(Fantagraphics Books, $16.95, 176 pages, trade paperback; published in January 2004.)
Maniac Killer Strikes Again! collects ten oddly creepy stories by cartoonist Richard Sala. It's the literary equivalent of a grab bag of unwholesomely delicious Halloween treats.
Sala has imagined and fashioned a world seemingly designed by Edward Gorey and the makers of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, in which life unfurls like a 1940s Hollywood serial written by a Franz Kafka whose paranoia has been both indulged and validated.
These stories are populated by the ne'er-do-wells of classic B-movies -- mad scientists, psychopathic monsters, promiscuous women, beatniks, carnivorous plants -- and by villains whose moral deformities are mirrored on their ugly visages, recalling the ghoulish rogues' gallery Chester Gould created for Dick Tracy.
The setting is always unnamed: a sardonically Gothic blend of old Europe and the naive TV version of a typical 1960s US city.
The longest story in the book is "Thirteen O'Clock" -- a complex conspiracy thriller featuring ghastly killings, evil scientists, murderous monsters, damsels in distress, clueless police detectives, and an ineffectual masked vigilante called Mr. Murmur. The body count is deliriously high, and the plot relies heavily on the most over-the-top coincidences imaginable: this is quintessential Sala. It succeeds because it is both mordantly ironic yet unabashedly enthusiastic about its trash-culture origins.
Several of Sala's stories -- "The Fellowship of the Creeping Cat" and "Judy Drood, Girl Detective" being two examples -- are all the more powerful and poignant for their uncompromisingly nihilistic endings, combining ruthless violence with emotional despair.
Others, like "The Thirteen Fingers" and "The Keepsake", end less violently but their quieter conclusions nevertheless ooze a similar flavour of existential nihilism.
Sala's sense of humour is as charming as it is macabre, as obsessive as it is iconoclastic. These comics stories deliver gruesome entertainment delectably drenched in twentieth-century pop culture.
Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction
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© Claude Lalumière 31 January 2004, 19 June 2004