Last week, I mentioned that I once kinda maligned the great cartoonist Richard Sala. A commenter who professed to be a fan of both of us asked me for the story. I was a bit suspicious, given the fact that I donâ€™t believe I have any fans, but hey.
In 1998, I wrote a number of short reviews for The Comics Journal. Iâ€™d struck up an e-mail friendship with the editor at the Journal, the oft-mentioned Tom Spurgeon, a few years earlier, and he invited me to contribute to the new short-review section. He probably realized early in our correspondence that my longer-form writing tended to lose its way, contradict itself and otherwise become unintelligible, while my snarkiness, witticisms and occasional insights were best limited to a 150-word maximum. I wish I realized that.
The August 1998 ish of TCJ ran my short review of Mr. Sala’s comic Evil Eye #1:
I was under the impression that this comic was going to be sort of an Eightball to the Lloyd Llewellyn of Salaâ€˜s past work. In fact, after his 17-part, 200-page Chuckling Whatsit serial and subsequent collection, I was sure he’d move in a new direction, that he’d say, “Enough with the conspiracy melodramas. Enough with the mysterious stalkers, ritual killings and overlapping cabals!” Alas, that’s not the case. Evil Eye features a new serial replete with the B-move trappings and labyrinthine plots of The Chuckling Whatsit. Don’t get me wrong: Sala’s expressionistic artwork is more delightfully creepier than ever. It’s just the story is utterly stale. The inside cover of Evil Eye promises “thrills! chills!! and shock!!!,” but Sala’s delivered each of these so unerringly in recent years that I’d love to see him tackle a different milieu.
This was harsh. Not as harsh as some of the things I wrote for TCJ in those days, because it does include my genuine affection for Salaâ€™s art and writing. Itâ€™s just that I thought that Mr. Sala had run his course with stories of secret societies, severed hands, fortune-tellers and ape-like killers, and was hoping he’d pursue a new direction with his comics.
Just a few months later (November 1998), TCJ ran a lengthy interview with Mr. Sala, conducted by Darcy Sullivan. Discussing the recurring â€œcomponentsâ€ (Mr. Sullivanâ€™s word) in his stories, Mr. Sala remarked,
Many artists actually have a specific vocabulary of obsession. 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 didnâ€™t accept it. As an artist, your goal should be to recognize your own personal obsessions, your own personal vocabulary, and use it. There was a review of my work where a guy said, â€œEnough with the mysterious killers and secret societies.â€ Thatâ€™s like saying, â€œIâ€™d sure like Peanuts a lot better if it didnâ€™t have those kids in it.â€ I mean, thatâ€™s what I do. If you donâ€™t like it, read something else.
Itâ€™s possible that I wasnâ€™t â€œa guy,â€ because of the interval between publication of my review and the interview, but it sure sounds like what I wrote. Now, the point I was trying to make was that Dan Clowesâ€™ Lloyd Llewellyn comic was a young manâ€™s work in a narrow(ish) genre, where the next stage of his career â€” Eightball â€” was a quantum leap in terms of sophistication, humor, experimentation, and storytelling. One major difference was Mr. Clowes’ use of stories that directly address/engage the reader â€” like Art School Confidential, I Hate You Deeply (and its followup, I Love You Tenderly), Chicago, and Grist for the Mill â€” in which â€œDan Clowesâ€ or a stand-in plays the role of (usually irate) narrator. (This wasn’t the only thing I dug about Eightball, but it felt like a significant move away from LlLl.)
What I didnâ€™t really get back then is that not everyone is Dan Clowes (or Pete Bagge). For Mr. Sala, all those recurring themes, locations and components are as direct as he can get. As he put it in that interview, explaining why heâ€™s not interested in characterization:
What Iâ€™m writing are fever dreams. One person thrashing about in a world he doesnâ€™t understand. Donâ€™t bother searching for anything resembling a fully-rounded character. Donâ€™t bother looking for any situation that has anything to do with reality. In other words, characterization is subordinate to plot and atmosphere. Iâ€™ll sacrifice characterization in a second for atmosphere. I donâ€™t care what the character had for breakfast.
I mean, these stories are basically extensions of my personality. People use to ask me, â€œWhy donâ€™t you do autobiographical comics?â€ And I would say, â€œIâ€™ve been doing them. These are my autobiographies.â€
A few years after writing my review, I read over my old Sala comics â€” Thirteen Oâ€™Clock, Hypnotic Tales, Black Cat Crossing â€” and found them much richer than I recalled. Sure, his usual coterie of storytelling elements cropped up again and again, but I saw them now as much subtler symbols, not simply of the mystery-at-hand, but of the roles of mystery and mysticism in the psyche. Of course, I canâ€™t discount the possibility that agents of a secret society had sneaked into my home and replaced the earlier comics with new, stranger ones, but itâ€™s more likely that Iâ€™d grown to understand the role of these personal, stylized components to Mr. Salaâ€™s storytelling.
So I realized that my complaint about Mr. Salaâ€™s lack of â€œdevelopmentâ€ was like asking Edgar Allan Poe why he didnâ€™t write Last of the Mohicans; itâ€™s not the story he was here to write. Moreover, to continue the cartoonist comparison, Dan Clowes soon outgrew the “personal narrator” device and went on to write some remarkable comics during the past 15 years.
Itâ€™s a good thing I didnâ€™t take Mr. Salaâ€™s advice â€” â€œIf you donâ€™t like it, read something elseâ€ â€”Â because Iâ€™ve gotten a great deal of joy out of his later work. Even if Delphine reads a little too quickly for a book that took almost 4 years to serialize. (I know, I know: Delphine is as much about the textures as it is about the story.)
Cover art to Richard Sala’s Black Cat Crossing.
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Reading over my old reviews as I prepared to write this post, I realized that they really need their own forum, so Iâ€™m planning to run â€œKlassik Komiks Kritikismâ€ every Thursday, bringing you the best of my 11-years-old meanness. Because youâ€™re worth it.
To be fair, I also wrote some positive reviews. In fact, one of my most gratifying moments came when one of the Langridge Bros. mentioned that my longer review of Zoot Suite meant a lot to them at a time when one of them was ready to get out of comics, because it told them that someone out there â€œgot it.â€ Sure, it sounded to me like the episode of Cheers where Cliff appears on Jeopardy!, but I was happy for the flattery. So Iâ€™ll run my good reviews, too.