Richard Sala possessed an unmistakable style that mixed humor, horror and mystery.
The acclaimed Berkeley cartoonist and illustrator died unexpectedly in May 2020. He was 65. Now, on the one-year anniversary of his death, his publisher, Fantagraphics, is bringing out a volume of posthumous work from a man they call the “cartooning master of the macabre.” Poison Flowers & Pandemonium is being published today.
Born in Oakland to parents who had met at UC Berkeley, Sala grew up in Chicago and Arizona. He “grew up with a fascination for musty old museums, dusty old libraries, cluttered antique shops, narrow alleyways, hidden truths, double meanings, sinister secrets and spooky old houses,” according to his website.
His father reportedly had extreme bouts of temper that terrorized his children. Sala’s parents divorced while in Arizona, and Sala became estranged from his father.
After studying English and art at Arizona State University, Sala returned to northern California when he was accepted into an art program at Mills College in Oakland. “I grew up hearing my mom and dad talk about the Bay Area,” Sala explained in a 1998 interview. “It always seemed like a cool place. So it was always somewhere in the back of my mind to return. When I got accepted into art school in Oakland, I just came back and never left.”
For many years, Sala lived in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood.
After earning his MFA from Mills in 1982, Sala honed his cartooning and illustration skills while working in a library at a small private college with a strong collection of books on hypnotism, vampires and the occult. Sala was able to self-publish a magazine-sized comic, Night Drive, in 1984. His work appeared in numerous comics anthologies, including Raw, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, Drawn & Quarterly, Buzz, Blab! and many more. No matter in which medium he worked, he was known to be incredibly prolific.
During the late-’80s boom of “alternative” comics, Sala’s were instantly recognizable, filled with references to low-budget horror and science fiction films, pulp novels and comic strips. His comics work includes The Chuckling Whatsit, Evil Eye and many other collections and series, including Violent Girls and Maniac Killer Strikes Again. Sala was able to be an artist full time by accepting commissions as an illustrator from the likes of Esquire, Seventeen, Playboy and the New York Times.
Poison Flowers’ lead story, “The House of the Blue Dwarf,” is a follow-up to “The Bloody Cardinal,” a tale of a bird-headed villain who battles bizarre assassins.
“Monsters Illustrated” concerns a bookstore containing a powerfully strange tome, one that spotlights portraits of fiends and weirdos of all stripes.
“Cave Girls of the Lost World” pays homage to the pulpy narratives of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and filmmaker Ray Harryhausen, featuring dinosaurs, low-browed Neanderthals and scantily clad schoolgirls.
In “Fantomella,” a masked woman battles costumed villains as she fights her way to the top of a tower to face their mysterious ringleader.
Words alone don’t capture the virtuosity and craftsmanship displayed in Sala’s ink and water-color panels. For all the menace and violence, the participants don’t seem overly distressed. The mad scientists, secret agents and vampires are more than a little ridiculous. The young women mean business, even if they’re in the mouth of a T. Rex.
By all reports, Sala lived and breathed popular culture, his interests eclectic and his memory phenomenal. His influences were as diverse as Nancy Drew and Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut, Dick Tracy and Fu Manchu, according to an obituary in The Comics Journal.
“Richard’s art is weird but weird in a compelling, intriguing way,” said Berkeley resident Andrew Farago, the curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. “There’s something about his characters that draws you right in, and he was such a gifted, natural storyteller that you couldn’t help but enjoy his work once you sat down with it. His artwork is bold, graphic, and deceptively simple, and that’s a big part of its appeal.”
Asked to choose an entry point into Sala’s oeuvre, Farago said, “Richard’s Peculia series is a great starting point. It’s got a mysterious girl protagonist, spooky settings, supernatural events … just about everything you want in a Richard Sala comic.”
Editor Eric Reynolds worked with Sala for many years and edited Poison Flowers & Pandemonium, which he said fit in “perfectly” with the rest of Sala’s creative output.
“In some ways, it feels like an apotheosis,” Reynolds said. “The four stories seem to hit all the marks of quintessential Sala: bloody murder, revenge fantasy, femme fatales, monsters and dinosaurs, puzzle box mysteries, dusty antiquities, sci-fi pulp, etc.”
“His style really is sui generis, evocative of cartoonists like Edward Gorey or Gahan Wilson, but wholly his own,” Reynolds said. “They are playful and scary and funny and gorgeously drawn. The work is such a crystalline reflection of one man’s entire lifetime of obsessions, passions, neurosis, etc. Everything he took in, he seemed to put back into the work.”
While living in the Elmwood, Sala developed deep friendships with comics artists Adrian Tomine, writer and illustrator of Optic Nerve, and Daniel Clowes, creator of Ghost World. The trio lived in the same neighborhood and regularly met for lunch on Wednesdays, the day new comics traditionally arrive in stores. They would dine at Juan’s or Mama’s Royal Cafe, hang out at Espresso Roma or Piedmont Cafe or browse at Cody’s or Moe’s or Comic Relief.
“My first impression of Richard was that he was a real adult and a real artist — two things I was just starting to get a handle on,” Tomine wrote in an email, from his home in Brooklyn. “I was surprised by how friendly, humble and welcoming he was. I’d been following his work since I was 12 years old. I thought of him as a celebrity.”
The three of them got together regularly, mostly to hang out and talk. “Mostly all those errands were an excuse to talk, and in my memory, it feels like we had one long, ongoing conversation that we’d pick up every time we got together,” said Tomine.
Reynolds said of the trio, “There was and is a lot of love between those three guys. Whenever I hung out with them, I wanted to move to Berkeley afterward.”
Sala “didn’t get out much, but when he did, it was almost exclusively to take advantage of the cultural offerings of the area that fit his sensibility: movies at the Pacific Film Archive, the numerous new and used bookstores, great comic shops like Dr. Comics and Mr. Games. I’m sure all those things provided comfort and inspiration to him over the years,” Tomine said.
Richard politely declined any invitations to attend opening receptions or other big events at the Cartoon Art Museum, said Farago. “Crowds weren’t his thing, and his interactions with local cartoonists were, to the best of my knowledge, only really done as small, private get-togethers.”
In a remembrance published last summer, Reynolds mentioned Sala’s chronic anxiety and growing agoraphobia and how it could make their work dynamic “fragile” at times. “Until Richard’s death, it never even occurred to me that we wouldn’t keep putting out new Sala for decades more, because I know he had them in him,” Reynolds wrote.
Tomine appraised what set his friend apart from other cartoonists. “Like all my favorite artists, Richard was completely in touch with his own obsessions, and he made no effort to conform to anyone else’s expectations,” Tomine said. “He wrote and drew for the purest of reasons — to explore and entertain and satisfy himself — and I think that’s increasingly rare these days.”
Farago noted that even a cursory look at Sala’s comics gives one a sense of how much he loved classic cinema, monster movies, pulp magazines and comics.
“His friends have told me of long conversations they’ve had with him on any number of esoteric subjects. I’m glad he had those people in his life, and that he found such a great outlet to channel those influences into such incredible, enduring art.”
Clowes was unavailable for comment. In a moving remembrance of Sala published in The Comics Journal, Clowes wrote, “Richard was my closest friend for 30 years. … Richard was a very complicated guy, totally unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He could be gregarious and charming, always energetic and animated in conversation, but also crippled by terrible anxiety and profoundly agoraphobic. Over the years, it got harder and harder to get him out of the house. I basically forced him to meet me for lunch every Friday, and we did that right up until the COVID quarantine, but toward the end, that was the extent of his social life (except for the vast hours he spent online — a true lifeline).”
Clowes concluded, “I loved him so much, loved hearing his thoughts on every subject, and his utterly unique Richard Sala-ness (‘Sala-esque’ is an oft-used adjective in the Clowes house), and feel so deeply grateful that I got to know such a private man. I’ll be having conversations with him in my head for as long as I live.”