic, the 600ish page Ectopiary, which he’d been updated weekly until a couple weeks ago when the shop where he worked closed down. He’s taking some time to focus on securing a new job, while asking for fans of his webcomic to purchase some of his printed material. It seemed like an ideal time to not only showcase his work, but also examine some of the issues that are involved with creating a webcomic while holding another job.
MTV Geek: I'd read in a previous interview that some of your influences include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Franz Kafka. Powerful creators, certainly, but not ones I would think that would have resonated with a child, even though Ionesco did try his hand at a few children's books. I'm curious about your childhood experiences that led you look at comics and storytelling. Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Hans Rickheit: I was slow to develop as a child. I did not learn to speak until I was 6 years old. I probably would not have developed an interest in learning to reading if it weren't for the need to decipher the comics books I had in my possession. The comic books I read at the time were the usual Marvel Comics: Spider-Man, X-Men, Incredible Hulk. Like most Americans of my generation, the television was the babysitter in the house as I was growing up. I remember being very fond of programs like Doctor Who, Star Trek and Land of the Lost without the slightest sense of incredulity regarding their minimal production values, cheesy scripts and primitive special effects.
My biggest influence from childhood was my own subconscious mind; the dreams and free-associations that only a vulnerable inexperienced intellect can produce.
Geek: Was that something you were actively tapping into for your creative expression at the time? That is, were you drawing pictures or writing stories of what you had dreamt earlier? Or were those dreams more influential in terms of broad themes?
HR: I've been drawing comics before I could talk. Everything filtered through them, including dreams. I can't pinpoint when, as a child, I consciously used dreams as subject material. At the time I drew mainly superheroes battling giant monsters.
It wasn't until I had become exposed to the underground comics and magazines like Heavy Metal and Epic Magazine that I began experimenting with stranger themes. I view it as a natural part of adolescent development.
Geek: It seems like you've made an interesting progression from a publishing perspective, starting with your own mini-comics, then moving on to self-publishing, working with an established comics publisher and, most recently, turning to webcomics. With the diversity of publishing experiences, I was hoping you could comment on the similarities and differences among those different approaches. What are some of the things you've learned from each experience, and how have they translated, if at all, to your other publishing experiences?
HR: As a younger version of myself, I produced the mini-comics with the naive certainty that I was producing work of profound excellence. Nonetheless, I had the vague inkling that this was a premature assertion. Looking back at these numerous xeroxed booklets is an uncomfortable experience for me. I sincerely hope that in a decade's time, I will be able to look at my current efforts with a greater sense of satisfaction instead of embarrassment and regret.
I still try to retain that sense of enthusiasm and freedom of making mini-comics when I sit at my drawing board.
When I self-published my first graphic novel, Chloe, it was with the aid of a grant from the esteemed Xeric Foundation. It was gratifying to be given a boost from my photocopied-pamphleteering to something that resembling genuine artisanship. However, because of the explicit nature of the book, it had been relegated to the pornography section of the distributors' catalogs, thus ensuring my continued status of obscurity.
After the release of Chloe, I submitted comics to any newspaper, magazine or anthology that would be willing to print them. I'm uncertain if this has made a significant dent in public awareness.
I began drawing The Squirrel Machine in 2005. It took about about five years to complete. During that time, I had the opportunity to talk to Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth at the Fantagraphics. They agreed to publish the book and produced a contract that was surprisingly creator-friendly. My experience with them was genuinely very enjoyable and effortless.
As it says on my webpage, I have little experience with webcomics. Hopefully, I will learn to make it lucrative as time goes by.
Geek: All of this, I believe, has been done in addition to a "day job", hasn't it? Could you provide a little explanation of what that has been, and the challenges you've faced in balancing that against your creating comics?
HR: Long ago, I learned that I cannot function properly as a citizen in this world. Working full-time in any job makes me suicidally depressed. Part-time employment is only barely tolerable. Like most cartoonists, I am reclusive and misanthropic by nature. Sitting at my drawing board and daydreaming on paper is one of my few pleasures in life. I am not very adaptable or capable of adjusting my work for a "mainstream" sensibility. Consequently, I continuously exist in a state of near-poverty, living in attics and basements, shoplifting food and clothing, and making regular trips to food pantries. Most of the "day jobs" I've had are best left unexamined, as they usually only barely sustain my livelihood so that I can resume drawing.
Geek: Ectopiary is your first significant foray into webcomics, isn't it? Why did you opt to publish this story online, especially in light of Squirrel Machine's relative success in print?
HR: The decision to put Ectopiary online was prompted by the realization that it would be a decade before I completed another graphic novel. I hope that posting the pages in weekly installments will ease some peoples' impatience.
Geek: Financing for Ectopiary seems limited for a webcomic. Advertising is minimal and the typical trinkets are tchotchkes are absent. (Not that Ectopiary really seems to lend itself to that type of thing in the first place.) Even the merchandise area you have set up only points to two of your previous works. I'd like to know what your thoughts are on earning income through your webcomic, and what your long-term publishing plans for Ectopiary might be.
HR: As it states on my webpage, I have very little experience with webcomics. Hopefully, before another year has passed, I will have more merchandise and doodads to make this foray more lucrative.
I also am planning on starting a second webcomic to run alongside Ectopiary. I'm reluctant to go into detail, but I think it may satisfy those readers who complain of the glacial speed of the former comic.
Geek: What would your schedule need to be to accommodate a second webcomic? You clearly put a great deal of work into Ectopiary, and you’ve noted that your bigger obstacle while doing the "day job" routine is having the time to work on comics. Offhand, it seems that you would need a very different approach -- a simpler illustration style, perhaps, or less of a long-form story? I understand that you don't want to give away too much of it yet, but I'm mostly interested in how you would be able to work with/around/through the time concerns you've already expressed.
HR: When I decided to start a 2nd webcomic, I was still employed and my day-to-day schedule had been fairly set. I had streamlined my work and drawing habits to the point that I felt I could confidently produce two strips a week without sacrificing the quality of my drawings.
Clipped onto the side of my drawing board is a large collection of notes and paper scraps covered with story ideas. These are all notions that would not work in the context of Ectopiary. I have to use these things somewhere, else the paper scraps will take over my room.
It's a perverse and completely unexplainable piece of logic that I feel I can produce two separate comic strips a week, but not two Ectopiary strips in that same amount of time. The truth be told, I'm cleverly trying to work myself into a nervous breakdown.
Geek: You recently put Ectopiary on hiatus after your employer closed shop. This obviously has a drastic impact on your income but I suspect that some people not working on creative endeavors like webcomics might not understand the impact on your ability to work on Ectopiary. Could you speak to your creative process and how not having a full-time job hinders that?
HR: It's less of a financial issue than that of time. Of course, I need every cent that I can get. I am deeply touched by the response my sudden unemployment has gotten. I cannot properly express my gratitude to every single person who bought a book or donated money to help me survive. I intend to put the needed funds to the best use.
It is well-noted that my comics are obsessively detailed. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to squeeze out a single page. I have no intention of altering this aspect of drawing. It seems important to me that the drawings are as dense as I can make them.
Putting the comic on hiatus is a necessity. I cannot look for work and produce a weekly comic simultaneously. My day-jobs provided very modest income. Human survival demands minimal requirements that must be met. Part of my mind rebels at the notion that I cannot just peacefully remain at my drawing board without having to submit my time and energy to some "employer."
Unfortunately, I did not have anything to do with the way this world is designed. I merely live in it.
Geek: One of the stereotypes of webcomic creators is that they don't earn enough money to survive from that work. Several creators, though, have proven that it's entirely possible. My next question, then, is how much thought you've given to attempting forego the "day job" altogether and focusing more on creating comics? What do you see as your obstacles in pursuing that path?
HR: I've given a great deal of thought to the possibility of living entirely off my comics work. I think it's entirely possible, but I'm simply not there yet. It's still to early before I can start publishing Ectopiary in print form. It's not a comic that lends itself well to merchandising.
I hope that before the year is done, I'll have set up a few things online to generate more income. My means are modest, so it's not unachievable. Losing my job is really a case of bad timing. It was supposed to sustain me until the comics became more financially viable.
The biggest obstacle, in my mind, is the simple fact that my comics are weird, incomprehensible for most people, and somewhat offensive. This makes them undesirable in the marketplace. Being that these books and drawings are extensions of my own personality, it is no surprise I have very few friends.
Geek: The last thing I'd like you to address is what your goals are with your comics. Having read Chloe and Ectopiary (Squirrel Machine is in the mail) it's obvious that your work is very personal, and probably not well-suited to a mass audience. You still seem at least partially inclined towards catering towards them, though (based on your comment about audience impatience) so it's not exclusively "art for art's sake". What types of people are you hoping to reach, and what ideas do you want them to walk away from your work with?
HR: When I look at other webcomics, (disregarding the vast wasteland of fake manga and amateur slop) I see the tendency of many gifted cartoonists attempting to generate a consumable product that appeals to the widest possible range of tastes. It's not unlike the current trend of Hollywood movies that follow safe formulas to the point where each film becomes indistinguishable.
I think I've demonstrated that I have no interest in doing that. I have no interest in the mass audience. I suspect that my comics appeal to misfits and weirdos much like myself. The comics are a product of empathy for the outcasts and deviants.