October 9, 2014


Richard Sala's new book, Super-Enigmatix, will be released on October 18th! I want to celebrate by going back to an interview we did together, when the maestro of macabre mystery joined us for a chat about diabolical masterminds, action heroines in catsuits, and some of our other favorite topics. Sala has a talent for adapting classic genre conventions for his own unique stories and artwork and he is a great hero of mine. In fact, one of the first things I see every morning is an original inked page from his graphic mystery, The Chuckling Whatsit. His recent work includes ViolenziaDelphine, and The Hidden. Welcome, Richard Sala!

Without giving away the story, what can you tell us about Super-Enigmatix?

The comic I'm serializing on the internet is called SUPER-ENIGMATIX. It's a 100 (plus) page story which will be included (as the main story) in the book IN A GLASS GROTESQUELY, which will be published by Fantagraphics Books and released sometime this Fall. You can read it in webcomics format here.  

You mentioned Super-Enigmatix was inspired by a variety of classic villains from the pulps and cliffhanger serials. This stuff is dear to me too, and I'd love to hear how you might describe these various sources of inspiration. Let's turn readers on to some of our faves! Are we talking about stories like Fantomas, Nuit Rouges, and Mabuse?

Yes- all of those- as well as Judex, Diabolik, Fu Manchu, not to mention Ming The Merciless from Flash Gordon or Professor Moriarty, and even Satanik (that crazy fumetti villain!). Basically it's the result of a lifetime of reading books or watching movies which had really memorable and interesting villains. The crazier and more over-the-top the better. I have a weakness for masked or disguised villains, like those in the old serials (The Crimson Ghost, etc) or in The Shadow or The Spider pulps. Jack Kirby's Doctor Doom has to get a special mention as one of the greatest of them all.

You also mentioned James Bond villains. What are some of the elements you are working with that relate to the Bond mythos? Do you have favorite James Bond villains? Collage images above from Spy Vibe's DIABOLIKAL image archive on Pinterest here

One thing I realized- I love a villain who has an army of girl commandos!  I always wondered- how does one go about hiring them!? I love "female army" movies like The Million Eyes of Sumuru. It was something that attracted me as an adolescent- a fantasy I guess. That kind of stayed with me over the years- beautiful women throwing themselves into dangerous situations. That's one of the great qualities of James Bond and other 1960s spy movies: the dangerous, capable female. As for favorite Bond villains, it's hard to choose! Every Bond villain makes or breaks their particular movie, so, the better the villain, the better the movie. That said, if I had to pick a favorite, it's hard to top the Donald Pleasance version of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. He's like the archetype of the master spy villain.

What do you think makes a good villain?

On one hand there is the villain who was wronged and has sworn to get revenge. And on the other hand you have the mad megalomaniac or "genius of crime" who just likes doing nasty things. They are both fun to write and imagine scenarios for. I have a fondness for "grotesques"- like Dick Tracy villains or The Joker, though I like the classic urbane, snooty type as well. Either way, any good villain should get a speech at some point where he can be raving about all the "fools" in the world who wronged him or whatever. I could write those kinds of speeches all day- all I have to do is remember what it was like to be a lonely adolescent!  

Richard, if you were a diabolical mastermind, what would your secret lair be?

Definitely in some high tower- like UC Berkeley campanile, which I used in MAD NIGHT as the killer's lair. I like the idea of gazing down on the city below while plotting twisted schemes.

I attended Pulpfest last summer. I think you would have enjoyed the amazing collections of books, guest panels, and nightly screenings of The Spider serial! Do you collect things like pulps, movie serials, and old movie posters? What are some of your favorite vintage images? 

I envy you! I wish I could get to Pulpfest one day. In my 20s and 30s I went to a lot of conventions and I really miss going. One of the things about going from being a serious collector (which I was) to a working artist/writer, is that there might come a point where you have to make a choice: Do I buy more books or do I put the money into my own career? I love pulps, serials, old mysteries, horror movies, etc so much- but my choice was to be a contributor to that world, rather than a collector. I know people who are both, and I may be again, one day. Believe me, I was a very happy collector and I miss that, but I had to try to tell my own stories and that means having a lot less money than I had when I was working my day job!

I have too many favorite images- book covers, movie posters, etc- to single out just a couple, but I will try to find some to share. Suffice to say, two of my favorite movie posters that I had hanging in my house for years- House on Haunted Hill and Attack of the Crab Monsters. I had to sell both of those to support my career. Those were hard sacrifices to make! 

We share a love for the Fantomas and Judex films [Franju's Judex is coming to the Criterion Collection!]. Did you ever get into reading the original books, as well?

I've read several of the early original Fantomas books and loved them. Years ago, you'd have to track down the original English editions if you wanted to read them (that is, if you couldn't read French), so I'd find copies at antiquarian book fairs or wherever I could. Now I see many have been reprinted and are available on Amazon, which is amazing  I need to save up some money to get those!  

Most are available as inexpensive eBooks for Kindle, so it's a great time to find that stuff. In one of our past interviews, you talked about your process and how you enjoy adding fun elements to stories (like secret passages, trap doors, and eccentric meeting places). Without revealing too much too soon, what can say about your process making Super-Enigmatix?

At this point in my "career" I've included so many trap doors, secret societies, master criminals and eccentric locations that it becomes a process of elimination!  Like- how many times can I include wax museums or hidden tunnels!? But that's part of the fun. I love the formula. When I'd read a Shadow or Spider pulp or watch an old serial, I'd be disappointed if they DIDN'T include those kinds of things! It's just become a part of what I do now. So I can have fun just tossing off references to, for example, a weapon called "The Dissolver" which basically just melts flesh off people!

Are you creating the story as you go, or do you work from a completed script or mockup? Style-wise, I notice you are using both color and b&w panels. 

When I write any story, I know the beginning and I have a good idea of the end, but I allow myself room to improvise as I go along in the middle. Sometime better ideas occur to you as you are in the middle of doing the thing and it would be crazy to then stick to an outline if you didn't have to.

Super-Enigmatix is listed on-line to be a book called In a Glass Grotsquely coming next fall from Fantagraphics. Is that title a play on one of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films? Do you watch Bergman?

Yes, that does happen to be one of my favorite Bergman films. And "Through The Past Darkly" is one of my favorite Rolling Stones records, since I bought that LP version as a kid. But- yeah- it's a play on that phrase, although slightly removed. It's referenced in the story- it refers to a powerful hallucinogenic drug! But, like a lot of things in my books, it can be a double meaning or one that is open to interpretation.

I love so many aspects of your work, but your talent for creating strong female characters really stands out for me. I guess I relate to it, as I also work with female characters (Like MIKI ZERO in my upcoming spy novel). I'd say my influence is growing up with Emma Peel as a hero and being raised largely by women. Why do you think you gravitate toward strong independent ladies?

This may go back to watching The Avengers for me, too, as a kid. I never understood the tendency that a lot of action films had for not including women.  Growing up, watching action movies, most would only have one (!) women in them.  The exceptions were spy movies, as you know!  They always had a lot of women in various kinds or roles, and I liked that for some reason.  That was my personal preference.  Spy movies are loaded with colorful women and I prefer that over other action movies or (say) film noir movies with their single femme fatale (who may have a single "good girl" to balance her out).  I want to live in a world that has more than two women in it!

I know you loved Mrs. Peel, too- you shared those great photos on Spy Vibe that you received from Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as a kid. What are your impressions of female characters like Honey West, Modesty Blaise, Fathom, Barbarella, and the Deadlier Than the Male movie?

I love them all! But, then, I am a child of the 1960s. I watched The Man From Uncle and The Avengers and Batman when they first aired. I love camp and black humor. I'm not of the "grim and gritty" generation. I can appreciate it, of course, but I prefer sexy silliness and a sense of the fantastic to a glowering hero glumly breaking some guy's neck in a random post-apocalyptic junkyard.  

Agreed! I was chatting with Trina Robbins this week about Honey West, Miss Fury, and Wonder Woman (we both contributed to a recent WW documentary, starring Gloria Steinem, Lynda Carter, and Trina). Do you ever find inspiration in mainstream comics like Wonder Woman or Batman? Did you collect DC or Marvel titles as a kid?

I like the golden age Wonder Woman and the sillier incarnations of Batman- not very popular to admit these days, I guess. I really have no interest in the "deadly serious" versions of those characters. I do remember buying those issue of Wonder Woman in which she went through a kind of Emma Peel incarnation in the 1960s and I liked those. But that didn't seem to last long. I guess that died out with our beloved "spy craze."

I prefer the Adam West Batman, as well. The cast did such a great job playing it straight- and for laughs- not an easy balance. Do you have an interest in Golden Age material like Miss FuryPhantom Lady, or the Pulps?

Absolutely!  I read a lot of old Miss Fury reprints before I did my book Cat Burglar Black because there are a lot of depictions of this lithe female cat burglar climbing up ropes, slipping in windows and hopping over fences.  All very inspiring for my book!

We've talked in the past about Dick Tracy and Gould's brilliant use of macabre baddies. But I also wonder about your experiences with the horror boom of the early 1960s. It was the era of Universal monsters being rereleased, monster model kits, Addams Family, the Munsters, Odd Rods monster cars, etc. What did that stuff mean to you growing up?

I loved all of that. Monster movies and stuff like Mars Attacks cards and the Outer Limits on TV- that stuff was the epitome of pop culture cool in the 1960s.  There was a sense of humor or campiness about them, but it was very affectionate. Famous Monsters magazine was like a gateway drug for kids, then if you were serious about that stuff you moved on to Castle of Frankenstein or reading books about Hitchcock and Horror movies. I have photos from my childhood where I made my brother and sister pose with my monster models or magazines or masks. I loved that stuff so much.

I want to see those photos sometime! I got a chance to talk with Norman Saunders' son at Pulpfest about his dad's paintings for the 1960s Batman trading cards. He also did cards for Wacky Packages, monsters, Mars Attacks, etc. I wonder if you collected these cards as a kid or if you were ever inspired by this style of art?

Norman Saunders is an artist I first became aware of as a little kid, thanks to his work for Topps. Long before I knew his name, I could recognize his style instantly. The first time I ever glimpsed Mars Attacks Cards, in my second grade classroom, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Of all the artists on sets- Mars Attacks, Civil War News, Battle- his had the most weight. They were the most lurid, the most sexy. He elevated the form far beyond what it called for. I am so grateful for his work! He had such a skill for realism and yet there seemed to be a sense of humor or the absurd about his depictions of grisly impalements or piles of bodies. My mom saw some of the bloody Civil War cards he did and threw away my whole set! That was very traumatic! Thanks goodness she never found my Mars Attacks cards! [Saunders also painted amazing Batman cards with a macabre sense of danger!]. 

Collecting cards for kids of the 1960s was as important as collecting comics, buying monster magazines, building models, watching Man From UNCLE, or getting the new Beatles records. Pirates Bold, You'll Die Laughing (with Jack Davis art ), Spook Stories and The Outer Limits cards were huge influences on me. In fact, I had planned to do SUPER-ENIGMATIX for years as a tribute to Mars Attacks cards (I hate the movie by the way- sorry!- but it feels like Tim Burton is methodically going through my 1960s childhood and destroying everything that meant something to me by making it dull and and uncool!)- that is, I'd have an image of SUPER-ENIGMATIX doing something evil and on the "flip side" there would be a little description of that action. A bit of that actually remains in the story as it is now.

Maybe you can produce a set using images from the book. I'd sure love to see cards! There are so many cool old strips and comics being collected into anthologies. Are there titles that you love that haven't been collected yet?

I'm looking forward to the later Dick Tracy strips FINALLY being collected (if they ever actually are!). I love the 1960s era of Dick Tracy, where they completely went off the rails with crazy violence and science fiction. When I was a kid, I used to clip out comic strips I liked and one was called Sandy about this kid who had adventures. I even wrote to the cartoonist, Jim Unwin, and he sent me a signed drawing. But I appear to be the only person who ever collected that, because I can't find any other reference to it even existing! So, there's always more stuff out there waiting to be found!

On page 4 and 5 of Super-Enimatix, we meet a young fellow in glasses named George. Is he a reoccurring character from Peculia?

Yes. That's the same character who was in PECULIA AND THE GROON GROVE VAMPIRES.   Any long time (and long-suffering!) readers of my work know that I often refer to characters or places from the "universe" (Sala-verse?) of all my books.

I haven't really made the transition into digital comics yet (except to read Golden Age stuff), so I've missed your recent project Violenzia. Tell us about the story and characters. Will this be available in book form someday? 

That was an experiment- and I am a bit sad that a lot of my readers can't read it, because I actually pretty fond of it. For years I've been hit over the head with "print is dead", so I pitched a digital-only comic to my publisher as an experiment. I'd made that kind of leap of faith before when I was approached to do the animated Invisible Hands for MTV. Back then, the late 1980s- I didn't have cable TV and wasn't particularly even interested in animation- but I did it because they actually let me do my own crazy pulp-inspired story. It was fun.   So, you take chances like that sometimes. Time will tell if it was a dumb idea or not. With INVISIBLE HANDS- that disappeared for YEARS and seemed forgotten. Then it reappeared when the internet came along and people started posting it, and I hear about it from fans all the time now. You just never know.
The angular background on the cover reminds me of the expressionist-style settings in your other books. Are you a fan of Caligari and Fritz Lang films? I finally saw Ministry of Fear recently- great!

Yes! It's fantastic that a movie like SPIES, which was hard to see for years, is now so easy to find and watch. And Ministry of Fear is a personal favorite. It's a nice companion to Journey Into Fear- the Orson Welles move from a year earlier. They make a fun, paranoid double bill!

Lang's Spies is one of my all-time favorites. I'm hoping we see it on Blu-ray sometime soon. Speaking of Blu-ray, Spy Vibers should really pick up Judex from the Criterion Collection later this month. Richard, thank you again for joining us on Spy Vibe to talk about your projects! Our beloved genre is filled with so many cool elements and I think you are doing a lot to keep it alive in the culture. I can't wait to see what lurks from your imagination next! Readers, here are just a few more reasons you need to be reading Richard Sala. You can also read my feature 2009 interview with Sala here, where we chat about The Avengers, 60s spies, and much more!

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