by Claire Donner
The gothic-comic graphic fiction of Richard Sala has formed an important part of the American indie comics landscape for almost thirty years. Riddled with references to vintage crime fiction, euro horror and subversive cinema, Sala’s work draws comparisons to everyone from Edward Gorey to Dame Darcy – but the look and feel of his pages remains unique and unmistakably his own. His world is populated by wayward waifs whose elfin appearances belie a cunning and violent nature, whose adventures similarly combine classic funnybook hilarity with shocking brutality and eroticism. Richard Sala’s stories are the sort you’d expect to find in a dog-eared paperback or a leatherbound fairytale tome – but, fortunately for comiXology users, he has deigned to debut a new graphic novella on the digital platform. comiXology’s Claire Donner talks with Sala about his multimedia ventures, his eclectic sources of inspiration, and of course, his brand new digital exclusive, Violenzia.
CX: You have been making comics prolifically since your self-published 1984 one-shot Night Drive. Since then, you have contributed to seminal comix periodicals RAW Magazine and Blab!, animated your work for Liquid Television, and even adapted a script penned by Jack Karouac. What made you decide to debut new work in digital form? Was it the exceptionally warm reception you have received on Tumblr, or is it all part of an apparently endless drive to conquer new forms of media?
RS: Thanks for inviting me to do this interview and for your very kind words. However, I think that it’s only fair for me to admit that I haven’t so much conquered anything as I have been fortunate enough to gather, over the years, a small but very loyal group of readers and followers. That’s all I really set out to do, so I do feel lucky to have accomplished that. I began showing my work on the internet years ago — my original site, which included a lot of flash animation, is now gone — and you are right that the response I received was very encouraging and supportive, especially after I started my Tumblr in 2011. Suddenly the number of people who I could share my work with changed from the basically a few customers in the dozen or so comic book stores who carried my books, to — well, to quite a lot more! Plus I could show off my color work the way it was meant to be seen, which was always problematic in the world of print. (In print, not only was it more expensive to do full-color, but printer’s often had a hard time reproducing the colors correctly) The response to my work on Tumblr and my blog was so nice that I started doing these sort of mini-exhibitions of new work — small series of drawings around certain themes or concepts, including Skeleton Key, Unmasked, Autumn and Evil, Pretty Spooky and Violent Girls. These are a lot of fun, but I wanted to start doing a comic strip - an old fashioned comic book, really — but how to do it? I like a lot of webcomics, but I couldn’t figure out how to capture what I wanted to do — which was create an actual comic book for the internet — until the opportunity to work with comiXology came along.
CX: There are a lot of ways to read comics on the platform, including good old-fashioned full-page views for tablets and the web, but comiXology’s Guided View technology is almost amounts to a new medium; you have a kind of cinematic immersion in single panels, and you can zoom in voyeuristically on tiny details. This seems to make a lot of sense for you, because your work is obviously influenced by film. There are obvious shades of German Expressionism of the F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang stripe, but your gothic landscapes are also populated with beatniks straight out of a Roger Corman movie and Jess Franco-style femme fatale characters. To what degree would you say your comics are influenced by other media?
RS: Yes, movies are a big influence - particularly the sort of movies that are somewhat obscure and offbeat - or are considered somewhat cultish in their appeal. It’s funny, even though I’ve lived long enough now to be influenced by all sorts of things, I still seem to go back to the days of childhood and adolescent discovery to tap into real inspiration. For example, I remember when I was a kid, long before the days of the internet, I’d look through magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and immerse myself in the rich history of horror and mystery. Famous Monsters in particular, was filled with all kinds of bizarre and dramatic images, and it almost didn’t matter whether I’d see the movie or not — some of which would be great, others disappointing. The important thing was that the images - of mad scientists or monsters or masked fiends or beautiful women courageously defending themselves against some subhuman horror - engaged my imagination and inspired me to start dreaming up my own stories in my head. I’ve always been a bit of a cultural magpie — so lots of my influences and the images I love show up in my work — the ones you mention, as well as old-time serials, pulps and paperbacks, pulp artists like Norman Saunders, Margaret Brundage and Lee Brown Coye, all kinds of European horror; Dick Tracy comic strips - especially the ones from the 1960s which are the ones I grew up reading and collecting (which was when the strip really began to go off the rails - in a good way, I think!). I also remember being in a bookstore in Chicago and seeing the original Barbarella book, the English translation. Even as a kid I considered myself somewhat of a comic book snob - although I was a Marvel kid, I had also discovered Tintin and old Spirit reprints which made me feel more sophisticated than the average Archie fan. But looking at Barbarella in the bookstore (it was out of the question to even attempt to buy it!) I was struck by the concept of a heroic and sexy female protagonist, having all sorts of fantastic adventures. That discovery, plus a particular photo of a female cat burglar from the film Judex in an issue of Castle of Frankenstein, stayed with me over the years, through all my life experience and two college degrees, to still be primary influences on my work today!
CX: This convergent influence of funnybook whimsy and pulp grit affects your work in a very interesting way. Your art is broadly cartoonish with a pronounced naivete that seems almost suitable for Archie Comics - but, as in the case of Dan De Carlo, your cherubic protagonists are inevitably embroiled in very adult situations. Your comics are frequently hilarious, but many are more earnestly frightening than the average Chas Addams gag. Delphine in particular offers a truly disturbing allegory for relationship neurosis, exploring the effects of youthful fickleness and misogyny through supernatural imagery worthy of horror classics like Suspiria. Do you deliberately strive for this dichotomy between childlike innocence and genuine dread? What are you trying to do to your audience?
RS: Ha! Entertain them, I hope! I mean, I do my comics basically to entertain myself, but with a sincere desire to find and engage an audience as well. The stories are coming out of a brain that’s been absorbing popular culture for years and years, churning it all up into some kind of stew and mixing it up with whatever half-surpressed memories or neuroses are already in there. When I sit down with a blank notebook, I’m never sure what’s going to start coming out. I try to keep some sort of order, but it’s often like trying to transcribe a dream - and I like that quality. I don’t want to hammer it into something that looks like something I’ve already seen a million times. I have a lot of faith in the unconscious, maybe too much sometimes, I guess. All I can do is cross my fingers that what I’ve created will be of interest to readers looking for something just a bit to the left of what they’re normally used to. When I’m writing I tend to compulsively veer away from anything that seems to be becoming too conventional or overly familiar. I can’t resist going off the beaten path, down side alleys and around dark corners. It’s not that I have anything against formula, I don’t - it’s just that I seem to be incapable of following any particular formula myself without going off on some odd tangent or revealing some alarming personal quirk!
CX: This peripatetic approach results in a fair amount of genre-hopping, as in the aforementioned collision of all-ages cartooning with real visceral terror and sensuality. You also vacillate between the novella format and, at least in the case of Peculia, very short stories that almost resemble gag strips in their brevity and absurdity; one almost expects to find Nancy and Oona Goosepimple hidden in the background. In the case of your digital exclusive graphic novel Violenzia, you are toying with the super hero model. Do you think it’s impossible even for indie veterans like yourself to avoid drawing caped crusaders forever? (we’re looking at you, Daniel Clowes)
RS: Actually, my work has always kind of resided in some nebulous place between the indies and the mainstream. From the very beginning I was never shy about displaying my affection for mystery and horror and noir and pulps and b-movies. My 1989 MTV cartoon Invisible Hands was an affectionate take on old-time genre staples like occult detectives and secret societies. And my first series character, Mr. Murmur (from Thirteen O’Clock, 1992), was a (lovingly) tongue-in-cheek homage to The Shadow. Even if I wasn’t making linear, standard, good-versus-evil comics, elements of mystery and horror were always on display. With my first full-length graphic novel, The Chuckling Whatsit, I committed to that world 100% - weird villains, creepy dolls, long-buried secrets, serial killers, the occult, cat burglars, secret societies, masked super-criminals - the works! As far as superheroes go, I’ve always been more interested in where they came from than where they are now. I definitely read and was influenced by superhero comics as a kid, but I also read paperback reprints of 1930s pulps and weird tales and for some reason I felt more of a kinship with those. And Violenzia continues in that vein. The mysterious figure, leaping into a crowd of robed fanatics with twin automatics blazing is right out of a pulp from the 1930s like The Shadow or The Spider. But I think she fits in quite well today, too. Although this is intended as pure entertainment, while I was writing it I couldn’t help but be aware of the world outside. And on some days the world outside seems - if one listens to the news - more and more depressingly irrational and violent and confusing than ever. We can’t make much sense of it, but we long to somehow sort it all out. So this is a modest fantasy about sorting things out, in ways that we can do because it’s only a comic book. I’ve often used women as my protagonists, and each has their own unique personality (to me anyway!). But none of them have ever been quite like this latest character, with her relentless, deadly drive. And I figured - why beat around the bush? - just name her “Violence!” Why be coy? In fact, the working title was “Her Name Is Violence” which was an homage to a crazy violent comic from the 1960s called His Name Is Savage. But I decided I liked “Violenzia” better. When the choice is between the obvious and the ambiguous, ultimately I go with the ambiguous.
CX: All of these disparate, time-spanning pop cultural influences arrive more in your narrative themes than visual elements. Your aesthetic may draw clumsy comparisons to goth essentials from EC Comics to Edward Gorey, and it carries a European vibe almost akin to artists like Trondheim and Sfarr; in any company, though, your drawings are starkly unique and instantly recognizable. The black and white adventures of sexy cereal addict Peculia and foul-mouthed girl detective Judy Drood have an almost woodcut-like look, and you are equally capable of floridly painted pulp visions like the zombie apocalypse tale The Hidden. What are your preferred tools of the trade for achieving your special look?
RS: It’s just as old-fashioned and tried-and-true as you can get: a bunch of sharpened pencils, crow quill pens, a bottle of Higgins Black Magic ink, a handful of brushes and a stack of trusty old watercolor palettes. I use the smooth Arches hot press watercolor paper, because the pen nib can glide over it without snagging. The only digital work I do is with Photoshop to make small corrections or clean things up. I’m not good enough with digital tools to be able to seamlessly integrate them into my old-timey way of working. People seem to be able to tell when I’ve relied too much on Photoshop to make changes, so I try to ignore my desire to tinker with the art more than necessary. I want the art to have a look of energy and spontaneity, so I’ll occasionally just leave rough spots in. I like to just splash various watercolors onto the ink drawings and watch the colors blend in ways that can make a drawing come alive. Again, I think it comes down to fun. I think if you enjoy the process, the reader can tell. It’s a way of communicating with the reader. Sometimes when cartoonists are struggling with their tools or laboring over drawings in ways that make them miserable, that gets communicated to the reader as well - so you want to avoid that.
CX: Backing up a bit, you mentioned your frequent use of female protagonists. Women and girls have been the popular choice for the main characters of horror stories for an overwhelming number of creators in the genre, and much has been said about this phenomenon, whether it manifests in the misogynistic punishment of loose ladies or in the triumph of an empowering “final girl” figure. Why do you think you are compelled to place a female character at the center of so many of your stories?
RS: I’m not sure. I suppose at some point during the planning stages I make a decision on the gender of the protagonist, but it feels more organic than that, not so calculated. It just happens during the process of writing. Whoever my protagonist is, I will inevitably put them in situations where they’ll be in way over their heads and won’t be able to just punch their way out, the way a standard superhero might. They need to be clever and brave. They’ll be out of their depth and they’ll need to find some hidden reservoir of strength to get out alive - that’s more important than their gender. That said, I did grow up in a house where there was a complete set of old Nancy Drew hardcovers and I used to stare at those mysterious covers showing Nancy (which happened to be my Mom’s first name) bravely facing down some looming shadow or some old man creeping out of a grandfather clock (or whatever) without flinching. Not to mention that my first real female crush was Emma Peel from The Avengers (the English TV show - not the superhero group), who was one of the most capable, smart, brave and strong characters on TV ever. I suppose my tendency to use female protagonists may have roots in my exposure to those characters. I might need a shrink to help me figure it out, though.
CX: And finally, as we always like to ask our guests: what comics are you reading these days - or looking forward to?
RS: Off the top of my head —
The Adventures of Jodelle by Guy Peellaert and Pierre Bartier (Fantagraphics 2013) is a deluxe reprinting and new translation of 1966 French classic comic book science fiction spoof in the vein of Barbarella. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.
The Transfiguration of Mister Punch by Charles Schneider and others (Egaeus Press 2013) isn’t a comic, but it’s a crazy mixture of pseudo-history, legends and actual facts involving the creepy puppets from the Punch and Judy shows.
Also - we are living in the golden age of reprints of old comic books and comic strips. There are just too many to mention (or afford), but it’s wonderful to see so many classic comics in print again.