Masters of Comic Book Art
by Peter R. Garriock
© 1978 Aurum Press Limited, 27 Floarl Street, London WC2, England (ISBN 0-89545-021-6)
Richard Corben: American comic book and underground comix artist, and film animator. Born: Anderson, Missouri, 1940. Pseudonyms: Gore, Darve, Harvey Sea. Principal works: 1970-75 comic books Fantagor, Rowlf, Feaver Dreams, Den; 1971 film Neverwhere; 1976 comic novel Bloodstar.
Richard Corben emerged from the obscurity and relative isolation of mid-western America in the late sixties and quickly established himself as one of the most original artists in the comic book medium. An amateur in the true sense of the word, he began drawing comics as a hobby when he was still working as a commercial film animator at the Calvin Studios in Kansas City, Missouri. His first published work appeared in a fan magazine called Voice of Comicdom in 1968. At the same time he was saving money to publish his own underground comic book entitled Fantagor, which consisted of four science fiction tales that he had conceived and drawn himself. They contained elements of the early EC horror stories, but included explict violence and sexuality, and already embodied the main themes of his future work. Coben felt certain he would take the publishing world by storm, but his first commercial venture proved a disaster. Distributing by mail order was time-consuming and yielded scant results. He seemed strangely aloof from the burgeoning underground comix movement on the West Coast and from the channels that had already been established to cope with the new product. Fortunately he was contacted by Gary Arlington, a San Francisco distributor who had been alerted to his early ‘fanzine’ work and who encouraged him to market his work more conventionally. It was not until Fantagor was reprinted in 1970 by the Last Gasp publishing house as a regular underground comic that it recevied the success it deserved.
Corben went on to work in overground horror comics such as Creepy for James Warren, the New York publisher of Eisner’s The Spirit, but he continues to do stories and covers for a variety of underground and fan magazines where he can give uninhibited expression to his more outlandish fantasies. In recent years the best stories – such as Rowlf and Den – have been reprinted in Metal Hurlant on high-quality paper, revealing for the first time the sumptuous colour of his narratives. Corben is one of the few American artists to have gained a large following in Europe. His reputation has grown steadily, and today it has reached the propotions of a cult.
Corben is concerned with narration through sequential imagery. Ideally the story should be totally visual. With his background in animation, Corben has successfully applied the film story-board technique to the comic book. His comics are like shorthand versions of animated films, with the panels corresponding to the ‘key’ drawings in animation from which others are made to provide the illusion of movement. The vigorous action of his characters domiantes the panel and provides the impetus for the sequence. Den, one of Corben’s major archievements to date, was an offshoot of a 16mm film called Neverwhere which combined like action and animation, and won Corben the Cine Golden Eagle Award in 1971. In both the film and the comic strip, the initial protagonist is a timid engineer whose job is to construct electronic circuits. One day a mysterious message instructs him to build a special circuit which, once turned on, becomes the gateway to another dimension. The hero finds himself transformed into a muscular giant of a man in a prehistoric universe of dragons, animal-men and beautiful, savage women. Calling himself Den, he sets forth to discover this strange world and has several exotic and terrifying adventures.
Corben likes to explore the basic theme of good and evil by recreating traditional myths in other-worldly settings. Woman, always portrayed as a sublime sexual creature, is both the object of desire and the source of evil. Corben’s women appear to be innocent, and may indeed be so, but it is what man does because of them causes his downfall. In Rowlf, his slpendid comic book novel about the loyalty of a dog to his mistress Maryara, man’s bestiality is represented from the outset. Through a magic spell gone wrong, Rowlf becomes half dog, half man, and, as this hybrid creature, he must rescue his mistress from demons of canis(dog)land. The moral implications of his stories are tempered by a fatalistic outlook on the world. Mankind is lustful, greedy and violent, and inevitably doomed to extinction. This forbidden vision provides the source for some of the most poignant tales. In Going Home an old man travels back through space with two robot companions to see the earth before his death. Owing to the peculiar nature of space, so many years have passed before he reaches his destination that the whole human race has become extinct. The old man is the last survivor. At the sight of his planet he is overcome with emotion, succumbs to a heart attack, and dies.
Corben has developed a characteristic style that is unmistakeable. He is a graphic artst rather than a cartoonist and is continually experimenting with new effects. His concern with obtaining a sculptural quality, a three-dimensional roundness to his objects, has led him to explore the potential of shading, hatchwork, linear and aerial perspective. Working in the basement studio of his home in Kansas City, he often makes clay models of his characters, shifting them about under lights to study the changing shadow forms. Perhaps the most striking feature of his work is the colour. His dazzling washes of ink and paintjump out from the page, giving a striking immediacy to his pictures.
In the book there was a beautiful collection of panels and paintings by Richard Corben:
- A panel from Den, the comic book sequel to his animation film Neverwhere for which Corben won a Cine Award in 1971. The hero is timid electronics engineer who discovers a gateway to another dimension and is transformed into the naked super-muscled Den. From Metal Hurlant 4 (1975) (reprint).
- A page from Going Home, a poignant tale of the last man in the world who wishes, after half a million years of wandering in space, to see his home before he dies. From Funny World 14 (1972).
- A cover painting for Fever Dreams (1972). A story written by Jan Strnad and illustrated by Corben. It concerns a beetle-like spaceship and its strange inhabitants, Frierson and Meade. Frierson is a deformed cripple, but the robot, Meade, projects an illusory reality in which he appears as a handsome lover surrounded by beautiful women.
- Panel from Den shows the effective way in which Corben balances fantasy with reality. The hyper-realism of his human figures contrasts well with the fantasy setting and lends authenticity to his imaginary world. The picutre is a collage of hand-painted images, with a chemically coloured photographic background. From: Metal Hurlant 5 (1976).
- Cover to Rowlf (1971), a full-length comic book story, initially planned as an animated film. It concerns a dog who is changed into a man-beast and loyally rescues his mistress from the cluthes of evil.
- The influence of film animation on Corben’s narrative style can be seen in page from Rowlf: the action is brought closer to the spectator as Rowlf leaps at his adversary, and it is intercut with the girl’s face to heighten the drama of the ensuing battle.
- A panel from The Beast of Wolfton, a tale of a werewolf set in medieval times. Note Corben’s use of light and shadow to give roundness and weight to his figures. From: Grimwit 1 (1972).
- Back cover painting for Encounter at War. Another story by Jan Strnad. From: Anomaly 4 (1972).
- Pg 52: A Corben poster entitled Midnight Battle. The face of the male figure resembles the artists.
- Pg 53: Cover illustration for a story called Mutant World. Acutally the illustration suppoused to be called as, The Odd Comic World of Richard Corben.
The best examples of Corben’s early work appear in underground titles which include Fantagor (nos. 1-4), Slow Death (nos. 2-6) and Skull (nos. 1-3, 5-6), which were all published by Last Gasp between 1970 and 1973. Prior to this his work can be found in many obscure fanzines, including Mirkwood Times, Anomaly, Fantagor, RBCC, Comic Crusader, Photon, Mount to the Stars, Squa Tront, Capa-Alpha, Weirdom, Infinity and The Burroughs Bulletin. The first significant underground title devoted entirely to Corben was Tales from the Plague (Weirdom Publications, Nov. 1971) – and offshoot of Weirdom, a ‘fanzine-turned-underground’. This was followed by two titles dispalying novel-length features, The Story of Rowlf (1971) and Grim Wit 1 (1972) – both published by the Rip Off Press. Grim Wit 2, following in 1973, is notable for the debut of the Den strips in colour, based on Corben’s own animated film Neverwhere. His first colour strip was published in Up from the Deep (Rip Off Press, 1971) on fine artpaper, along with the classic black and white stip, When Dreams Collide. Also in 1972, Corben recieved half a book called Fever Dreams (Kitchen Sink) and contributed a fine colour story to Weird Fantasies (The LA Comic Book Company). Since then Corben’s underground work has been more scarce, although he has recently returned to the Kitchen Sink Company to render covers for Bizarre Sex, issues 5 and 6 (1977-78). Other titles to feature his underground work include Barbarian comics and Death Rattle. An outstanding fanzine contribution from the early days is a colour strip called Going Home which appeared in Funnyworld 14 (Arkansas, spring 1972) and more recently in Metal Hurlant 2 (Les Humanoides Associes, Paris, 1975). An in-depth interview can be found in the fanzine Infinity Five (New York, summer 1973). Much of Corben’s early work has now been reprinted in both Europe and America. An Anthology of Slow Death (Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1975) has a new cover by Corben and reprints some of his best stories from that title, plus three of his full-colour covers. Funnybook (Nickelodeon Press, 1976) is a hardbound anthology devoted entirely to his early works and includes one of first strips, Lame Lem’s Love, printed in colour for the first time. Three similar ‘all-Corben’ anthologies have appeared in Europe: U-Comix Sonderband vol. 3 (Holland: UPN, 1974), Razar le Lache (anon., Paris, 1976) and Corben (anon., Paris, 1977). Magazines in Europe to reprint his works include: Ran Tan Plan (nos. 26-27), Actuel (nos. 22-23, 26, 28, 10-11, 15), L’Echo des Savanes USA Special (no. 1), Metal Hurlant (nos. 1-6) and Zoom (no. 31) in France; Gummi in Holland; Blue Jeans in Portugal; Oz, Nasty Tales, Cosmic Comics and Hot Gravy in England. A title called U/G Comix in Australia also runs some of the more obscure works. Since 1972 the bulk of Corben’s work has appeared in Warren Publishing’s line of New York based horror magazines – Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Warren have also published five volumes of Comix International, a cardbound anthology title showcasing the colour stories from these magazines. The first issue (July 1974) is entirely devoted to Corben and he also features in the other issues. Corben’s first full-length graphic novel, Bloodstar (Morning Star Press, 1976) is an adaptation of a short story by pulp writer Robert E. Howard, and the Fanzine Hot Stuf’ carries other recent works. A portfolio called Sword and Fantasy (1970) contains a cover and several black and white plates by Corben. The serial Den, in full colour, has appeared in both Heavy Metal and Gummi magazines, and his latest work, Mutant World, is scheduled for publication by Warren 1978. Two of the best poster examples, Midnight Battle and Anticipation, are available from Warren Publishing. Corben’s three animated films, Gateway to Terror, Labours of Hercules and Neverwhere are often to be seen at conventions.
Copyright © 2000 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: September 23, 2000. Last updated: April 9, 2020 at 6:30 am