1976. Nickelodeon Press, Kansas City, MO. Hard Bound. [ober]
Introduction by Bruce Jones
If the underground comics of the late sixties and early seventies occupy a minor space in the history of comic distribution and notoriety, they unquestionably played a major role in the lending of whatever aesthetic worth the field in general now enjoys. in no small way, Richard V. Corben is responsible for much of that lending.
Initially a graphic forum for flaunting before the establishment political views and sophomoric statements about ecology, they caused those of us working for the “straight” companies like National and Marvel to turn an increasingly envious eye toward the climate of freedom being exploited by “those hippy artists in California,” particularly when the horror and science fiction stories began appearing. Until that time it had been fun watching a Crumb or a Williams vent their sexual frustrations/fantasies on a Pablumized culture, but with limited volume and exposure no one really paid the undergrounds much mind. Then, SKULL comics came along and changed all that.
An admittedly blatant rip-off (also the name of the publishing company) of the E.C. horror comics its contributors revered, SKULL’s Jaxon, Irons and Sheridan were among the first to realize what tremendous impact straight story-telling could have in an uninhibited creative environment. As early as SLOW DEATH no. 2 the crew became aware that it was the story-telling, not the ecology theme that held the most promise and by the fourth issue that magazine had become, for all intents and purposes, a science fiction book.
After a few minor efforts for lesser fanzine, Corben made his underground debut in SKULL no. 2 with Lame Lem’s Love (appearing here in color for the first time) and introduced his lead-in character, Gurgy Tate–his answer to Graham Ingles’ Old Witch. Lame Lem is significant not only as a premiere piece but as a darkly humorous parody of the typical poetic-revenge story E.C. built an empire around. It is, however, with Horrible Harvey’s House in SKULL no. 3 that Corben refined the cinematic directorial techniques for which he is best known today. Early as it is, Horrible Harvbey remains one of his most successful efforts in terms of pure mood setting. Zara’s unforgettable dance before the high-speed camera on a sun-swept hilltop and the strobic flashes of lightning on the old Hitchcockian house are proof positive of the unique environmental empathy a reader can share when a comic story is carefully conceived and confidently executed. We can hear the pelting droplets on the Volkswagen roof; we can feel the rain-swept breeze gently billowing the sheet over Zara’s voluptuous slumber. She isn’t really breathing–but Corben makes us think so for a moment.
UP FROM THE DEEP appeared in 1971 with When Dreams Collide plus sixteen pages of color–eight of them by Corben–and suddenly the world sat up and took notice. Cidiopey attracted so much attention–not only because of Corben’s outrageously beautiful color, but for the exciting pacing, continuity and visual simplicity of the story itself–that overground editors like James Warren and Joe Kubert began to wonder who the boy-genius from Kansas City was. Corben had arrived.
It is to his credit that he didn’t allow himself to be wooed away to the “slick,” betterpaying markets and remained with the underground books until their demise. But perhamps it isn’t surprising. After the untethered abandon he’d known with LAST GASP and RIP OFF, working on super-hero or war comics would have been comparable to drawing in a strait jacket.
FANTAGOR was originally conceived by Corben himself as a high-grad fanzine and was published by him in magazine format where Twilight of the Dogs appeared in the first issue. The issue was republished later by LAST GASP in comic size and added color by issue no. 2. In its pages Corben continued with some of his finest work, Kittens for Christian in no. 3 and For the Love of A Daemon in no. 4, both with luscious Corben covers (by now he was being chose to do a cover by anyone for anything, as often as they could get him). Jan Strnad’s excellent script on Kittens provided him with one of his most haunting climaxes; the drawings of the cats in the final night-laden scenes make for panels eerie with quiet power.
By 1972 things were really rolling. Color began appearing with increasing regularity as well as more and more E.C. imitations; WEIRD FANTASIES no. 1, which contained Corben’s The Secret of Zokma, boasted a title logo composed of actual photostated lettering from one of the old E.C. science fiction titles and an illustration by Landon Chesney that perfectly aped Johnny Craig’s old style. Zokma further utilized the airbrush technique Corben been flirting with all along and which played such a vital role in creating the atmosphere for The Awakening in SLOW DEATH no. 4. Also, to further heighten the sensations of volume and realism in his figures, he began working occasionally from live models.
Flys is an example of Corben’s light-handed black humor at its best. Originally slated for an underground that never got off the ground called MOEBIUS, Flys was then rescheduled for an issue of FANTAGOR, but the magazine was already in its death throes. It was finally sold to a fanzine entitled HOT STUFF where it eventually saw the light of day.
GRIM WIT no. 1 was an all-Corben issue from cover to cover and contained one of his favorite themes, lycanthropy, with The Beast of Wolfton. Throughout it we are manipulated and maneuvered at every turn by menacing leaves and threatening sacks of flour. When the real violence begins it does so with the kind of sudden gut-crunching clarity Corben both exalted in and brings off with such incredibly good taste. Even the beast’s seduction by Ellen in the closing panels is a study in erotic violence reaching an almost comedic climax. Sadly, GRIM WIT survived for only two issues, but not before it forstered Den, a character Corben has kept alive today and with it has reached many European markets.
Fittingly, one of Corben’s final jobs for the underground was one of his best, Melton’s Big Game. Uncomplicated by ambiguous story or virtuoso technique, Melton is refreshingly reminiscent of the kind of crude vigor that marked the best of his early work. Bizarre and improbable as the Hunksoris and Garfion are, they are made real and breathing by Corben’s remarkable pen, and when the former jumps up suddenly after being “killed” by the sportsman, we are as surprised as it assassin.
Rising paper costs and Supreme Court decision on pornography squeezed the underground publishers into near oblivion. Never a well-paying market to begin with, it could not sustain an artist of Corben’s calibre for long. Its passing marked the end of an era of mass-produced comic magazines with total artistic freedom; for it was their freedom that truly set them apart from all other forms of publishing. An artist of writer does his best work when he does it for himself, and the underground provided precisely that kind of climate. We may not see their like again.
Corben moved on, first to the Warren Publishing Company and then to American and European private publishers where his unique style is at last gaining world-wide acclaim. But why is it unique? Is he better than many other artists? If so, then what do we mean by “better?” Doesn’t each artist have his own distinct style to offer the world by simple virtue of his singularity? Does that mean all artsts are unique?
To answer that we would have to define “art” which would lead to age-old battle and endless arguable theorems. At best, one can only answer on a basis of personal taste and accumulated knowledge. As an artist, I find much to admire in Corben’s work, but singularly I believe it is the vitality he breathes into his characters that is most appealing. All the technical profundity (and he is a master) and Eisnerish cinemagraphics aside, Corben’s stories relate so well because his actors look at each other. With the smallest pen stroke, the crudest line, he can achieve a subtlety of expression and motion that is rare among his contemporaries. Indeed, he is a strong argument for the artistic doctrine, “it isn’t the lines you draw–it’s the ones you leave out.”
An artist who could “always draw,” even Corben’s earliest work shows an underlying skill and assurance that mark him as a natural. He has always had a clear idea of what he wanted out of art and where it was taking him. Combine that kind of confidence with a knowledge of commercial techniques and effects that is staggering and you have a truly dangerous man.
You also have a remarkable entertainer. And that’s what comics are all about.
June 25, 1976
Kansas City, Kan.
Copyright © 2014 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: October 1, 2014. Last updated: January 17, 2019 at 22:08 pm