Richard Sala Talks "Cat Burglar Black"

In a series of short stories and books and in his ongoing series "Evil Eye" from Fantagraphics, Richard Sala's crafted a strange and unique gothic world that has drawn comparisons to old masters like Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson. Sala specializes in strong female characters who find themselves in gothic environments, but he's not interested in shrieking, helpless heroines. Indeed, in books like "The Chuckling Whatsit," "Maniac Killer Strikes Again!" "Peculia," "Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires," "Mad Night" and "The Grave Robber's Daughter," Sala and his idiosyncratic humor have demonstrated there is nothing else on the shelves quite like his work.

Earlier this year, Fantagraphics' Ignatz series released the final volume of Sala's "Delphine," a unique look at a Snow White/Sleeping Beauty-type fairy tale from the point of view of an unlikely Prince Charming, and this month sees the release of Sala's most recent book, "Cat Burglar Black," from First Second Books. "Cat Burglar Black" is the story of K. Westree, a young orphan who attends a prestigious school... for cat burglars. Conspiracies and hijinx ensue. The book is undoubtedly Sala's, it bears all his trademark style and wit, but this time in color.

With "Cat Burglar Black" on sale now, CBR News sat down with Richard Sala to talk about the new book and his body of work.

CBR: "Cat Burglar Black" stars K. Westree, who's the latest in your long line of tough, plucky, interesting female lead characters. In this book, most of the characters are women. What do you find so interesting about female characters and the types of stories you tell?

RICHARD SALA: I'm not sure. I feel like I've known many strong, independent-minded women in my life, and you see in them that desire to roll up their sleeves and get a job done. So, in a sense, I'm writing what I know -- character-wise, that is. Generally speaking, it's often men who are the instigators of trouble and dangerous situations. With women characters, you place them in these horrible situations and they have to react, which can create interesting conflicts. They have to figure out what to do to survive and that can be more interesting than using a traditional genre-type male who is just expected to shoot or punch his way out.  The heroine tends to have more of a variety of choices -- alternatives to "fight or flight" that can involve cunning or logic, for instance.

In my earliest short stories, the main characters were always men.  They were that classic film noir type of the born loser or victim or the guy who can't get a break.  For some reason, when I began writing more complex stories that would require an active and motivated protagonist, I chose to use women to fill that role, while the men were still the usual hard luck types or villains.  

In this particular story, though, women take on all the major roles - good and bad.  It became clear pretty early on while writing the character of the heroine, K. Westree, that she was not going to need any help from any of the usual leading man types who often turn up in mysteries or gothics at the last minute to sweep the girl off her feet.  However, what she would need would be an adversary (or two) who was equally formidable -- and that would be another strong woman.  All that helps gives the book a different kind of energy, I think, that may seem somewhat refreshing or offbeat compared to similar stories.

In "Cat Burglar Black," K runs up against an enigmatic group calling itself "The Obtainers." What can you tell us about this group?

"The Obtainers" is the name of a secret organization, established hundreds of years ago, whose motto is "You Desire, We Obtain."  They provide an underground service for anyone who can afford it:  they will obtain any object, no matter how rare or valuable, for (or from, as the case may be) kings or emperors, presidents or tycoons.  And in order to continue their unlawful activities over the years, they run a series of schools for cat burglars, masquerading as orphanages.  In these schools, they literally raise children to become cat burglars.  Yes, they exploit and corrupt innocent orphans.  They are not nice people!

The scenes between K and her other fellow students were a lot of fun to read and it felt like a change of pace having four young women interact like that. Did you enjoy these scenes and was there any one character that you enjoyed writing more than the others?

I did enjoy writing those scenes and, yes, they were a change of pace for me.  During the time I was writing "Cat Burglar Black," I was also writing the last chapter in a series I was doing called "Delphine," which is very different than "Cat Burglar Black," much more grim and dark, dealing with a tormented male character.  So it was often a relief to switch gears and get out of that gloomier place.  I'd try to remember conversations I'd had while hanging out with female friends over the years, especially when I was young. I remembered certain qualities that were appealing that you don't necessarily find in young men, generally speaking -- the gentle teasing and easy empathy.  Of the four girls, Dory's dialogue was definitely the most fun to write.  She's cheerfully cynical, but there is a sense she is desperately trying to cover up a very unhappy past.  None of the girls had very happy childhoods, but Dory is probably the one who is most tormented about it, psychologically speaking.  I liked writing for the heroine, K., as well.  But a lot of her character is revealed visually, through the way she acts and reacts in the art.  She is confident and brave, and those types often keep a lot of their personal stuff to themselves.  So she "says" more about who she is by her actions than in her dialogue.

"Cat Burglar Black" leaves some unanswered questions. Is there a plan for a second book?

I do have a sequel in mind.  But whether or not it will come to be depends on a lot of factors beyond my control.  It would be fun to continue the story.  I have a lot more to tell about these characters.  But I think it also could end where it ends, with the heroine contemplating the start of a new adventure.  This is a character than was intended to live on -- and that can either be in subsequent books or in the reader's own imagination.

"Cat Burglar Black" seems intended for a younger audience than your other books. There's not quite as much swearing or violence or blood. Was this something you intended from the beginning when you were developing this idea?

The only audience I ever have in mind when I'm developing any story ideas is me!  It always begins with thinking up stories I'd like to see myself and then adding details for my own enjoyment.  I think this book probably was a bit darker in its earlier stages.  I started cutting some of that stuff out when I realized the idea of putting these girls I'd created into really awful situations was becoming a bit much, even for me!  I've done plenty of other books where I've done those kinds of darker or bloodier things, but as I got to "know" these particular girls better and as the tone of the story started to become more about the strength and perseverance of the young heroine instead of just a thrill ride, I toned some of those things down.  

For example, in earlier versions, some of the places they have to rob were even more horrible than the ones that ended up in the book!  Then, at some point, before it was finished, either Mark Siegel or Calista Brill of First Second mentioned that it would most likely be marketed to a younger audience, which was fine with me.  When I was young, reading books and comics was such a pleasure for me, something I enjoyed so much -- so I thought, if even one kid out there gets anywhere near the pleasure out of reading my book as I did from the books I read when I was young, I could die happy.

"Delphine" is a miniseries that may not have been on the radar of a lot of comics fans. It's part of the Ignatz series from Fantagraphics in collaboration with a number of European publishers. What was your experience working on that project?

I've often used elements of folk tales in my work, and so "Delphine" began the same way.  The rough idea was to do a present-day take on "Snow White" or "Sleeping Beauty" from the point-of-view of the male character -- the "hero" or the "prince" -- who has set out to find the endangered heroine.  So, the story begins with the traveler arriving in the town where he believes his long-lost girlfriend lives -- and the rest of the story is what he goes through trying to get to her.  Their relationship is revealed slowly during the course of the story in non-chronological flashbacks -- in the memories and thoughts and dreams of the traveler, which tend to be jumbled up.  And since everything we know about their relationship comes from this guy who is sort of insecure, the information we get is often contradictory.

I was exploring ideas of romance and/or love - and what it's like to be driven by that.  Oh -- and, by the way, it's a horror story!  I'm not really good at selling these things sometimes!  It is hopefully an entertaining horror story - and it is quite a bit darker than "Cat Burglar Black" or other stories I've done. The Ignatz folks, who I mainly communicated with through Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics, did do a remarkable job with the books and, despite the fact that I wish the series hadn't been released at such a slow pace, the experience was an absolute joy.

You've done a few short comics in color and "Delphine" had a sepia wash, but you've never done a major work like "Cat Burglar Black" in color. How has color changed the way you worked?

I really love working in color.  I was really glad to have the opportunity.  When I first got out of art school and began doing illustration work -- all of that was in color.  I did hundreds and hundreds (no exaggeration!) of color illustrations for clients all over the world.  But when I started doing comics, I was more interested in the kind of work that was coming out of the alternative scene in the 1980s -- and that work was pretty much all in black and white.  The smaller publishers who were interested in my work couldn't afford to do books in color for the most part -- so I "went with it" and created a sort of "noir" look - lots of black shadows and nervous lines.  In my earliest black and white work, I struggled with that.  Some of my earliest comics look like they are waiting for color to be added.  But eventually I got the hang of it and did the best I could.  

All this is just to say that it was a joy to work in full-color on a full-length comic.  I've done a bunch of short color pieces here and there over the years -- but this is the first time I got to paint an entire book.  And I want to thank First Second for that.  I did, however, try to stay "true" to my personal vision.  I thought about how Hitchcock is still recognizably Hitchcock whether he made his films in black and white or color, so I tried to maintain the spirit of my black and white work while at the same time using every opportunity to take advantage of what color can do to make the book as good as it can be.

Is there a sequence or image where striking that balance really clicked for you?

Well, for example, both "Cat Burglar Black" and an earlier book of mine, "The Chuckling Whatsit," feature scenes of female cat burglars creeping through the night.  While the black and white art in "The Chuckling Whatsit" seemed perfect for those scenes in that story -- which is kind of an old-fashioned thriller -- the ability to actually color the night scenes in "Cat Burglar Black" -- with a variety of deep blues or purples or grays -- was very helpful in playing with subtle shifts in the emotions or view-points of the characters, since I was attempting to portray characters who were more emotionally complex than those in the earlier book.  The earlier book is more about the maze than the characters caught in the maze - and I suppose "Cat Burglar Black" is just the opposite.

"Cat Burglar Black" is your first book from First Second after a long relationship with Fantagraphics. Why was the book released from First Second and how has the relationship been different from working with Fantagraphics?

I love making up my own stories and being able to sit down and draw them up - from beginning to end - with almost nothing but complete trust from a publisher -- and that's how Fantagraphics has been for me.  At some point they let me know that they had faith in me to do the job, that if I started to work on something, that I was dead serious about finishing it and getting it ready for print.  When a publisher or editor gives a creator that kind of freedom and trust, they are as likely to be let down as not.  But this is something I really like to do - tell stories and make books - so I would never want to let my publisher down or disappoint them with the quality of the work.  I think Fantagraphics knows that and they trust me.  And though I can state with some certainty that I am nowhere near their biggest seller, they have told me that I am a consistent seller, and that with every new book picked up by a new reader, that reader often goes back and orders my other books.  So although none of my books have exactly set the world on fire upon initial release, neither has anything I've ever done been a "flash in the pan." All of the books seem to continue to sell so I think Fantagraphics considers that when they are faced with yet another Richard Sala submission.

On the other hand, as a former illustrator, I can be completely at ease working with art directors, editors and designers. I'm no prima donna (ask anyone!) and I can actually enjoy a collaborative effort if the people I'm collaborating with are creative and smart and easy to work with and - especially - if there is mutual respect all around. Luckily that describes all the folks on staff at First Second! Some of the collaborations I've in done in the past -- like my story with Lemony Snicket for Little Lit ("It Was A Dark And Silly Night") -- are among my persona favorites. So I was happy to have the input of the First Second folks, whose only goal was to help me produce the best book I possibly could.  Plus, the opportunity to do a book in full-color was, as I mentioned, too awesome to resist.

For so many years you were creating short stories and telling stories in your series "Evil Eye," but a few years ago you ended the series and shifted to graphic novels. How has not serializing the stories changed the way you work? Would you ever go back to serializing stories?

I love serialized stories.  I always loved continued stories in comics I read as a kid and I loved creating them as an adult.  I love having the opportunity to "sprawl" things out and create a whole world for your characters, which is something that you can do in serialized stories more gradually than with self-contained ones.  Also, as a cartoonist, it's preferable to work in the serialized format.  Creating a graphic novel from scratch can be a time-consuming and laborious process.  (That's why, if you aren't enjoying creating your story, it's better not to start!)   It's also helpful to see how people are responding as the installments are released, and it's a lot of fun to keep the readers in suspense between issues.  You can control the flow of the story somewhat better that way, especially if it's a mystery or thriller.

However, I want people to have the opportunity to find and read my work and I've always had a bit of an uphill battle getting my comics into the comic book stores.  Online stores have widened my audience considerably.  I could see it happening while I was still working on the last few issues of "Evil Eye."  I started getting mail, not as a result of my comics, but based on my graphic novels that Amazon.com was selling.  And they were coming from all over the world.  Many were discovering my work for the first time, based on snippets they'd seen online.   Many, including readers in the US, didn't have a comic book store anywhere near them, or if they did, chances were good that that store didn't carry my comics.  The process was limiting the exposure to my work to a very specific audience -- and that's not healthy for anybody in the long run.  I am sincerely and eternally grateful to the comic book stores that do carry my work.  I know those are the places where any possible "fan base" I may now have, began.  But the goal of any creator is to reach as wide a potential audience as possible.  And switching to graphic novels was my opportunity to make that happen.  

But - in answer to your question -- yes, I'd love the chance to do a serialized story again.  Never say never!

Have cat burglars and "gentlemen thieves" been something you've been fascinated by or wanted to write about? Your mention of Hitchcock brings to mind "To Catch a Thief," but was there anything that's inspired or peaked your interest?

The female cat burglar in "The Chuckling Whatsit" was inspired by a similar one in the French film "Judex," which is one of my favorite movies.  And I liked that idea so much I wanted to do more with it.  It's just one of many elements in "The Chuckling Whatsit," but it's what the new book is all about.  As a kid, for whatever reason, my tastes in comics or genre fiction gravitated more towards the kind of noir-ish, earthbound exploits of, say, The Shadow and other pulp characters from the 1930s.  For some reason I felt more of an affinity with mystery and horror -- the nighttime stuff -- than with science fiction or superheroes.  So, although I've dabbled in other things, that's always what I seem to return to.

Do you have plans to return to your two famous recurring characters, Judy Drood (from "Mad Night" and "The Grave Robber's Daughter") and Peculia (from "Peculia," "Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires")?

I have notebooks filled with story ideas for both of those characters, and I would like for their exploits to continue. I do feel there is more to tell, particularly about Peculia. I had a lot of fun dropping hints about her and her past in her stories, but maybe I should give her the full "Origin" treatment next time.

With "Delphine" complete and while you mentioned you have an idea for a sequel to "Cat Burglar Black," nothing is planned. What are you doing next?

At this moment, besides the kinds of small side projects I'm always doing, I'm only working on one new book.  I usually like to have more than one to work on at any given time, but the new book I'm writing is a bit more complex, both visually and psychologically, so I don't want to get too distracted from it until it's a slightly more developed.  When it's further along, I'll start another one -- I haven't decide what yet.  I love the process of figuring out what to do next.  It's always fun to start on a new project!

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