The Webcomic Overlook #158: Ectopiary
In the middle of Hans Rickheit’s Ectopiary, or young heroine, Dale, looks out her window. Staring back at her, sitting in a tree, is a glowing dog. It looks to be a German Shorthaired Pointer. Pointers aren’t necessarily the world’s cutest dogs, but they are friendly. They’re also very useful. German pointers are natural hunters, and as such are blessed with intelligence and natural hunting abilities. They’ve also got a very reasonable look to them.
If Dale were visited by, say, a Golden Retriever, you’d almost expect them to star running out in the fields immediately to play fetch. Or if it were a spectral Doberman Pinscher glaring at Dale with its pupil-less, ice-cold eyes, it would only be reasonable for Dale to scream out in terror. A Pekingese … well, you’d probably assume someone’s toupee had died. On the other hand, a German Shorthaired Pointer possess just the right combination of qualities to inspire both caution and trust.
Almost … paternal, when you think about it.
Hans Rickheit describes himself as an obscurantist. In an interview with Reglar Wiglar, he clarifies this standpoint: “I quote the writing of Empire S.N.A.F.U. , ‘Lucidity is a sore dog to swallow.'” Merriam-Webster turns out to be less obscurantist when it defines “obscurantism” as “a style (as in literature or art) characterized by deliberate vagueness or abstruseness.” Man… doesn’t that pretty much describe all artists these days?
Fortunately, unless I’m missing some sort of deeper meaning, Ectopiary isn’t quite so abstruse… at least at first, anyway. It is, at its heart, a story about childhood, alienation, and loneliness. Dale is a young girl whose mother is sick and whose father has been committed to an institution. She and her mother are now living at their aunt’s home, a foreboding Victorian house nestled in an unsettlingly quiet rural town.
From the moment she arrives, Dale is ill at ease. She’s a city girl. The small town life is immediately weird and unnatural to her. The weird paintings, which seem to combine Picasso with Heironymus Bosch, and the unfortunate glimpse of the doctor jamming a needle into her mom’s spinal cord only heighten her anxiety. She feels like she has no friends to talk with. The only girls she knows are older than her, and they talk about subjects that are far out of her range of familiarity.
Her aunt’s attitude isn’t very reassuring either. She’s immediately cold toward Dale, finding her an inconvenience until she’s sent off to school. She seems, at least from Dale’s perspective, that she wouldn’t give a second thought if it weren’t for the small matter of being related. Dale’s aunt is an upper class New Englander, while Dale’s mother lived among poor, filthy beatniks. So, when Dale reveals that she wants to grow up to be a beatnik artist, her words are met with distaste and verbal cruelty.
These sudden changes seem to fill Dale with conflicted emotions. For example, is her mother really crazy? Or is she being held there against her will? It would be far too easy to believe in the latter, as children tend to see their parents as infallible. And yet… the doctor seems so kind….
And, as if there aren’t enough problems with everyday life, there’s this big white dog. After Dale leaves the room during one of her mom’s mental lapses (at least that’s what the doctor diagnoses), the dog appears again in the houses hallway. He gives Dale a small sack with something in it. Then, later that night, Dale meets with the dog again.
It turns out he talks.
The dog says his name is Milton, and he’s from the moon like all dogs are. He says he has something for Dale to do. Milton leads Dale to a fountain that is some distance away from the house. There’s a jug inside the sack. Milton, for some mysterious reason, wants Dale to pour the jug into the fountain. Dale does so; she pours some liquid in, which is teeming with a suggestive bunch of little dog heads with wriggly tentacle tails. (I’ll… leave it up to you to figure out what this is supposed to represent.)
After becoming inundated by a disturbing sea of alien-looking organisms, Dale wakes up in her attic bedroom. She searches the woods and finds no evidence of the fountain. So what’s going on? Was this all a vivid dream? Then why did the dog visit her in her waking hours? Maybe it was simply childhood imagination? Maybe imagination stirred up by her mother’s free-spirited lifestyle and exacerbated by her anxieties?
Or maybe she’s following in her parent’s footsteps in another, darker path. Maybe she’s going insane. Or maybe it’s the stress from her fear of going insane. Circles within circles.
Rickheit sets the story in the 1950’s. It’s a setting that proves to be both familiar and otherworldly. There’s a familiar scene where two young women talk excitedly about their favorite actor, and they’re shocked when Dale chimes in that she doesn’t know him. Yet we, the readers, likely have no idea who “Robert Steele” is either. (I think he’s a reference to a film and TV star). Dale’s familiarity with The Seventh Seal turns out to be more enduring, even if the beatnik lifestyle she’s familiar with will also one day become an anachronism.
Also adding to the mood is Rickheit’s lovingly detailed black-and-white artwork, which are thickly inked yet highly detailed as if they’re fresh off a woodcut. The meticulously illustrated details on the aunt’s house, the leafy foliage, and the bumpy texture of the tree bark have a classic, timely feel to them.
Milton, meanwhile, is easily the most eyecatching character design in the entire comic. He’s drawn to be accurately canine. You can even see the little whiskers under his nose. Yet, he also is drawn with fewer textural details than the world around him, giving his something of a spectral feel. You get the sense that he walks so lightly that he leaves no paw prints on the ground. It’s as if Milton were something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.
Rickheit has been rather secretive about his long term plans for Ectopiary. From what I can tell, he plans on concluding the story at around 600 pages and that the final chapter will have Dale as an adult. Will much of my speculation will be disproved before we even reach page 200? Perhaps. Yet it says much about Ectopiary that it drives so much speculation. The comic hooks you with an intriguing psychological mystery. Answers may be a long time coming, but there’s plenty to enjoy on the way: the fantastic artwork, the melancholy mood, and the story of a confused and lonely girl who’s only trying to make sense of the world.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)