"Coloring Corben"

by José Villarrubia, Baltimore 2002
Here on this web site by courtesy of the author.

Appeared in Max Comics: Cage [HB] Hard Bound edition.

The prospect of coloring Richard Corben’s art has been a daunting one for me. For almost three decades I have admired his work and followed it closely. The first time I saw one of his pages it became evident that he stood high above his contemporaries, in a class of his own. I fantasized about collaborating with him but never thought would be possible. Unlike most American comic book artists, Corben always completed his artwork by himself, without the help of assistants, inkers, colorists or letterers. But lately Corben has been producing black and white line work that has then been colored by other artists. I was chosen to color this, his latest project. It turned out to be an exhilarating experience, one that despite its enormous personal challenges was richly rewarded.

Richard Corben is a true master of the comic’s medium and one of its greatest innovators. Using his background in animation he incorporated revolutionary narrative techniques into his comic-book storytelling. Despite early attempts by creators like Jack Kirby; Corben was the first artist to successfully use mixed media in American comics, collaging painted figures over photographic backgrounds in his series "Den”, and later into digitally generated imagery in “Den Saga". Corben, with his enormous artistic facility, can integrate drawn, painted, photographed and digital imagery flawlessly.

But the one visual aspect that made his illustrations unmistakable practically form the beginning of his career is his use of color. Traditionally American comic books had been colored following a process in which a specialized staff artist, the colorist, would fill in color guides, small hand painted photocopies of the original black and white art. These guides were sent to engravers where they were interpreted as flat colors that were printed as coarsely screened half tones. This technique gave comics the “polka dot” look that was so characteristic for over five decades, and that artists like Roy Lichtenstein reproduced in their Pop Art canvases.

Corben began his career in sequential art drawing underground comics in the late sixties. These independently produced publications were generally printed cheaply in black and white. Corben wanted to use color in his stories, and unable to afford the color separation process of mainstream comics, he developed is own method. By hand drawing each color plate separately, skipping the engraver’s interpretation, he was able to have more control over the final printed page and to experiment with unconventional color effects. The results were astounding. When a few years later he started working for the Warren horror magazines and the French magazine Metal Hurlant, better paper and reproduction quality made his palette explode into full spectrum.

Bur it was not just his printing technique that made his stories remarkable. Corben’s aesthetic, influenced by both psychodelia’s intense harmonies and the vibrant paintings of illustrator Maxfield Parrish, made his pages sing and sometimes scream! His use of complementary color schemes, monochromatic sequences and psychological hues, animated his drawings with amazing intensity and dramatic tension. The combination of sculptural lighting and meticulous rendering made his the most three-dimensional images in comics.

Five years ago, after a long career of drawing his own stories, Corben decided to join the mainstream comic book field and started to draw characters that he did not own. The first one was Batman for DC Comics. Working on Vertigo’s series Hellblazer he collaborated for the first time with writer Brian Azzarello. The team moved to Marvel Comics to re-interpret the Hulk, and this project was followed by CAGE. In all of these series, Corben changed his style, provably to accommodate the demanding schedule of monthly publications, and went back to a more refined version of the pen and ink rendering that he has not used extensively since his early underground comics. Perhaps because of this, his work in CAGE is somewhat reminiscent of that of underground master Robert Crumb. Like Crumb, Corben has rendered his figured here with an intense and precise stippling and cross hatching pen marks. But the drawings are unmistakably classic Corben: his impeccable mise-en-scène, forceful characterizations, passionate yet subtle acting, and, perhaps, best fight scenes that anyone has ever rendered in the comic page.

Azzarello and Corben have given the protagonist, Luke Cage a contemporary urban look, totally removed from the pseudo-superhero costume of the original. Gone are the silver (!) tiara, steel chain belt, leather pants, pirate boots and bright yellow polyester shirt that this Marvel hero used to wear in his seventies blaxploitation series. This Cage is simply dressed in black and white garments. Only the color of the lenses of his shades stands out, concealing his gaze with the impenetrable pools of blood through which he sees the world.

Like his clothes, Cage’s environment is now mostly devoid of bright colors. Grime, litter and graffiti splatter his hood. The air is heavy and oppressive, a cooking pot about to explode. I worked with rather muted colors accented by bright small areas. Red plays a big role in the story, with its implications of heat, passion, violence and danger.

Throughout this process, Corben has been incredibly gracious, supportive and helpful. To my surprise and delight, he provided me with a sample page that he colored himself to show me the kind of look that he thought was appropriate to the story. When I received it I was very surprised. It did not look like anything that I would have expected him to do, either in the color choices or in the ultra-smooth rendering. Except that, of course, that is precisely what made it pure Corben: it was unpredictable and strangely compelling, the two primary qualities of his color work. I tried my best to adapt the look of this page into my coloring. What I did not know is how much my coloring would grow from the experience. By simplifying some of my renderings and trying different kinds of color harmonies I think that the storytelling aspects of the art were reinforced.

But you, the reader, will be the judge. I hope that by the time you read this text, you would have already read this nouveau-noir story and hopefully had been entertained and maybe even surprised. Perhaps you’ll go back and read it again. And then you will notice several levels of subtle detail that Corben poured into it. He can’t help it; he is a perfectionist and each of his narratives is truly a labor of love. Corben has given us in CAGE a new masterpiece, and this is a cause for celebration.

Copyright © 2004 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!,
Created: Aug. 6, 2004. Modified: December 25, 2018.