All this week at Robot 6 we’re interviewing some of the many contributors to First Second’s new anthology, Nursery Rhyme Comics. Today, J. Caleb Mozzocco talks to cartoonist Richard Sala.
Richard Sala is a prolific comics artist and illustrator often compared to Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, given his interest in visually compelling, somewhat spooky subject matter and deadpan gothic humor. He’s responsible for creating several plucky heroines who confront various mysteries and horrors, like foul-mouthed girl detective Judy Drood from Mad Night and The Grave Robber’s Daughter, monster magnet Peculia from Sala’s signature series Evil Eye and K. Westree of Cat Burglar Black.
The artist’s most recent work is last month’s original graphic novel The Hidden from Fantagraphics, about a group of people stuck in a diner during what may be the end of the world. Well, that and “Three Blind Mice” for First Second’s Nursery Rhyme Comics.
J. Caleb Mozzocco: Do you think nursery rhymes played any particularly powerful role in your childhood or development as a storyteller?
Richard Sala: My mom had old books of illustrated nursery rhymes and fairy tales from her childhood (which were old even when she was young) when I was very little and they certainly had an impact on me. Years later I found copies of some of those books and was amazed to find the roots of some of my weird fears and obsessions!
Mozzocco: Given how short your piece is—two pages, five panels—do you think creating it was more akin to the illustration work you’ve done, or to a comic?
Sala: Definitely a comic. Because I had to “fill in the blanks” that aren’t really spelled out in the rhyme. Like, why in the world would three mice (who happen to be blind!) run after the farmer’s wife? So, I decided to draw them sniffing the sweet smell of a cake she had just made, and running towards that.
I also decided that to match the simplicity and repetition of the rhyme, the strip should have the same qualities. I wanted it to work as a whole—and not look like I was trying to overpower the little rhyme with my art.
Mozzocco: I noticed your bio in the back of the book refers to your usual subject matter as unusual or spooky…do you think this falls into that unusual/spooky area, involving mice and knife-play as it does, or is this a more atypical piece from you?
Sala: Well, a lot of nursery rhymes seem to have a somewhat creepy quality—like old Victorian dolls. At least for me. But for this particular piece, since it was for kids, I made an effort to reign in some of my natural tendencies toward doing some scarier stuff.
A friend and I did joke about the fact that the strip had the potential for some really nightmarish and bloody images and we tossed around some ideas that were truly revolting! But [editor Chris Duffy] had said that the book was for kids, so those ideas stayed in my notebook.
Mozzocco: You’ve created comics and graphic novels for several seemingly distinct audiences in the past. In general, how conscious are you of audience when making a work? That is, do you think, “This comic is for a grown-up. This comic is for a young adult/teenage audience,” or do you just make books for yourself? I’m just curious if you approached this as a comic for little kids specifically.
Sala: Ideally, I am always making the things for myself. That’s why I chose to work more in comics and less in illustration to begin with.
I did a comic strip for Nickelodeon magazine ages ago that ran about eight or ten episodes. That was aimed at kids but I totally did it to please a specific part of my own brain. I mean, I always think of the individual reader, more so than a particular audience. I want my work to be able to communicate and entertain the reader—that’s my goal—but beyond that, I’m doing them for myself, in that I’m doing things that I personally want to see.
Mozzocco: Did drawing this little comic whet your appetite for illustrating nursery rhymes or adapting or illustrating public domain/shared cultural material like this in the future?
Sala: It’s actually something I’ve always been interested in. Somewhere in my piles of old notebooks there are several plans to do books of nursery rhymes and similar things. Maybe someday I’ll actually get around to it! In the meantime, I’m always very happy to be invited to be a part of cool book projects like this one.
TOMORROW: Michael May talks to Aaron Renier