There is another world, a hidden one, the world of of secret masters who control everything from wars, globalization and finance to our mundane lives as deftly as a puppeteer controls the strings of a marionette. It is a world of powerful men who proclaim themselves godly while leading cults in foul rites in cellars, caverns and haunted groves. It is a world of sorcery, mad science and the risen dead. It is a world where eminently proper institutions of impeccable reputation conceal secret societies. And Violenzia, for her own unspoken reasons, opposes it with the fury implied by her name. Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements (Fantagraphics, 2015) is, like so many of Richard Sala’s books, a glimpse into the hidden and the obfuscated, the mysterious and dangerous order underlying our world.
Violenzia is the titular antihero of two of the stories collected in Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements. Violenzia was first published by ComiXology in 2013 as a digital-only comic. Now it’s available in a lovely softcover book collecting three stories, “Violenzia,” “Forgotten,” “Violenzia Returns,” and a twenty-six drawings, “Malevolent Reveries: An Alphabetical Exhibition.” Violenzia is heir to pulp heroes like the Shadow and my favorite, the Spider. Like the Shadow, Violenzia carries two guns. Like the Spider, she shoots most of her problems. On occasion, she punches them. Unlike the Spider, she only utters a single line in the first story. And, unlike the Shadow, Violenzia never laughs.
In “Violenzia,” she is released–or possibly summoned–by Xadico, a Rasputin-looking man despite the worries of his faithful henchman. In fact, Xadico orders her freed against the wishes of the president of the United States saying, “But who ordered the President, that’s what you need to ask. Violenzia crashes the Blessed Temple of Our Master on the Moon just as they are sacrificing a wayward heiress. She bursts in on the Man of the Year, who combines stabbing and high finance. And she rescues investigative journalist Alden Lowell, from a krokodil* ring based on Sorrow Mountain, the Leper Colony.
In “Violenzia Returns,” journalist Alden tries to find Violenzia and finds, instead, a yeti and the Gargoyle, an old man who demands Alden tell him where Violenzia is. Alden also meets Isobel of Auldearn who reminds me of some of the characters in Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow books. She is cosmically naked except for a cloak and battling ancient and malevolent beings beyond mere human comprehension. And she doesn’t have time for Alden’s mere human comprehension. “Oh hell, how many times do I have to explain this shit to people? You can’t even see your chains. Look ~ Please don’t just stand there with your mouth open. It’s embarrassing. I am here to ask you to say her name” (123).
Violenzia appears again to save Alden from a yeti and from the probable vampires but definitely blue minions who beat Alden at the Gargoyle’s behest. This time, Violenzia lets her pistols do all the talking. But the story itself is open ended as Alden blunders into a meeting of the Council of Augurs. (Fans of Shakespeare might consider joining the Council of Augurs even at a henching level, just because they have worked the witches of Macbeth into their council meetings).
While his recent work has been sparer, rounder and beautifully colored, “Forgotten” is more ornate with more cross-hatching than Sala uses in his color comics (though still not nearly as much as his earliest work used—back when he filled in all his shadows with individual strokes). Sala’s moved from skritchy, deep blacks to more delicate coloring and much less complicated noses on his male characters. “Forgotten” embraces the two-dimensionality of comics and illustration. I know that sounds like something negative in this era of comics carefully colored and highlighted to appear three-dimensional. but Sala’s work reminds me of the eeriness of German Expressionist woodblock prints which depicted three dimensions in unsettling angles and shapes.
And while Sala has been focusing on female characters–Violenzia, Peculia, Girl Detective Judy Drood, K. Westree in Cat Burglar Black (First Second, 2009)–“Forgotten,” like many of his earliest comics, focuses on a nameless man confronting an Existential mystery. Driven by an internal monologue, it has very enjoyable resonances with Lovecraft and the mighty villainous monologues in the pulp era. A man wanders streets filled with monsters and shifty characters, revealing his terrible world and his true self through his internal monologue. He’s has received a call from his ex and goes to meet her, but she never arrives. As he waits, he sees an unspeakable manuscript in a store window. It depicts the occult history of the town he is in, with terrible rituals from fourteen thousand years ago.
The last of the “Deadly Amusements” is “Malevolent Reveries: An Alphabetical Exhibition.” On his Tumblr and his blog, Sala has been posting exhibits of drawings connected by a variety of themes and conventions. It’s really worth spending some time on his sites. It’s neat to see a creator who had worked in the more esoteric end of print comics do some arty fun online. The exhibit makes me think of other books I just like to look at, Fantagraphics Beasts anthologies and Chronicle’s Ichthyo: The Architecture of Fish (2008), a collection of x-ray photograph of fish.
“Malevolent Reveries” appear in alphabetical order by title, but each has a strongly implied story. In focusing mainly on women confronted by or confronting mysterious circumstances, “Malevolent Reveries” has a lot of similarities with Sala’s other recent book, Violent Girls (Fantagraphics, 2015) a collection of pin-ups you can enjoy as a book or as removable prints depicting, well, violent women like Violenzia. These two particular exhibits are so reminiscent of pulp covers, but with women taking the place of the Shadow or the Spider or nameless men imperiled by yetis or weasels on the covers of old men’s magazines.
Overall, Sala’s work is a fine blend of art and pulp. I love his style and I love his influences. Not only The Spider and The Shadow, but: the vast conspiracies and secret rules of Operator #5; old movie serials with mystics, mad scientists and murderers who brandish daggers from behind a curtain; Universal horror movies like The Black Cat, Murders In The Rue Morgue and The Wolfman; Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, Fantomâs, Les Vampires, Chandu the Magician, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films; krimis, giallo and noir; German Expressionism; girl detectives; adventure tales and penny dreadfuls, though one thing I like about Sala is that he tends more toward the modernity of the 1930s and 1940s rather than Victoriana. And Sala’s work grows with me. Or, better, as I learn more about art and stories, adventure and horror, I appreciate his work more.
So often I’m writing here as part of thinking about comics, rather than writing about stuff I already know what I think about them. I’ve written so much about Batman, for instance, that you might be surprised to discover that Richard Sala is one of my favorite comics creators. I’m not exactly sure which comic was my first, but my mom brought home a copy of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s now-defunct alternative comics magazine, RAW, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago when I was a teenager. I might’ve discovered Sala there. The first Sala collections I had were Thirteen O’Clock: A Mr. Murmur Adventure (Dark Horse, 1992), Hypnotic Tales (Kitchen Sink Press, 1992) and Black Cat Crossing (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993). His “Invisible Hands” story aired in very short segments on Mtv’s Liquid Television in the 1990s. (A kind person has uploaded it here). I found his work occasionally in things like Blab and Drawn & Quarterly anthologies. I followed his monthly comic, Evil Eye.
I like the implied stories in his stories, whether short one page comics or longer narratives. There are hints at things happening in Sala’s world beyond the stories presented to us. I like the sense that there is something ongoing about these characters and stories, that they have lives, adventures and tragedies beyond what we see in the collections. It’s most evident in “Violenzia Returns,” with its open ending. But sometimes just a little glimpse like the implied stories of the “Malevolent Reveries.” It seems paradoxical that not filling in all the details and answering all the questions makes the stories seem more alive. But then, in life, we never really know everything, even if we are a member of the Council of Augurs, Xadico or another villain driven by the desire to know.
*If you do not know what krokodil is and decide to look it up, do not do an image search first.
Say her name…. Carol Borden!
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Jan. 28, 2016.