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Introduction by Alan David Doane

I came to Richard Sala's work very, very late -- just discovering in the past year how incredibly good it is. I had somehow developed a resistance to his work, and only overcame it when a friend suggested I read the masterful short story "The 13 Fingers." This brief tale of paranoia and discovery totally gave me entry into the world Sala creates in his comics, and if there's one thing I can get through to anyone reading this, it's that if you are like me, and have not immersed yourself yet in Sala's work, please do give it a try.

Since I learned to appreciate how much energy, wit and imagination Sala brings to his comics, I have been disappointed that more readers seemingly weren't making the same discovery. I'm extremely grateful, then, that in recent years he has been in the rarefied stable of "The World's Greatest Cartoonists," a fact-turned-marketing-slogan for Fantagraphics Books. Unlike most prominent North American comic book publishers, Fantagraphics eschews short-term profit for long-term artistic accomplishment. Sala may not have made Gary Groth and Kim Thompson's bank accounts swell like Wizard's Hot Writers, say, have done for their corporate masters, but he has made his readers profoundly richer by giving them entry into his mysterious worlds of dark shadows, hidden corners, cute girls and ticking clocks.

Fantagraphics Director of Publicity Eric Reynolds seemed to confirm my perception of Sala's place in the company's grand scheme when I asked him about Sala this week. He told me "I love Sala's work dearly and have since long before I was working at Fantagraphics. I would publish anything he does. His work is so singularly unique, and although it's this insane mix of gothic humor and horror and entirely fictional, it's also supremely personal. If you know Richard, he lives and breathes this kind of edgy genre material, like German expressionist films, noirish mystery and old monster b-movies. His work is literate even when reveling in low culture like tawdry b-movie tropes."

So, filled with mystery, suspense, and scantily-clad, buxom young women, why doesn't Sala's work fly off the shelves? Reynolds told me "I am endlessly surprised his work doesn't sell better, because I think it's incredibly accessible. Who doesn't love a great murder mystery? Especially one with monsters and cute chicks? I can't explain why he isn't one of our best-sellers -- he certainly mixes a lot of similar genre ingredients that many inferior Vertigo comics use, although two reasons I infinitely prefer Sala are his sense of humor and the fact that his drawings serve his stories so well; his style is so deliciously unique and appealing. The Chuckling Whatsit and Mad Night are definitely two of the most underrated graphic novels of the last decade. They're dense, fun, clever, witty and above all, they're page turners! He creates these fully realized worlds that could exist nowhere else but inside his brain, and I'm grateful he shares them with us."

Me too; Sala's stuff is truly magical if you just give it a chance. Luckily for all of us, many of his best works are in print and available right now from his featured artist page at the Fantagraphics website. If you are curious about his work after reading this, I urge you to, like many of Sala's characters often do, investigate further. Unlike them, you won't regret it.

Click on these images for full-size versions

What was your life like growing up?

I was born in Oakland, California in 1955. When I was three, my family relocated to West Chicago, Illinois and that's where I spent my childhood years. When I was in the sixth grade my family moved again, this time to Scottsdale, Arizona -- this was a rather alarming culture shock for a skinny pale kid from the snowy midwest. Anyway, I spent my adolescent, teen and young adult years there. Eventually I got a scholarship to get a Masters Degree in Painting from Mills College in Oakland -- so I came full circle, back to the Bay Area, where I've stayed put.

My dad was a short-tempered Sicilian World War II vet with a Clark Gable moustache who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and who could scare the hell out of my brother and sister and me with just a glance. But he was also creative, artistic and loved old movies. He was an antiques dealer who specialized in repairing antique clocks. His shop was filled with a hundred clocks, all ticking and chiming away. My mom couldn't have been more different -- except she also loved antiques. She was an educated child of Mayflower-stock-type Midwestern Protestants who had served in the Red Cross overseas during the war and who had settled into just being a typical housewife in order to raise us kids. It was a pretty schizophrenic household!

I was lucky in that my artistic side was always encouraged -- as was my love of old movies and comics and monsters. Or at least they were never strongly dis-couraged. I remember being shocked when, for example, one of my friends told me his parents wouldn't let him watch The Outer Limits. I couldn't believe the cruelty of that! I was even luckier, in retrospect, because I now see what a tremendous outlet scary movies and monsters were for me as a kid -- they were a classic way of dealing with my real-life fears and insecurities. Once you make Frankenstein and the Wolfman your pals, real life gets a little less terrifying!

Who was your favourite filmaker? Your work seems to echo that of the young Alfred Hitchcock. Was he an influence?

Yes, I love Hitchcock. I've seen some of his films so many times I keep thinking I'll get sick of them, but I never do. Watching a Hitchcock movie is like listening to a great song -- you can't just stop it in the middle, you want to let it carry you along to the end, experience the delirious unfolding of it.

I have an extreme fondness for European horror movies from the '60s and '70s, like Mario Bava, of course, but also more obscure, perhaps less accomplished (but no less effective) ones like "The Awful Dr. Orloff" and "Mill of the Stone Women" -- films that used to be these incredibly obscure rare pleasures, but which are now on DVD -- something that, after so many years of forced late-night viewing and crappy bootlegs, continues to boggle my mind. There is a fairytale-like quality to a lot of European horror films from this period, and a visual poetry to them that transcends the sometimes silly storylines and dubbed dialogue.

Also -- silent films, German Expressionism, and Hollywood's use of German Expressionism in the 1930s and 1940s. The way cinema has had the ability to capture BLACKNESS -- deep black shadows, dark alleyways, black rain-wet streets -- is like almost no other art form. I love that. If you've ever seen "Night of the Hunter" or "Touch of Evil" on a big screen, you know what I mean -- the use of black is incredibly beautiful.

What sort of comic books did you read as you grew up?

As a kid in the sixties I was a big Marvel/Kirby fan. Kirby's comics were the first I ever collected, before I even knew his name. The first comic that I really noticed, that I actually remember buying -- as opposed to all the funny animal or other comics I must have read before -- was one of the Atlas monster comics with a Kirby monster on the cover. Those comics were addictive, with Kirby and Ditko doing self-contained stories in every issue. But by the time I started reading them, they were at the end of their run. I was disappointed when I couldn't find them anymore. I do remember buying Hulk #1. Superheroes weren't my thing -- I loved monsters. I would tolerate, say, The Fantastic Four, so I could get Dr. Doom, The Puppet Master and the Moleman. That's probably why my favorite Kirby series is The Demon.

As far as what comics had the most impact on me, though -- it was actually comic strips and collections of comic strips that have really been my biggest influence. I began cutting out Dick Tracy strips when I was seven years old, putting them in scrapbooks. I loved continued strips -- whether it was Li'l Abner or Little Orphan Annie. When the strips were collected they became epic stories! I guess looking back now I was lucky to be alive when Chester Gould and Al Capp and Harold Gray were putting out new work every day! Anyway, you can see the influence in my comics, I think. I learned how to tell a comic story from reading "The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy" a hundred times. The odd pacing, the jump cuts to other locations, the glorious sudden bursts of violence -- it's all there. I only realized this fairly recently, what a profound influence it had on my story-telling.

Which medium or media do you think has influenced your style the most, and in what ways?

Appreciating the language of cinema is pretty important to doing good comics, I think. When I was in art school, I became fascinated with composition. The idea of an invisible structure -- whether it's calculated or intuitive -- when you're young it's like discovering a secret code. It makes you begin to see things differently. You begin to look for harmony. And when you don't find it -- well, that can almost make you sick, if you are the overly sensitive type! It's chaos without it, you know? I realize this may sound crazy to some people! Anyway, in cinema a good director learns to create one strong composition after another to tell a story visually. That's why you can watch a film like Citizen Kane - or just about any Hitchcock film - with the sound off and still be drawn in, even if you don't know what's going on, the succession of well-composed shots is so compelling.

In your stories "My Father's Brain" and "Judy Drood, Girl Detective," you write about parent/child relationships, especially about how we perceive our fathers in the face of all the evidence. That Judy Drood is living in "denial" is rather obvious. Was this merely a comic device, or were you trying to convey some deeper meaning?

Well, you got what I was trying to convey, which is denial. Denial has certainly been a trait I've noticed in people -- and in myself -- throughout my life. It isn't always a bad thing, I guess, if it helps you to face the world -- as a defense mechanism. But when it enters the realm of delusion I think it can be almost funny -- in a black-humored way. I guess that's what I was going for in those two cases, the idea of deluding one's self beyond reason.

What are you working on now? Will Evil Eye continue?

"Evil Eye" #12 was the last issue in that format. I loved doing it as a comic book, but there is a certain amount of frustration that you aren't reaching perhaps as many readers as you could. My publisher agreed to my idea for a format change. Instead of a series of 24-page comic books, "Evil Eye" will now be a series of short graphic novels -- each a complete stand-alone story in book form, with its own individual title and concept. This means that it will be easier for readers to locate -- in bookstores or online. The first of these -- that is, "Evil Eye" #13 -- is PECULIA AND THE GROON GROVE VAMPIRES. It's an 80-page story, complete in a six by eight-inch trade paperback. Originally it was scheduled for July 2005 and I had conceived it as a fast-paced, fun summertime read, something to curl up with on a lazy summer evening. But we had a number of printing problems that just seemed to get worse and worse and which kept delaying it. For such a humble little book it was incredibly frustrating that the printer couldn't get it right. To make an agonizingly long story short, the reprinted version is finally scheduled to be released in November, 2005 -- unless the boat it's on sinks or something -- then I'll know that it's just a cursed book. It is number 13 after all! Anyway, I'm proud of it -- and I'm my worst critic, believe me -- so I hope that it still may be able to find its audience.

Another book that has just been released is MAD NIGHT, which is a 230-page epic horror/thriller in the vein of THE CHUCKLING WHATSIT -- which, by the way has also just come out in a new printing. MAD NIGHT is the collected version of the serial that ran in "Evil Eye" #1-#12, where it was called "Reflection in a Glass Scorpion." It's about a series of murders taking place on a college campus and features my character Judy Drood. She was originally just a character I created in a one-shot strip -- reprinted in MANIAC KILLER STRIKES AGAIN -- as my take on the concept of the amateur girl sleuth. I thought, what would someone like that really be like? Well, she'd probably be slightly insane -- you know, to be compelled to go snooping constantly or having "hunches" that something nefarious is going on -- she'd have to, at the very least, have some major issues! So I made her into this kind of dangerous loose cannon with a chip on her shoulder who doesn't trust the cops to get to the bottom of anything. However, she is extremely resourceful -- and frankly, in my stories it's wise for the protaganist to be more than little paranoid! The one-shot I did -- which is kind of her "origin" story -- sat around for awhile until I decided I really wanted to use her as a major character in my follow-up to WHATSIT, where I could flesh her out a bit more. I'd really like to be able to use her again, maybe explore her background some more next time.

Another book that was released in October 2005 is DRACULA, a collaboration with Steve Niles, which is from IDW as part of their "Little Books of Horror" picture book series. It was a really fun project -- I always wanted to have a chance to do Dracula!

As far as the future, the next "Evil Eye" book is scheduled for the end of 2006 and I'm also working on a book for Holt along with a few other things in various stages. Lots of ideas and plans -- so little time!

Visit www.richardsala.com.

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The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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