Review by Graham Johnstone
This pocket book continues the charming, supernatural adventures of Richard Sala’s reluctant heroine Peculia. A series of Peculia shorts were gathered in an eponymous collection, which is complemented by this first full-length story, a pocket sized graphic novella, identified in the front matter as Evil Eye #13, Evil Eye being where some of Sala’s works were originally serialised.
The cover copy describes Peculia as a ‘waif’, and there’s no sign of her parents, as she appears to live alone with her butler Ambrose, who surely homaging P.G. Wodehouse, plays the ever alert Jeeves to her innocent Wooster. Unlike comics’ most famous orphan waifs, Peculia is neither the driving force like Annie, Tintin, and Batman, or faithful understudy like Robin. She is simply caught up in schemes of plotting villains, in this case the shades-wearing Nicola. Peculia’s more a strolling observer, transposed by Sala from the boulevards of Paris, to the European hinterland of the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the most famous example in popular culture is TV’s cereal-loving Seinfeld, who after several seasons realises all he wants is ‘to look around’. In a recurring joke, Peculia’s adventures usually result from having to go out for more cereal. Peculia is also a waif in the sense of unworldly innocence, yet there’s no gender stereotyping here, when a challenge finds her, she’s fearless and resourceful. Villain Nicola mocks her as a ‘clever girl’, until the end when she earns a sardonic ‘clever, clever girl’.
The plot is some other girls needing a fourth babysitter for a lucrative one-off job with a mysterious family. Also brought along by his regular sitter is little George, who’s been reading up on ‘wom-peers’ after overhearing a group of travellers. Innocents lured, voluntarily or opportunistically, into a lair, is a classic horror trope, and Sala was a longtime lover of schlock horror, who shared his enthusiasm on social media, as well as in his comics. Yet his own stories are mischievous metafictions where classic set-ups pay-off unexpectedly. If occasionally, as here, there are elements of deus ex machina, they read as cheeky nods to story clichés, and are usually tying up loose ends, not avoiding dramatic resolution. Sala is a confident storyteller, who keeps a brisk pace, worthy of Lee/Kirby, deftly combining exposition with characterisation in snappy dialogue.
Sala, at his best is a brilliant artist, updating a woodcut style that evokes illustrations to gothic novels. He uses a style called contour hatching, where lines convey both tone and form (pictured, right). Some Sala books have combined stunning pages interspersed with with more workday ones. However, the art here is strong throughout. His sequential story telling is assured. He knows when to use panoramic shots, or zoom into details, and his composition is clear, elegant, and, where required, kinetic. His pages are normally beautifully designed, framable works, though the effect is spoilt here by the apparent reformatting (pictured, left) of pages to fit the pocketbook size, presumably to scrape a viable page count. Nevertheless, the panels including text run so close to the spine that it’s hard to see them without forcing the pages open flat. However, despite such niggles, this is another strong book from Sala.
The set of stories in the Peculia collection add up to a richer narrative experience, though the art is more consistently impressive here. A matching volume The Grave Robber’s Daughter is identified as Evil Eye #14 and stars Judy Drood and reluctant sidekick Kasper, from the Evil Eye serial compiled as Mad Night.