Richard Sala's Self PortraitRichard Sala has been exploring the creepy things in the dark in his comics for years, with titles like Mad Night, The Grave Robber’s Daughter, Peculia and more. This fall, Sala joins up with First Second for his latest dark caper, a graphic novel that he says has legs for plenty more stories beyond the initial thriller.
K., the simply named star of his new book Cat Burglar Black, has been recruited by The Obtainers, a group whose orphanage Bellsong Academy fronts as a training ground of the world’s greatest burglars. Thrust into a perilous situation, K. doesn’t know which thieves in the night she can trust, but The Obtainers are her only link to her late father, so she’s determined to learn as much about his life as she can.
And even if she can outwit The Obtainers and prevent her fellow students from betraying her, K. faces the unexpected threats and creepy residents of nearby Moorlock’s Gate.
We caught up to Richard a few weeks ago (hence the reference to San Diego being upcoming) for his thoughts on Cat Burglar Black and what’s next for K. and her fellow cat burglars.
Newsarama: There’s a lot going on in Cat Burglar Black, Richard, including the mystery of K.’s fellow “students.” You don’t really get a clear picture where their loyalties lie initially, and they wind up being taken off the board just when K. begins to understand them. They play off one another very well, but which of the girls was the most fun to write?
Cat Burglar Black CoverRichard Sala: Dory’s dialogue was definitely the most fun to write for me. That’s probably because she’s kind of cynical and jaded and possibly even a little unstable (a bit like my own personality, come to think of it!). But I hope I was able to make her sympathetic, as well. All the girls had fairly awful childhoods, but I think she is perhaps the most tormented about it, psychologically speaking. She’s torn between wanting to belong and wanting to break away – just like most teenagers (even the ones who weren’t raised to be cat burglars!) I tried to give each of the girls at least one moment where the reader might find them individually sympathetic, where you get a quick, unguarded glimpse into who they are.
But then, villains and “bad” characters are always the most fun to write – because they get to say such nasty things. I liked writing for the heroine, K., as well. But in stories like this, writing for the heroine (or hero, as the case may be) means finding a balance – showing that the character is strong-willed and clever, despite the fact that they are constantly finding themselves in dicey situations. If the reader starts to wonder, “If she’s so clever, why does she keep doing such dumb and dangerous things?” – then you’re in trouble. You’ve got to have some kind of motivation, some kind of reason that your main character is constantly putting herself in danger. Otherwise, the reader is just going to assume your character is a dolt!
NRAMA: K. winds up following in her late parents’ footsteps as a cat burglar, working with The Obtainers. It’s a common theme in fiction, echoing ones’ parents. Why did you go that route with this particular heroine?
CBB Page 63Sala: At some point in our lives it hits us that – even if we’ve tried to distance ourselves from our parents or swear we will never be like them – there is something – some combination of the way we were raised, our genetic makeup and, even, perhaps, destiny – that ends up bringing us closer to becoming like our parents than we ever dreamed possible. In K.’s case, I think she is trying, whether she knows it or not, to finish what her father was trying to do, or to fix what he wasn’t able to fix. He wanted to quit the game, but wasn’t able to. So she takes his place, in a way, after he’s gone, and sets about trying to achieve the redemption her father wasn’t able to. It’s that struggle inside her, that unconscious conflict, that she has to figure out and overcome.
NRAMA: The Obtainers are suitably skeevish. Tell us a little about their history and their motivation for recruiting K.?
Sala: “The Obtainers” are an ancient secret organization whose motto is “You Desire, We Obtain.” They have provided their (very expensive) service for hundreds of years – that service being to obtain rare and valuable items for (or from, as the case may be) kings or emperors, presidents or tycoons. And in order to continue their unlawful activities, they run a series of schools for cat burglars, masquerading as orphanages. It’s in these schools that they literally raise children to become cat burglars. Yes, they exploit and corrupt innocent orphans. Did I mention that they are thoroughly evil and despicable?!
CBB Page 73As to why they are interested in K., who had been able to escape their clutches – that’s actually one of central the mysteries of the book, which explained by the end of the story. Even the other cat burglars are a little baffled by that. They wonder, “Why her? What makes her so special?” The reasons lie in The Obtainers’ relationship with her father, as well as their knowledge of K.’s remarkable abilities.
NRAMA: What are some of the works that inspired Cat Burglar Black?
Sala: I’ve had a fascination with cat burglars (as well as other creatures of the night) since I was a kid. My family had moved from Chicago to a suburb in Arizona when I was ten or eleven and it was a real culture shock. But one thing I started doing was taking long walks at night. The night sky was so much bigger than it was in Chicago and it was so peaceful. I liked being alone, walking somewhat aimlessly and thinking and using my imagination. I’d see the lights on in the houses and imagine all kinds things – usually based on whatever books or comics I had been reading or movies I’d seen. Maybe inside there were mad scientists conducting forbidden experimenting or Martians disguising themselves as humans, or the meeting of a secret society. I’d imagine all kinds of mysteries or creatures lurking in the dark swaying bushes. Or I’d picture, say, The Shadow, scaling the walls of the houses and sprinting across the rooftops… In a way, all the stories I’ve ever written since are an attempt to recapture the way I felt, just letting my mind wander as I strolled along in the dark.
NRAMA: I can definitely see that! There is a suggestion that Zel, Morrow and Dory don’t make it out of this book alive, yet K. swears to track them down. Is it safe to say that there’s more to their story than we’ve seen thus far?
CBB Page 78Sala: There is for me, certainly. I have the entire next book already written out in my head! But, realistically, we have to see if anyone buys the first one before that can happen. The bottom line, anyhow, was to show that K. is a good person who is not going to forget the others, that her loyalty and strength of character is such that there is no question she is going to find out what happened to the others – whether there is another book to tell that story or not. As for whether they have survived, well – there are clues about the town – Moorlock’s Gate – being a haven for a very eccentric and secretive group of people. Perhaps, they would rather capture intruders, if it serves their purpose, and perhaps hold them prisoner in, say, the underground tunnels connecting their houses? And perhaps Dory has even figured out a way to outsmart her captors and convince them to allow her to join them in their secret schemes. Who knows? In other words, I hope that readers will see that the story does continue, if only in their own imaginations.
NRAMA: What’s next for you, Richard?
Sala: I’m always working away on something. I always try to have more than one thing going on at a time, but I hesitate to talk about them while they’re still in progress. However, my four-issue series Delphine, has finally wrapped up. I believe the final issue will be officially debuting at the San Diego ComiCon. It’s very different in tone and subject matter from Cat Burglar Black, which is really a book for young readers on up. Delphine is quite a bit darker, a bit more adult in its themes. On the other hand, I have a two-page comic appearing in a book for kids called Half Minute Horrors, which is coming out from HarperCollins this fall. Pretty much every story I write and draw is really for myself, for my own enjoyment (otherwise doing comics could become mighty grueling) – and whether the book I’m doing is ultimately going to be for kids or adults – that’s usually something the editor has to end up telling me!