Of the many horror comic writers/artists I've read over the years, I consider Richard Sala to be a special find. I can't think of anyone else who can balance the goofy, the gory and the gothic within a single story so effortlessly, both in terms of plotting and visual style. His stories are rife with absurd characters and situations, yet they feature grizzly acts of violence and body counts that are higher than many "serious" horror comics. The best description I can think of to summarize Sala's work would be what horror comics would look like if the late cartoonist Charles Addams had decided to apply his dark humor and unique illustrations to expressionistic tales of terror. Yet even that fails to capture what makes Sala's work so unique and entertaining.
Over the holidays, I received a copy of The Hidden, Sala's latest book. (Note: Sala's The Hidden is not to be confused with the awesome 1987 space parasite movie of the same name.) Sala retains his distinct style in this new title; however, by placing it in a story about the end of the world, he takes themes he has previously explored into eerie new territory. Read on for my complete review.
The Hidden tells the story of a young couple who discover that the world has begun to violently fall apart while they were away on a hiking trip in the deep wilderness. During their search for survivors, they encounter a man who can't remember his name or where he's been ... but he may hold the key to understanding the mystery behind the apocalyptic horrors. To say anything more about this story would give too much away.
Other critics have noticed the similarities of themes and ideas between The Hidden and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is true. The story also reminded me at times of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, and Lucio Fulci's unofficial "Gates of Hell" trilogy of movies. Yet the central subtexts of the story--the futility of denying one's own mortality and inevitable horrors that arise when death is cheated--have appeared in Sala's other works, such as Mad Night. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a sequel to The Hidden (something I'd love to see, of course) would include nods to Septimus A. Crisp and Massimo Ibex, characters who have appeared in Sala's other stories.
While Sala remains true to his style in The Hidden, it differs from his other work in a few significant ways. Some of his prior tales of terrors have featured multiple conspiracies and covert plots that somehow fit together no matter how convoluted or preposterous they got. In contrast, The Hidden features a few subplots and details that are never fully explained or developed further. Such a fragmented approach adds to the characters' lingering anxiety and the story's dour atmosphere--much more so than Sala's previous works.
Welcome to the end of the world. Have a nice day!
In spite of its depressive mood (you know, with it being about the end of the world and such), The Hidden exemplifies the effectiveness of Sala's application of a "less is more" visual style to broad, complex stories. His drawings are simple and cartoonish, a style that provides an ample amount of flexibility to match whatever kind of story he aims to tell. Where humor and horror are mixed into a single setting, such drawings both facilitate and accentuate shifts in mood; in situations where the horror has both corporeal and existential dimensions, Sala uses his drawings to bestow a palpability of sorts to the most fantastic of frights. It is as if by portraying the possible and the impossible in a modest, straightforward fashion, both achieve the same sense of presence. Thus, when the ghastly, gangly reasons for the world's end finally appear alongside of the survivors in The Hidden, the cartoon pictures assume qualities of menace and shock.
I can't recommend Sala's books enough, and The Hidden is one of his best works to date. Be sure to pick up a copy if you're looking for something more than global plagues and cannibalistic zombies in your world-ending entertainment. Go to Richard Sala.com for more information about The Hidden and other Sala books.