Review: Poison Flowers & Pandemonium
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Writer: Richard Sala
Artist: Richard Sala
Colors: Richard Sala
Letters: Richard Sala
Reviewed by: Seth Singleton
Poison Flowers & Pandemonium is a celebration of the original stories and art cast in the shadow of the macabre and so much more by the irreplaceable Richard Sala.
To begin with, this is a collection. Poison Flowers & Pandemonium is four stories told over 311 pages. Every story features original characters drawn in Sala’s impossible-to-impersonate style.
Sala’s art is an interpretation and reflection of many styles. He showcases memorable features pulled directly from films, television, books, and comics. The scenes Sala draws are conscientious. Sala translates that awareness to the reader.
Positives — The Bloody Cardinal
The Bloody Cardinal 2: House of the Blue Dwarf brings back the popular character the Bloody Cardinal. He first appeared in The Bloody Cardinal in 2017. The description of the Bloody Cardinal at the beginning of the book pulls no punches. He was a hero who became disillusioned and then a villain. Now, he is a master criminal “who is out for no one but himself.”
Interestingly enough, the Bloody Cardinal has a mild-mannered alter ego named Bob Bleaker. Bleaker is the modern-day descending of Leonardo da Vinci. In this telling, da Vinci was the world’s first costumed superhero, The Manbird. “The gods create so that man may destroy,” da Vinci said. Choosing to agree or agree to disagree is at the reader’s discretion.
Positives — The Bloody Characters
The cast of characters introduced on page two and the layout of the portraits is reminiscent of the old National Publications. Or maybe the board game Clue, or the comic Tintin, and even some issues of Justice League in certain eras. Or maybe even the Shazam, or The Fly. But the appearance of each character is wildly original and the portrayals also feel very pointed. The variety is a demonstration of styles that often appear stereotypical if not altogether inappropriate.
Characters like Squeakenhiss appear to emulate tropes from the past. The caricatures are ugly reminders that Asian and Persian misrepresentations were commonplace once. Characters like Philippa Nicely are plain and unassuming.
Positives — The Bloody Story
The story begins with Philippa who is suffering from ominous dreams. She has gifts that change the dreams that she describes to her counselor, Dr. Sun. The dreams are perceived as elements of her growth and development.
Doctor Sun wears a turban with a jewel at its center. But the dreams are also a reason why Philippa innocently accepts a dangerous dinner party invitation. They gather under one roof where the host entertains a table of unpleasant and violently manipulative characters.
They have assembled not only for their own nefarious reasons and attempts to claim power but also because of the actions of their leader, Squeakenhiss. He resembles Fin Fang Foom and similar nemeses from older comic stories. Squeakenhiss is the architect of the many subplots at work behind the scenes.
It is also a story in which Philippa experiences more of her powers but the eventual arrival of the Bloody Cardinal changes everything. The story is full of plot twists, unexpected turns, and bizarre characters. It is also layered with tinges of magic, mysticism, telepathy, telekinesis, and a host of classic tropes that many comic fans will be well-versed in. There is a surprising degree of violence and powerful moments of very dense dialogue and extrapolation.
Positives — Monsters Illustrated
The second story is titled Monsters Illustrated. A girl visits a bookstore and uncovers a book containing a series of characters captured in images that are both grotesque and very suggestive. They are reminiscent of the serialized and less-developed presentations of certain genres from horror to science-fiction.
In many of them, women are suggestively posed and it’s easy to dismiss this as a sorry exercise for something gross and tired. But there’s also a story going on in the background. One where the person reading the book is as much a part of the story as the characters they are reading about. The story feels like a commentary on the history of pinup art for movies, books, and comics.
Positives — Cave Girls of the Lost World
The third story is titled Cave Girls of the Lost World a young boy named George discovers a bottle on the beach and he brings it to the older gentleman that he lives with. A book’s pages are in the bottle. They are filled with half-naked, mostly topless women, and it presents itself as a journal or a logbook. The women somehow found themselves trapped in a land where time is very different and they must work together. Usually, they find themselves facing certain death.
Later, a young woman who is reading the book questions many of its elements. She focuses not only on the style but the portrayals and the unrealistic descriptions and fantasy depictions of women. Interestingly, the older man agrees but believes that it’s important for her to continue reading the story.
She obliges and the journey of the women introduces many dangerous elements including man-bat-like figures worshiping a woman who is familiar to the others. There are dinosaurs, neanderthals who are friendly and violent, and creatures that defy explanation. This story within a story is a confusing distraction for all of the reasons that it is dismissed by the young woman who is reading it.
The story takes on a new perspective when the woman reading the story leaves. She tells the man that the stories are problematic for her and young George. Then, when she is walking down the street there is a lovely twist on the entire perspective.
Positives — Fantomella
Fantomella features a character who does not believe in maintaining the status quo. She believes that the events in the world where she lives are something that she can no longer accept. The citizens of this place are under the control of a priest and his men.
The men are loyal soldiers who violently enforce the will of the priest. The costumed strongmen meet their match. Fighting to resist the oppressors is Fantomella. She rescues the imprisoned and marches through each floor of the priest’s stronghold, flinging knives to carve a path.
There’s a lovely breaking of the fourth wall that interrupts the action. Fantomella meets a figure with a bandaged face and eyes covered by goggles. He is wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora and claims to be the writer of the story.
He proceeds to explain why events are taking place the way they are. Fantomella’s response is wildly original. It is as much fun as the violent ways that she dispatches all those who stand in her way.
The content is confusing. It is jarring to turn each page and not know if the women will be topless or not or the caricatures offensive or disruptive. Even when the moment is part of a larger commentary, the corresponding images are challenging and easy to dismiss as a one-note or three-chord performance.
Sala acknowledges that his influences include Nancy Drew book covers, Jorge Luis Borges, Tracy, Franz Kafka, Fritz Lang, and German Expressionism, James Bond paperbacks, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Grimm’s fairytales, Jack Kirby’s Demon, Heavy Metal, Atlas Comics, Lynd Ward, and a laundry list of pop culture creators, characters, and properties. The impact is evident in every line and panel.
Sala described in an interview, how he would wake up at 3 a.m. and watch a classic movie like Stranger on the Third Floor, or Phantom Lady. Then he went back to sleep and would wake up and feel like it was all a dream. Then inspiration would arrive when he was creating his art.
Sala died in his home in Berkeley, California in Spring 2020. He had recently announced a new serialized webcomic called Carlotta Havoc Versus Everybody in an April 18 post on his blog Here Lies Richard Salah.
The collection of four books captured between the bindings of Poison Flowers & Pandemonium were completed weeks before his passing. Who knows how much of this material might have been lost if the timing had not been more fortuitous.