The shallow people say about books like Cochlea & Eustachia, “It’s not for everyone”, and of course that’s true. Nothing is for everyone. Everybody enjoys different things and that’s cool. I don’t ever watch wrestling, other people do, and yay good for you, wrestling fan, because it’s awesome that you have something you’re passionate about. Passion is a virtue.
But comics ain’t like wrestling, as we all know. We can be passionate about our media or our pleasures in different ways than our friends are about the items they love. And like most media, comics aren’t just one thing. Comics are many things and none of them are for everyone. One of my friends despised Pax Americana, others thought it was brilliant – me, I think it may be the best comic of the year. My friend who was confused and annoyed by Morrison and Quitely: is he smart? Is he dumb? Is the comic just not for him? “It’s not for everyone”, as some people say, and you kind of shrug and move on with your life, I suppose.
But then it’s a bummer that people don’t get into work that’s complicated and interesting, that’s innovative and bizarre, that challenges you and makes you think and expands your brain in ways that only comics can. I’m not going to get on my soapbox screaming that this is the greatest artform – my dear friend Chase Magnett can do that fine, yay Chase – but comics are really fucking amazing because you can do almost anything in this improbable artform. Almost anything! It’s magic.
That infinite malleability means that we get super-hero comics and sci-fi comics and horror comics and also ten zillion other comics that are great in representing all kinds of other genres, or no genre at all, just images and ideas splayed on paper in whatever rhythm and style and approach that an artist wants to drop on the page. If you go to a local indie fest – last month’s Short Run Comics Fest was wonderful – you’ll see pure creativity on display, an expression of the vision that the artist wants to drop onto the page, unfettered by much more than their imagination and the help of an empathetic editor.
If you read the comics that are truly weird, innovative, different and that expand the boundaries of the artform, you may end up resembling our paragon of comics creativity, Jolly ol’ Jack Kirby, with his mind so full of ideas, his synapses always popping with such bright light behind those bright eyes of his, that he could never pass his California State driving test. His mind was too busy, his imagination always too active, for him to pilot a car in the real world. You can imagine Kirby and his wife sitting behind the wheel of some kind of super car, a souped-up roadster with an engine like a jet in some sort of beautifully boxy Kirby shape, running on just a few drops of water.
I think of Jack Kirby often, because I’m a comics fan and Kirby is our secular saint. But I often think of Jack in a different context: if he was alive today what kind of work would he embrace? Would he go for two-fisted action adventure or would the King love the stuff that was weird and interesting but scrupulously well-crafted? He did work with Jim Woodring for a few years, and was even a mentor to the master of surrealistic comic art.
Kirby was an innovator and he loved the comics work of young people. Maybe Jack Kirby would have had a place in his heart for oddball works like Cochlea & Eustachia, and every once in a while I dream of a world where a graphic novel with this skewed view of the world wouldn’t be greeted with a collective shrug of “it’s not for everyone” as readers grab the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man instead. Cochlea & Eustachia may not be for everyone, but then again I don’t think it should be.
Hans Rickheit creates the surreal 76-page dream voyage chronicled in this graphic novel, and in it he creates a work that is otherworldly and haunting, with densely beautiful images and a series of events that are inexplicable not because they’re magical or powered by scientific logic but because they simply are inexplicable. This story makes no linear sense and follows its own internal compass. That loose inner logic is a big part of why this is such a hauntingly lovely creation.
Rickheit draws the reader in with so many of his smart decisions: his gorgeously detailed coloring (the excerpts here are in black and white but the actual book is in color); the seductive level of detail in the presentation; the strange storybook style of the story; and of course the two mysterious… girls, I guess you could call them… at the center of this story: the titular Cochlea and Eustachia, beautiful blondes wearing only negligées and domino masks, bare-assed and barefoot, who crawl, climb, run and are trapped in an unexplained landscape full of skulls and in a dark house that is both alienating and compelling.
We don’t know who these beings are, why they’re in the walls or stuck in jars or why their bodies are hollow. We’re not given some sort of Cliff’s Notes guide to interpreting all the body grotesqueries in Cochlea, no help interpreting the juxtaposition of the beautiful with the bizarre. The reader has to do the work to figure this whole dang creation out. For me, that’s intoxicating and special, a chance to have my mind crackle like Jack Kirby’s mind, a chance to have it changed while reading something only Hans Rickheit could have dreamed up. That’s part of the genius of comics as a medium, too: this sort of unfiltered vision, this chance for the artist to share whatever he wants to share on the page. Even “it’s not for everybody” guy would agree that part of the greatness of comics lies in the fact that you can create whatever you want – anything at all – on the comics page, and isn’t that incredible?
There’s no guide to Cochlea & Eustachia, no spot of familiarity, no easy place to land. There you go, “not for everybody” commentator, Hans Rickheit’s otherworldly graphic novel doesn’t grant any concession to your need for logic and explanations, and bummer for you for rejecting it on that criteria. This book is a delight with its own very specific internal dream logic and its wonderfully moving power. That power is most especially felt towards the end of this graphic novel, when the image of the two beautiful girls is subverted in the most grotesquely moving way possible. As he brings the story to a close, Rickheit delivers a series of images that verge far into the realm of nightmarish reality, where the world of the comic begins to flow back into the reader’s life. It provided a funhouse mirror reflection of the tangible world that we live every day while also reflecting back the dreams that haunt us when we wake.
Yeah, whatever, “not for everyone” dude. Go enjoy your own very specific thing, because yeah it is cool that you like what you like, and I’ll happily smile with you every week at the LCS and twitter. But you’re missing out on the good, hard, intense and beautiful stuff. There’s a party going on here, and if you miss out you’ll never know how amazing the world can be. Comics are astounding. Cochlea & Eustachia is marvelous. Pick up a copy of this book and experience a living dream on the comics page – or spend a few extra dollars pick up something else that’s adventurous if this book looks like too much of a trip for you. Fantagraphics was kind enough to include the first few pages of this book directly below my review so you can sample it.
There’s a whole wide spectrum of comics that you think you won’t like, but chances are you will find something — or many things — that could legitimately change your comic reading life. Here at Comics Bulletin we embrace the whole spectrum of comic art, and we hope that we can give you some ideas of great new material to check out, whether new series from Marvel or DC or great small press books. Comics are amazing. Don’t just read one type of comic.