Are You Okay?

Zak Sally turns his darkest thoughts into visceral, elliptically personal comics--but he doesn't really want to talk about it

Zak Sally is visibly uncomfortable talking about himself. He pulls off his baseball cap, a barely worn model advertising The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and tousles his mop of curly brown hair. (With respect to the hat: Sally is 34 and married.) "You looking at my comics makes me feel like I'm walking around the room with my pants off," Sally says as I thumb through his third and final edition of Recidivist, a collection of personal and often dark stories.

Sally, comic-book creator, bassist for Low, and former City Pages contributor, is more comfortable talking about the other writers and comic-book creators sharing space with him at Creative Electric Studios' current exhibit. The show, running through mid-October, features work by longtime Berkeley zine maker Aaron Cometbus, San Francisco comic-book creator John Porcellino, underground-comic hero Kim Deitch, New York collage artist Ida Pearle, and Rhode Island-based visual artist William Schaff, several of whom have books, prints, or as-yet-undetermined projects out or forthcoming from Sally's new publishing company, La Mano.

"I can talk about John's work or Kim's work or Aaron's work all day, but when it's my stuff it brings up this whole element of ego and strangeness," Sally says, shifting in his chair. The chair's loud cries for WD-40 echo throughout the giant Northeast studio Sally shares with two other artists. Next to this cluttered workspace is La Mano's hub, a pungent room populated by stacks of paper and an ink-stained WWII-era printing press. There, Sally's hand feeds the pages of the books he's publishing into the giant green machine, partly because the process is relatively economical, but mostly because he has a natural penchant for doing things the old-school, DIY way.

Sally's own studio is separated from the rest of the operation by a piece of thick, purple velvet draping the room's entrance. His walls are decorated with a few posters, one promoting Low's Great Destroyer album, and a braille copy of the New York Times. There's no computer among the books, CDs, pens, and papers, just a drawing table and a handsome guy in boots and gray corduroys and an ironic 40-Year-Old Virgin cap. Call him a Luddite, or call him a skillful niche marketer. "I thought computers were going to destroy print," he says. "But they just fetishize it more. There's something really beautiful and tactile about the print medium. I've found that I've gotten more obsessive about materials, how they look and how they feel."

Since creating his first mini-comic at age 13, Sally has been crippled by an obsession with the art form. He's tried to stop making comics, he says, but he can't. He's driven to create the stories and images that creep into his brain, and compelled to draw them in an attempt to understand the often-disturbing images. "It's awful," he says of spending weeks on end trying to illustrate a single short story. "Cartooning--lots of people do it for fun--but for me it's never been particularly fun. It's more a compulsion. And I'm finally getting used to that."

Sally's illustrated stories are visceral and emotional, sometimes even brutal. In one, a surgeon, distraught and disgusted over a profligate young patient's cancerous, prematurely aged body, spits inside the man's open chest cavity. Another scene takes place in a basement, where a man keeps his wife in handcuffs and a mouth lock. He removes them to feed her soup and regale her with stories about his extramarital affairs as he sips on a bottle of whiskey.

Everything Sally creates, on some level, is personal, he says, though the appropriate legal authorities should know that the stories aren't necessarily drawn directly from his life. "Sure, it's a personal story," he says of the short about the woman in the basement. "I mean, not literally. I don't do that with my own wife. But everything in there is real." When asked to elaborate, Sally pauses and murmurs and stumbles before conceding this: "I don't know," he says, looking out the window as if the answer lies on rooftops surrounding the building. "If I could explain it or figure it out, then I probably wouldn't need to do a strip about it. It's that whole compulsion thing. If I understood it, I probably wouldn't sit down and try to work it out endlessly."

Lest we've forgotten, Sally doesn't like ruminating about himself. Which is why he quickly switches the subject to John Porcellino and his current La Mano-published book, Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man. Porcellino's short stories, or diary entries, are earnest and gentle and reflective, and they immediately elicit empathy for Porcellino and his real-life characters, folks the author meets while riding along at 12 mph in a truck filled with chemicals. The pieces are drawn crudely and with an apparent absence of contrivance, which makes the figures all the more human and sympathetic. The book is filled with stories that are wonderful and sad at the same time. There's one about being attacked by wasps while a rich couple watches from inside their home, another in which Porcellino, spraying a field, happens upon an asparagus plant and tries the vegetable for the first time ("it tasted like spring"), and a vignette where Porcellino finds a squirrel whose hindquarters were paralyzed, and moments later sees a passing minivan in which a 13-year-old girl is bawling her eyes out.

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