The Nostalgia Journal

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 don’t believe I have any fans, but hey.

In 1998, I wrote a number of short reviews for The Comics Journal. I’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 Sala‘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 Sala’s art and writing. It’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 “components” (Mr. Sullivan’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 didn’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, “Enough with the mysterious killers and secret societies.” That’s like saying, “I’d sure like Peanuts a lot better if it didn’t have those kids in it.” I mean, that’s what I do. If you don’t like it, read something else.

It’s possible that I wasn’t “a guy,” 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 Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn comic was a young man’s work in a narrow(ish) genre, where the next stage of his career — Eightball — 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 — like Art School Confidential, I Hate You Deeply (and its followup, I Love You Tenderly), Chicago, and Grist for the Mill — in which “Dan Clowes” 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 didn’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 he’s not interested in characterization:

What I’m writing are fever dreams. One person thrashing about in a world he doesn’t understand. Don’t bother searching for anything resembling a fully-rounded character. Don’t bother looking for any situation that has anything to do with reality. In other words, characterization is subordinate to plot and atmosphere. I’ll sacrifice characterization in a second for atmosphere. I don’t care what the character had for breakfast.

I mean, these stories are basically extensions of my personality. People use to ask me, “Why don’t you do autobiographical comics?” And I would say, “I’ve been doing them. These are my autobiographies.”

A few years after writing my review, I read over my old Sala comics — Thirteen O’Clock, Hypnotic Tales, Black Cat Crossing — 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 can’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 it’s more likely that I’d grown to understand the role of these personal, stylized components to Mr. Sala’s storytelling.

So I realized that my complaint about Mr. Sala’s lack of “development” was like asking Edgar Allan Poe why he didn’t write Last of the Mohicans; it’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.

It’s a good thing I didn’t take Mr. Sala’s advice — “If you don’t like it, read something else” — because I’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.)

Now go immerse yourself in some of Mr. Sala’s comics. I’m waiting for Cat Burglar Black.


Cover art to Richard Sala’s Black Cat Crossing.

* * *

Reading over my old reviews as I prepared to write this post, I realized that they really need their own forum, so I’m planning to run “Klassik Komiks Kritikism” every Thursday, bringing you the best of my 11-years-old meanness. Because you’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 “got it.” Sure, it sounded to me like the episode of Cheers where Cliff appears on Jeopardy!, but I was happy for the flattery. So I’ll run my good reviews, too.

5 Replies to “The Nostalgia Journal”

  1. This is a very complex & interesting & entertaing blog entry. It deserves a good deal of commentary … if I didn’t have to run out the door, I would throw some down. It’ll have to wait till I get back, but there are really fascinating points raised by both you & Sala …although I don’t think you have ANYthing to apologize for. Some artists can diversify; others can’t. Poe wrote everything from science fiction (“The Maelstrom” is one of those) to the first (I think) detective fiction to (of course) horror. He was not a one-note symphony as Sala seems to be. Numerous artists have more than one trick up there sleeves–many did not. Sala doesn’t need to get huffy about it. he can just admit he belongs to the latter group. Your review was not a pan. And clearly you got under his skin–you hit on something he himself has probably fretted about–or he wouldn’t have mentioned it in an interview.
    More anon

  2. Hi Gil,

    I wanted to thank you for the thoughtful article and the kind words. I appreciate it.

    I’m not someone who would ever object to anyone stating their honest opinion — and I do regret referring to your review in that 1998 interview. You learn pretty early on that it never pays to respond to any review – ever, no matter what they say. And I should have left all that out.

    I think I got kind of defensive and frustrated during the course of that interview when I realized that the interviewer wasn’t much of a fan of the direction my work was taking at that time either. He, like a lot of people I know, still preferred my earlier short strips, which tended to be absurd or “poetic”, with much more stylized expressionistic artwork — which I did for many, many anthologies back in the late 1980s & early 1990s.

    It was the first major interview I’d ever done. I was nervous to begin with – a cover interview with the Comics Journal was a big deal back then. (I’d already turned them down a few times because I was afraid I’d say something stupid!). I don’t enjoy talking about myself and I don’t have a burning desire to convince anyone who doesn’t like my work to like it. But I found myself trying to explain why on earth I wanted to start writing these complicated thrillers – which were inspired by pulps or old paperbacks or B-movies or horror stories. And from within the swirling mess of my neurotic mind, I guess I felt under attack. (I was in psychotherapy three times a week during those days, by the way — and so I was trying to “learn” to enjoy talking about myself. Didn’t help.). And it was in a moment of paranoid weakness, I’m sure, that I mentioned your quote — as a “no one understands me” moment. Like I say — I regret it (and much of the rest of that interview) now. But – and I’m sure you understand this – one of the worst feelings in the world is feeling misunderstood.

    And you must remember that, at that time, a review in the Journal for “Evil Eye” was probably the only one it was going to get (and it pretty much was). I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but I think you were voicing a common reaction among “comix” readers. Many comix-savvy folks seemed disappointed I wasn’t going to do MY version of Eightball or any of it’s many many imitators (why would I even try?) or autobiography. (Any comic fans who lived through those days surely knows what I’m talking about, right?).

    It seemed for a long time that most of the “mainstream” guys saw me (if they noticed me at all) as a smart-aleck alternative type and most of the “alternative” types saw me as a guy doing corny genre stuff instead of whatever alternative types were supposed to do. That has changed a lot since the early days, thankfully. I think any of the core followers I’ve been lucky to have acquired over the years are people who don’t care about those categories, who have no preconceived notions about what it is “supposed to be”. Who wouldn’t ask, “why isn’t he more like X, Y or Z cartoonist?”

    One needs to figure out what is unique about their own vision. I grew up in the ’60s when there was a lot of nostalgia – and rediscovery – concerning 1930s popular culture. And the stuff that was presented straight in the 1930s was often (re)presented as absurd or camp or surreal or sexed-up or tongue-in-cheek. That’s how my vision of a lot of genre stuff was formed — it was cool and absurd at the same time. I suppose that’s what I strived for in my own stuff.

    I have tried venturing into other territories over the years, tried some different things. It hasn’t all been one note, has it? Maybe it has… Maybe I’m too close to see it. But when you pick up a book by Chandler or Hammett (for example) — are you wrong to expect a certain type of experience? Are they lesser creators for not branching out from their “narrow” paths? Maybe… I don’t know. Me – deep down inside I always wished I could be Chester Gould.


  3. I think Tom Spurgeon oughtta organize a beer summit for us, just like Obama with Prof. Gates and the cop!

    Rereading that TCJ interview as I got ready to write the post, it was struck by the tension that cropped up occasionally between you and Mr. Sullivan. It seems he was trying to tease out that same concept of your recurring themes via that concept of alchemy, as in, “if I just combine these elements THIS way instead of THAT way, it’ll work!” But your frustration with that line of questioning was pretty apparent, and it did seem to stunt the conversation.

    Now, what was particularly unfair about MY short writeup was the fact that your pre-Evil Eye work actually had much more going on in it than I was giving it credit for at the time. This was partly because I hadn’t gone back to reread that work, and partly because I was inept. (We’ll see who can out-self-flagellate whom.) I had just started a small publishing company that year, so I can totally sympathize with the frustration of getting just ONE review from an important venue, and having it written by a douchebag like me.

    (NOTE: this won’t stop me from posting some of my mean-spirited reviews from back then, every Thursday.)

    As I mentioned, I don’t think I was advanced enough of a reader back then to get the ways in which those symbols DO stand in for you, how that sensibility and world-view can work through some of your recurring styles. At the time, I was grooving on a much different style of storytelling back then. In addition to Clowes, Los Bros. Hernandez, and Bagge (the standards), I was working through Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools (don’t recall if he’d started Berlin at that point), Tom Hart’s Hutch Owens stuff, and particularly Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville, a book that still means a lot to me. I think I was pretty biased against the psychodrama that you employ so effectively. Now I enjoy the heck out of it.

    I’m sure if you did pursue “your” Eightball, my response would have been more savage, so ultimately I’m glad you pursued the path you did with that comic (and the subsequent standalone books). And like I said, I think Clowes worked “that” Eightball out of his system, and tells stories much more effectively now. When he gets around to ’em.

    All of which is to say: Thanks for the response! You’ve done great work over the years, I think you’re one of the best cartoonists of our era, and I’m glad you took the time to write (and didn’t flip out at me)!

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