New release: Fantagraphics will be publishing a new edition of Richard Sala's The Chuckling Whatsit this month! From the press release: "Sala weaves the gothic cartooning traditions of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams with a melodramatic murder mystery involving astrology, ghouls, academia, and outsider art. Part noir, part horror, and part comedy, this labyrinthine tale of intrigue follows an unemployed writer named Broom who becomes ensnared unwittingly in a complex plot involving mysterious outsider artist Emile Jarnac, the shadowy machinations of the Ghoul Appreciation Society Headquarters (GASH), and the enigmatic Mr. Ixnay. Sala's deadpan delivery makes this ingeniously layered narrative a roller-coaster ride of darkly pure comic suspense. Sala's drawing style also reveals the influence of everything from Hollywood monster movies and Dick Tracy to German expressionism and Grimm's fairy tales. It's a style that's perfectly suited to the narrative, constantly flirting with Sala's fascination for the grotesque and lending palpable tension to the gruesome riddle of The Chuckling Whatsit." More info here.
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 now out. He has also recently completed his four-book series Delphine for Fantagraphics. Welcome, Richard Sala!
Richard, 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?
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.
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 weirdos!
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!
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!
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!
"I watch for the imagination and the outrageousness." I think many of us can relate to that! Your stories are populated by such characters. They are such marvelous eccentrics! We’ve seen ingenious disguises, macabre outfits and accessories, and even a character who’s chilling commands arrived as a dismembered voice in 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 had 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, fell 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 [see updated IDW reprint series]. 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".
I noticed that Avengers vibe, too, but hadn't looked up the director Nice catch! Who were your literary heroes as a boy? Did you read any of the spy series authors (007, Saint, etc)?
An important return to the source! I should let you get back to work, so let me ask one last question for today. Richard, 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!
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.