Corben’s Comeback by Sebastian Otten

How the Turtles kept Corben publishing Comic Books

by Sebastian Otten, November 2018. Written for Angoulême 2019 exhibition but was later for the book. Courtesy of the author.

Richard Corben was indeed a star in the 1970ies. He was well known for his underground work and his stories for different Warren-titles.

Metal Hurlant #1 (1975)
Metal Hurlant #1 (1975)

French magazine “Métal Hurlant”, founded by Jean Pierre Dionnet, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius, Philippe Druillet and Nikita Mandryka, was a revolutionary concept for the medium comic. The mostly adult themes, innovative story telling and the opulent pictures gave an idea, that “Bande dessinees” are not only light entertainment for children, but art! In the first number, published in December 1974, Richard Corben was among those European artists and “Cidopey”, originally edited in “Up From the Deep” # 1 in 1971, was his first story in that legendary magazine.

In 1976, his “Bloodstar”-story was the first comic, which was ever called itself as a “graphic novel”.

After his second longer “Den” story “Muvovum” has ended after 18 episodes in March 1983, his career seem to get stalling. The critics in some magazines were scathingly. In Germany, “Muvovum” was published in “Schwermetall” and the last pages were printed till issue 36 in January 1983. The comments in the magazine were unkind. “Less enthusiastic I am about Den II, who is getting his adventure to end in a slow way, stepping in the spot”, wrote the editor Raymond Martin in December 1982 (Schwermetall # 35). One month later, he wrote, Corben has not done a good job with the story.

Schwermetall #35 (1982)
Schwermetall #35 (1982)

While concentrating on the epic stories, Corben neglected his work on his short stories. Between 1979 and 1981 only one story was printed, “The Spirit of the Beast” in May 1980 in “Heavy Metal”. His next longer story “Jeremy Brood”, had to be canceled because of low selling rates. Also the next one, the ironic “Bodyssey” was also not a selling hit and in it´s ironic way of telling a fantasy story, it was misunderstood by the readers.

Parallel he began to work for Pacific Comics, but the publishing company got bankrupted. “Pacific Comics and Longhorn books folded owing me money”, Corben remembered later. Also the situation with his foreign syndications was “intolerable”, which means, he did not earn enough money for his sellings in Europe.

He came to a point to make a decision: “Despite my love of comics, I was about ready to hang them up”. Instead of writing and drawing new comics, he began to expand his work for book covers. He did a several cover illustrations for Gamebooks like “Fighting Fantasy” in 1983 till 1985, “Sagard” in 1985 and “Lone Wolf” between 1985 and 1987 and many others.

He also did a movie poster for the 1986 “Spookies”.

At that time America experienced a rebirth of independent comic book publishing. Corben himself failed with his magazine “Fantagor” in 1970, but in 1984 it was the time for Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They created their own characters, the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” without the support a big studio and published the stories by their own company: Mirage Comics. It was a huge risk, but they did not faile. Their success was enormous. “That inspired me (and about a hundred other would be publishers) to give comics one more try”, Corben described his changing in mind. So, he was planning a comeback in career. “I was desperate for a measure success and I decided a non “adults only” editorial stance was in order. Obviously, the most successful comic titles deal with super heroes”, but it was not the time for him for such an enormous change. For sure, he painted three pages for the “X-Men” story “Heroes for Hope” in 1985, but this was not a complete story. Corben was only part of a jam. His “superheroes-period” began later in 1996, with the “Batman” story “Monster Maker”.

Rip in Time #1 (1986)
Rip in Time #1 (1986)

Back in the 1980ies: Corben tried to find a compromise, “a subject, that was interesting to me, but also held a wide appeal for a more general audience: dinosaurs!” Richard Corben´s wife, Dona, his “behind the scenes support”, agreed to his ideas and plans. So they asked Bruce Jones, who was also interested in Dinosaurs, and who was the writer of the Dinosaur trilogy in “Eerie” and of “Me an´ol´Rex” (“Twisted Tales” #3, June 1983), “so we were off”, Corben remembered. The name of the new publishing company? No doubt about that. There was no better name than “Fantagor Press”. “I´m glad we did it, because I believe it marks a turning point at my career. Dona and I are very excited about our future plans for Fantagor Press”, he wrote in the letter column of “RIP in Rime” # 5 in 1987.

Can You imagine, how the comic history could have developed, if Richard Corben did not have notice Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael? We wouldn´t have known, how many phantastic comic stories with his typical brilliant art he would have missed.

Otherwise it is a typical irony of history, that Richard Corben himself was a role model for Kevin Eastman. Eastman was a teenager, 15 years old, when he discovered Corben´s art, when his first Heavy Metal magazine found it´s way in his hands: “Between the other wonders inside, a story lept out and grabbed me by the throat! The starling color, the exaggerated realism, the entire imagery blew me away!” He got hunger for more and also read Corben´s earlier underground stories. “His work in the underground comix hit me like a nail through the forehead. God, the timeless freedom within!” Why did Eastman write such enthusiastic words? The reason is simple: Richard Corben knew that the “Turtles” were the only reason, that he did not quit. So, he gave this gratitude back to Eastman and Laird. He had his own way to say “Thank You!” and collaborated a several times with Eastman and Laird, first time in March 1986, when he made “You Had to Be There”, a four page Turtles story for TMNT # 7 and a wraparound cover for a reprint of the second issue of the comic book series the same year. His masterpiece present was the 28 page story “Turtles Take Time”, written by Jan Strnad and published in June 1990 (TMNT # 33). Eastman wrote a long foreword for this issue and it shows the influence on the younger generation of comic book artist. Eastman wrote it in a very honourable and thankful way: “Any creative hopeful has many teachers, but there is always one that shines so bright, so intense, that You are forced to open Your eyes and “really look” at Your choice of medium for the first time. Richard is that teacher for me.”

Created: November 18, 2018. Last updated: March 15, 2019 at 6:51 am

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