By Paul F. Lai
Richard Sala’s long-standing achievement in cartooning still manages to go under the radar somehow. I have always found his work scintillating; he is one of those artists who has been doing the same entrancing things for a long time with often surprising results. Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements, published by Fantagraphics in December 2015, collects the digitally-distributed “Violenzia” story originally released in 2013, an additional short story and an illustrated alphabet gallery, and a new follow-up “Violenzia Returns” tale to bookend the volume. More than thirty years into his career, Sala seems to have found a format with Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements that brilliantly distills his playfully creepy storytelling talents.
Because of the more generous pacing and spacing over his previous, denser works, perhaps afforded by the digital medium of his original “Violenzia” story, Sala can exhibit the distinctive characteristics of his comics to finer effect in this new release. Sala’s art is always a cartoon exorcism of the aura of suspicion haunting our modern moods. Yet-another-dastardly-foe in “Violenzia” declares, “You were born into this great age of hypocrisy – into times when you can only believe that you are being lied to, only trust that you are being betrayed.” Somehow, that betrayal and hypocrisy personified in his stories become much more vivid when Sala’s panels have room to breathe, his drawing gets full-color treatment, and his anarchy is unconstrained by a single narrative or print-friendly page count. Sala’s deep and suggestive watercolored hues vividly splash those premonitions of secret darkness into lurid, pulpy pages of comics carnivalesque.
Fans of past Sala works will already be keen to his Edward Gorey-an, Charles Addams-ish style of grotesques, his Dick Tracy-like controlled frenzy of angular swashbuckling and sharp bullet paths, and his cult movie hints toward Kafkaesque social hysterics. Violenzia herself is a purple-haired, hooded and skirted heroine toting six-shooters and swift courage, dispensing vigilante justice in a world of occult malevolents sacrificing virgins named Alisha in nightgowns, or leper colony hillbillies armed with shotguns and rabid eyes shouting “Hells Bells!” Sala’s sublimation of these exploitation genres has already garnered him a following, but Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements is also a great introduction to the auteur.
Of course, if you are averse like I am to horror designed to scare rather than to thrill, have no fear, as Sala always tells these understated tales with the winking irony of cartoonish dress. To wit, there is as much humor as horror: a minor character in “Violenzia,” a goatee-wearing cult member named Isaac, questions his hooded Master’s insidious plans, remarking, “Look – I happily signed on for tapping the rich wackos and crazy movie stars. But, now – these ‘ceremonies…’ The cops have another word for that.” Sala lays it on thick enough that his 145 pages feels like the breeziest heaviness you could ever enjoy in an evening armchair.
But on full display in “Violenzia” and further demonstrated in the short story “Forgotten,” a Raskolnikov-like reverie of paranoia through a city of monstrosities, is Sala’s mastery of the exaggerated mise-en-scène of creepiness, sometimes a kind of claustrophobia of gruesome figures, sometimes a luxurious panorama of iconic portraitures amid enveloping, intricate scenery. Buildings groan with ominous texture, ghouls parade through the pages crammed in every corner, and protagonists proceed with eyes sideways, often silent, always alert. This is how the book exemplifies Sala’s sly project, sort of an adult “Where the Wild Things Are” that defangs all our morbid fears and dark fantasies with his Halloween atmospherics and phantasmagoric unruliness.
To what end, all this mayhem? Sala has always been a cannily circumspect purveyor of fun and chaos. In one scene in “Violenzia Returns,” a befuddled journalist in glasses, the reader’s proxy, encounters the mystical-appearing “Isobel of Auldearn,” naked but for a cape the blue color of an Elvish waterfall, who begins a trope-filled exposition about “the narrative of history” and “co-operation and benevolence” before a “bloody coup” leading to a state where “now money, religion and politics control people with fear.” But soon, she throws up her hands, muttering, “Oh hell, how many times do I have to explain this shit to you people? You can’t even see your chains.”
That exasperation sums up Sala’s wry sense of irony, a caginess that comics can do better than most media. Violenzia is loaded with good and evil but laughs at your Manichean dualism. Sala adorns his stories with sleights of social commentary but mocks your pretensions with his revelry and wit. Eyeballs spurt out when swords halve skulls, but even the frankensteins and rasputins have charming, ruddy cheeks and pose like they’re in a costume ball’s photo booth. It’s grimness that’s never meant grimly.
It probably goes without saying that I recommend the book, for reading and for staring at after it has been read. Sala’s art has rarely been freer, his energies rarely so unbridled. New readers of Richard Sala will find his earlier works to be deeper cuts of what they might enjoy here, and old readers might find a refreshing re-engagement with that strange spirit they have enjoyed in the past, packaged in bloody- and mossy-colored splendor.
Read Richard Sala’s Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements and other works: