Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at what’s cool online. Today, we look at a newer webcomic whose eerie storyline and unique look has made it a breakout hit.
It’s only been around for a year, and it only updates once a week, but Hans Rickheit’s Ectopiary (www.ectopiary.com) is one of those webcomics that has everyone talking. Its slow, menacing tale of Dale, a young girl in the 1950s who comes to live at a strange old house with even stranger old relatives, features some of the most detailed, unnerving art you’ll see online or in print – images reminiscent of everyone from Charles Addams to Charles Burns, as Dale encounters odd mysteries, bizarre visions, and a white dog who claims to come from the moon.
Rickheit, who’s already known for his Xeric Grant-winning graphic novel Chloe and 2009’s The Squirrel Machine took some time out from his busy schedule to talk about going online, his plans for the series, and just where all this weird stuff comes from. Take a trip into the world of Ectopiary…but be warned, it’s easy to get lost in its strange beauty.
Newsarama: Hans, how did the idea for Ectopiary originally come to you?
Hans Rickheit: That's not a question that can be easily answered. If I were able to directly pinpoint the source of these stories, it would skitter away and conceal itself beyond any hope of recapture.
A few years ago, I said to myself, " I'd like to draw a story about exploding donkeys." Inexplicably, this is where Ectopiary comes from.
Nrama: Given your background in print, why did you decide to serialize it as a webcomic? Do you see the medium as a natural extension of self-publishingRickheit: Ideally, Ectopiary would be published as a traditional comic book (pamphlet-style, newsprint). I've spent my whole life slowly building up readership that might sustain such a publication.
Nowadays, thanks to technology, it seems the comic book is now a vanishing beast. When I go to the local comic shop, I see scant examples of independent artistry on the periodical shelves.
Rather than bemoan the changing industry, I'm trying to find ways to exist in it. Webcomics seem to be the place the herd are congregating. Just count me among the cattle.
Nrama: That have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of the format?
Rickheit: The advantages, thus far, outweigh the problems. The immediacy of the Internet is very rewarding. The larger number of potential recipients spans a wider segment of the population. I'm also enjoying the feedback, which ranges from insightful criticism to outright perplexity.
The only disadvantages stem from my own inexperience. Technical problems still exist in the website, which I hope to fix over time. Updates are slow; mostly due to my work schedule and speed. I have yet to reap much financial compensation for all this effort, but I hope to learn as I go.
Nrama:What's interesting to you about telling the story from the perspective of a young girl? It reminds me in a way of films such as Spirit of the Beehive and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Rickheit: I've seen Pan’s Labyrinth, and enjoyed it very much. I haven't seen the other film. Now I'm going to become neurotic about keeping Ectopiary from resembling them.
All my stories are ill-concealed attempts at autobiography. Crucial elements are altered and inverted to obfuscate their real-life sources. Dale is a composite of people I know. It's still very early in the story, for her own personality quirks to become apparent.
Nrama: Milton, the white dog from the moon, has become quite popular among readers. Where did the inspiration for that character come from?
Rickheit: I have memories of being visited by this creature on a rooftop when I was six years old. This was probably a dream, but I haven't entirely ruled out it being an actual occurrence.
Nrama: What is most significant about the late 1950s setting for you?
Rickheit: The time period of Ectopiary was almost an arbitrary decision. I don't like drawing modern architecture or current fashions. I find older things more interesting and enjoyable to render, but I still wanted the characters to occupy a world in which familiar devices were already in regular use; telephones, automobiles, etc.
Originally, the story was positioned in the late ‘40s, but various time-specific details insinuated themselves.
Nrama: What can you tell us about what's coming up in the series?
Rickheit: I'm disinclined to reveal too much. The story divides into three parts which do not resemble each other. I wanted to draw an exotic science fiction, although the first hundred pages will contain very little in that vein.
These stories aren't written; they simply occur to me. I prefer it that way. Good science fiction writers write about strange and inexplicable things. My job is make the strange things they write about.
Nrama: What do you feel is the greatest trick in creating a sense of unease in the reader/viewer?
Rickheit: I'm not employing any conscious trickery to create specific reactions. These comics inevitably reflect my own attitude to life in general. Maybe I'm just an uneasy person.
Nrama: About how long does it take you to do a page of story at this point? How far in advance have you plotted out the story, given that you don't write scripts?Rickheit: It takes about a week to draw each of these pages. Page 59 in particular took a very long time to draw. Subsequent pages will probably take a little less time, as they won't be so detail-heavy.
I have the first 200 pages pretty definitely mapped out in my mind. The rest is vague, and best left that way. I'll jump off that cliff when I get to it.
Nrama: Tell us about how you developed the look of the strip. There's a very distinct, consistent visual style to each of the individual elements -- humans, architecture, rock, plant life, the supernatural -- all these things coexisting, which really highlights the sense of weirdness and distance.
Rickheit: You're giving me more credit than is due. The only "development" that went into Ectopiary involved collecting reference material (of which there is a great deal). That is the only real connective fabric. The rest is completely made-up.
Nrama: Do you see yourself getting closer to being able to update twice a week?
Rickheit: Economics and time-management are the only obstacles to doubling my output. Maybe a year from now, I can afford to devote more time to drawing. Currently, it is impossible.
Nrama: You say you envision the finished graphic novel to run about 600 pages, which even at twice a week will take you at least five to six years to accomplish. Do you plan on releasing individual volumes during this time, say at specific "breaks" in the story? You've talked about seeing the story in three parts, so would there be a trilogy?
Rickheit: Six years doesn't seem like such a long time to me. Regarding print editions, I haven't completely decided yet. Gary Groth at Fantagraphics expressed interest in publishing Ectopiary in 100 page installments. That seems reasonable. Let's wait and see.
Nrama: The strip's now available to Japanese readers -- what kind of reaction have you gotten? It certainly seems like it'd appeal to fans of dark, meditative Asian horror flicks.
Rickheit: As of yet, response to most American comics in Japan has been decidedly cold. One would think, considering the nature of horror manga and anime, that an audience exists there for things like Ectopiary and The Squirrel Machine. It's too soon to judge the response.
Nrama: What else are you currently working on?
Rickheit: Many things. I'm currently putting the finishing touches on a collection of past comics called Folly. Fantagraphics will be releasing it this fall.
I'm also collaborating with Katt Hernandez on a multi-media comic strip with a sonic element. She is one the planet's finest improvising violinists. Her work usual incorporates Eastern music and the micro-tonal systems of Joe Maneri.
There is also the probability of my illustrating a script by Mahendra Singh, one of the last true Surrealists. He has just released his own marvelous adaptation of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.
My good friend Kristina Dorn is building puppets based on characters from my more subversive comic strips. Cochlea and Eustachia are gradually manifesting themselves in corporeal form as you read this. A potential film is being discussed.
Also, toys are being designed by another compatriot from Baltimore. Hopefully, they will be completed in time to coincide with the release of the Folly collection.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Rickheit: Coelacanths are enormous, beautiful fish, believed to have been extinct for millions of years until specimens were found off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. They are related to lungfish and tetrapods.
They are lobe-finned fish with the pectoral and anal fins on fleshy stalks supported by bones. They also have a special electroreceptive organ in the front of the skull for prey detection.
Here is some YouTube footage:…riiiight. Next at Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, we cut a big slice of Octopus Pie in a new interview with creator Meredith Gran! Be there!