What would you if a worldwide disaster struck — and it was entirely your fault? That question is at the heart of Richard Sala’s “The Hidden,” now available from Fantagraphics Books, but the truth behind the event that has derailed human civilization is perhaps even more intriguing. In Sala’s tale, a man awakens from a sinister dream to see zombie-like hordes overrunning the city; his first thought, “Well, it’s only a matter of time…”
The unnamed man encounters two other survivors, and together they embark on a journey of survival and discovery, one that might just bring a stop to the madness — if the mysterious lead can overcome his own past. CBR News spoke with Sala about his latest creation, as well as a past project that has gained a second life online.
CBR News: “The Hidden” seems to be, in terms of pure genre, a story of post-apocalyptic survival. But there’s also much more going on. How would you describe the story you’re telling here?
Richard Sala: It’s a story about consequences. It’s about what happens when you set wheels in motion that maybe you can’t control, that in fact spin completely out of control. What do you do? Do you take responsibility for what comes next or, or do you run away and distance yourself from what you’ve caused and try to pretend it doesn’t matter. And it’s about what happens when you finally realize that it’s up to you to stop what you started.
Is that vague enough?! It’s not exactly a “high concept” description, I’m afraid.
This is also a zombie story — of sorts — though after the initial attack that really isn’t the focus of the story. Was “The Hidden” your attempt to doing something new within the confines of a familiar genre, or was the original inspiration something else?
Yeah, my inclination was to try something a little off the beaten track from the typical zombie rampage or post-apocalyptic survival story. I mean, I love those genres and I’m fascinated with their prevalence in our culture right now, but there are plenty of straightforward examples of those out there. I wanted to come at it from a slightly different direction, maybe keep the reader guessing or wondering a bit about where things were headed.
Your stories often tackle dark subjects with varying degrees of the grotesque for flavor, but they’re generally tempered by humor. That seems to be less the case here, though there are moments of lightness (the end of civilization is actually quite amusing). Were you looking to hew closer to straight horror with “The Hidden?”
I tend to think there is an element of humor in everything I do — a kind of gallows humor, maybe — although just how black or bleak that humor is may vary from book to book. What I’m usually interested in is creating a kind of off-kilter sense of the absurd. Those moments in life that seem absurd or ridiculous or uncanny are the ones I’m fascinated with and which I try to recapture in my work. Sometimes things can be absurd in a funny way, sometimes they can be absurd in a frightening or disturbing way. But, yeah, I probably did resist any impulse to lighten things up in this particular book, so it is a bit darker in tone, perhaps.
The man at the center of the action is not named for most of the book, but we see very early that he’s involved somehow in what’s happening to the world — and yet it all takes him somewhat by surprise. Without giving too much away (obviously), what can you tell us about this character, his perspective and his struggle to survive?
He is somewhat surprised, but only in the way we may be surprised when something we always suspected (or knew) was inevitable finally happens — because we hoped it never really would. Once it happens, it’s pretty obvious to him what’s going on and although he’s taken a bit off-guard, he ultimately makes a decision to fix the “problem” he was responsible for and that he spent years trying to hide from.
You also create a bit of intrigue by putting a very important character on the cover whose significance is not revealed until fairly late in the book. How do you think this colors a reader’s experience of the earlier chapters?
I’m not sure how it might affect the reader’s experience initially, but I figured the character deserved to be on the cover. His shadow is cast over the entire story. So I think the reader may feel a sense of satisfaction or discovery when they finally encounter the character later in the book. Plus I remember thinking about those old monster movie posters from the 1950s that would show the monster clearly and big and right up front, even though in the movie he may not be seen clearly until the last fifteen minutes. I guess the reason for that was to let the potential audience know that, yes, there is a monster in this movie!
This will be your second book in full-color, and you’re using a very distinctive palette, in watercolor. What prompted the switch initially, and do you find your style has changed at all, either initially to accommodate the color or from book to book as you find what works best?
The atmosphere I wanted to create in most of my earlier books was inspired by my love of old movies — especially classic horror, film noir and German Expressionism. But color just seemed the way to go for “Cat Burglar Black,” which was my first full-length graphic novel aimed at a young adult audience. I color by hand, not on a computer, using watercolor, so it’s actually fun to do. Even after all these years, I love splashing water on the paper and swirling it around to make colors, like a kid. The challenge in doing color comics is to consider the mood you’re trying to convey in each scene — which was something that was never an issue with black and white. But I enjoyed that aspect as well. So when the time came to do “The Hidden,” there was no question that I was going to do it as full-color. I imagined that using color might give it a bigger, more epic feel, and that appealed to me.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews your fondness for Kafka, and I can definitely see the tonal influence in “The Hidden.” Are there creators or works you would cite as having an effect on your storytelling, and on “The Hidden” in particular?
I actually thought a lot about Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” while I was working on “The Hidden.” “The Birds” is a story about the (possible?) end of the world and it’s filled with so many odd little touches. It kind of keeps you off-balance and I really like that. And I like that it focuses on a small group of people as they deal with what’s happening specifically to them. We never see (or know) what’s happening in the rest of the world. I think that withholding that kind of information creates a sense of dread you don’t have if you’re cutting away to show scientists or the military dealing with whatever is happening.
Your MTV animation, “Invisible Hands,” has recently turned up online. I get the sense you didn’t even have a copy of this yourself. How did it feel to see this again after nearly fifteen years?
I had a copy — a couple of copies actually — on videotape. I used to lend them out to people who wanted to see it. But, yeah, once DVDs came along my copies got put away and I figured people would just forget all about it. I mean, I knew there was always some small amount of interest in it because, over the years, I’ve probably gotten more letters about “Invisible Hands” than anything else. But it was never released on DVD by MTV, who owned it (although I managed to keep the print rights, since the comic strip version was printed first in my comic “Night Drive”). I have no idea who the people were who began putting up the episodes on YouTube, but I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who said nice things about it or had fond memories of it.
Is there another comic project you’re working on right now?
The next book will be a collection of the four-issue series I did a few years ago for the European publisher Coconino Press (co-published by Fantagraphics in the US) called “Delphine.” That’s due out sometime next year. And I’ve got a few other projects brewing that I hope to get off the ground sooner or later. For some reason I seem to be at my most content when I’m working on bunch of potential projects at the same time. I’ve even been thinking about starting a web comic, if I can figure out the best way to do that. That could be a lot of fun.