Richard Sala was an American illustrator and comic artist, known for his tongue-in-cheek horror mysteries. Nicknamed "the king of bad anthologies", he was a grand connaisseur of old-fashioned fairy tales, pulp novels, comics and movies. He often mimicked their look and feel. At the same time he took delight in using familiar clichés and twisting them into a deranged pastiche. Recurring elements in his comics are dark mysteries, secret societies, odd monsters and macabre horror. Although some critics felt his work was repetitive and quirky, he enjoyed a strong cult following for precisely those reasons. Sala's comics are a fun and self-aware universe, inviting to revisit again and again. His masterpiece is 'The Chuckling Whatsit' (1995-1997), which also spawned his most well known recurring character: female detective Judy Broom.

Early life
Richard Sala was born in 1955 in Oakland, California, but from age three on spent most of his childhood in West Chicago, Illinois. His father was of Sicilian descent and worked as a janitor at the University of Berkeley, California, before becoming an antiques dealer and proprietor of a clock shop. The man was active as an amateur cartoonist and loved old horror movies, two passions Sala inherited. But at the same time he was also a frustrated, irrational man. He often lashed out his anger at his family, terrorizing and beating them. Interviewed by Logan Kaufman for advunderground.com in 2006 Sala remembered: "I got hit with all kinds of things - belts, hairbrushes, pieces of wood, books... but even in my high school a few years later kids would get spanked with a paddle in front of the class if they offended the teacher in some way... It was a different era." When he was 11-12 years old his family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. About a year later his parents divorced, which was a relief to both him, his mother and his siblings. Although they still had to go through weekend visits, they terminated this when his dad stopped paying child support.

His abusive father naturally had an impact on his personality. Sala had a lifelong fascination with eerie stuff he saw in comics, novels, movies, magazines, TV serials, antique stores, carnivals and museums. Stuffed animals, museums, caveman dioramas, Captain Company advertisements, mysterious stills of old horror pictures in Famous Monsters of Filmland... it all made his imagination go berserk. He had a deep love for German expressionism and comics, pulp novels, film noir, giallo and horror movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. As a kid he collected all kinds of memorabilia from this era. As a young adult he grew out of it, mostly because it reminded him too much of his dad. A therapist confirmed that his taste for the macabre was a way of dealing with his fears and anxieties regarding his dad. Indeed Sala saw horror stories as "reassuring enjoyment" rather than something scary.

In the same way it took a long while before Sala got in terms with his desire to become a cartoonist. He enjoyed drawing from a young age, but his high school art teacher was so mediocre that he lost interest. At Arizona State University Sala therefore studied English because he wanted to become a novelist. He ranked Franz Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, Donald Barthelme, Barry Yourgrau and Jorge Luis Borges among his favorite writers. But he also adored hard boiled detective novels and horror stories. For a while he sent stories to sci-fi digests like Fantastic and Analog, which were all rejected. In hindsight he better understood why, because they were all rather aimless and not really SF at all. Sala eventually changed his major to art, since he enjoyed the social interaction in art classes more. His earliest cartoons ran in the college magazine State Press. The third cover he illustrated for them won an award for "Best Illustrated Cover" in Arizona. Interviewed by Darcy Sullivan for The Comics Journal (issue #208, November 1998), Sala recalled that many people during the award ceremony were thrown out of their comfort zone when they saw his work. At that precise moment he realized his artistic destiny. After graduating with a Master in Fine Arts, he continued his art studies at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Sala loved pulp illustrators like Norman Saunders, Margaret Brundage, Lee Brown Coye and the Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas. Among his comics influences were Chester Gould, Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Al Capp, Gahan Wilson, Jack Kirby, Ronald Searle, N.C. Wyeth, Robert Crumb, Jack Cole, Hergé and Mark Beyer. Sala also mentioned seeing a copy of Jean-Claude Forest's 'Barbarella' in a store at a young age, which made him realize the even greater creative possibilities of adult comics. He later also expressed admiration for T. Edward Bak, Vanessa Davis, Martin Powell, Daniel Clowes, Drew Friedman, Matt Groening and Laura Park. Many people who knew Sala personally were amazed at his vast knowledge and respect for global and old pop culture.

Early career
In 1982 Sala opened a painting studio in East Oakland and got a daytime job as an assistant at a university library, while working part-time as an illustrator. His library job provided him with access to many of his favorite novelists and genre books. As it so happened there was even a large section about occultism and parapsychology. It created a comfortable world for him where he felt very much at ease. His first professional publications could be seen in magazines like the New Times. He was still trying to pursue a career as a fine artist, while reading comics as a pastime. Around this time he discovered Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's Raw and was completely blown away by it. He especially considered Mark Beyer's 'Dead Stories' a revelation. At that point he always felt that his weird stories and graphic style wouldn't appeal to anybody, but in Raw he read stuff that was even more far out. The magazine also exhibited a knowledge and appreciation for comics as an artform, which made him realize that the two were perhaps not as incompatible as he once considered. This motivated him to create a full-blown comic book.

Night Drive
In 1984 he made 'Night Drive', a self-published comic book about his experience as an art school student. The comic had no clear narrative and was mostly a non-linear expression of his past. One of the short stories, 'Invisible Hands', was the odd one out, as it came more from his love for pulp stories. Sala considered it just a throwaway idea and almost didn't include it, though 'Invisble Hands' would later be renowned as the first story in his signature style.

From: 'Hypnotic Tales'.

Richard Sala once described his work as "silly fun with a dark side". He attributed his love for camp humor to the fact that it was very prevalent in the 1960s. He usually worked from a stream of consciousness, letting plot and characters sort each other out later. By building certain scenes from a visual idea or bizarre circumstance he could keep things entertaining and unpredictable both for him as well as the readers. Yet this latter aspect was often contested by critics, who felt many of his works recycled the same elements. In the aforementioned Comics Journal interview, Sala explained that he was a great believer in a personal vocabulary he felt comfortable with and enjoyed exploring over and over again "to the point of obsession or compulsion". He made a comparison to many other artists who did the same: "Look at Hitchcock: he told very similar stories over and over again, and those are the ones that people love. When he tried to do something different, a screwball comedy or a period piece, people just didn't accept it. As an artist, your goal should be to recognize your own personal obsessions, your own personal vocabulary, and use it." Sala therefore felt that constantly changing one's style wasn't honest: "You should be able to look at an artist's work and immediately know who it is - it should be unique, like a fingerprint."

Sala enjoyed his work so much that he never took vacations. To him his work was as fun as any holiday could possible get. He barely left his home at all, because it prevented him from finishing drawings. His close friend Daniel Clowes suspected that he suffered from agoraphobia, since Sala would literally drive two blocks to the post office just to avoid wasting time walking.

From: Raw #8.

Sala sent copies of 'Night Drive' to a few stores and magazines like Another Room, who ran it. Mark Newgarden promised to print his comics in an alternative comic magazine called Bad News. Eventually the magazine lived up to its title because it was cancelled. But Newgarden had arranged a publication in Raw instead and so Sala's one-page comic 'Windows' appeared in issue #8 (September 1986). In the same issue he also joined a chain comic spread over 23 pages titled 'Raw Gagz'. He furthermore illustrated a story by Tom DeHaven, 'Proxy', which ended up in Raw's final issue (June 1991). Through Art Spiegelman, Sala learned that comics should communicate with the audience, which led him to restructure his freewheeling expressionism into straightforward storytelling, regardless of how odd the stories were.

Sala also sent his work to Fantagraphics, who published 'Night Drive' in a few issues of the magazine Prime Cuts. But the thing that really set off his career was a review of the latter comic by Bhob Stewart in Heavy Metal. Soon he received commercial offers from magazines all over the world. He became a regular in Monte Beauchamp's magazine Blab from the third issue on. Sala's comics and illustrations have appeared in Buzz, California Monthly, Deadline USA, Drawn & Quarterly, Entertainment Weekly, Escape, Esquire, New York Woman, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, Rip Off Comix, San Francisco, Street Music, Twist, Vinyl Records. Around this time he quit his job as library assistant and became a full-time illustrator. In 1992 his first collection of short stories came out: 'Hypnotic Tales' (Kitchen Sink Press, 1992), followed by 'Black Cat Crossing' (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) a year later. Dark Horse released another anthology: 'Thirteen O'Clock' (1992), which collects stories originally serialized in Deadline USA. Fantagraphics reprinted all these older stories again under the title 'Maniac Killer Strikes Again! Delirious Mysterious Stories' (2003).

From: 'Thirteen O'Clock'.

Invisible Hands
The story 'Invisible Hands' from 'Night Drive' was adapted into a 1989 12-minute animated short produced by Colossal Pictures. It aired during the first season of the animated cult show 'Liquid Television' (1991-1995) on MTV. The show was notable for eccentric animated segments intercut with music videos or sometimes combining the two. Some material was from the past, such as Max Fleischer's 'Koko's Earth Control' and 'Running Man' from Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Neo Tokyo'. Other animation was made especially for the show, such as Sally Cruikshank's 'Don't Go in the Basement', Paul Driessen's 'The Killing of an Egg' and Bill Plympton's 'Push Comes to Shove'. Some spawned off to become succesful series in their own right, such as Peter Chung's 'Æon Flux', Cintra Wilson's 'Winter Steele', and, of course, Mike Judge's cult show 'Beavis and Butt-head'. John R. Dilworth, who'd later become known for 'Courage the Cowardly Dog', made the cartoon series 'Smart Talk with Raisin' for Liquid Television. Apart from Sala several other cartoonists who originally appeared in Raw had some of their artwork and comics animated on 'Liquid Television', including Peter Bagge ('The Blockheads'), Mark Beyer ('The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo', with music by The Residents), Charles Burns ('Dog-Boy') and Drew Friedman ('Uncle Louie's Travels').

The Ghastly Ones
When Sala published comics in Drawn & Quarterly from the second issue in 1990 on, it marked the first time his comics appeared in colour. Unfortunately the printing was disastrous. Despite promises that the editors would do something about it, Sala was never satisfied with the final outlook. The only story which somehow came out the way he envisioned it was 'Time Bomb'. For the first time he felt somewhat in a rut and lost his enthusiasm for comics. He focused on book illustration for a while. His humorous book 'The Ghastly Ones and Other Fiendish Frolics' (Manic D. Press, 1995) was based on the work of William Steig. Sala claimed that he wanted to make something that could be put in the humor sections in bookstores for people outside his niche to discover and enjoy. Yet after a while Sala realized he preferred making comics over illustrating books, because he constantly had to deal with publishers with no artistic background whose criticism was either too vague or too nitpicky.

'The Chuckling Whatsit' from Zero Zero #9.

The Chuckling Whatsit
Sala rolled back into the comic world when Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics asked him to contribute to their new anthology magazine Zero Zero. Sala agreed, but only if he was allowed to do a serialized comic series. This became 'The Chuckling Whatsit', which ran between 1995 and 1997. The story revolves around an unemployed writer named Judy Broom. Sala based her on Nancy Drew, the title character from Edward Stratemeyer's children's detective series of the same name. Personality wise, though, Judy Broom has more in common with a female student Sala remembered from his art college days, who tended to be a contrarian personality. In 'The Chuckling Whatsit', Broom searches for a doll by that nickname, made by an oddball artist named Emile Jarnac. At the same time other people also want this doll, including a serial killer named the Gull Street Ghoul, the bizarre Mr. Ixnay and the Ghoul Appreciation Society Headquarters. The story is a delightful suspense and darkly comic story, bordering on self parody. Sala saw it as his first mature work, where he finally captured his trademark style. Fans regard the work as his magnum opus. The artist made Judy Broom a recurring character in several other graphic novels, including 'Mad Night' (2005) and 'The Grave Robber's Daughter' (2006).

After the success of 'The Chuckling Whatsit', Kim Thompson asked Sala to create more comics for Zero Zero. Sala once again wanted to make a serialized comic strip, yet this time Thompson vetoed the idea. He preferred stand-alone short stories. In the end a compromise was reached where Sala created a character named Peculia whose had a self-contained adventure in each issue, but which could be connected into one long narrative too. Peculia is a mysterious girl whose name is a reference to a childhood misspelling of the Spanish word "pelicula" ("movie"). She lives in a castle with her impeccable butler Ambrose. Peculia has a secret admirer, Obscurus, but also a bitchy rival named Justine. The dark, creepy fairy tale-like tone was inspired by the stories of the Brothers Grimm, which Sala at one point in his life claimed to have read every night before going to sleep. Witches, evil children, monsters and other odd creatures are recurring characters. Much like these folk tales, Sala included a lot of symbolic undertones. The stories ran in 12 consecutive issues under the title 'Evil Eye' (1998-2001). As a complete story it was published under the title 'Mad Night' (Fantagraphics, 2005). As a series of short stories it appeared under the title 'Peculia' (Fantagraphics, 2002) and was later reformatted into the mini graphic novel series 'Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires' (Fantagraphics, 2005).

'The Grave Robber's Daughter'.

The Grave Robber's Daughter
Sala's 'The Grave Robber's Daughter' (Fantagraphics, 2007) is set in a fictional town, Obidiah's Glenn, which a travelling carnival pays a visit one day. A bunch of clowns cast a mysterious spell on all of its citizens, including the parents of 16-year old Paisley Curtin. The clowns have furthermore buried a special secret in the old cemetery on the hill, which seems to be the key to their tyrannical takeover. Paisley therefore contacts detective Judy Drood to help her save her home town...

The Cat Burglar Black
In 2009 Sala made 'The Cat Burglar Black' (First Second, 2009) in which a young girl, K., tries to find out more about her late father who was a burglar. He wanted to quit his criminal life, but wasn't able to. K. therefore joins an ancient organisation of cat burglars called The Obtainers. They use the orphanage Bellsong Academy as a masquerade to train their gangs. K. is alone and doesn't know who she can trust, but is determined to carry on. She somehow unconsciously wants to achieve the redemption her father wasn't able to. In an interview conducted by Michael Lorah on Newsarama (31 July 2009), Sala explained: "At some point in our lives it hits us that - even if we've tried to distance ourselves from our parents or swear we will never be like them - there is something - some combination of the way we were raised, our genetic makeup and, even, perhaps, destiny - that ends up bringing us closer to becoming like our parents than we ever dreamed possible."

'The Hidden'.

The Hidden
'The Hidden' (2011) was Sala's first full-colour graphic novel for Fantagraphics. The story kicks off when an invasion of monsters kills off most of the world's population. Colleen and Tom are two teens who survived the disaster and wonder what happened? A strange man in a cave invites them to a place of safety, though again things are not what they seem. The story is a partial homage to 'Frankenstein', complete with a mad scientist named "Dr. Victor".

Between 2006 and 2009 Fantagraphics released four comic books of Sala's 'Delphine', a reimagining of 'Snow White', told from the viewpoint of the prince, but with different names and in a modern context. Here Prince Charming is a mysterious traveller who searches for Delphine, a former classmate. His quest brings him to a mountain village near ominous woods. Once again Sala wanted to mimick the creepiness of Grimm's original fairy tales, without the saccharine watered-down versions made since. In 2012 the tale was published as a graphic novel.


'Violenzia and Other Amusements' (Fantagraphics, 2013) stars a female assassin-for-hire, Violenzia, who combats diabolical cults, hillbillies and other organisations. Swift and efficient, her origins are mysterious, but the blood spattering story has Sala's familiar camp appeal. Despite its title the book features only two short stories with the main character, namely 'Violenzia' and 'Violenzia Returns'. The other two tales are unrelated narratives. 'The Forgotten' follows a man who travels through a hostile environment with all kinds of nasty creatures lurking in the dark. His journey has lasted so long that he can't remember why he started it so long ago? 'Malevolent Reveries: An Alphabetical Exhibition' is a series of drawings of horrific creatures accompanied by alliterative alphabetical titles.

In A Glass Grotesquely
'In A Glass Grotesquely' (Fantagraphics, 2014) is an ironic supervillain parody. The villain in question is Super-Enigmatix, who is personally responsible for all evil in the world. Some of his diabolical deeds are making dogs attack their owners or placing flesh-eating plants in botanical gardens. The fiend doesn't operate alone: he has his own amazone brigade. Yet despite his henchwomen and masked identity, he still wants people to notice him, especially a specific woman whom he fancies. Super-Engimatix' actions are carefully scrutinized by two former detectives Natalie Charms and Inspector Jory who, along with Jory's grandson George, try to stop his nefarious schemes.

'The Bloody Cardinal'.

The Bloody Cardinal
On 23 February 2016 Sala's webcomic 'The Bloody Cardinal' was launched. The story revolves around a super criminal who was trapped by the police into an abandoned asylum which burnt to the ground. The police assumes he died in the fire and then found his diary. The book is full with mad ramblings about criminal deeds which appear to contain all kinds of secrets. Sala originally wanted to call his comic 'The Cardinal', but since this was already trademarked he added "Bloody" to it. 'The Bloody Cardinal' was published in book format by Fantagraphics in 2017.

Cave Girls of the Lost World
Sala's swan song, 'Cave Girls of the Lost World' (2018), already hints in the title that it pays homage to the classic novel and silent movie 'The Lost World' (1925). A group of young women make an emergency landing by plane on a strange plateau where prehistoric times have stood still. All the juicy ingredients are there, from dinosaurs, cavemen to carnivorous plants.

Children's stories
Between 1993 and 1995 Richard Sala drew 'Mervin the Magnificent' comics for Nickelodeon Magazine. As part of Françoise Mouly's 'Little Lit' series of children's comic books Sala teamed up with famed author Lemony Snicket to create the comic book 'It Was a Dark and Silly Night...' (2003). Together with novelist Steve Niles he made 'Little Book of Horror: Dracula' (IDW Publishing, 2005), an abridged children's book version of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel.

Graphic and written contributions
In 1990 the avant-garde band The Residents released the album 'Freak Show' (1990), which spawned a 1992 comic book adaptation, 'The Residents' Freak Show' (Dark Horse Comics), in which both Sala, as well as Kyle Baker, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Charles Burns, Matt Howarth, Dave McKean, Pore No Graphics and Edwin "Savage Pencil" Pouncey all visualized one of the songs into a comic strip. Les Dorscheid provided colouring. Sala illustrated the song 'Herman and the Human Mole'. A limited hard-cover special was made too, sold with a 13-minute CD titled 'Blowoff', inspired by songs from 'Freak Show'. Two years later a 'Freak Show' CD-rom followed, with a cover illustrated by Sala.

In 1995 The Residents released another CD-rom, 'Bad Day on the Midway' (1995). The project was originally proposed as a TV series script in collaboration with David Lynch, but eventually these plans fell through. The CD-rom features visual designs by cartoonists like Leigh Barbier, Steve Cerio, Ronald M. Davis, Georganne Deen, Poe Dismuke, Bill Domonokos, Doug Fraser, Peter Kuper, Dave McKean, Pore No Graphics, Jonathon Rosen and Richard Sala - who visualized the song 'Oscar's Story'. A companion book was released the same year, followed by a soundtrack album the next year and a novel in 2012. Another cartoonist who once made a comic book about the Residents is Adam Weller.

Sala also designed the cover of 'Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake' (2003), a vampire tale written by Jack Kerouac in the 1960s adapted into an audio play. He also livened up the cover of Chivad SB's album 'Crickets Were The Compas' (2014). Sala wrote a personal homage to Robert Crumb in Monte Beauchamp's book 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb. Comments From Contemporaries (St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998).

'In A Glass Grotesquely'.

Final years and death
In June 2007 Sala established his blog hereliesrichardsalablogspot.com. In 2011 he set up a Tumblr account, followed by a Twitter page in February 2019. On 21 April 2020 the veteran announced an upcomic webcomic, 'Carlotta Havoc Versus Everyone'. Yet only a month later, on 9 May, Fantagraphics made public that Richard Sala had been found dead in his home in Berkeley, California. He was only 65 years old. While the circumstances remain unknown, Daniel Clowes wrote an in memoriam about his late friend, posted on the Comics Journal website. Fantagraphics has announced the publication of another 300-page collection, 'Poison Flowers and Pandemonium', but it will be delayed because the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Legacy and influence
Richard Sala was an influence on Debbie Drechsler.

Books about Richard Sala
By far the best overview of Sala's work is 'Phantoms in the Attic' (Fantagraphics Underground, 2019), a special limited-edition collection of his drawings, short comics and water-colour paintings, all personally selected by the master himself.


Series and books by Richard Sala you can order today:


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