Richard Sala Explores The World of Dark Fairy Tales in "Delphine"

Virtually all of Richard Sala's comics take place in a strange, gothic world not dissimilar to those inhabited by Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson, but the cartoonist's artistic style and idiosyncratic humor are unlike anyone else. In books like "The Chuckling Whatsit," "Maniac Killer Strikes Again!" "Peculia," "The Grave Robber's Daughter" and "The Hidden," Sala proved again and again that he is a master at balancing humor and horror. In "Cat Burglar Black," the writer/artist demonstrated his talent for telling stories about and for younger readers, creating a tale that feels as though it couldn't have been created by anyone but Sala.

His most recent work is "Delphine," out now from Fantagraphics' Ignatz Series imprint. A collection of Sala's four issue miniseries, the collection offers a unique look at a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White-type contemporary fairy tale from the point of view of an unlikely Prince Charming. CBR News spoke with the modern comic book master about his new book, .

CBR News: Where did the idea for "Delphine" originate?

Richard Sala: Well, like a lot of people on the planet, I've experienced the emotional highs and lows of being in love. You know -- the fascination, the desire, the heartache. You can't sleep or eat, you're filled with constant yearning -- it can feel like a sickness or mania. And of course you question whether or not the other person feels the same way. Are they in love with you or are they just tolerating you? Are you the person of their dreams or actually a deluded pest? Those mixed-up feelings -- especially when you're young -- are horrible. So, I figured, why not write a romance as a horror story? That was the impetus to set the story in motion.

It contains has many elements of classic fairy tales, especially Snow White.

Yes. It's told from the point of view of what would be -- in a fairy tale -- the Prince Charming character -- the guy who is on his way to be reunited with the heroine. As he attempts to get to her, there are all kinds of obstacles. And if he's clever -- people in fairy tales always have to be clever -- he'll overcome them, and if he's not, then he won't.

It's odd, but when you first started on this book, there weren't multiple Snow White movies or fairy tale TV shows.

Yeah, "Delphine" was originally serialized in four issues published jointly by Fantagraphics Books and Coconino Press -- in Europe -- beginning in 2006. Since then, there have been two Snow White-inspired movies which have already come and gone. I mean, there's certainly nothing new about doing a modern take on a fairy tale, but it is true that when the earliest issues of "Delphine" came out, a movie producer -- who was working on "Shutter Island" at the time -- was interested and we had many talks. He sent the first two issues to a couple of different screenwriters to get their take on it. So it was circulating. But, I think when it eventually dawned on him that -- due to the publishers' schedule -- this wasn't a monthly series, but a yearly one, he decided to move on. After all, Snow White is public domain anyway, and that's what he liked about it -- a "modern re-imagining" of Snow White. Now, I have no idea if it's connected at all (in fact, I'm probably flattering myself to even consider it), but before I could finish the last issue, suddenly there were two Snow White movies in development. Anyway, now my book version is coming out, just when that whole angle maybe seems tired and played out. Luckily, "Delphine" is still vastly different from those other projects, even with the fairy tale elements. I guess that's a testament to the versatility of those old stories. 

"Delphine," like many of your earlier books, was serialized, though this was part of the Ignatz line as opposed to being in your comic "Evil Eye" or elsewhere. Do you miss being able to serialize a story? Or do you prefer just producing the book like with "Cat Burglar Black" or "The Hidden?"

I can't tell you how much I loved doing serialized comics. I did "The Chuckling Whatsit," "Mad Night" and "Delphine" that way. "Peculia," too, although those are each stand-alone stories. That was just the perfect format for me. So, yes, I do miss it.  

In what way do you think that serializing the story helped shape how you told "Delphine?"

With "Delphine," although it was only four issues, I could allow each chapter to build to a certain level of intensity, to reach a breaking point -- and then, in the next chapter, to be able to pull back, get a bit contemplative and start to build all over again. That was the result of having to work in that format. If I had created it as one unbroken narrative, it would have been harder for me to create that kind of rhythm naturally. It was the same with the other serialized stories I've done, in that I wanted each individual chapter to be satisfying and intense. I've been circling around the idea of starting a web comic for a long time now. Since I enjoy doing serials, that seems like it may be the logical thing to do. And I have some ideas, but I want to be sure. You don't want to be deep into it and then realize you've made a mistake! I may start out with something modest, just to test the waters.  

What can you tell us about the color scheme for the book? How did you end up settling on its sepia-tinted look?

When the Coconino and Fantagraphics people accepted my proposal for the series, I was given the option of doing the art in black and white line or in a duo-tone. I jumped at the chance to do a duo-tone wash because -- although I'd been doing watercolor artwork and illustrations for years -- at that point I'd had very few opportunities to do anything in comics other than line work.

I decided on sepia and black for the colors, although I ended up creating the original art using blue washes. I found painting in blue rather than brown allowed me to see the values more clearly. I remember one of my art teachers saying, "blue is the color of infinity." That is, when we look at a blue sky, we don't see a flat wall. When I painted in shades of blue, each panel appeared more spacious and atmospheric. This may be just a personal quirk, but when I painted in browns, the darks never seemed dark enough and the light areas seemed too close to the medium range. Sometimes the brown washes would appear flat and solid which I knew wouldn't necessarily be the case in the printed version, especially with the warm, cream-colored paper. So, after painting the art in blue, I scanned them and turned them into brown and black duotone in photoshop. 

I don't want to give away the ending, but did you know that this is how the story would end from the beginning?

I always allow myself room to make changes in any comic I'm doing as I go along. There is always a structure in mind underneath it all, but it would be stultifying to not be able to go in new directions if they occurred to me during the process. But, yeah, I do usually know where things are going to end up eventually. The main story, which is depicted with ruled borders, was always linear. But I allowed myself more room with the main character's inner life. All of that -- the memories, dreams, fantasies, wishful thinking -- all of that is depicted in panels with soft, cloud-like, non-ruled borders. And so I was able to add to the character's inner life -- his thoughts and fears and confusion -- as I went along.

"The Grave Robber's Daughter" is available on comiXology, and is the only book of yours that is available digitally, though you post a lot of artwork on your blog. I was just curious about how you think the book -- and comics, more generally -- reads digitally.

It's funny, because for nearly all of my life, the idea of having a successful career as a cartoonist or illustrator was about getting into print, getting published, having a book to hold in my hand. But I've seen that world crumble away. I never wanted to live in a world where I couldn't browse in bookstores or record shops. But if that's where it's all headed, then artists have to adapt. We have to assume that the quality of digital readers is going to keep improving. I'm a working artist, so I'm the last person to get up on a soap box and tell other artists, especially young artists, what they should or shouldn't do to get their work out there. Just do whatever works to connect with your audience. 

I really enjoy checking out your blog because you have a habit of posting some great artwork. Tell us a little about "Autumn and Evil" and "Skeleton Key" and what you're trying to do with the blog.

Thanks! So far, instead of starting an actual story, I've done those two online exhibits -- where I do a series of drawings around a certain theme and post them on my tumblr and blog over the course of a few months. "Skeleton Key" is a guide to characters in my work -- including some that haven't actually been published in my books, as well as relatively minor characters whose backgrounds I thought would be fun to flesh out. Even in my earliest books, there was the notion that the lives and worlds of many of the characters may intersect, so with that series I was able to do some, as the kids say, worldbuilding. I mean, the idea of constructing this fictional universe is totally tongue-in-cheek -- but it was fun for me to write bios for my characters and, in some cases, even reveal their fates. I imagined it as a set of 40 bubblegum trading cards, with the picture on the front and the description on the back. To be honest, like a lot of my work I was doing it primarily for myself, and I can't tell you how happy it made me to find out that other people may have enjoyed it, too!.  

The second series, "Autumn and Evil," just wrapped up and it was that old artists' stand-by -- an alphabet. With that format -- twenty-six drawings, each based on a letter of the alphabet -- I could go nuts and work in appearances by Sherlock Holmes or The Joker or monsters from The Outer Limits. And during that series I was really aware of the attention and encouragement of my small but seemingly loyal audience. Their enthusiasm really inspired me to push myself every time, and I think that series includes some of the best work I've done.  

Will we see more Judy Drood or Peculia or K from "Cat Burglar Black," or do you think you're done with those characters?

I've got nothing planned for those characters right now -- beyond the occasional drawing on my blog or tumblr documenting some unwritten escapade -- of which there are lots and lots.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on developing a couple of projects, but it's too early to say which one will take precedent. It may be time to try a web comic, but I'm not sure. I'm one of those neurotic, superstitious artists who doesn't like to talk about all the (very cool) things he may or may not have in the pipeline. At the very least, talking about all the great things one plans to do can fatally dissipate the creative energy one needs to see those things through. Whatever I do, it won't be long before something new is showing up my blog and tumblr. I plan to enjoy those formats before everything changes again. I reread an old interview of mine where the subject of "Myspace" came up -- and I had to think a minute to even remember what that was! The reference seemed as ancient and dated as mentioning a mimeograph machine. So I know all this internet stuff probably won't last forever, but it's pretty inspiring to have right now.

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