Comics Alternative: Interview: Richard Corben

Comics Alternative: Interview: Richard Corben

This interview by Frédéric Poincelet, was conducted upon the publication of the French edition of Ragemore and deals a bit with some of the Poe adaptations as well as Corben’s ideas about the art and craft of comics.

1. The Power of Drawing

Your drawing style seems to emerge fully formed, from its inception. Even if, in practice, it transforms itself, evolves, mutates. It resists external pressure, retaining an integrity while following of course your constant search for technical innovation. Instead of suffocating or running out of steam, like with so many other comic artists, it builds on itself, absorbing everything it touches. What has been the spark for you, what happened to bring drawing to the fore of your work?

RC: You are very kind in your remarks. I have always drawn, even as a child before school. It is more natural to me than writing. That is not to say that my drawing skills are particularly advanced. It is just basic to me. We all change over time as a result of a multitude of factors. Changes in my drawing reflect the changes in me. It is hard to analyze or justify such changes. If my attitude about life is different from year to year, then so is my drawing. I want to be simple, direct and sometimes subtle, but my ideas about how to achieve these goals is in a constant state of flux.

2. The Realm of Drawing

In order to make an overview of comics history, people classify your work, at least in the beginning, as “underground,” but for me that’s a misunderstanding of your work because your interests are entirely different. The work of underground artists has a social foundation, while yours, from the beginning, is a world unto itself. Its project would be more to integrate the outside world into your own, rather than to represent reality. Whatever subjects broached, in your stories or in those of your collaborators, your art literally inhabits the narration. What is surprising is that, while in others stylistic and technical exaggeration often detracts from storytelling, we find none of that in your work. On the contrary, drawing and narration feed off of each other, creating an astonishing chemistry, a pleasure and a fluidity of reading that are rare. Can you tell us how you tie together drawing and narration?

RC: I think we are influenced at an early age by many visual media. Books, Comics, and especially Movies. They all depend on a visual narration. This is something you learn to understand even before you learn to read and write. Sometimes this influence can be profound and can be a basis for most of your communication. I feel these media all describe in different ways a visual scenario. So, I too try to describe image based events in a logical way. I say logical, but emotion also shapes my drawn descriptions. 

3. Narration

I brought up the way your drawing absorbs or even devours any subject to make it your own. I also mentioned the incredible pleasure we have reading you. Can you tell us now, not about drawing, but of your work as a storyteller and about the back and forth between your own stories and those of your many collaborators, since again you incorporate everything around you, and your collaborators, whatever their own personality, create “Corben” work. How do you experience writing/the art of writing? Where does it come from?

RC: We cartoonists when confronted with a difficult or unusual subject, are tempted to take an easy way of describing it. A way that probably has been done many times by those who have dealt with the subject by copying each other. Sometimes this is best. But I want my drawing to have some authority or honesty to it, that is to suggest that I know the subject or at least have seen it. This problem is first dealt with by the writer, then it is up to the artist to carry through and be familiar enough with the subject to be convincing to the viewer. For instance, say I am to draw a man shooting an arrow with a bow. Not only should I know what the bow looks like, but exactly how it is held when in use. How is the arrow held in relation to the bow and hands? Does he pull it back to his cheek, or his chest? These all may be small details, but they are important to the honesty of the image. 

4. Experimentation

How do you approach, how do you take in, the different phases of a project, the technical leaps in your work? Does each project drive itself, or does it follow from a need to keep pushing your graphic style forward? How do you experience, in a career as rich as yours, those moments of grace when a new horizon opens up, how do you take advantage of what you have accomplished all the while renewing your work all the time?

RC: The beginnings of a project is pretty much the same as each one before or after it. But the inspiration and the individual character is different. A spark of originality in the script gives it some excitement and I want to add to this originality by making the art in some way different, and better, or give it more intensity, or more clarity, or add to its mood. The story itself usually suggests a possible way. It might be a different drawing style, a different ambiance or a different way of coloring it. 

5. Intellect

Your work is extraordinarily physical, embodied. Comic art is often, by its very essence, an act analogous to a hand movement, a physical gesture. Astonishingly, your approach to the original artwork as an object is remarkably intellectual, dematerialized in a way that was ahead of its time. In the ‘70s, you set up a new system of coloring that broke up the conception of the original into four black and white films, which when printed, would create a painted plate. Besides the intellectual prowess of imagining a panel/plate in such a way, was this a constraint for you or an intellectual challenge, like when you decided to no longer work on a computer during Horror in the Dark? What importance do you give to these major overhauls of your work method and to the question of the original drawing to be kept or discarded?

RC: Major events happen in ones life that effects everything. The events are unexpected, the results to the work can be setbacks or breakthroughs. The method I used to make color comics during the 80’s was actually a simple means to an end. I wanted to do full color comics, but my publishers couldn’t afford the photo-mechanical separations used in those days. So I bought a copy camera that could make full sized films and made artwork for each color used by the printer, yellow, magenta, cyan and black. After working with this system for a while, I thought of a refinement where I could make stepped overlays over the base tonal art. The result was a tonal mixing of the 4 colors that was closely related to the base art. This roughly suggested some kind of bizarre 4 color process. This worked most of the time, despite my uneven hand processing of the litho negatives. It was definitely a challenge, but in these days of computers, I would never go back to it.

6. Line/Color

Your color work is just the tip of the iceberg to understanding your contribution to comic art. For a long time you have nurtured, in tandem with your color work, a passion for high contrast black and white, where light and shadow overtake and sculpt the image, in artwork that is remarkably precise and meticulous, in which you consciously focused on the grotesque and caricature. From short stories like Rex ‘n’ Me or Infected, to masterpieces like Vic and Blood, in which you mixed in computer-generated gray effects, and Ragemoor, this style has been haunting/pursuing you now for several years and we can see it again in your work for Marvel, DC, or Dark Horse. Since the line remains the raw material of comics, do you think that this drawing-as-writing corresponds better to the literary form that is comics? Or is this a form of writing that you have adopted because of questions of expediency/efficiency in the comics market?

RC: I feel comics is a method of telling stories that might be told in constructions of line, or maybe in tone, or maybe in color. But there is no rule about it has to be one over the other. It is a flexible medium that can use any possible means of making marks. In some instances a publisher will insist on black and white ( usually as a cost savings ), or color ( because a portion of their market will not even look at a black and white comic ). In the case of Ragemoor I decided at the beginning of the project that this would be a black, white, and tone story. I wanted that certain mood that tones with black can create. Dark Horse, the publisher wanted it to be in color because black and white comics don’t sell. I didn’t want to do it in color. I felt strongly enough about this option that I would cancel the project if they continued to object. They accepted my terms but it turned out that they were correct. It didn’t sell well. Artists and writers normally don’t have the final say so in such matters, but I have reached a point in my career where I must do my projects my way, or they will never be done.

7. To go further

Ragemoor doesn’t seem at first sight to add any new dimension to your current style, but it is extremely important, and what is remarkable in your recent work is that there is material for going even deeper into your art, not only graphically but also narratively. The digital modeling which you have used to create the castle, the main character of the story, really allows you to bring it to life. You don’t at all use it as raw material to insert into your panels/plates, but as a documentary source to draw on in your art, your storytelling profiting from the majestic scenery. Again, I’m wondering if you could elaborate on your incessantly new approaches to artistic experimentation, about the creative process and the stages of development, which seem to me to be a way to constantly feed into your drawing. Can you tell us about what goes into your search for new techniques?

RC: I have always wanted to have things in my stories that I couldn’t easily achieve. Or things that I might achieve at a cost of a lot of extra labor. It is common for an artist to look up and gather many kinds of reference material as an aid to his drawing. The advent of the computer has given the artist many new tools that couldn’t even be imagined before. Before computers, I would have set up an imaginary scene on paper, perhaps a plan view of a room, and then devise various views in the room as the characters move around to tell the story. This is related to set building and photographic continuity in movies. I remember building miniature sets for some earlier stories and photographing them to get good and logical angles. Now, there is the possibility of building models of buildings, rooms and even characters in computer 3d programs. After you have built a digital model of the room you can set and move a virtual camera around in it, and render the scene complete with lighting effects. The rendering is the reference made to order for the comic panel scene that the artist uses to draw from.

8. Jubilation

You have now been working for almost fifteen years for mainstream publishers, and I would love to know the history behind this move, whether it’s for economic reasons or because you’ve been sought out or because you wanted to work with friends… Hard Time seems to me to be an important work in this move towards the mainstream, almost as if you went into it cautiously compared to the works that would follow it like Banner or Cage. What is your approach, how to do you feel about this work, how do you understand it fitting into your oeuvre as a whole? I see in your art for Banner, Cage, or Bigfoot, a certain jubilation, a very great beauty in the mannerist excess used in these books, what was your state of mind when you drew these projects?

RC: I must admit that when I started doing mainstream comics I was at a very low point in my life and career. My own publishing company, Fantagor Press was collapsing and I didn’t know what I might be doing to support my family. My first step into the mainstream was thanks to Mark Chiarello and his project, Batman Black and White. I had never done a super hero before and it was this quality or short coming that Mark wanted for his book. I did my best and apparently it was good enough. I then started doing non hero stories for Axel Alonso’s books at Vertigo. Each project led to the next. I was privileged to work with Scott Allie and Mike Mignola on Hellboy. Even after doing several mainstream hero and anti-hero books I’m afraid my talent is not best suited for this kind of material. But I am eternally grateful to the editors who helped me through those hard times.

9. Traces, tracks, echoes

I have noticed at times that on the various paths your work may take, there are the footsteps of the artists who have come before you. Have Maxfield Parrish, Hannes Bok, or Zdenek Burian served as beacons, or as road maps for you work? How has their art found an echo in your own interests and concerns, what have they illuminated for you?

RC: You are very correct about this. There are many masters who have shown me by example how they create incredible works beyond my skills. I certainly don’t think in any way I can emulate their beautiful art. I study my heroes for the great pleasure it gives me. 

10. An Example

In order to talk about technique in a way that allows us to understand, a little, the fascination your drawing holds over us, I wanted to analyze in detail the creation of Rip in Time, a work that I find telling, since it encapsulates so many aspects of your body of work. This is an album created in stages, in strata, as always thought of as a final published product, the original drawings being secondary. But here you are the editor, via Fantagor Press, which gives a sense of the importance of the editorial process in the creation of the final product. I would break down your work this way: black and white drawing; highlighting of the grays and whites to give dimension and light; high contrast photoengraving, which only takes into account high saturation values [?], almost blurring them by suppressing any anecdotal trace of the original materials; the plate is then reworked by computer to apply gray values only, then adding effects to create depth of field and touching up details of the scenery; publication using a high number of halftone dots (accidentally or on purpose?) thereby accentuating the hyper-graphic aspect of the technological elements of the story as well as the brutality of the prehistoric world, double theater which contrasts with the action of Rip in Time. There is always a mystery in your drawings, an incomprehensible beauty that comes from the artistic process, whether in black and white or color. All the different steps in the process are obviously natural to you, and I exaggerate these steps in order to insist upon the different roles of each of them. I’d like to know how much the element of surprise enters into the process, when there are unforeseen effects between steps. What do you do with these surprises, these accidents?

RC: These projects sometimes have intricate paths on their way from concept to printed page. Very rarely is the path the same for different projects. If there is a unifying element, it must be a vision of a form in my mind that I want to achieve. If each project differs, it is because I can achieve my goal only imperfectly and I want to vary my technique in order get closer to the vision next time. When ever the hand touches the pen and paper there are bound to be accidents. In my case probably more accidents than true expressions of form. So many in fact my art becomes a style of related accidents that finally has its own unity of awkward expression.

11. Originals

I’d like to ask you about your relationship to the original, to your original pages. Since your work is very much “dematerialized” by the fragmentation that your methods generate, what is left of the “original page”? What is your relationship with your originals pages, with their “heritage,” exhibition, sale, with their conservation? Are you concerned by it?

RC: Early in my career, I felt I had to have every possible advantage in order to make good art And I didn’t consider the work finished when the basic artwork was done. If I thought there was a way to ‘tweak’ the overall effect by bringing other collage techniques into the mix, I would do so. When I found myself carrying the work into the copy photography and film la your stage, I found ways to enhance the image there as well. I must admit some of these attempts into new territories backfired. I might have been well advised to follow other cartoonist’s methods of finishing the artwork at the comic page on paper stage, and leaving the remaining processing to the experts. Later, when there became some interest in displaying and selling the original pages added to the problems. The originals are fragmented as you say, limiting their value as  collector’s items. 

12. Poe

Some of your adaptations of Poe have become classics of the genre through the way in which you incarnated them. The oldest go back almost 40years, but you continue to return to them as a source of seemingly limitless inspiration, radically changing the point of view of the same text from one work to another. Could you tell us about you and Poe, about what motivates you t o pursue these exchanges, especially since The Fall of the House of Usher has just come out with Dark Horse? 

RC: I have been interested in the works of Poe since I first read them as a teenager. Actually they stand on their own and don’t need anyone making adaptations of them. I suppose I wanted to start doing adaptations or personal variations of my favorites when I saw what liberties had been taken by other media. Certain high profile productions claimed to be based on Poe’s works when in fact they only used the title and the names f some of the characters. For instance, Roger Corman and Richard Matheson turned The Fall of the House of Usher into a silly melodrama by trying to explain to their audience some rationalization for the events in the story. This is common in most adaptations. I thought I might make a ‘truer’ adaptation myself. But in retrospect, I believe it is not possible to make a ‘truer’ adaptation by anybody. Any attempt to create a palatable explanation of the events or characters motivations usually distorts the original idea. Even just an amplification, or creating some background reasoning backfires. Yet the original story still inspires me to imitate it. I believe as Alberto Breccia said: “Adapting a narration is,. for me, a way of paying tribute to literature. I say it humbly: It is even possible that, instead of paying tribute, my achievement is nothing but looting.” So I’m afraid my adaptations are mere variations base on a theme. Of course, they are enjoyable for me to do and hopefully their purpose would be to interest the viewers to return and review the original. 

13. Short Stories

Short stories must make up more than half of your work-what draws you to this format? Its roots in the concision of the novella, as with Poe, or the possibility of experimenting in a format that is more comfort able for new explorations? 

RC: I grew up on short stories. Especially the E. C. horror comic books. Also Mr. Poe suggests in one of his essays, that the horror mood is best served in a story that can be read in one sitting. I certainly agree with this statement. And you are correct about the shorter format being more conducive for experimentation. But when doing a longer piece I would probably be more conservative in its treatment. 

14. Film

The films of Roger Corman speak to you in a profound way, and it is through him that Poe appears to you. He is a powerful and motivating source for your composition, playing in the same way as you with “clichés,” light and fantastical staging-this is a specific “genre” and you push it to its limits, endlessly inventing or reinventing it.

When did you discover/come int o contact with Corman’s work, how did it shape your own work, and did it influence you more than other art forms? 

RC: I admit that I was very influenced by the Poe adaptations of Roger Corman and Richard Matheson at one time. Although now I feel they overly simplified Poe’s themes and sometimes mixed several stories together. But I guess I am just as guilty as they when it comes to taking extreme liberties with Poe’s stories. In fact, it is a rare adaptation that comes anywhere close to Poe’s intent. There is something aggressively attractive about the movie medium that draws many more artists, as well as viewers, to its creations than most other mediums. 

15. Excess

The role played by Den’s sexual excess has little by little disappeared from your work, which is perfectly understandable in the evolution of an artist who is faced with new concerns. 

Did this excess stem from graphic and narrative desires, in order to mark character archetype and symbolism, or from elsewhere? From the era itself? 

Is there still an “editorial” place for works that are so remarkably different? Are they the work of one man and/or of a particular era, and are these “visions” forbidden today? Might you be tempted to return to them?

RC: I think the nudity and extreme sexuality in the Den series had more to do with a rebellious and hedonistic nature I was going through at the time. I wanted the character to be more heroic and more sexually frank than had been done before in comics. This also included a need to push the limits of the new found freedom of the underground comics. Apparently, the series became relatively successful just because it was so outrageous. Although I enjoyed drawing the series, the writing shows some problems. There is still a lot of resistance to this kind of material. At this point I have no plans to return to the character. 

16. Color

Your new works in color – I’m referring of course to those you created-mark a return to the mixture of very graphic parts that are drawn, and very colorful parts that are painted, that you created before the digital era. Even if the range of colors has evolved, we still find in them your joyful fearlessness of bod taste that was somewhat stifled in your works that were colored by others, and we return to the territories that you alone still dare to confront. Is it a great pleasure to possess this t ool that responds better than any other to your expectations? 

Is it a joy to master everything in this way?

RC: Since adding color to comic pages can completely alter its mood,. many artists would like to have maximum control over this aspect of their art. But the comics industry is a business and it is advantageous to subdivide the different phases of the production and have them done by specialists. The overall product can be completed much quicker in this way. Most cartoonists accept this division of labor and concentrate on the drawing. A few like me,. insist on having persona l control of every possible aspect of their work. This also means they have to develop the necessary skills and devote the time to do the work. I am willing to do this and in fact I enjoy the work. In earlier productions before the computer, I found myself making up methods to achieve certain effects. Also having color proofs made was expensive, but vital to assure acceptable colors. Despite many precautions and safeguards, sometimes the completed comic art was a disaster. These days much information about computer coloring is readily available on the internet. 

17. Beauty and the grotesque

In your drawing, your impulse tends towards two opposing poles: beauty and the grotesque. I do not know which inclination you lean towards naturally since these two sides of your work constantly intersect. Your beauty is forever sullied by the grotesque, and vice verse. It is the confrontation between opposing bodies or the creation of beauty from ugliness-the great beauty of your apocalyptic landscapes, for example, is created in this way. 

There was most recently a very beautiful culmination of this in the female figure of your House of Usher. She is naked, grotesque, almost ugly, all while being pure beauty. And thus, reappears that which had somewhat disappeared in your recent works, the sensual confusion of this duality.

Tell us about this world of opposition and sensuality.

RC: I appreciate your sensitivity to some subtle aspects of my art. The achievement of a certain beauty of character has always been my goal. There is an artificial quality to the accepted standards of beauty that seems beyond my universe. Many artists have taken the challenge that what is ugly or doesn’t fit into the standard acceptable form,. can still be worthwhile, if viewed from a different perspective. I think the subject f the grotesque in art has been discussed at length by virtually every art critic and philosopher that ever lived. It might be more to the point if we examined what Poe himself had to say on the matter. In ligea , the narrator describes his wife: “Yet,. although I saw that the features of Ligea were not of a classic regularity ­ although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it,-“. Further in describing Roderick, and by extension, Madeline, in The Fall of the House of Usher: -” lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations,”. I studied these passages carefully and then tried to conform to them in drawing the characters of my adaptation. Perhaps not well.

18. Modesty

You distance yourself from others through your modest personality and the world that emerges from your works contributes to this, raising questions about your life and the extent of the self-portraiture in your work. 

I would like to hear your opinion about an idea of mine, a comparison between you and Robert Crumb, since I’m struck by the similarities in your careers: you are from the same generation, the same humble social origins, you share a discomfort with others in relation to the body and to the eternal world, the same thirst/refuge in drawing, the same start in the underground press… 

Why is it that one of you speaks/draws his fear of the world and the other of destroying the world to create another? 

That one of you sullies the idea of modesty, and the other drapes himself in it?

That one of you denies the world and withdraws himself by deciding to relate it, and you, you accept the world, and incorporate it, deciding to destroy/recreate it? 

RC: I must say I’ve never heard this comparison before. And it seems rather astonishing to me. If my art has any value at all, then that value is the only justification for my existence. And if I have fallen short of every other desired goal, then these inferior efforts should be subordinate and not subject to discussion. These other shortcomings are very apparent since I have such difficulty in talking about them. Hence the art, my work must take precedence to everything else in my life. It is the important thing. It is inevitable that it reflects my character and personality. If I am modest about it, surely it is a better, wiser idea than to go too far in the other direction. That is,. if I were to be boastful and a braggart.

Copyright © 2020 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: August 7, 2020. Last updated: August 7, 2020 at 21:52 pm

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