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A Short Interview With Richard Sala
posted February 3, 2007
 

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I think the thing I like most about Richard Sala is how much his work improved after a point it didn't have to for commercial consideration. The look of Sala's work from the appearance of Night Drive more than 20 years ago was enough to drive a mighty run of illustration, comics and occasional animation project -- but if you actually track that work you find Sala picking up more of the subtleties of comics each time, his work becoming more refined, his stories turning on invisible tricks of narrative. This has wonderfully made the massive Chuckling Whatsit a career breakthrough rather than a solitary statement of excellence; the comics that have poured from Sala since in placed like his comic Evil Eye have been more attractive, tighter, evocative of the evils and disappointments of the modern world in a way that's whistle clean and barely impeded by the act of making marks on paper.

The Grave Robber's Daughter is Sala's latest; it refuses to turn its head from moments of explosive violence, and is as creepy a crystallization of the broken-town school of horror as you're likely to see in comics form. It's also funny, casual and confident. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

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TOM SPURGEON: When my friends that talk comics talk about you, everyone seems to think you're in a really great place visually, that your work has never looked better. Do you feel that you're a better artist today than you were five, ten, fifteen years ago?

RICHARD SALA: It's hard for me to judge the progress (or lack of) in my own work. But there's no reason why any artist's work shouldn't grow and improve over time, is there? If you are working all the time -- drawing this or that -- and you enjoy doing it (I suppose that's key -- that you still get a thrill out of it), then hopefully you are evolving. I do know that there are some people who still seem to prefer my late1980s/early 1990s work -- I was asked to contribute work from that era for the Graphic Fiction anthology, for example.

SPURGEON: Are you even conscious of what your work might look like as compared to the past?

SALA: It's like the physical changes you go through as you get older -- you don't notice it while it's happening, but one day you look at an old photograph, and say "That was me?" But if your style is evolving naturally (which, frankly, is the only was a style should evolve), it will still be recognizable as done by the same hand. I do know that at a certain point I decided to get more serious about the formal aspects of comics, which I didn't take seriously at all when I started out. I think that pretty much began to change when I did "Proxy" for RAW (V.2 #3 -- I think). Since it was written by someone other than me, Tom DeHaven, I felt an obligation to reign in my expressionistic tendencies a bit. And certainly Art Spiegelman helped me realize that the formal aspects of comics existed for a reason -- to better communicate with the reader and to get your ideas across in a clearer manner. It was a struggle at first (something I can clearly see in my comics of that period) since my inclination -- coming out of art school -- was to not pay any attention to any of the traditions (like precise lettering, ruled borders, and so on). But, over the years, I've tried to stick to them enough to make good comics, while hopefully still preserving the parts of my work that are unique.

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SPURGEON: Do you think in terms of how your work might progress, things you want to change in your style?

SALA: Well, you always wish you were better, don't you? Other than that, I'm not sure. In my latest book, The Grave Robber's Daughter, I experimented a little -- I allowed myself to be somewhat looser. There are certain pages in that book I might have otherwise redrawn one more time, to tighten them up -- but I decided I kind of liked the energy they had. It fit the story in this case, which was intended to be fast-moving and even a bit more visceral than other work I've done lately.

SPURGEON: Another thing that I hear when your work is discussed is that you've revealed yourself in the last five years as someone that draws very attractive females, up to and including the recurring protagonist used in this new book/issue, Judy Drood. Has your approach to designing characters, particularly female ones, changed? Who are some of your influences when it comes to how you approach the human figure?

SALA: This is one of those things that just evolved naturally in my work, I guess. There became a need to have more female characters in my comics, since I was beginning to tell novel-length stories. I had always drawn women the same way I drew men -- in a kind of goofy, punky, new wave-Picasso-George Grosz-Jim Nutt sort of style that developed in art school (you can see one of my big paintings of a woman in a photo I have on both Flickr and MySpace of me in my studio at Mills College). I realized that if I was going to tell real narratives, I would have to tighten up the way I drew all my characters -- and that it might be a good idea if a character looked consistent from panel to panel!

So, I sat down and began to create model sheets for characters -- the kind you see that are done for animation -- just so I'd have a guide to what my characters would look like from every angle. The more I drew women, the more they evolved into whatever it is they've become. I really like the way women were drawn in old comic strips and early "golden-age" comic books, so I was looking at those. I also referred to photos of silent movie actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks -- women who were spunky and sexy and cute and strong and innocent and smart -- all at the same time. And I looked at vintage illustrations of flappers, which captured that same spirit -- often in drawn in what seems like a single graceful, gently curving line from head to foot. So that became the basic type for many of the female characters.

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SPURGEON: Can I ask how your day and work week break down? How much time in a month, say, do you get to spend on your comics?

SALA: It's probably not too different from most freelance illustrators, cartoonists or writers. I do lose track of hours in the day sometimes. If I'm trying to meet a deadline, the time of day doesn't have much meaning. Is it five AM or PM? Should I put on some coffee? Should I eat now? Should I keep working or go to bed? I try to spend as much time on writing and drawing stories as possible. I don't do anywhere near the amount of illustration work I used to do. And I don't like to take vacations (why take a vacation from something I've wanted to do my whole life?) or travel much. Oh, and my divorce freed up a lot of my time! (We were together for over twenty years and we're still close, but I like living alone).

So although it's an exaggeration to say I spend "every waking hour" on my comics, it's not too far off the mark. After all, it's not easy being a freelancer, and I'm grateful to be one, so I can't afford to be not working. And I'm in the position now where there is never no work to do. If I don't get any new jobs in the next few months, I still have enough work -- things I've committed to do -- to keep me busy for the rest of the year, at least. I guess it helps, as I said before, that I enjoy my work -- I look forward to it whenever I'm not doing it!

SPURGEON: As busy as you are professionally, do you keep a sketchbook or do any of those kinds of things to stay sharp, or is everything kind of subsumed into your work at this point?

SALA: If you're a working artist, then you've got piles of books filled with drawings and notes and ideas -- mainly consisting of doodles and scrawls that wouldn't mean anything to anyone but you. But it's been years since I've carried around the sort of book people seem to think of when they think of "an artist's sketchbook" -- books with neat, nearly-finished drawings of people, places and things. I admire artists who do -- you really have to make time for it. A big inspiration for me early on were those two Dover books reprinting work from Heinrich Kley's sketchbooks -- amazing pen and ink sketches of naked women ice-skating with crocodiles or whatever.

Of course, without a doubt it was Crumb who raised the sketchbook to the art form it is now. I remember first seeing pages from his sketchbooks in those Promethean Enterprises fanzines in the early '70s. Those were some of the first drawings I'd ever seen by him, and they were from sketchbooks, even back then. I kept sketchbooks in art school, of course, and for a time after that. But as soon as I started getting illustration assignments and had to quickly come up with ideas for lame articles from Parenting Magazine or whatever, my sketchbooks degenerated pretty fast, I'm sorry to say. Now that I'm concentrating more on comics, my notebooks are filled with barely legible story ideas and thumbnail panel breakdowns cluttered with stick figures. Not too aesthetically pleasing, I'm afraid.

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SPURGEON: There was a time during which people spoke of your professional friendships with Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine. Are you still contact with Dan and Adrian or other cartoonists? Are relationships with other artists useful or important?

SALA: I like the way you phrased that -- "There was a time when people spoke of..." like it was in days of old and I was wandering through an enchanted forest with Merlin and his unicorn!

Well, I've always been a bit of a loner, a bit of a recluse, a bit of a nut -- and I seem to have become less socially-inclined as time has gone on. But I still see Dan usually once a week for lunch -- we've been doing that for over ten years. Of course it could be that he just feels sorry for me -- but I like to think that he's my friend! Adrian is a friend as well, but he moved to New York, so I only see him when he visits his old stomping grounds. I used to see Debbie Drechsler and we'd commiserate about crummy illustration assignments -- but she moved away, too -- and I really really owe her a letter. Most good friends I've ever had have been creative types. I don't know if these friendships are "useful" -- (Debbie used to lend me her client lists -- I guess you could call that useful!) but they are certainly important because if you are a creative type you definitely need to have creative types for friends to keep from feeling completely insane. More recently, thanks to MySpace (I can't believe I just used that phrase), I've been in touch with many more colleagues and creative types -- that's been pretty cool, actually.

SPURGEON: Is Evil Eye as an ongoing pamphlet comic now dead? I noticed Grave Robber's Daughter is billed as the 14th issue of Evil Eye, but it's really a stand-alone book. What's your experience been like the last few years as one of the few cartoonists working in a serial form in addition to your books, these days when everything seems fixated on graphic novels? Do you feel left behind, forgotten?

SALA: Evil Eye lives! Well, sort of...

I could not be unaware that it would behoove me to be able to sell my comics at bookstores and on-line, particularly on Amazon.com. I loved doing the Evil Eye comic book, but it made no sense to keep doing it that way, since -- outside of a few comic book stores -- no living soul could ever see it! So I discussed it with Kim [Thompson] at Fantagraphics and he agreed. The idea was to continue to do Evil Eye, but to change the format to stand-alone, digest-sized graphic novellas. That seemed to be the best way to satisfy everybody, frankly. Because, as you may know, one of the most common comments an artist producing serialized work hears is, "It looks good but I'll wait for the collection."

We do downplay the fact that the books are still part of the Evil Eye series, but it's weirdly important to me that they are, for some reason. But no one else needs to be aware of it -- unless it's some future obsessive collector who can impress his friends with his knowledge: "Actually, that painfully obscure series Evil Eye did not end with issue 12, but continued on in a new format, etc etc."

Now I can't tell you how much I love doing serialized stories. I'm just crazy about the whole idea of them. And they're still being done in mainstream comics, I presume -- aren't they? It's just that, in alternative comics, it's tough if you're not one of the top ten (or twenty) cartoonists in that field. Nevertheless, I'm currently giving it another shot. I'm doing a serialized story called Delphine, which is part of the wonderfully designed Ignatz series from Fantagraphics and Coconino Press. One issue has been released so far and the second will be released in Spring 2007. There will be six issues in all -- and, no, I don't know if it will ever be collected in a single volume. So get 'em while you can!

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SPURGEON: The Grave Robber's Daughter is really funny and profane, with a lot of good-natured cursing and situations flip-flopping in a humorous fashion. What do you find funny? What kind of effect do you hope to achieve by bringing humor into your stories the way you do?

SALA: I like when otherwise unfunny situations suddenly veer unexpectedly into the arena of the absurd. There's a long and honorable tradition of putting humor in horror -- often combining it with shock, as a release of tension or whatever. I love black humor and (intentional) camp -- James Whale, Hitchcock, Kafka, David Lynch, Kubrick -- they all can take you in sudden, unexpected directions into absurd and over-the top scenarios and you have to laugh, although it might be the grimmest of situations. The humor in their work is brilliant, although oddly not apparent to everyone. It would be hopeless for me to try to identify or explain humor in my own work, I'm afraid, but maybe that gives an idea of where I'm coming from. (I also love unintentional camp, too, by the way!)

SPURGEON: You're also working the classic abandoned town hook here, complete with someone's car breaking down. Is there a specific something that appeals to you about such a story, the way it isolates a protagonist, or allows you to play with a broken-down society?

SALA: All of that, I guess. That pretty much sums it up, actually!

SPURGEON: Throughout Grave Robber's Daughter, but particularly early on, you make significant use of some scattered-panel pages, where the panels are not rigidly placed on each page in the same place but are spread into different configuration. What is it you were going for with that effect, and why do you make less of the technique later in the book?

SALA: I suppose I was experimenting with pacing. It can be tough in comics to get the reader to follow the story at a certain pace. In Grave Robber's Daughter, the intention was to build slowly from a somewhat eerie and foreboding beginning. I found that by putting fewer panels on the pages of Judy walking into town, it seemed to slow the reading down (although you would think the opposite would be true). With a panel of Judy walking down a deserted street, even if the reader is just glancing at it for a split second, the intention is to give visual information that produces a subliminal feeling of time passing at a slower pace. Then, as the story goes on, the pace picks up, and so, although there may be more panels to a page, the "time" between the action is each panel is less, so hopefully the reader's eye moves through them more rapidly. Anyway -- these are the kinds of things one thinks about while working on a drawing for hours! Who knows if it amounts to anything? You try to control the reading experience as much as you can -- but I've learned to let go of these things once they go out into the world and try not worry too much about them.

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SPURGEON: Grave Robber's Daughter has these magnificent, swirling instances of violence, particularly at story's climax; I think more than any other cartoonist I'm most disturbed by the way you violate bodies through stabbing and cutting. At the same time, it's very elegant the way you approach several of the deaths, like the girl who dies in the midst of a sort of dance move, a dip. Do you choreograph these scenes? Do you come up with a bunch of ways to depict slaughter and then pick and choose, or are you improvising?

SALA: There is a wonderful tradition in film of designing set-pieces of delirious, over-the-top violence of which I am a fan. A classic example is the Psycho shower scene. And Dario Argento really upped the ante in Suspiria, Inferno and Deep Red. And although it may not be everyone's cup of tea, I know there are people -- like me -- who experience a sense of frustration when writers or directors pull their punches. It is my intention to give these people their money's worth. If you choose to work in a certain genre, you should have the courage of your convictions.

I also love and appreciate the Val Lewton school of implying rather than showing. Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie are two of my favorite movies. But I have discovered, for better or worse, that it is my nature to show the blood and gore (Thanks, repressed, Italian background!), but if all you're doing is showing some guys brains bashed out over and over, it can get pretty routine and dull (for the reader and for me), so, yes, I do take a twisted delight in imagining and choreographing interesting set-pieces, which is something I began attempting in The Chuckling Whatsit and have been doing ever since.

SPURGEON: Is there anything thematically significant about the young girl ending up in charge of the town, a gift from beyond the grave? She provides your story's title and has the last full line of the narrative, so I assume what happens to her is important. What did you intend to say through her, if anything?

SALA: I will admit that, more than any of my other stories, this one may have been influenced by the political climate of the time. It was done in before the Democrats got back control of Congress. I had kind of lost whatever faith I had that things were going to get better. It seemed like the entire country had become so deluded and hypnotized by the administration, that there was truly no way out and that the country was doomed. I can't tell you how much that election restored my faith in humanity! Anyway -- I can't honestly say just how much the political climate affected the story -- there certainly isn't any big intentional message. But I sure was thinking a lot about how hopeless a cycle of violence is. How cruelty and violence always lead to more cruelty and violence and it never ends and can never be stopped. That those who are victimized will victimize others. And it seemed like a pretty appropriate theme for a horror story.

*****

The Grave Robber's Daughter, Fantagraphics, softcover, 80 pages, February 2007, 1560977736 (ISBN), $9.95

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Richard Sala's Web Site

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