The Gloaming (#1-5) on-going series. by Hans Rickheit. Chrome Fetus. 2021. Five-issue multi-pack: print $20 and digital $15
Hans Rickheit is one of my favorite cartoonists. I have reviewed his work going back some twenty years and have seen it grow in stature. Back then, I was part of a crew of reviewers and I was known as someone with a taste for the offbeat and strange and who championed the misfit. For a taste of Rickheit’s work, check out his ongoing series, Cochlea & Eustachia. I relate to Rickheit’s touch of strange. I aspire to pushing limits in my own work in comics: seeking out distinctive storytelling paths; refining a signature style; challenging the reader. I see all of that happening in Rickheit’s work. Of course, I am not alone. His quirky, creepy, and overall gorgeous art has struck a chord with readers world-wide. Fast forward to now, and we find Rickheit raising the stakes higher with his most provocative comics ever. Has he gone out on a limb and is it worth it?
Up until now, Rickheit’s work has maintained an otherworldly vibe with some restrained erotic undertones. For his latest project, The Gloaming, this adults-only comic book series finds Rickheit having crossed over to work that is beyond overtly sexual. He would be the first to admit that it is pornographic in nature: explicit sexual content; X-rated material without a doubt. Rickheit is an interesting case as he seems to be someone who can’t help but create artful comics. He seems to be gingerly navigating his way through terrain that would prove way too challenging for many cartoonists to justify. And maybe he doesn’t fully succeed and that’s alright. This is a daring experiment and one perhaps inevitable. It’s clear that it engages this masterful cartoonist and, in turn, it will engage the discerning mature reader.
Let’s say that your favorite auteur filmmaker made a film with some very strong sexual content. You might say that the film is a challenging departure for the filmmaker. Or you might throw your hands up and say the filmmaker has gone too far. That is where Rickheit finds himself. He has concocted a narrative about a mad scientist with a penchant for creating sex slaves and a lot of the plot involves the slaves servicing the mad scientist or servicing each other. There’s also a parallel story going on about a race of space alien sex slaves who are programmed to relentlessly pleasure themselves or whoever crosses their path, like some unsuspecting demon who appears out of nowhere. So, lots of freaky furry stuff going on. But is it art? Is it porn? Well, it’s both. But mostly it’s art. It brings to mind, or at least to my mind, “Made in Heaven,” the collaboration between Jeff Koons and his then-wife Ilona Staller (“Cicciolina”). Now, there’s a work that straddles art and, well, porn, or work of a highly explicit sexual nature. The intent is said to be art but you can argue that the couple’s sex act show is more hype than anything else; an odd curiosity that is part of a greater whole. I think Koons would agree with me on that.
The actual narrative to The Gloaming does have its subplots and nuances. This is a story that features a cult of clones, who are all programmed to have an insatiable sexual appetite and are loyal to the hive, especially the leader, the mad scientist. Like every plan, there are variants that creep in. That explains four particular clones. These four young women seem to have minds of their own. For the most part, they basically behave like wild animals out to satisfy themselves save for one who is methodical. This one gets picked on by the other three sisters. This one is sort of like a Cinderella, but prone to ungodly mischief like the rest. These four are set apart from the rest of the clones and get to live in the mansion. Like I mentioned, there’s also this parallel story going on involving a race of space alien clones and that subplot is festering in the background presumably to reveal a greater truth by the time this series wraps up.
Rickheit has moved past the stage of wondering if he’s made the right choice with this project. His main concern it seems, based on the bits of comments he provides to introduce each issue, have to do with craftsmanship. Rickheit repeatedly worries about whether or not he’s up to the task of depicting all the anatomical contortions, and related sexual activities going on in his comic. I think he is. But I do appreciate that he’s sensitive to consistently keeping the human figure alive and dancing upon the page. Sometimes a shortcut here and there can take the reader out of the story. And, as I say, there is a story, one of a growing uneasy tension between mysterious forces. This is mostly a mood piece as the title implies. That said, this is also an experiment to see what readers make of it. Do readers of Hans Rickheit prefer to keep the veil of mystery on or do they want it fully ripped off with nothing spared? I think this project is an intriguing departure but I do not believe it’s sustainable in its present form, not in the long run. More often than not, it’s nice to pull the covers up. Then again, it depends upon what the auteur cartoonist wants to achieve. Blutch, for example, has claimed he’d like nothing more than to create pure porn but then he doesn’t go and actually do that because artful and literary concerns kick in. I think what he really means is that he just wants the freedom to do as he sees fit. At the end of the day, usually that will mean that he wants to create something with integrity. That’s what Rickheit is after too.