We’re sorry to report the passing of American cartoonist and illustrator Richard Sala, best known for his work published by Fantagraphics Books. He was 65, found dead at his home in Berkeley, California.
His passing was very sudden – he had only recently launched a new web comic, Carlotta Havoc versus Everybody, just last month.
Sala grew up “with a fascination for musty old museums, dusty old libraries, cluttered antique shops, narrow alleyways, hidden truths, double meanings, sinister secrets and spooky old houses”, he noted online. He wrote and drew a number of unusual graphic novels, and has provided illustrations for a variety of clients all over the world.
Sala’s tongue-in-cheek mystery/thriller comics — including The Chuckling Whatsit, Cat Burglar Black and Evil Eye — were, as noted by Michael Dean in his tribute for The Comics Journal, “like nothing else and everything else in popular culture.”
His primary publisher was Fantagraphics, although he also did work for First Second Books, IDW Publishing, and the prestigious anthologies, RAW and BLAB!.
His books include The Hidden, Delphine – one of Paste’s Best Horror Comics of all time – Cat Burglar Black, Violent Girls, Violenzia, Hypnotic Tales and more, including web comics such as Super Enigmatix. His most recent work, The Bloody Cardinal, was released by Fantagraphics Books in 2017.
His illustration work spanned major magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Playboy; CD-ROM covers for The Residents; and a Jack Kerouac screenplay called Dr. Sax and the Great World Snake.
“I drew all kinds of things as a kid, but… I probably leaned toward the more fantastical,” he revealed in an interview with Logan Kaufman, published on the Adventures Underground web site in 2006. “I drew comics and pictures of monsters and so on. Then I got older and took art classes and that certainly broadened my perspective.
“The funny thing is, I spent years unlearning all the cartoony elements in my work that had formed when I was a kid. And that was fine for awhile. I decided I wanted to be a great classical illustrator like N.C. Wyeth (even though I was in the Fine Arts program, not Illustration or Design). I struggled with that for a year or so — it just didn’t come naturally to me, I can see that now — it wasn’t in my nature, it didn’t suit my temperament or personality.
“The great thing about art school is it helps you work through those things. Finally I had classes with two teachers who encouraged us to find who we were — just by drawing and drawing constantly to see what would come up. I found myself drawing all these Expressionistic, Caligari-esque corridors and doorways, bizarre scenarios featuring operating rooms and hunched shadowy figures. Now that did come easily to me. That was my true nature — all that stuff I’d absorbed so hungrily as a kid. It started all coming back and I guess it never completely went away again.”
He was also a collector of ephemera, such as TOPPS cards, film posters and Golden Age comics, sharing images of many online. He was also kind to other creators, sharing creative tips and more on his many social media channels, such as Twitter, such as here, where he joined a discussion with artists on colouring their work.
Announcing his passing online, Fantagraphics, who had been working with Richard on a new 300-page collection, Poison Flowers and Pandemonium, its release delayed due to the Pandemic, described the artist as a dear friend.
“We are still processing, and will say more soon, but our hearts are with his close friends and family who are grieving this insurmountable loss.”
“Readers always knew from the first panel of a Richard Sala comic that they were about to be taken for a ride full of shocking twists and turns, familiar genre set-pieces, matter-of-fact melodrama and dark-humoured camp,” notes Michael Dean in his splendid TCJ tribute to the artist. “His comics are as simple and iconographically propulsive as a 1940s Saturday-morning adventure serial or pulp magazine of the 1930s, but with the symbolic depth and labyrinthine dream logic of a Hitchcock or Bunuel film.”
“I’m just happy to keep working,” said Sala of his comics career in 2006, comments that appear to reflect a path continued throughout his life. “I always have ideas for new projects — more than I can ever actually draw, plus I like to keep myself available to do projects for whatever publisher or editor calls me up with something interesting.
“The best is to have a few projects going on, but still be able to take side-projects when they come up.”
Sadly, those projects will no longer be going on, cut suddenly and tragically short. Our sympathies to family and friends at this time.