OCTOBER 31, 2011
THE ARTIST RICHARD SALA’S WORK first debuted in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s comics anthology, Raw (the “comics magazine for damned intellectuals”), and he has since drawn for publications ranging from The New York Times to Playboy to Nickelodeon Magazine. He has made his mark on the genre of horror comics, particularly the Evil Eye series, with its heroines Peculia, the mysterious black-haired waif, and Judy Drood, girl detective. Well-known for his love of pulp fiction and the macabre — dark alleys and archetypal villains, exotic locales and lurid plots — Sala’s work is often compared to that of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, both for its investment in dark humor and its mastery of translating the more bizarre vagaries of the human (and humanoid) form.
Sala’s new book, The Hidden, does not wholly depart from the campy fascination with the morbid that marks his previous work, but is even darker in tone, despite the vibrant watercolor work. The visual markers of Sala’s humor are present — the affected font, the twisted faces — but there is arguably something more serious and disturbing at play here.
In many ways, The Hidden is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic horror storyFrankenstein. A scientist named Dr. Victor discovers the secret to life itself and, hoping to bear a race “better and nobler” than humanity, creates a giant man through nefarious processes. The creature is “born” intelligent but a little too corpse-like, ultimately horrifying his creator. Sala is serious about his Frankenstein references, even naming Dr. Victor’s mentor after the 17th-century alchemist and theologian Johann Konrad Dippel, who lived at the real-life Castle Frankenstein and dedicated his time to trying to reanimate stolen cadavers with the fabled elixir of life.
In The Hidden, as in Frankenstein, the scientist abandons his creature, which then seeks to take its revenge on all of humanity. “I will revenge my injuries,” says Shelley’s monster. “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” But Dr. Victor’s monster, rather than having to convince his maker to construct him a big-haired bride, indulges mad scientist tendencies of his own. He reanimates bodies that resemble enormous and creepy rag dolls, which in turn are born with an innate desire to propagate the new species. “This is the world of the new people now,” the monster tells his creator. “Many are now always being born in laboratory over all the world.” Besides a penchant for off-kilter syntax, the new people share a master-race mentality: They want to kill off Sala’s trademark leggy and buxom young ladies — “ones who can be carry new life” — and use their corpses as spare parts for the superior “new people.”
Constructed from materials cast-off (grave-robbed) or appropriated (the supple limbs of Sala’s cuties), stitched together and green with decay and malice, the new people possess an intelligence resembling that of children and megalomaniac dictators. Like their monster-creator, who wears a top hat and what appears to be a cravat, they are obsessed with dressing well in order to gain respect, possibly from the masses they are dismembering. Despite Dr. Victor’s early attempts at instruction, the new people operate on a sensibility perverse to human mores and values. It is not the parchment-like skin or dull eyes that horrify Dr. Victor, but the new people’s lack of soul. It’s also the doctor’s loss of control over the means of production. In Shelley’sFrankenstein, the creature commands, “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” In The Hidden there is no need for coercion: Dr. Victor’s masterpiece is a creator itself and intends to be the master of all things. Dr. Victor, like his predecessor Frankenstein, tries to play God without taking into consideration the possibility of his Adam having free will.
Despite the “flatness of emotional range” bemoaned by Dr. Victor, the new people know what they want and have a plan to get it. Imagine if Frankenstein’s monster had had the capacity for creation and the ambition for global domination, as well as the loneliness and overwhelming desire for companionship that led him to demand a bride as defective as himself who would not turn him away. In Sala’s rendering, the doctor is no longer necessary; the creator is dead and only a construction himself. The world is the new people’s for the taking, and they have the power to destroy and rebuild on the ashes of the old as they see fit. As one pant-suited new person pronounces, “frail things that might be to carry and born offspring in old, ugly, animal way — be prohibit in improved world of new people!”
The Hidden also draws, with varying success, on the horror traditions of flesh-eating zombies and the familiar setup of a group of strangers thrown together by terrible chance. As in many a major horror franchise, the audience is introduced to a gaggle of young, attractive individuals with fairly flat personalities defined primarily by their inevitable demise. (Who will be picked off first? Will it be the blonde?) Tom and Colleen are in love. Sally and Glen are waiters. Colleen has some backbone and a pretty good axe swing. You’ll really root for her, but they’ll all probably end up dead. The audience is treated to a visual carnival of blood and guts on the road to nothingness. One of the most visually intense sequences of The Hidden, described by Sally and Glen to their travel companions upon first meeting, features a spate of frenzied cannibalism exhibited primarily by the leaders of the western world. Hollow-eyed, leering men, unflatteringly reminiscent of Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch, take chunks out of the musculature of Sala’s young girls and each other, and are eventually joined by their screeching, harpy-like wives in a bacchanalia of human flesh.
It is unclear to the reader how exactly these acts of anthropophagy relate to the story of the new people and their new, improved world, although we do see the outline of a mysterious and enormous figure gazing down on the proceedings. Is the cannibalism an elaborate fantasy constructed in the fear-addled minds of survivors? Were these old white men tricked into thinking they themselves can become “new people” through cannibalism? No explanation is given, but the arterial spray itself is a worthy non sequitur.
Rather than work the tired-old two-tone “dark and stormy night” aesthetic, Sala renders his apocalyptic world in hypersaturated oranges and blues, delighting in twisted rock formations and underground laboratories as well as pink-cheeked girls in jewel-tone party dresses and lime-green monsters pulled from a variety of nightmares — the latter slaughtering the former with pre-Buffy Summers abandon. This is the dominant tone, but the visuals throughout The Hiddenslip in and out of the established reality of the book’s horrifying universe into a dreamscape no less bizarre. Dr. Victor runs from his own creations only to encounter the last Horseman of the Apocalypse in the wilderness; he is woken up by Tom and Colleen, perhaps weeks or even months later, having grown a full beard. Sally serves drinks in a blue twilight of Gorey-esque ghosts; she wakes in an abandoned pueblo-style trading post filled with drugged-up train crash survivors. It is these moments of utter strangeness that make The Hidden such an appealing read and save it from being an overly familiar reiteration of the Frankenstein tale.