I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Richard Sala Enjoys Drawing Creepy Things

by Network Awesome
Nov. 29, 2011

Richard Sala is an illustrator and story teller whose style and influence helped define the late 80's and early 90's underground comic scene and -- dare I say -- even larger graphic trends throughout our culture. His style is immediately recognizable from his unique brand of expressionism, with elements of pulp, horror, and intrigue all finding a way into his often bizarre world.  We were delighted to find all 6 parts of his "Invisible Hands" series made for MTV's Liquid TV from back in the day, but we are even more delighted that he answered a few questions for us about that project and his work.

NA: Liquid TV, wow, that was a long time ago. How did that whole thing get started?

Richard Sala: I got a call from Colossal Pictures, who had made the deal with MTV to do Liquid Television, which was going to be a weekly show featuring animation.  One of the producers had found a copy of my first (self-published) comic, Night Drive, at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.  They liked the strip, Invisible Hands, in particular and asked me if I wanted to be involved in developing it as an animated serial for MTV.  Much of the show was going to be done in-house by Colossal employees, but they were also looking outside of their staff for creators whose work they liked – so that’s how Invisible Hands ended up on the show, along with other non-staff work like Aeon Flux and Beavis and Butthead.

The first season of Liquid TV was to consist of six episodes, and Invisible Hands, would run in each episode as two-minute chapters of a complete 12-minute serial.  I liked that idea because I had written Invisible Hands as an affectionate tribute to old-time (silly but lovable) thrillers – a mixture of classic mystery and horror movies, pulps, comic strips, serials, actors like Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre – all the sort of popular culture stuff from the 1930s which I discovered and immersed myself in when I was a kid in the 1960s & 1970s.  So the idea of being able to do a kind of “Tune In Next Week To See What Happens!” format was really appealing to me.

In Night Drive there were only two chapters.  So I went to work, writing the remaining four chapters and drawing the storyboards,  When the storyboards were approved, I sat down and drew all the art  you see on the screen.  The only things I didn’t actually draw myself were some little fill-in things they needed later, like a brick wall or whatever.

Then I'd drive them over to Colossal  - from Berkeley where I lived, to San Francisco – and that’s where the magic happened!  They used stop-motion.  The staff would blow up my drawings onto colored paper and then cut out all the figures and  movable parts.   The pieces were then positioned on three layers of glass – to give depth – with the camera looking down.  Next, the director, Denis Morella, carefully moved the pieces around – including the mouths, to match the dialogue – for each click of the camera.  I grew up loving stop-motion – everything from Ray Harryhausen to Gumby – so, I thought doing the animation that way was pretty cool.   Oh yeah -- we had to audition people for the right voices – which I had some pretty specific ideas about., just creepy and silly and over-the-top.  And they found really great people.

And then, the final touch, which I had nothing to do with except to give it my enthusiastic approval, was the music by Eric Tallman. The first time I heard the music I remember feeling this huge weight of worries I’d been having about the final product just lifting off my shoulders – because he just totally nailed the mood for the show I had wanted, but had no idea how to articulate.  In my mind, the music really makes the show.

NA: Seems like everything on that program was considerably un-mainstream, did they have any conditions, like "try not to be too freaky" or did they want you to push the boundaries?

RS: I can’t speak for anyone else who had pieces on the show, but I wasn’t asked to change a single word or drawing of anything I submitted.  Actually, back then I think MTV was embracing the “freaky” stuff.  There was a lot of experimentation going on with the videos they were airing and there seemed to be an encouragement at the network at that time to push the boundaries a bit.

I do remember wondering at the time though, whether or not some bigwig at the network would get a look at Invisible Hands and decide to just kill it for being too eccentric or strange or whatever.  I was still working a day job during that time and I’d often wonder – after working late into the night – if it would really actually happen.  I still had a hard time believing it would ever actually be on TV!

NA: Your work has always been so amazingly unique and recognizable, how did you develop it? Do you feel like your style has changed over the years?

RS: Well, when I was growing up I always loved monsters and comics – and my favorite artist was Charles Addams – so I enjoyed drawing creepy things.  Then when I was in art school I discovered the German Expressionists.  I felt we were kindred spirits – I just immediately “got it” and following their lead felt like the most natural thing in the world.  Up until then I had been trying to draw like classic old-time illustrators I admired like N.C. Wyeth - but it felt like a bad fit, my work looked stiff and there was no joy or excitement in creating it..  When I discovered artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, I just felt this great relief, like, “Oh wow – I can just be myself!”

Over the years, my style has changed, I guess.  You’re not really aware of it while it’s happening, but when you look back at your work you can see it.  It happens organically for the most part.  But once I decided to focus on doing comics, I did realize that, to better communicate and tell stories, I had to let go of some of my more free-wheeling quirks. The formal aspects of comics exist for a reason – this was pointed out to me by Art Spiegelman! So I made a conscious effort to tighten things up a bit.  If I had wanted to emphasize my art over the stories, it wouldn’t have been necessary.  But I really wanted to tell stories, and to do that effectively you don’t want to be confusing the reader too much. 

Still, I guess my work has never exactly been confused with any mainstream comics.  I guess it’s still seems a bit odd to people, I’m not sure.  I’ve tried to experiment with my style a couple of times.  I did a book called The Grave Robber’s Daughter where I just pushed myself to do it fast and loose.  A lot of the work I’d done before that had become very precise in the inking and compositions, very well planned out and carefully drawn.  But Grave Robber’s Daughter was a really angry, fucked-up book and I just did it in these bursts of energy without making a lot of corrections later.  That did result in loosening my style up a bit more, ultimately, for better or worse, I guess.  Lately some readers have pointed out to me that my last few books have gotten a bit more dark and serious – less fun or funny.  To me, it’s always been black comedy to a certain degree.  But I suppose it has, for whatever reason, become just a bit darker these days.

NA: Last question - looks like you've been a busy man, what's on the horizon?  Feel free to chuck in any links for our readers to buy stuff!

RS: Thanks!  I always try to keep busy.  I’m always working on more than one thing at a time.  My latest book just came out in October.  It’s called The Hidden.  It’s my contribution to the end-of-the-world genre, and yes, some of my regular readers may find it a bit darker than most of my other work.  My previous book, Cat Burglar Black, about a teenage cat burglar, was somewhat of a departure for me - it was my first graphic novel targeting younger readers.  I had a lot of fun doing that. 

Anyone interested in what I’m up to can go to my site http://hereliesrichardsala.blogspot.com/   You can also check out my original website - http://www.richardsala.com/ to see a lot of my older work.  And, finally, I recently started a tumblr, as well - www.richardsala.tumblr.com

Questions by Network Awesome writers and editors. We're a lot of fun - you can find us at apocalypse-themed parties, museums of science and industry, and snarky media-obsessed websites.