From the moment you look at the work of the late Richard Sala, you can tell that it’s something far outside of the realm of what most would expect from contemporary comics: Labyrinthian in plotting and constantly sending the readers down new avenues before arriving at a titillating conclusion, Sala’s shadowy humor, along with his bold use of color and line, consistently make for nothing short of a fully-formed reading experience.
The son of two collectors — his mother, a wealth heiress, and his father, a Sicilian immigrant who came to own a clock shop, frequently feature in his comics — Sala was, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn to museums as a child, full of mummies, skeletons, dioramas, and artifacts; becoming a frequent visitor of such places when his family moved to Chicago.
At the young age of 14, however, his parents divorced, and despite a reprieve from no longer enduring his soon-estranged father’s hurtful abuse, Sala spent much of his teen years being raised and parented even further by pop culture and the bizarre influences that took hold in the 1960s.
In author Franz Kafka, he found a kindred spirit in an author who was obviously placed outside of the cultural status quo just for being himself. Around the same time, he was also discovering a love of a pulpier, less highbrow, culture that would similarly feed into his work later in life, whether it was old monster movies, Dick Tracy, Dario Argento’s filmography, or the countless spy TV shows of the era. (The Avengers and The Prisoner being some favorites of note, understandably.)
After attending Arizona State University — he ultimately graduated with an art degree from Mills College in Oakland — Sala took up the job as a librarian at a private college, finding reprieve and solitude among the rows of books, particularly taking in the sections on the occult, history, and hypnotism… again, all subjects that would inspire his comics years later. The library simply couldn’t contain him, however, and after some mental tug-of-war (again, something seen in many of his stories), Sala became a full-time artist; publishing his first-ever comic, Night Drive in 1984.
Night Drive was far more of an experiment in visual style than an exercise in storytelling, and it caught the attention of Art Speilgelman and Francoise Mouly — the creators responsible for the much-beloved art comic anthology RAW in the late 1980s. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as MTV’s nascent Liquid Television series had already begun culling talent from RAW, leading the show to choose to use Sala’s story “Invisible Hands” as part of its 1991 debut season.
Sala’s subsequent work throughout the 1990s and early 2000s — which included the irregularly published Evil Eye for Fantagraphics, as well as Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements, The Grave Robber’s Daughter, The Bloody Cardinal, The Chuckling Whatsit and illustrations for mainstream outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, Seventeen, Playboy, and many more — helped him achieve critical acclaim among horror and indie comic fans and critics alike, as he continued to explore his particular interests in ways that felt especially personal and, at times, surprisingly intimate.
No matter his success outside of the medium, collaborating with such names as famed children’s storyteller Lemony Snickett, CD-ROM covers for underground rock band The Residents, and illustrating a Jack Kerouac script written for the 1960s title Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake, Sala always came back to comics — a medium that clearly held a special place in his heart; and even offered a place of police to process his mental health, fears, and past experiences.
This theme is clear when taking a closer look into Sala’s individual works, where the protagonists are often given a backseat to the experience of the story — instead, acting as a placeholder for the reader as they wind along the macabre and bizarre worlds that Sala focused on so pointedly.
“There was some unconscious turmoil going on, and somehow my stories were exorcisms for me,” he told The Comics Journal in an interview. “Certainly I wanted people to bring their own experience to the stories and enjoy them, the way that I relate to Kafka, for example. At the same time, they’re little psychic snapshots of my psychological state at that moment. These were motifs I was using as personal symbolism of my own life.”
More than anything, his work was a key to reminding readers of the fun to be had in old pulp stories. Through shadowy monsters, gallows humor, mysterious and charming criminals, and the unsettlingly entertaining grimness that can only be found in old fairytailes, Sala introduced a whole new generation of readers to the embrace of the bizarre.