Secret messages dropped into hollow tree trunks in the East Bay... Unusual chalk markings at the pier... Spy Vibe meets Richard Sala in the virtual shadows to discuss our love of adventure/thrillers, evil masterminds, The Avengers, and more! Richard's new book, Cat Buglar Black is available now. He has also recently completed his four-book series Delphine for Fantagraphics.
Your books are filled with many adventure/thriller elements (including mysterious baddies, quirky henchmen, trap doors, secret chambers, assassinations, good-hearted sleuths who get more than they bargained for). Without thinking of this as formula, what are the essential conventions that make a story fun for you to write? What does the Richard Sala sandbox have in it?
That's my favorite part of writing -- when the time comes to flesh out the story and I get to start adding all those cool and spooky details. I fell in love with B-movies and comics and pulp fiction and monsters when I was very young, so I've pretty much spent a lifetime absorbing all the creepy and mysterious stuff you mention. To me, what makes a story - especially a mystery or a thriller - fun, ARE those details. If you have one character having a secret meeting with another, for example, why choose a relatively mundane place like a diner when you can have them meet at night in a toy shop or a wax museum? I'm not trying to create anything resembling realism, so I get to have fun with details like that. Does there need to be a scene in a park? Okay, but let's put a big weird statue there, and let's make a hidden door in the base of the statue that leads down underground to a secret hideout. You just keep taking things another step farther, building on things. But being careful to never go too far -- you don't want the details to become obnoxiously "cute" or irritating. You have to be able to see the line -- you don't want to annoy your audience by being overly "clever" -- and that's a line I (hopefully) learned to see by watching a show like The Avengers, which was brilliant when it came to details like that. If you look at certain shows from the 1960s - like The Avengers or Man From UNCLE or The Wild Wild West or The Prisoner - they are overflowing with that kind of imagination and atmosphere, mixing in details of mystery, horror and the fantastic in a way that is at once tongue-in-cheek and deadly dangerous. The style of those shows was a huge influence on me.
Are there particular cliffhanger serials, films, TV shows, or books that inform your experience with adventure conventions? Tell us about your faves.
Growing up in the 1960s, I was exposed to that decade's nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1930s. There was a rediscovery of a lot of things that had become passe or forgotten during the previous couple of decades, and those things were not only being brought back into the culture, but were being celebrated as "pop art". You couldn't go anywhere without seeing posters of King Kong or Frankenstein, The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, Flash Gordon and Doc Savage, The Phantom and The Shadow. I was aware that these things were "old" (thanks to my Dad, who was a movie buff, as well as magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland). But, as a kid, they may as well as have been as new as James Bond and The Beatles. It was all one big, wonderful stew. So, yeah, I think it was that mixture of 1930s pop culture and 1960s pop culture that shaped my style into whatever it became.
I watched old Flash Gordon serials on Saturday mornings, and then saw Barbarella in a theatre a few years later. I'd read the 1930's adventures of The Shadow and Doc Savage, which were being reprinted in paperback, then go see Thunderball or Danger: Diabolik. I'd watch the old Sherlock Holmes movies and the latest episode of The Avengers on TV. I recognized the threads connecting these things. Magazines like Famous Monsters or, especially, Castle of Frankenstein covered these things equally. In fact, I'd read about The Avengers in Castle of Frankenstein a couple of years before it came to the US. They were always featuring articles on things we kids could only dream of seeing -- lots of European films that were much more sexy and violent than American ones. That really fired my imagination.
One of my personal favorites as a kid and one of my biggest influences to this day was the comic strip Dick Tracy, which I started cutting out of the newspaper and saving when I was in the fourth grade. I loved comic books, too, of course, but Dick Tracy is where I learned how to tell (long, complicated) stories, visually, and where I learned how much more interesting a story is if you populate it with grotesques and weird-os!
Many of your stories feature female heroes that have a tendency to dress in black catsuits, including your new book Cat Burglar Black- a title which I like to think of as a fashion statement! I know we share a love of The Avengers. (Mrs. Peel was my first crush). Tell us about your experiences and thoughts as an Avengers fan.
I may have had other crushes as a kid, but she was my first real serious one, that's for sure! I loved (and still do) everything about The Avengers. In the years before VHS or syndication, you saw these shows when they aired ONCE - maybe twice if you were lucky and they reran it. So there were lots of kids like me who would try to remember everything about the episodes they had just seen. I had notebooks where I wrote down plots and titles. Doing that I became aware of how awesomely clever and smart the episodes were -- and I loved writing down the names of the oddball characters. I tried to get cast names, but often wasn't fast enough (no IMDB or episode guides back then!). I took photos off of TV with my little Instamatic camera -- a whole ordeal that's probably worth a separate article. My brother and I would record shows on our reel-to-reel tape-recorder because it was the only way to have a record of the shows we loved. Then we'd listen to them over and over. (To this day, I can recite whole scenes of dialogue from The Outer Limits!)
I didn't have any friends (or family members) who loved The Avengers as much as me. It was truly a cult show - even back then. A lot of people didn't seem to "get it", but I did for some reason. I got caught up in the whole spy "craze". I did all the things kids do (at least kids who have just moved to a new town and haven't made any friends yet) -- I wrote away for photos, sent fan letters, joined fan clubs, purchased fanzines - which seem awfully primitive now, of course - but it was a way to get information about the show (though of course any "news" was months and months late). The newsstand movie mags of the day would print the addresses where you could write your "favorite stars". I think I wrote Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg care of ABC, but their replies came from the UK. That was magical for me! Diana Rigg just sent a photo (which was plenty!), but Patrick Macnee also included a typed letter which he signed as well as a one-page biography(!). I can scan them for you, and you'll see the edges of the photos are damaged by tape marks, since I hung them up on my wall!
Does the black catsuit also reflect an interest in the serial Les Vampires? Did you see the modern film homage, Irma Vep?
I mentioned Castle Of Frankenstein -- which was an incredible magazine that covered fantastic cinema from all over the world. In one issue there was an article on Georges Franju's Judex that showed a photo of a woman dressed in the classic cat burglar get-up. That had a major impact on me for some reason -- just that photo, since it would be years until I'd see the film (which became one of my favorites). Also, it seemed that there were a lot of "generic" spy girls in a very similar outfit -- form-fitting black turtlenecks and pants, in movies like Goldfinger or Carry On Spying. So I always found that look attractive, with it's connotations of intrigue and danger. There was a whole ad campaign in the '60s based around that look that featured Pamela Austin in that outfit in many print ads, often tied up (try that nowadays!) -- it was something to do with cars, but all I remember is her! There's also an early episode of The Avengers where Emma has to fight off a dance class of similarly clad spy girls. That's one of my favorite episodes and in fact I "borrowed" a fairly major plot device from it for my book Mad Night. (It's the most respectful of homages, believe me!). I did enjoy watching both Les Vampires and Irma Vep, but I only saw those long after the impression of that outfit had been burned into my brain!
On Spy Vibe we often discuss the Prisoner, Bond, Gerry Anderson, Flint, Diabolik, etc. Are there other spy faves of yours? What about them inspires you?
Favorite 1960s spy (etc) movies (some I saw in the theatre, some not until years later) and TV shows: The Flint Movies (I had a Coburn poster on my wall in my teen years -- he was another hero of mine), Diabolik, UFO, The Sean Connery Bond films, The Prisoner, Man (and Girl) From UNCLE, Secret Agent. I'm crazy about The President's Analyst, The Tenth Victim and Dr. Mabuse movies. I love all the spoofs and the campy stuff, all the Euro-Spy stuff, Fu Manchu. I can watch (or tolerate) many of the lesser of these that friends & colleagues have a hard time sitting through. Casino Royale (actually a personal fave), Matt Helm, even shows like "Amos Burke, Secret Agent", which, although arguably pretty "bad", I still find fun to watch. I guess I watch for something that goes beyond "good" or "bad" -- I watch for the imagination and the outrageousness. As long as they're not boring!
Your stories are populated by such characters- they are marvelous eccentrics! We’ve seen ingenious disguises, macabre outfits and accessories, and even a character who’s chilling commands came from a small sack (was he just a head?). Does that eye for quirky detail come from favorite stories growing up? Your rogues gallery far surpasses anything from Charles Addams or Gorey.
That's very kind of you to say, although I only wish I could have created something as classic and timeless as The Addams Family! I mentioned Dick Tracy before -- and that's certainly where a lot of my desire to create oddballs and grotesques comes from. I began reading it in the 1960s, which is when a lot of the "old-time" fans or the Dick Tracy "experts" believe the strip has begun to go downhill. They couldn't be more wrong -- it was actually an incredibly fertile time for Chester Gould's imagination. It's a tragedy that almost none of that has been widely reprinted. They always reprint the older stuff, which is classic. of course. But Gould in the 1960s was being influenced by James Bond and the crazier story lines of the day, and he never let up on the violence or bizarre characters. People today wouldn't believe what was on the front of the Sunday Comics back then! The first story line I read and collected involved a leering, nervous criminal who murdered his rivals and kept their shrunken heads in a cabinet (seen often). His equally evil sister, Ugly Christine, falls to her death into a smokestack, long legs exposed, which was shown over and over again throughout the week. It was amazing stuff, full of energy and delirium. Things just got weirder and weirder until in the 1970s it almost started to seem unhinged. But for some reason no one ever reprints that stuff and that's too bad. Of course, the many, many bizarre characters on The Avengers were a big influence. So were old movies with characters like Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, etc. I was always crazy about all the gleefully creepy character actors like George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine and on and on. The kind of types they always played -- that is something else I realize now has been a huge influence. The Doctor in Cat Burglar Black is definitely one of those "types".
Are you a Vincent Price fan? I was already collecting your books when I finally saw the Dr. Phibes movies, and I think reading your work helped me appreciate them that much more.
Yes! I was recently asked to compile a top ten list of horror movies and The Abominable Dr. Phibes was in there. When I first saw it, I felt a kind of Avengers vibe -- and sure enough (along with several familiar British actors), the director Robert Fuest had done some episodes. And, yes, Vincent Price can do no wrong in my eyes.
Who were your literary heroes as a boy? Did you read any of the spy series authors (007, Saint, etc)?
I read all the Bond paperbacks, though the one I remember the best as a reading experience was Dr. No, for some reason. I even remember reading the hardcover of Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis (it was my mom's copy) which had this weird Dali-esque cover. I even read that James Bond Dossier, which I remember being very inspiring and fascinating. I was also reading every Shadow, Doc Savage and Fu Manchu paperback I could find. I read lots of movie novelizations of films I was dying to see (and thought I never might) like Scream and Scream Again and Countess Dracula. By the time I got out of high school and had moved on to college, though, I pretty much left the genre & series books behind -- and it was that way for many years until sometime in my early thirties I got hooked on hard-boiled stuff and after I'd burned through that in about ten years I was ready to rediscover the stuff I loved as a kid again. And I remembered why I wanted to be a writer and artist in the first place! Funny how those things work...
If you were a evil villain, what would you choose as your: name, evil lair, and evil scheme?
I always kind of identified with Peter Lorre, especially in Mad Love from 1935. He's not really evil - he's just in love! Beyond that, I'd have to say I've always been partial to the hooded or masked kinds of phantoms or masterminds. I always thought it would be cool to be some kind of Phantom of Suburbia, where at night you put on your cloak and jump over your neighbor's fence, then creep through various yards, trying to avoid the barking dogs or tripping over the barbecue grills or plastic kiddie pools. I'm still not sure what exactly the point would be, but it sounds fun! Seriously, I think the most interesting kinds of villains are not motivated by greed or world domination, but by neurotic quirks or emotions of jealousy or revenge. Something everyone can relate to!
Thank you to Richard Sala for spending time with Spy Vibe! Discovering Richard's work was like finding a lost treasure chest in the family attic. Growing up on the cusp of the 1960s/1970s, I remember a similar fascination with this style of stories and characters. Like Richard and fellow fans who grew up in the days before Netflix and YouTube, I also tape recorded the audio of Spy and Beatles programs when they ran on television. That way I could experience the stories again and again during the year while I awaited the next broadcast! The last time I remember pushing play and record on a tape deck next to my black and white/mono set (can modern Spy Vibers visualize this?) was to tape the sounds of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Hearing the soundtrack still conjures up images of Bond escaping in the night and racing down the slopes for his very life! Like radio, it created a kind of "theater of the mind." In the days before the Internet, we really had to be resourceful and quick- taking notes on episodes as they aired, snapping photographs of the TV screen. I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one doing that! I found my old Prisoner notes about two years ago and sent them to David Webb Peoples as a gift (he is writing The Prisoner film -in development).
Among my own collection of original art, a framed page from Richard's Chuckling Whatsit hangs over my couch. The shape of his ink lines, the density of blacks, the style of shading and lettering are elements that give Richard's work a kind of woodblock print vibe. His love of great thrillers and adventures is evident throughout his stories, and like The Avengers, his ever-present wit runs counterpoint to the poison daggers and shots in the dark. It's no surprise that Dr. No stands out as one of his fave Ian Fleming stories. I can imagine a comic version of the evil Dr. No on his remote island, spinning his schemes of greed, sabotage, and experiments with endurance and death- only to be buried under a mountain of guano by a delirious spy who just escaped a giant octopus! Did I mention the doctor has claws for hands and a fire-breathing dragon tank? It would all fit beautifully into Sala's oeuvre.
Spy Vibers may already be familiar with Sala's many books, and with his Liquid Television animated series Invisible Hands. To dive further into the wonderfully macabre and thrilling world of Richard Sala, I recommend slipping through your trap door to the nearest bookshop and ask for: Cat Burglar Black, Chuckling Whatsit, Delphine (series of 4 comics), Maniac Killer Strikes Again, and Peculia. Visit Richard's blog and website for more information about his projects. The complete Dick Tracy volumes and Richard's Big Book of Horror (with Steve Niles) are available from IDW Publishing. Scans of the above Avengers memorabilia are from Richard Sala's childhood collection. Current exhibit of work through December 13, 2009 at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.