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“Richard”

"Relax", by Richard Sala.

Richard Sala was my closest friend for almost 30 years. We first came into contact when he wrote me a very kind and uplifting letter about my comics back in the dark days of 1987. I had been a huge fan of his work in RAW and elsewhere. I was blown away that such an accomplished artist would write to me and we quickly became devoted pen pals. He would send me packages with Xeroxes of out-of-print Kenneth Fearing stories and blow-ups of Topps Civil War cards all copied on the sly at his library job. I would usually respond by telling him about some writer or comic artist or movie he already knew all about. (Richard knew more about movies than anyone I've ever met. I know several film scholars who would regularly enlist his help in trying to figure out the name of an obscure film based on the scantest of information. It never took more than a few minutes to hear back from him). We finally met in person in 1992 (the same red-letter day I met my wife), at a signing at Comic Relief (RIP) in Berkeley. When I moved to the area later that year, he quickly became my best and, for a while, only friend. In those days, he was somewhat carefree and outgoing, having quit his library job to work as a very successful magazine illustrator. We'd meet for a weekly lunch/trip to the comic store, and talked on the phone almost every day. He took me to all the great old Bay Area used bookstores, where we would try to outdo each other looking for the best finds. Later we met Adrian Tomine, who joined in as part of our Berkeley comics trio. He fit right in, though it must have been grueling for him to listen to Richard and I talk at length about Burt Mustin or Percy Helton during lunch. Those were some of the happiest times of my life.

Richard was a very complicated guy, totally unlike anyone I've ever met. He could be gregarious and charming, always energetic and animated in conversation, but also crippled by terrible anxiety and profoundly agoraphobic. Over the years, it got harder and harder to get him out of the house. I basically forced him to meet me for lunch every Friday, and we did that right up until the COVID quarantine, but toward the end, that was the extent of his social life (except for the vast hours he spent online — a true lifeline). He would always show up five minutes late, furious about traffic, wearing a thick, black work shirt and his famous bucket hat, which curiously covered a full head of thick hair. He would close his eyes tight while ordering, as though trying to solve a complicated math equation, and then chop his ham and eggs into weird goulash, which he never finished.

Bay area comics event circa 1994.

He was utterly opposed to exercise — he would literally drive two blocks to the post office, circling patiently for a spot — but also vital and energetic, especially in his work. I've never been able to grasp how quickly he could crank out so many perfect, beautiful, hand-watercolored pages every week; it was like breathing to him. He was reassuringly predictable in a way, but always surprising in his (often intensely withering) opinions, and occasionally he'd reveal a secret skill that would make you rethink everything you knew about him. I once saw him dazzle a crowd of jaded partygoers by nonchalantly shooting a fly out of mid-air with a rubber band. But he felt cursed by his anxiety. In all the years I knew him, he never once left the state of California. He spent his early childhood in Chicago before moving to Arizona, and briefly to Louisville, but that was the extent of his travels. He never visited New York, or left the country, though part of him wanted to very badly. The more I learned about his struggles growing up, the more I was amazed by the extent of his accomplishments. I always had to remind him that no matter what, he had supported himself as a beloved artist for most of his adult life, and that would cheer him up for a few seconds. He was absolutely convinced that nobody really liked his work, that all the kind words were some massive conspiracy, but he also hoped that one day, some lone weird kid would find one of his books in a used bookstore and find the same kind of connection with his work that he'd had with his own bookstore heroes. I always loved reading his new books and then talking about them with him. Every character and idea had an interesting origin (the name Peculia, for example, came from a childhood misreading of pelicula in a Spanish film magazine) or a connection to some tangible event in his life. It was all so much deeper and more loaded emotionally than the surface implied. I loved him so much, loved hearing his thoughts on every subject, and his utterly unique Richard Sala-ness ("Sala-esque" is an oft-used adjective in the Clowes house), and feel so deeply grateful that I got to know such a private man. I'll be having conversations with him in my head for as long as I live.

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41 Responses to “Richard”

  1. Nulsh says:

    Such a nice piece.
    Having friends to share a love (obsession) with creativity is a wonderful thing.
    I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

  2. Zack Soto says:

    This is wonderful, Dan. I only knew Richard from online interaction, but he was definitely a complicated and wonderful person. His work was very important to me, and lots of others, and I’m sad he didn’t get to know that more.

  3. Nick Mullins says:

    Thank you.

  4. max says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. May your memories and Sala-esqueness live on forever

  5. B.A. Richardson says:

    Richard Sala is one of those cartoonists I always wanted to meet. I’ve exchanged a few letters with him over the years, but not nearly enough. Loved how he never bothered to go digital. Loved is lively character drawing were always ink and paint on paper. His stories were equal parts macabre and whimsical, a balance few are able to strike. Knowing that these stories are now over is profoundly sad. My best wishes go to his friends and family.

  6. Eric Haven says:

    A grouping of cartoonists is called a Cabal. I know this, because many years ago my friends and I formed one, and it still exists today… though we are now one less in number. 

    I first met Richard in 2009 at a book signing in San Francisco. Adrian Tomine and Seth were on tour, appearing at a branch of the SFPL, and the local Bay Area cartoonists turned out en masse to show support. Dan introduced me to Richard, and we happily chatted about comics and the comics scene and the early / mid-90s era of alternative comics. I was floored that Richard was familiar with my work, even complimentary. He was so friendly and welcoming! Much later that night when the group cascaded out of a restaurant, onto the street, and towards a late-night destination for more drinks, I attempted to slink quietly away since I had to be at work early the following morning. Richard would have none of it, and shouted “Hey you guys, Eric Haven is leaving!” This compelled me to say my goodbyes in proper fashion, but more than that, it made me feel more like a part of this great, historic cartooning community that I had felt somewhat separate from. Richard acknowledged me, and I’ve been grateful ever since.

    I got to know Richard a little better years later when our Cabal of Dan, Richard, Rina, Ben, and myself would meet up for dinner and drinks on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, close to where we all lived. Richard was a geysering fountain of fun movie facts, and had a bottomless appreciation for the obscure corners of pop culture. Paperback novels, forgotten television shows, pulps, posters, horror mags… he was utterly knowledgeable and conversant in all of it. Sitting at the table with him was a master class in 20th century American esoterica.

    For some reason, Richard’s voice often started out sounding weak and distant, as if being summoned from a tiny crevice deep within himself. But then, like a radio transmission locking onto a specific frequency, his voice would tumble out… loud, almost booming, full of life. He would employ a ridiculous mocking tone to describe someone or something deserving our derision. Hearing Dan and Richard describe a shared event or a particularly foul person from early in their careers was especially hilarious. 

    The last time I saw Richard was this past August during one of our Cabal meetings. I attempted to get a photo of us all together, responding to some gut instinct that future me would appreciate having a document of this time together. Regrettably, I was unable to convince Richard to be photographed. He instead offered to take a picture of the four of us, standing outside the bar, one member less than there should have been. 

    Richard was kind and generous and talented and whip-smart, with a searing sense of humor. I’ll miss him and the work he produced, which in my opinion was just getting better and better as he burrowed deeper within himself, fully processing and expressing all of his various obsessions. He was a unique and special man, and I’m grateful he was my friend.

  7. Rick Lucey says:

    A really nice write up and it really gives me some insight into Richard. Man living right in the same area with you guys I wished I could of quietly dropped into one of those lunches just to meet Richard once! Too me he is like Steve Ditko another favorite artist that was very mysterious and one I would never meet, yet leaves touches of influences on bits of my work. May Richard be at peace in the beyond and part of me will be forever sad I never met him in this reality!

  8. Tom Williams says:

    This is beautiful Dan. Condolences to you & everyone that knew and loved Richard.

    I always wanted to meet him. I first came across his work in art school in an almost daily visit to the library’s comics section. Immediately a fan.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I remember hanging out with Richard at a few NoCal shows and he was so sweet and talented. I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

  10. R.I.P. Richard Sala! What a great artist. Thanks for writing about him, Dan. I did not realize you two were such good chums. My condolences

  11. Kevin Mansell says:

    A wonderful tribute to a great artist.

  12. Ursula Hitler says:

    I was one of the lone weird kids who found his work and adored it. His work was one of the few things that made the early 90s bearable for me. God, 2020 is such a hard year. He will be sorely missed.

  13. Thank you so much, Daniel, for sharing this piece with us. I just saw the news of Richard’s passing while checking items on Instagram (in general, the reason I go to Instagram is to see if Richard has posted a new page or illustration), and my heart sunk to the floor. And then down to the cellar, I think.
    I had purchased a number of Richard’s pieces over the last few years, and we had exchanged a number of messages discussing his work through this time, along with other questions or chats. Always so kind, generous, and attentive through all of these. I am so profoundly sad. With my condolences to you and all those close to him.

  14. Tony Rennick says:

    Such a lovely tribute to your dear friend Dan, thank you. I have become a big fan of Richard Sala, his work is awesome and his Facebook posts were the absolute best. I will miss him so much.

  15. Ram Shackle says:

    Thank you very much for writing this tribute and sharing your appreciation. A great artist who will be missed.

  16. Thanks Dan. It’s been over 20 years since i last saw Richard so thanks much for not only refreshing my memory of him but also providing some insight into what he was all about…

  17. Ben Catmull says:

    For about the past 15 years I’ve lived a quick mosey around the corner from Dan Clowes and it was through Dan that I was lucky enough to meet the great Richard Sala. From what I gathered he had been suffering increasing agoraphobia and Dan was one of the few people who could coax him out of his hermitage. And yet in person he did not act the part of a sullen morose recluse but was incredibly charming and talkative. I’m very familiar Sala’s own neighborhood and never once caught a glimpse of him there. But he was a common sight in my own, milling about with Dan. As tech boom gentrification eroded away the arts community in the bay area it was very comforting to have two pillars of the corner of the comics world I care about still haunting the local bookstores and regularly producing comics. I suspect without Dan’s friendship we would have lost Sala even sooner.
    Sala held strong opinions and had a deep well of cultural knowledge. It gave me a sense of achievement to produce work that met his approval and to (once in a blue moon) delight him with a book or movie unknown to him. When I was putting the finishing touches on my own book I showed it around to several friends for feed back. While most gave me the usual “That’s nice keep going in that direction” Richard gave me by far the most detailed thoughtful and useful reply.
    That final night I saw him with Eric Haven, Rina Ayayung, and Clowes he insisted on taking the picture rather than be in it. While I’m sad that we couldn’t catch him on camera it was in true Sala fashion that he was last recorded as the unseen mystery guest peering at us from behind the scenes.
    I will always remain inspired and influenced by his work

  18. Craig J. Lane says:

    A loving remembrance of a gifted and complicated artist that thankfully shared his gifts. Thanks Daniel.

  19. Kristine says:

    Thank you, Dan. Love you, Richard. Brilliant modesty is a great virtue, crippling anxiety is a great burden. I’m grateful for all the times that you and Adrian made it to Comic Relief (did he really find parking?!? I guess each time was a miracle). I still have the T-shirt that you designed together, and Richard drew my favorite Batman ever: reading comics.

  20. Reid Gordon says:

    Richard (Rick) was my best friend in high school in Scottsdale, Az. I can’t even attempt to convey my sadness having just heard the news. He was a real kind, intelligent, fun, artistic and loving person. We had a lot of common interest and attended many concerts together. He loved Leonard Cohen, The Strawbs, King Crimson, John Stewart, performers of whose concerts we attended. We met some of some of our idols like Leonard Cohen, Dave Cousins, and Robert Fripp. Rick was a pretty decent guitar player too especially enjoying playing British-Folk and Bob Dylan as I recall. He was very passionate about all of the stuff you know and love him for: classic monster films and that genre. A mutual friend of ours and I called him “Mr. Mellow” for obvious reasons to anyone who knew him. His mother Nancy, brother Robert and sister Lucy were also very kind and mellow. I never met his father. My deepest condolences to his sister Lucy.

  21. Rebecka Hernández Wright says:

    Thanks for this, Dan. It’s still unreal to me that Richard is gone. His style was iconic — Sala-esque is a descriptor at our house, too. He was so incredibly prolific that I assumed there would always be more to come. A grave error, to my sorrow. His work will stand, I’ve no doubt, and I know he had difficulties, but I will hold on to the memory of Richard’s smile and the easy-going delight he so often showed to the world.

  22. Joseph Remnant says:

    Thanks for this Dan. He was one of those mysterious cartoonists I never knew much about, never saw him at a convention, or saw any evidence that he existed outside of his work, which was always impeccable. This is a beautiful tribute and all too familiar and relatable to me and many other cartoonists, I assume.

  23. Metaphrog says:

    Thank you for this very moving piece, and a little insight into Richard Sala the person. We only know (and love) his work and interacted a little with him on Facebook through his horror movie posts, which were great. He replied, even though he didn’t know us, and we though that was extremely gracious. We love your work too by the way. Take care!

  24. Regis says:

    I always assumed I’d get to talk to Richard Sala someday. I always found something accessible in his work, these hints of collaboration with the reader. The world is a better place for us having had him in it.

  25. Alex Wald says:

    A beautiful tribute, Dan. I met Richard only once, at SDCC sometime in the early ‘90s. I have long wanted to meet him as I felt we had so much in common. I showed him a two page Archie parody I‘d drawn in his style which both amused and embarrassed him. We corresponded—seldom—over Facebook, invariably about movies rather than comics; obscure stills, obscure horror films, obscure books about horror films…do you detect a thread? My most recent post to him, barely more than two weeks ago, went unanswered. I’ve always admired his prolific output and his unique style—a touch of Gahan Wilson, a touch of George Grosz, yet instantly and totally his own. How lucky you were to be friends so long.

  26. E Ferris says:

    I always thought that someday I’d have the honor of meeting Richard, but now I see that I never would have. He was perhaps even more of a shut-in than am I.
    Nearly every day for years now I would intentionally go onto Instagram with the hope that I’d see something he was working on. I poured over the images with tremendous pleasure. You can feel it when you are looking at the work of a person who LIVES to make images, and I think that your beautiful and touching remembrance confirms the truth of it. As are you, Richard was an artist in every cell of his being.
    I am so sorry for your loss, Dan. I am sorry especially as I spent this (socially isolated) morning talking to a friend I’ve had since elementary school and I know that these relationships are completely irreplaceable.
    Much Monster Love to you

  27. Megan Kelso says:

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful remembrance of Richard, Dan! I always enjoyed knowing that you, Adrian and Richard were down there in Oakland being a lunch bunch. I am so sorry for your loss, and for all of our loss.

  28. Tom Peirce says:

    How very lucky he was to have you, Mr. Clowes, as a friend. Misfits with anxiety are often shunned by others as weirdos, (certainly in our dog-eat-dog society of frat boys, sports and power they are looked at as easy prey to be mocked and squashed), even if they are wonderfully interesting and quiet in their desperation for human contact.

  29. Lucy Rogers says:

    Hi. This is Richard’s little sister Lucy checking in. I hope it’s ok to leave something here. But, I thought I would like to share a few memories with everyone. Richard and I shared a room for a while when we were young. When our mom put us down for a nap, and she turned out the lights, Richard would put a record on our little record player of a dramatic reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘A Tell-tale Heart’. It may sound strange, but it’s one of my happiest childhood memories! We would lay there on the floor in the dark listening to the story of a murderer who hid his victim under the floor boards. His conscience wouldn’t let him rest. In his mind he kept hearing a thumping sound until he broke down and revealed his guilt by screaming, “It’s the beating of the old men’s heart!” (We always waited for that moment). So he was caught for his crime, and that was the happy ending. But then, to make sure I wasn’t too scared – I was probably about 6 years old at the time – Richard would play a funny record of the adventures of Popeye the Sailor Man. I can still hear Popeye’s crazy laughter in my head.

    A reading of Edgar Allen Poe was actually perfect in that setting because our house at 421 E Joliet St. in Illinois was pretty spooky. The house was built in the early 1900s and if it had been deserted for a few years it could easily have become the old Bailey house in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. The curving interior staircase to the second floor with wooden bannisters was almost identical to the one in the movie.

    It was an amazing house to grow up in. The most distinctive place for us kids was THE ATTIC. The door to the attic was in the room Richard and I shared. It looked like a normal closet door, but open it and a little stairway would lead to a large space with a low peaked ceiling and a small window. It was filled with a rich, dusty smell of old ripe wood.

    What’s so spooky about an old attic? Well, nothing really…except the dress dummy was there. It stood silently in the dim light. The headless, armless torso of a shapely woman. Covered in soft, dark brown fabric over a metal frame on small squeaky wheels. Of course, it’s original use was as a harmless tailoring device to make dresses for women, but to us it was easily the scariest thing in the house. My brothers would whisper “the dress dummy is coming to get you” and we would put something in front of the attic door to feel safe.

    These really are vivid memories for me but not all of our time was spent terrifying each other. Richard and his neighborhood friend Jimmy would play together a lot. There are pictures of them battling to a dramatic death with long mop handles in our basement, while wearing the string part of the mops on their heads.

    Speaking of neighborhood kids, I remember once when I took a new little toy outside to show someone. A slightly tough older girl snatched it from me and decided to keep it. I went home crying and told Richard. He was out the door like a shot and a few minutes later he came back with my toy. The girl never bothered me again.

    Richard was really the light of our childhood. Our father had serious problems. He was always angry and verbally abusive. When he was home, we just learned to stay out of his way. He really cast a dark shadow over our lives. Our brother Robert was two years older than Richard and I was three years younger. Robert’s personality was sensitive and quiet and I was just young. Richard’s presence between us made all the difference. His personality was so full of energy, humor and creativity. It was really Richard who was responsible for the happy parts of my childhood, and his outgoing personality helped draw Robert out. They enjoyed a lot of the same old movies and TV shows together.

    We played endless board games of Clue (a big favorite) and we had a Nancy Drew board game that we all played. Richard’s favorite card game was Authors, and it was so funny to watch the boys play Old Maid. The Old Maid card was a creepy looking old lady in black lace gloves and a flowery hat. You didn’t want to be left holding that card or you were the loser, and the rest of us would scream, “You’re the Old Maid”!!!

    In family photos Richard is always the one with the biggest grin and most uninhibited laughter. My childhood would have been really bleak without him.

    Richard and I exchanged e-mails at the end of April so when I found out he was gone I couldn’t believe it.

    I’m so grateful to everyone who loved and supported Richard’s work over the years. You made it possible for him to live his dream. Thank you.

  30. Groth says:

    Thank you for this reminiscence, Lucy.

  31. Mark Orwin says:

    I only wrote to Richard the once (to buy a painting )and received a beautiful response. Normally when someone is so talented ( a leader in their field) you expect them to have a big ego but that wasn’t the case.

    My favourites bar had his Ebay work on it and I would check it every morning. I always dreamed of commisioning a work, it would have been the scene inside the “Le Chat Noir” from Black Cat Crossing.

    Thank you Daniel and everyone, for sharing your thoughts and feelings it makes it a little easier to cope with the loss. Mark from Australia

  32. abodoh says:

    wow i wanna read a Sala, Clowes, Tomine adventures comic, just like Seth, Brown, Matt adventure comics…

  33. Robert Lamb says:

    This was fucking brilliant and heartbreaking. Like Sala’s best work. And yours too, Dan.

  34. Ant says:

    I’m fucking gutted. Really, really tor up about a man I only knew from his work, lived a good 3,000 miles away from and always knew in my belly-especially after the advent of the world wide web-that there was little to zero chance of him ever crossing the pond to Limey Land.

    I was gonna make a drunken snarky comment but I’ll leave it here and just say thank you Mr. Clowes, and especially to everyone else who shared their reminiscences. We have truly lost one of the greats.

  35. Kelly says:

    Heartbreaking. Thanks Richard for all the wonderful comics.

  36. Hilary Barta says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of your friend, Dan. I found Richard in that life of his online, and his knowledge of obscure films, pulps, paperbacks and the like was astonishing. I think his work tapped into the deep well of dark poetry in fairy tale, horror, and so much of the detritus of pop culture.

  37. That’s a wonderful tribute to your friend, Dan. My condolences. I lost two old friends recently. It’s a blow that never fully heals. If it’s any consolation, I think of them both often. I continue to “feel” them in my life.

    I, too, like most others here, only knew Richard online. Recently, we sparred about Steranko, and bonded over the largely forgotten work of Debbie Dreschler. I wish I had known Richard better. He’s one of the greats.

  38. Thank you for sharing those wonderful memories of your friend, Dan. Richard Sala was an amazing artist and a wonderful storyteller. I would have loved to have had a chance to talk film with him!
    Did either of you ever see this Japanese commercial with Percy Helton in a small roll as a doorman?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEqA84R0lYU

  39. Sophie Yanow says:

    In 2010 I was working at Comic Relief, just before it went under for good (Rory was already gone). Dan and Richard would come in sometimes. I was just starting to really make comics. One day I rode my bike on Piedmont Ave and thought I saw Dan and Richard talking on the sidewalk down by the grocery store, and I thought, “I live in an amazing place.”

  40. Conrad Groth says:

    Lovely little remembrance. It’s eerie to read the origin of Peculia because when I read those comics as I kid I always misread it as “Pelicula”. So I guess I wasn’t so far off!

  41. Simon Ma says:

    What a lovely tribute. So very sad to hear only now about your sad loss. I remember ordering a copy of RS’s Night Drive directly from him (possibly from seeing an ad in TCJ) in the last century. I think he wrote that I had been sent one of the last copies but was immensely flattered that someone from the UK would be interested in his work. Such modesty.

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