Remembering Richard Sala

Last month, Fantagraphics and the comics community lost one of the greats: Richard Sala. I can't imagine a better tribute to what he meant to all of us than this piece from his longtime best friend, Daniel Clowes.

I don't remember when I first met Richard, but it was probably 1994 or 1995, a couple of years after Dan, Richard, and Adrian Tomine became “the Bay Area trio.” I was a very young man of 23 or 24, and Richard was never anything but kind and supportive to me from the day I met him.

Virtually every Bay Area visit of mine over the past 25 years included a meal with some combo of “the trio,” usually at Juan’s in Berkeley, and including as recently as last summer, when my wife and daughter and I enjoyed a great afternoon with Dan and Richard while we were driving up the west coast. Despite his ever-increasing agoraphobia, my wife and I were proud to have been grandfathered into the circle of friends that Richard was still comfortable enough around and willing to come out for. Richard suffered from some of the worst anxiety I've ever known, but you would hardly know it when conversing over dinner or beers; he was a genuinely charming, funny man and always a pleasure to be around.

The anxiety would more often come through in our working relationship, which could make for a somewhat fragile dynamic at times. But I know we had a mutual respect for each other and were both pretty comfortable being honest with each other, regarding both the good and the bad — until Richard’s death, it never even occurred to me that we wouldn’t keep putting out new Sala for decades more, because I know he had them in him.

I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered Richard’s work, whether it was in the pages of Blab! or Street Music or some other anthology of the 1980s. I know I was already aware of it by the time his “Invisible Hands” comics were adapted for MTV’s cult classic Liquid Television series in the early 1990s; I loved his style from the get go. But it was through our late co-publisher Kim Thompson in the mid-1990s that I came have a deeper appreciation of Sala’s work, and to view him as the first rank cartoonist he was. When Richard began serializing what would become the graphic novel The Chuckling Whatsit in Kim’s comics anthology, Zero Zero. Kim took great pride that such a great work was anchoring his new anthology and it became an event in the office when Richard turned in each chapter.

In March, just days after the shelter-at-home orders went into effect on the west coast, Richard turned in the files for his next book, Poison Flowers and Pandemonium. He was late with the book (which I should add was atypical for him; Richard was an old school “pro” who built a career on being able to hit deadlines for magazines and newspapers). It was originally supposed to come out in early 2020 and now will be released next year. He felt guilty about running late and because I knew that he put more pressure on himself than anyone, I tended to err on the side of trying to keep him from beating himself up. He knew this about me — even when we weren’t in the beginning throes of a worldwide pandemic — so when he wrote me on March 24th to tell me he was sending the files that week, knowing that everyone at Fantagraphics was working from home and the book market was effectively on pause, he added this very Sala-esque postscript: “Eric — even if it's meant in the best possible way — please don't say anything like ‘there's no rush right now’ or anything along those lines!! I just want to be done with it and get it into your hands. THANK YOU!” Apparently, even when I was trying to alleviate pressure, I could stress him out. I’m sorry, Richard.

The thought of putting this together without him is hard to fathom right now. He had already started working on another book, Carlotta Havoc Versus Everybody, and was very enthused about it, which makes his sudden passing even harder to process.

For whatever reason, Richard’s work never quite gained the popularity that I know it deserves. He is one of the best and most underrated cartoonists of his generation, who produced a phenomenal body of work that included several bonafide comics masterpieces, such as The Chuckling Whatsit, Delphine, and The Hidden. Every single one of his books is deeply personal yet wildly entertaining, familiar yet told with one of the most distinctive and original voices and visual styles the medium has ever produced. I am going to miss him very much but am grateful for all he gave of himself and all he left us in his work.