Clean Shirt

Today at TCJ, Leonard Pierce is here with a look at Fire On The Water, Gary Dumm & Scott MacGregor's graphic novel inspired by "one of America’s earliest man-made ecological disasters". It's got some of Leonard's fave topics in it, but will that be enough to push it over the line into "good"? Ask him!

If the book has a hero – and to its credit, it avoids the obvious pitfall of making its story about exceptional and morally uncompromised heroes – it is Benjamin Beltran, an itinerant African-American inventor who has trouble selling a helmet he designed that allowed rescue workers to resist the dangers of smoke inhalation because no one wants to purchase or advertise a product made by a black man. Beltran isn’t a real person, but he’s based on the actual black inventor Garrett Morgan, whose life is described in a text addendum to the book. He’s a perfect example of how the stories of working-class struggles are always intersectional; the white workers were considered disposable because of their poverty, and Beltran’s life-saving device is considered worthless because few whites can credit a black man with having invented something so useful. Like the victims of the Erie tunnel disaster, Morgan was largely forgotten by a history written for the elevation of white elites.]

Richard Sala has passed away. Michael Dean has our obituary on the cartoonist. Cartoonist and longtime friend Daniel Clowes wrote a remembrance of Sala as well. Darcy Sullivan's excellent 1998 interview with Sala is here
Tim Hodler's also excellent 2016 interview with Sala is here.

Richard Sala, whose tongue-in-cheek mystery/thriller comics — including The Chuckling Whatsit, Cat Burglar Black and Evil Eye — were like nothing else and everything else in popular culture, was found dead in his Berkeley, California, home last week. Sala was 65. No cause of death was announced and no information was available as to how long Sala had been dead before his body was discovered. His last Tumblr post was April 29: the beginning of a new serialized webcomic called Carlotta Havoc Versus Everybody. The webcomic had been announced on an Apr. 18 post at Sala’s blog, called Here Lies Richard Sala.

My first experience with comics are biographical cliches so routine that they can be covered in a parenthetical (The Far Side, Justice League Detroit, Batman), but it struck me over the weekend how much one other institute of pop culture influenced my interest away from those books: Liquid Television, an early 90's animation and weird puppetry program that ran on MTV late at night. It's a solid link in the chain towards the kind of "let's try to upset people who are up late, stoned" programming that's on Adult Swim these days, but not a show I have thought of in years. 

But I thought about it a lot this weekend, after I got the call about Richard's death. Sala is a cartoonist whose work I have enjoyed for years, and I had first discovered him back on Liquid Television, where one of his comics stories was adapted and expanded in the show's first season. Like everything else that I ever saw on Liquid Television, I experienced Sala's work out of order and removed from any context, catching bits of it whenever I would be up late and happen across the show. I never looked up where it came from, I never took the time to find out that it was him that made it, and while I'm sure i've seen the whole thing, I can only recall fragments of it. But the seeds that program sowed--with its mix of perversion, obscenity, humor, atonal deadpan idiocy and offense--found purchase years later, when I finally came across comics that trafficked in the same.

And there, again, was Sala. And then again. And again. He was a cartoonist whose work I have consistently read and consistently admired, and yet I think the entirety of my conversations about his work consisted of talking about it with the cartoonist Mike Cavallaro over the years that the two of us worked together in a comics store and realized we shared the interest. Looking at our TCJ obituary and reading his Wikipedia page, I'm struck once again by how impossible it is to ever do justice to the artists of this medium--degrees of difference, sure, and Sala was able to experience a career that many cartoonists would dream of having, in terms of opportunities to pursue creative expression, in terms of freedom to create what he liked--but it's so wearisome how exhausted this current process has become. Another talent lost, remembered by a handful of websites who are already preparing to remember another passing, immortalized in work that is actually only available in fits and starts via digital formats that only the most craven would claim are doing them any aesthetic favor. I got to know Richard over the last few years via, what else, social media, and I never took the time to say a single nice word to him about all the comics he had done that I loved, and now he's dead, and I'm still using those same social media outlets primarily to make myself even angrier than I already am. What a stupid, dumb way this is to live. 

It's tempting to cut that end there--to fabricate some mood and hack out some mention of how we can all go down to our metaphorical basements and grab the output of our dead, where their art will live forever--but I spend my non-TCJ time watching this dumb empire fall. I would have preferred to endure that collapse with more of Richard's work on hand.