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Peculia
Richard Sala
Fantagraphic paperback $12.95

review by Amy Harlib

A highly successful American illustrator and comicbook artist with a long track record in numerous publications, Richard Sala finally gets some of his best shorter work in his preferred métier, graphic storytelling, collected into a high quality, large trade paperback.

Peculia gathers b&w inked tales originally serialised in Evil Eye # 1-9 (which was only published three times a year), and adds an extra colour chapter created especially for this volume. The title is also the name of the protagonist, a very unusual young lady, by nature an intrepid, feisty and sharp-witted adventurer (apparently heir to a considerable fortune), who lives in a large home with one other person who is of invaluable assistance - Ambrose, her small of stature yet highly efficient, trustworthy and elegant butler. Peculia, with her youthful, attractive appearance: short, bobbed, brunette hair and slender figure, usually goes about barefooted and always dressed in the same round-necked, long-sleeved, dark, practical and comfortable, short and simple one-piece dress. She makes the perfect subject for Richard Sala's distinctive narrative and visual style that can be classified as, for lack of a better term, gothic humour. This highly difficult to pull off sub-genre puts Sala among the exalted company of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams where he deservedly belongs yet, although his work can aptly be compared to theirs, he brings his own unique vision to it.

Peculia's delightfully twisted and bizarrely witty escapades take place in a warped, alternate, contemporary, suburban reality where regular folks, with more or less equanimity, co-exist with all manner of zombies, monsters, undead, mysterious cults, practitioners of occult arts and things that go bump in the night.

The first story, simply titled Peculia, that introduces our heroine, depicts her coolly fending off the dubious advances of the Frankenstein-like Cronk only to be simultaneously attacked by her recurring nemesis - the spandex-costumed, caped, masked and booted, long blonde-haired, comicbook character wannabe Justine and a horde of evil, look-alike, cannibalistic children. Peculia manages to evade these dangers leaving Cronk to his fate while Justine lives to fight another day at the orders of her boss, the enigmatic Obscurus (safari-suited, armed, caped, face entirely concealed by turban, shades and a scarf).

Wayfarers Inn recounts Peculia's narrow, clever getaway, along with the proprietor, from the eponymous stopover where all the other guests meet their ends while "Death stalks the night" (literally). In The Three Sisters, Peculia escapes only with the help of Ambrose, from a sinister store, a cover for a trap meant to snare victims for a wicked titular trio of witches. She decides to let her butler handle the shopping from now on! Ambrosia finds Peculia evading Justine only to get captured by a Victorian-garbed man who wants to sacrifice our heroine in his forbidden occult rituals meant to resurrect his beloved, deceased spouse, Ambrosia. Peculia manages to stay alive but inadvertently helps the husband succeed although he gets more than he bargained for while our protagonist makes a discreet exit. Nightcrawler concerns Peculia, with some difficulty, surviving the attack of a giant, destructive, worm-like creature summoned by a cult of not so lucky, masked female worshippers connected to Justine and Obscurus. Afternoon Of The Living Dead features Peculia and Justine for once having to cease hostilities and team up to live long enough to avoid and stop the depredations of a horde of ravenous zombies awakened by some students' misguided experiments. Alice Bluegown depicts Peculia getting away, thanks to help from Ambrose, at the last minute from the wild and crazy, deadly antics in the large home of the titular murderous, pre-adolescent girl, the place also besieged by the Bastettes, a cult of bloodthirsty female were-panthers. The Examination parts I and II tells how Justine and Obscurus arrange for Peculia to become the subject of the eccentric Dr Trepan's experiments. They have second thoughts and help our heroine to escape along with themselves when Dr Trepan proves quite insane and the captive, hideously transformed victims of his previous researches violently rise up and rebel. Finally, the beautifully coloured in a muted, atmospheric palette Doll Parts portrays the strange things that happen when Peculia encounters a creepy shop selling the items just mentioned.

Peculia offers the perfect graphic storytelling treat for those who relish offbeat, macabre humour that takes off in demented directions. Richard Sala's smart, sassy heroine's adventures feature a distinctive, delightful mix of sly, subtly sarcastic wit in outrageous, bizarre stories in equally odd settings that reveal a uniquely imaginative use of traditional Goth ingredients. Peculia's mingling of the comical with the grotesque should appeal to the myriad of brave souls not afraid to laugh in the face of the darker parts of our nature that we all share - a great coping technique.

Sala's superb visuals with high-contrasting, black and white areas and angular lines that successfully blend cartoonish figures with plenty of intricate detail, brings his wonderfully weird heroine, her vivid, supporting characters and their warped world of noir-ish whimsy to pleasingly peculiar life. Dare to get acquainted with Peculia, you won't regret it!
Peculia by Richard Sala

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