Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Poison Flowers & Pandemonium by Richard Sala

First of all, it's sad to see this book, because we know it's the last of Richard Sala's work. He died suddenly last year - and, it seems, at least somewhat mysteriously, which is grimly appropriate - and there won't be any more of his work ever again.

Sala was original, brewing up a mixture of horror movies, penny dreadfuls, and plucky young (barefoot!) heroines into a gorgeously-watercolored mixture that would be welcome to fans of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, or Edward Gorey but was uniquely Sala. Some of his best books, and places I'd recommend starting if you don't know his work, are The Chuckling Whatzit and Delphine and Mad Night.

What we have here today are his last four stories - some miscellaneous work that (I think) was already planned to be collected together even before his unexpected death. It's a nice big package; it looks lovely; each of the stories is fun and deeply Sala-esque. It's Poison Flowers & Pandemonium, and the bittersweet nature of publishing it after Sala's death is perhaps the most exquisitely Sala-esque moment in his entire career.

In order, those four stories are:

"The Bloody Cardinal 2: House of the Blue Dwarf" is a sequel to the first Bloody Cardinal book, also published originally as a webcomic, although it's less focused on the title character (either of them). A typically Sala heroine, Phillipa Nicely, is caught up in a group of fiendish types when an acquaintance of hers enlists her in an attempt to swindle them. It all gets vastly more complicated, of course, but there's a full-page listing of characters up front to help keep track of them as they get machetes to the brain in turn. (People die often in Sala stories; he tells bloody monster movies in comics form.) This one has a lot of energy and I think is more successful than the first Bloody Cardinal, but still could have used a little more space and careful pacing - my sense is that webcomics weren't the best format for Sala, who did somewhat better work when he could rework groups of pages or entire stories together.

"Monsters Illustrated" is mostly a series of full-page illustrations of monsters in action, with a very thin frame story (involving a plucky barefoot girl in danger [1]). The monsters are not named precisely to explain who they are, but readers will likely recognize many of them, and I suspect really devout readers could place every single one of them.

"Cave Girls of the Lost World" is another frame story, and almost a self-parody. A young boy discovers a bottle on the beach, inside which is a fantastic story of a planeload of private-college girls who found themselves in a savage land (not The Savage Land) full of dinosaurs, cavemen, and Bat People. The cave-girl story is told in hand-lettered prose (as if on weathered parchment) on left-hand pages, with full-page illos of the bare-breasted girls battling the various dangers of their lost world on the right. Sala has a fun wink at the very end; I wonder if he had hoped to expand this out to something larger?

"Fantomella" is another one of his stories of an avenging young woman, in the vein of Violenzia. It's set in a dystopian world, and is almost entirely the title character fighting her way up the tower HQ of the masters of this crapsack world, killing colorful lunatics along the way, mostly with her ubiquitous knives. (Though she does mix it up a bit as she does along.) This one is fun and energetic, but very much in a style Sala has done multiple times before.

So all of it is solid and all of it is deeply Sala-esque, and no one else could have made any of these four stories. I wouldn't rank any of them as the best in his career, but it's all solid mid-rank work. Again, I wouldn't start Sala here, but it's certainly a great way to send him off, since we do have to send him off.

[1] I don't know what the deal was with Sala and women's bare feet, but he regularly has his heroines wandering around cities, doing things otherwise normally, without shoes. Other people's kinks, man!

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