Everything is going wrong for girl detective Judy Drood. First her car breaks down outside the creepy, clown-infested burg of Obidiah’s Glen, where every telephone is out of order and the townsfolk have all gone missing. Then she gets harassed by the gang of teenagers who’ve taken over the place. They mock her and throw her into a dungeon with a tentacled monster.

Comic book artist Richard Sala’s new book, The Grave Robber’s Daughter, is essentially a short but sweet explication of the little-girl-lost-in-the-woods trope. Judy Drood, who predates both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars — in many ways, both are her spiritual heirs — was born of Sala’s fascination with the Nancy Drew mysteries (specifically, Russell Tandy’s spooky book-cover illustrations, in which ordinary items like grandfather clocks are infused with eerie portent) and his subsequent desire to understand what a girl detective would truly be like. A girl who was constantly snooping and prying into other people’s business, Sala decided, would have to be completely out of her mind.

Like her foil, the gothy, waifish adventuress Peculia, Judy Drood is a Sala masterpiece. Where Peculia (who does not appear in this book) is all soul and instinct, Drood is all spleen, the quintessential loose cannon. As with any great pulp detective with a shady past and ambiguous morals, you’re never really sure if her intentions are good or bad. She cares as much about self-preservation as with helping the helpless — who in a Sala story are likely not as helpless as they seem.

I came to Sala’s work at an optimal time: that mad point in life when freakish concepts like vampires, dagger-wielding assassins, secret societies of mysterious hooded men, disfigured evil scientists hiding out in towers, and pretty girls caught under the swoon of sinister influences — all favorite subjects of his — can, to the more imaginative among us, actually seem like viable career options. Which is to say, in high school. My appreciation for his work has only deepened over the years. His is an appealing landscape of weird old museums (which he professes to have loved as a child), gloomy forests, hidden corridors and staircases that spiral into nowhere. He’s known for a happy kind of tilting geometry; his angular city streets and doorways look like they’ve been yanked up into corners by unseen hands lurking just outside the edge of the page. Plots in a Sala story are deliciously lurid. Events twist and turn with little or no warning or even sense. He tells noir stories the way a child — a screwball, twisted child — would tell them.

{mosimage}These days, Sala lives a kind of reclusive existence in an old Victorian flat in Berkeley, from which he recently spoke to the L.A. Weekly by phone. “Can’t you tell that my voice sounds a little… strangled?” he says, referring to a one-time diagnosis that, having spent so much time by himself, he had lost his voice and forgotten how to speak. He talks now about his recent divorce and how his ex-wife, a child psychologist, suspects that the strangulation has to do with Sala choking down a whole lot of anger.

Now that he’s single again, I ask, which of his characters would he rather date? “Peculia is more my fantasy idea of a girlfriend,” he tells me. “She’s ethereal and strong, and makes you see the world in a completely different way. A good way. She talks to bats. Judy sees the world as I already see it, as a messed up, horrible place that you have to fight through.”

When the clowns in The Grave Robber’s Daughter finally, inevitably attack, Judy Drood must fight her way through a sea of knife-wielding, funny-nosed villains who are more genuinely menacing than any of Sala’s previous bad guys. There’s a sense of speed to his line work, as if the artist is in a hurry to discover how it all works out. As if Drood is caught in a nightmare she barely manages to escape. More than any other art form, comics are life in gestures, life distilled down to its most fantastical or epic or absurd qualities.

Nevertheless, there is a very real-life kind of vulnerability to Drood. Just before the clowns go berserk, the leader of the teen gang asks Judy, “Didn’t you ever want to fucking kill that bastard for screwing up your life?” — touching on another recurring theme in Sala’s oeuvre: the evil father. (Drood’s serial-killer dad, the late, insane Colonel Drood, had a nasty habit of collecting severed limbs and brains, and is ostensibly the reason why she gets into scrapes. It’s in the blood.) “Nah,” Drood says. “The whole thing has just made it easier to deal with life’s little disappointments.”

THE GRAVE ROBBER’S DAUGHTER | By RICHARD SALA | Fantagraphics | 96 pages | $10 paperback

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