Comic Book Rebels

Conversations with the Creators of the New Comics

by Stanley Wiater and Stehen R. Bissette
Copyright © 1992 Stanley Wiater and Stehen R. Bissette

pg 4, Richard Corben

A soft spoken, reclusive Midwestwern who shuns the spotlight of celebrity, Richard Corben is a rather mysterious figure to even his most devoted readers and fans. However aloof the artist himself may remain, his stories and art burn into the international comic book arena with an aggressive clarity and seductive skill. However wildly impossible the adventures and anatomies of his oversexed heroes, heroines, and monsters may seem, they will forever pulse with an almost tactile sense of elemental life.

While his early artwork for the science-fiction and horror fanzines of the late Sixties showed obvious promise and steady growth, Corben's affinity for the comics medium blossomed with the fanzine publication of Rowlf in The Voice of Comicdom #16 and #17 (1970-71). Rowlf boldly demonstrated his remarkable grasp of chiaroscuro, drama, and movement to tell the compelling tale of a humanoid canine battling mutants to defend the woman to whom he is devoted. A giddy adventure by turns touching and bracingly violent, Rowlf established the post-Apocalyptic landscape peculiar to much of Corben's finest work. This includes his ongoing saga of his adventurer Den to his collaborations with acclaimed writers like Jan Strnad (Mutant World, 1978-79) and Harlan Ellison (Vic and Blood, 1987-89).

After the collapse of his first self-published fanzine Fantagor (1970), and while still unaware of the underground commix movement, Corben was contacted by San Francisco comic-shop owner Gary Arlington who had just published Skull Comics #1 (1970). Excited by the possibilities, Corben responded with the story "Lame Lem's Love, which Arlington promptly published in Skull Comics #2. Neither Corben or comics were ever the same again. He all but erupted into the undergrounds with an astonishing torrent of memorable stories. Though Corben was occasionally attacked by other comic creators who considered his sensibilities at odds with the stablished countercultural agenda (so to speak), his culminative output from this period in his career rates with the very best of the undergrouns.

Corben's dazzling experiments with color commix stories began with "CidOpey" (Up from the Deep, 1971), "Going Home" (Funny World #14, 1972), the commix incarnation of Fantagor#2 and #4 (1972), and the first chapter of Den in the full-color Grimwit #2 (1973). Along with the concurrently published color stories in James Warren's newsstand horror magazines Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, this tales were unprecedented achievements in contemporary American comic art.

His extraordinary color narratives opened new horizons via reprints in Metal Hurlant, and subsequent wider exposure to a domestic readership when the French magazine spawned America's first "Adult Illustrated Fantasy" periodical Heavy Metal (from 1977 to the present). Freshly inspired by the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Corben returned once more to self publishing in the mid Eighties. Still based in Kansas City, Richard Corben continues to produce his unique stories and art, satisfying an appreciative international audience as he quietly works to please only himself.

COMIC BOOK REBELS: Growing up in the Fifties, how much of a creative impact did the now legendary EC Comics make upon you? Did they influence you primarily as a developing storyteller?

RICHARD CORBEN: I think it's something a little more fundamental than that. They were great stories, sure. But they also hit upon a fundamental need or expression that kids a certain age need to explore, which they need to work out for themselves: Exploring the meaning of death, and everything that goes around with it.

CBR: Regarding your influences as a cartoonist, we've always had the sense that you were a fan of Dell Comics' Tarzan artist Jessie Marsh, primarily because of the way you draw your animals. Are you familiar with his work?

CORBEN: If I collected anybody, it was Jessie Marsh's Tarzan books (1948-65). I collected those for years, and he was one of my stars. Most people can't see the connection at all, and it may in fact be a little tenuous.

CBR: Was Russ Manning an influence in any way? We're thinking in terms of the semiparody of Manning's Magnus Robot Fighter (1963-68) you did en Slow Death #4 (1972).

CORBEN: Yeah, but probably to a lesser extent. In some ways he was much more finished as an artist than Jessie Marsh, but by the time he took over, I was getting too old for comics. I went away from them for a time.

CBR: So what brought you back to comics as a reader?

CORBEN: Well, I don't know if I ever really came back to them as a reader. I came back to comics because of something I felt a need to do for myself: I wanted to be a cartoonist.

CBR: We know that you've used sculpture as a mean of better visualizing your characters. Has that always been an organic part of the creative process for you as an artist?

CORBEN: Well, that goes back to some of my earliest efforts. I did character heads because drawing the same character over and over again, from different angles, the sculpture became an aid in doing that more effectively. But it was sort of limiting in that my drawings were only as good as my sculptures. I mean, they had the character, but they weren't always that lifelike.

CBR: One of the aspects of your art that instantly hits people upon seeing it for the first time is your amazing use of dramatic lighting. Where did that develop?

CORBEN: Now, I think that is definitely from the EC Comics. Most noticeably of all, probably, from Wally Wood. If I learned lighting from anybody, it was from him. And Will Eisner.

CBR: Any influences from your life-long interest in the cinema?

CORBEN: Some influences are unconscious, and you don't realize them until they come out later, often in an odd sort of way. It may have been an influence, but in terms of making a connection by watching a film and saying, "That's a neat lighting effect, I should use it in a comic," well, I really don't remember ever coming to a decision like that in my work.

CBR: You've done some short films of your own, primarily in clay animation. In some ways, pursuing filmmaking and animation has beeb as important to you as cartooning, hasn't it?

CORBEN: There were some decisions that were made very early on my career. When I was going to high school, I said, "Well–I either want to be a comic book artist or I want to be an animator. Whatever the fortune brings to me, that's the way I'll go." I went one way for a while, and then went another way, and then went back–it's a mix in the early part of my career before I settled, almost exclusively, on the comics. But for the first ten years after college I was working for an industrial movie company in Kansas City, and so I was–sort of-working in the movies.

I think if I have been a little more independent, at a very young age, I think I might have taken off for Hollywood, and things would have been different. But being the person I am, I didn't, so I just stayed at home. I've had a few opportunities since then to possibly do some work in feature films, yet I can see that these people don't have all the freedom that I thought they might have.

CBR: You developed a most distinctive style for your work very early on in your career. In a certain sense, your style seems purposely "over-done," especially in the incredibly voluptuous manner both your male and female characters are rendered.

CORBEN: My style is kind of like watching television with the intensity of the colors turned up a little bit. It's also taking the idea of classic heroes and heroines and turning up or exaggerating the archetypes a little bit, too. But it's all done with a straight face. And in the early part of my career, the developing of a style was not a conscious thing, it just sort of happened. Normally I don't question my motives of doing things. I just do them.

CBR: One of your early work was Tales from the Plague, which was first published as The Plague Years (1969). Was that initially conceived as a single "novel"-length tale?

CORBEN: Well, it was conceived and done as a two-part "novel", and it was published that way. Actually, it was published together in two sixteen-page sections–two versions of the same story. That was me getting my feet wet, too, in terms of doing comic art for publication. It may have been a bit overdone.

CBR: How did Rowlf (1970-71) come about, which was entirely your own concept and story? The post-apocalyptic theme of his world has been one you've returned to repeatedly in your work.

CORBEN: He was partially based on the dog we had as a kid. When I was growing up we had a dog, and I think there's a bunch of him in Rowlf. My concept of Rowlf's world was that this could be a clash of fantasy and science fiction. We have fantasy elements like the castles and medieval costumes and sorcerers, and then they clash with these mutants with their sort of "Panzer" tanks.

CBR: Of the many comic book writer you've worked with over the years, one of the first was Jan Strnad. How did you connect with Strnad?

CORBEN: I met him al the World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis, in '68 or '69. He had published a fanzine called Anomaly, and I bought one there, and we took up a correspondence, and the later we took up work together. We've worked together on and off through the years. My favourite work with him is probably the one he found the most difficult because he had to pick up on something I had started and then didn't know what to do with–that would be Mutant World (1978-79). At the time I had only done the first chapter, and I had some vague ideas of what I was going to do with it next, and then I realized my ideas were no good! [Laughs] We later went back and did a sequel to that series, Sons of Mutant World (1990-91).

CBR: Were your experiences with Strnad in the fanzines what made you decide to start your own company, Fantagor Press, so as to have a vehicle to best showcase your own material?

CORBEN: Partially. I can't remember where I saw my first fanzine, but I remember writing to the editor and sending him some of my drawings. He decided he was going to use them, and then decided I could do a story, too. But then, after seeing such a great variety in quality and points of view in other fanzines, I thought, "Heck, I can do this!" So I did a fanzine or two, and when the underground comix came out I thought, "This is basically simple: you just write and draw your own comics. And I can do that, too". So I did. There's a little more to it than just that, but basically that's what I've been doing ever since.

CBR: You did a considerable body of work during the height of the popularity of the underground comix in the Seventies. Was that where publisher James Warren first saw your stories?

CORBEN: Yeah, I did a lot of work. I can't say I made a lot of money, but I did a lot of work. [Chuckles] But I was being published in the undergrounds about the same time I started doing work for Jim Warren. I had been trying to cultivate working for Warren for several years, and just as I was getting into the underground commix, that was when Warren decided he would give me some strips to do.

CBR: In hindsight, was your involvement with the legendary–some would say infamous–James Warren an enjoyable experience?

CORBEN: Well, Warren was a hard taskmaster. I had to go over several of my stories and change this and that, and fix this and that, just to meet his demands. I could talk about my personal memories of the man, But they may not be suitable for publication! [laughs] There was always a tension between Warren and the people who worked for him. I wanted desperately to do comics, and he was publishing the only kind of comics that I wanted to do, so it was either play his game, or nothing. So I felt like I had to put up with some abuse…

I also had to censor my work on a couple of occasions. There was that dinosaur cover I did for Eerie #125 (1981) with the woman up in the tree. She had a little more breast exposed than they cared for, as I recall.

CBR: Did you ever feel a sense of community with the other creators working in the underground commix scene?

CORBEN: That was a very diverse group of people. I did feel a camaraderie with some of them, but with some others, they were just too, too different for me. A lot of them has a real political agenda, and that has never been overt in my work. But the freedom I had probably spoiled me.

CBR: To what extent do you still consider yourself an "underground commix" artist?

CORBEN: Well, I'm not sure what that term means. But I am a misfit in terms of mainstream cartoonists in that, though I work hard at what I do, I just can't see working for people who seem to be doing things for the wrong reasons. I mean, I have friends who are in the mainstream comic industry, but I just couldn't hack it myself.

CBR: Den is the one character that continues to threat throughout your entire career, going all the way back to your work in the underground commix. What's your continuous interest with him as a character?

CORBEN: To me, he represents a universal individual. He's sort of a hero in spite of himself.

CBR: How much does Den reflect your inner landscape as an artist?

CORBEN: Probably far more than I care to admit! [Laughs]

CBR: Can you tell us how Den came to appear in the 1981 animated feature, Heavy Metal?

CORBEN: The people who ran Heavy Metal wanted to do an animated version of the magazine. And they wanted to include all the characters that they possibly could have from the magazine in the movie. So my input for that was, because Den was in the magazine, they wanted my work in the movie. It wasn't anything I actively promoted, really. Oddly enough, Den originated in a short animated film of my own called Neverwhere back in 1968 before I even did the comics.

The producers offered me the chance of going to the studio and doing some supervisory work of my segment, but I was too tied up in other comics projects at the time. So mainly what I did was some model sheets for my characters and did some approvals of their designs, and that was about it. I didn't choose John Candy for the voice of Den either, but in retrospect I think he did a pretty good job. Looking back, I'm not all that strong on the animation, but I think they came pretty close with the tone of Den's world.

CBR: With the many writers whose classics you've adapted to the comic medium over the years–Poe, Lovecraft, Howard, Bradbury–were those projects you initiated for purely personal reasons, or were they the most commercially viable to do at that point in your career?

CORBEN: Each circumstance was different. In some cases, the opportunity just presented itself, and I jumped at it, as was the case with Robert E. Howard and Ray Bradbury. And Lovecraft, too, come to think of it. On one of my current books, Den Saga, the project is something I initiated myself, with three adaptations of Clark Ashton Smith to be used as backup stories. The first adaptation is "The Seed from the Sepulcher," which is a story that takes place in a South American jungle and there's this mutant orchid growing out this guy's head… [Laughs] The one I've just finished for issue Number Two is "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," which is a Martian story. Some readers might see the origins of some situations that were later used in the movie Alien there. Actually, when I was negotiating to get the Clark Ashton Smith properties, that was when I was publishing the Horror in the Dark (1991-92) and they would have been perfect for that title. But then Horror in the Dark didn't quite make it in the market place.

CBR: You were responsible for one of the very first graphic novels–published before that term really existed–with your adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Bloodstar (1976). Wasn't artist Gil Kane involved in that project as well?

CORBEN: Like I said before, this was an opportunity that was presented to me. It was a graphic novel, but I didn't put it out, it was published by a company called Morning Star Press. But it was a great opportunity for me at the time, and I considered it then to be my best work to date. Gil Kane was a partner in the Morning Star Press, which unfortunately broke up very shortly after that book's publication.

CBR: You've done numerous wonderful stories with Bruce Jones, not only in the Warren publications, but your more recent Rip in Time (1986-87). How have your collaborations been conducted wit him and other writers?

CORBEN: I've had some very good collaborations with other writers. But with one exception, they've all been done long-distance. They've been done by letter, phone, fax, and everything else. Bruce and I loved the stories we did for Warren, but they were done simply on a job by job basis, with no thought of any thematic goals, I must admit. We weren't organized enough to have any long-range goals, but we did love the work, and that's what kept us going.

But each collaboration was different. I worked with Jan one way, worked with Bruce another way, and I worked with Simon Revelstroke yet another way. When I worked with Simon I believe the results had merit, but boy did come out of conflict! [Laughs] I fought with him constantly.

CBR: Is "Simon Revelstroke" a pseudonym? It certainly sounds like one.

CORBEN: Yes, it is. But it's not mine, though. All I can tell you is, he's a local writer who lives here in Kansas City. I guess he was just self-conscious about being in comics.

CBR: Considering the universal appeal much of your work has to fantasy and science-fiction fans, have you had a good experience with other foreign markets over the years?

CORBEN: At first they were just ripping me off–there was this underground commix movement over in Europe, too. And they thought it was all right to reprint or publish anything they could get their hands on! Fortunately, at the point when I got an established European publisher who wanted to publish my work, he took it on himself to help me police of my work over there. So it's since become, for me, very good. At least, in comparison to the U.S. markets, it's very good.

CBR: In spite of your success with commercial markets both here and overseas, what brought you back to self-publishing in the late Eighties?

CORBEN: Probably the same reason that every other would-be comic book creator and cartoonist jumped in at the same moment: because of the incredible success of Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At that time, when we started self-publishing again, every title would sell at least 50,000 copies. In fact, in that point in my career I was getting pretty fed up with a lot of things, and said, "Well, we'll give it one more chance…" as self publishers. So I made a deal with Bruce Jones to write Rip in Time and fortunately we did very well.

CBR: An obvious question: why is it so important for you to be in total control over your own projects?

CORBEN: Well, as a cartoonist, the work you do is like your children. And you want to give them the best possible chance to be fully realized. That means the best publishing, the best printing, the best–well, distribution may not be the best!–but you try to get them to the people who will really appreciate your efforts. The downside is that it's kind of isolated when you're working for yourself, in that you work really hard on a project for months, and then you throw it out into the market place to see what happens. And it sinks or floats–it sells or it doesn't sell. So you may break even, or you may not break even. Most of the time it's very close.

CBR: We've noticed that some of your earlier artwork has been reworked to tone down the nudity now that you're self-publishing again, primarily for distribution through the direct market. What led to that decision?

CORBEN: I had to give a lot of thought as to whether or not I wanted to do that. But it was either redo the art, or they could not be included in the new collections. There's a new distribution system now with the direct market and the comic shops, and I wanted to get to the widest possible audience that I could. I felt that I was not destroying the original, just making a new version. So that's what I did.

CBR: You're one of the very few self-publishers who, from time to time, continues to publish in full color. Given the enormous time and production costs, how and why do you continue to do it?

CORBEN: We might not do as much color work as we do except our foreign markets demand it. They'll pay a certain amount more for color than they will for black and white, and so it becomes a business decision. To try and keep the costs down, we've printed in Europe, we've printed in Spain, we've printed in Holland, and in the United States, too.

CBR: After basically creating your own unique system to reproduce your color work, you've more recently done this process using computer technology. How is that working out for you?

CORBEN: Yes, I've gone high-tech. I'll either do the color work myself and then scan it into the computer and then the computer does the color separations. As for the type, and the hand-lettering, the computer does it much faster, and I have more control. But I'm still never satisfied with the reproduction. At this point I've been using the color computer for about two years, yet I really don't perceive giving up pencil and paper.

CBR: Any opportunities in the medium that you feel that you have yet to obtain or have just not come your way?

CORBEN: As a publisher, we try to make short-range goals, and long range goals. But we haven't figured out what our long-range goals are right now! [Chuckles] The main thing is to make good on our promise to express ourselves truthfully about what we think; to try and produce work which reflects society, not in an obvious way, but in subtle ways. As to how far I've gone in keeping that promise, I sometimes really question my career, here and there. I have no fear that I'm going to starve to death–but I question if I've always made the right decision, here and there, along the way.

CBR: No regrets then as to how your career eventually turned out?

CORBEN: If we're supposed to be masters of our own fate, I don't know how we should measure regrets. Whatever success we've had–it's all ours. We worked for it, and if we didn't get it, it's not because we didn't work as hard as we could for it. I simply don't think I could ever work for another publisher, except on a very temporary basis. I just want to do things my own way too much. Regrets? No–we could have done a lot worse.

CBR: Any practical advice for a young person wishing to follow in your footsteps, then?

CORBEN: Don't do it! [Laughs] Seriously, I'm always saying how great freedom is, but there's a price to pay. And that's going through some hard timesIt's all right to put yourself into this lifestyle, but if you have to put your family through this same situation, you have to really decide if it's worth it. Especially through the lean times.

Some great artists–and I'm not saying I'm a great artist–but some artists never have any recognition, except maybe years after they're dead. And then you've got to ask yourself. "Is that some kind of cosmic joke, or what?"

Why pick a career which may seem glamorous to a kid? Because in this industry it's not usually the cartoonist who gets the money, power, or the glory; it's the publisher. There are only a very few cartoonists whom I would call successful in this business; for most of them it's just a mediocre job that they're lucky to make a living at. Only a few are able to rise above that reality. So I would say be very careful in picking your career. You have to be sort of nuts to want to keep going on when faced with that, but I and a lot of people do.

Copyright © 2015 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!,
Created: September 3, 2015. Modified: September 3, 2015.