“Read a Damn Book – 057: Mad Night”
I’m a huge Richard Sala fan. If I suddenly found myself wealthy, the first two things I would do are buy a vintage pinball machine and get Richard Sala’s entire body of work. I first discovered his brand of weirdness back in the early 1990s, when MTV aired a series called Liquid Television, which included Sala’s bizarre, noir, serialized story, “Invisible Hands.” (It’s still creepy and hilarious. I recommend looking it up.) Flash forward a few years, and I came across this graphic novel, Mad Night, and I realized, instantly, that I had a new favorite.
Richard Sala – Mad Night (2005)
Mad Night was originally serialized in Sala’s comic, Evil Eye, (the individual issues can now sell for anywhere from $10 to $40 or more---but I don’t have any of those, so it doesn’t really matter.) The story falls pretty squarely into the crime / noir / thriller category, but is complicated a bit by two things, Sala’s sick sense of humor, and his amazing art. Let’s look at the artwork first.
Sala’s lines are exquisite. He draws in an old fashioned, cartoony style, very reminiscent of Chester Gould (who created Dick Tracy) or Will Eisner (who created The Spirit), and like Gould, Sala invents a menagerie of oddly shaped and humorously named characters. Odok Ood looks like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and a beatnik. Professor Pestal has a concave head that looks like it would be perfect for mixing potions in, and Herr Schpook is right out of the pages of Dick Tracy, sort of a mixture of Prune Face and Major Toht (the evil Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark). His images are stunning, his “camera eye” is perfect, and his attention to gruesome detail is unmatched (since the passing of Edward Gorey at any rate.) It’s a beautiful book, as all of his that I have read have been.
With the art out of the way, I suppose I should try to explain, a bit, about what’s going on in the story. Enter Kasper Keene, slacker and coward, who wants to borrow a camera from a friend so that he can make a quick couple of bucks photographing the new school catalog for the college he’s attending. The meet-up with his friend to borrow her camera, however, results in a case of mistaken identity, and he suddenly finds himself embroiled in a sinister world of secret societies, bizarre medical experiments, hidden conspiracies, pirate women, puppetry, and MURDER. (Lots and lots of murder…)
Luckily for Kasper (or UN-luckily, as he would explain it), he is also friends with Judy Drood, the hard-as-nails girl detective---who was the actual owner of the camera that Kasper originally borrowed, and subsequently lost. Judy dives into the swirling conspiracy mess, cussing and fighting the whole way, trying to discover who’s killing whom, as well as attempting to get her camera back.
As I mentioned above, Sala has a wicked sense of humor, and this comes out in the weird character names, as well as in the bizarre and freakish situations that Judy and Kasper (completely against his will) find themselves in. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining, and keeps some of the darker things that happen in this story from diving into straight, Grand Guignol terror. Make no mistake, Sala holds nothing back. This story is swimming in nudity, gore, and numerous extremely disturbing scenes, but because of Sala’s cheeky tone, the whole thing comes off as a clever romp. Not kid friendly in the least, but wonderfully entertaining for those with a taste for the sinister and grotesque. I wouldn’t say it’s SCARY, but definitely DARK, and one of my favorite books from the last few decades. (I’m trying not to give too much away, since half the fun is seeing how the chaos unfolds.) I’ve read it five or six times already, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)
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