Drawing upon the Masters

Interview by Bill Baker

Appeared in Weird Tales #535 (sprint 2009), pgs 67-71. B&W

Legendary comics artist Richard Corben adapts Poe & Lovecraft for Marvel’s Haunt of Horror.

Whether you first encountered it in the pages of such classic magazines as Creepy, Eerie, and Heavy Metal, between the covers of such underground comix as Rowlf and Fantagor, or in any number of graphic novels and collections on the stands today, it’s likely that Richard Corben’s art left a deep and lasting impression. Combing impeccably rendered human figures and backgrounds, shamless visual storytelling and an unfailing ability to capture the perfect moment and motion in every panel, Corben’s work offer a glimpse into another universe, another reality, and fresh insights into the heart and souls of the beings inhabiting those uncharted realms.

Now, after forty-odd years in the business, Corben has returned to his roots, crafting illustrated versions of choice tales and poems from two seminal authors that readers of this magazine should be intimately familiar with: Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Each is highlighted in a volume from Marvel Comics dubbed Haunt of Horror.

While it’s true that there are a great number of exceptionally fine artists who have successfully delineated the fevered imaginings of Poe and Lovecraft to the comics page, there are few contemporary creators who can equal the adaptations of Richard Corben. This isn’t due solely to Corben’s gift for realistically portraying the human figure – and particularly the play of emotions on his characters’ faces – any more than his ability to render highly detailed backgrounds which possess real weight and exude a palpable atmosphere of ill ease and dread. Rather, it’s the artist’s affinity for Poe and Lovecraft’s visions: an almost genetic comprehension of the very heart and soul of their fearsome verses and tales, which grant his visual realizations their affective power and savage grace.

Corben’s creative allies on these books – Richard Margopoulos and Rick Dahl on the Poe volume, and editor Axel Alonzo on both – all prove themselves worthy of the challenge presented them by both their source material and the artist’s promethean talent. Another inspired aspect of these projects, the choice to present some of Poe and Lovecraft’s lesser-known poems such as “The Lake” and “The Scar” alongside more obvious choices like ”The Raven” and “Dagon,” allows Corben and his cohorts the opportunity to push both the boundaries of their chosen subject matter and the comics medium itself in new, often unexpected directions.

Thus, radical readings of Eulalie as a sex doll and lzrafel remixed as a rapper appear alongside more traditional interpretations of “The Raven’ and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And while Corben cleaves closer to his sources for the Lovecraft outing, he still re-imagines ”The Canal” as an allegory for love lost to the horrors of urban life and the power of childhood memory to heal over truths too terrible to comprehend with ”The Window.”

Inevitably, some of these new versions of Poe and Lovecraft’s work won’t completely satisfy every reader, as they often take real liberties with their original source material or even defy some of the principal tenets of their originators. Still, all of the adaptations are interesting and entertaining, and most are truly disturbing and discomfiting. Ultimately, Edgar Allan Poe’s Haunt of Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Haunt of Horror are worthy additions to any aficionado’s library of the macabre.

Weird Tales contributor Bill Baker asked Corben to share some background on how the Haunt came to be.

How would you describe the Haunt of Horror project, aod how did you get involved with it?

Axel Alonso, an editor at Marvel and a longtime friend, came up with this brilliant concept. He knew I loved weird horror stories, especially Poe and Lovecraft. He also brought in Rich Margopoulos, who has a keen interest in Poe. I worked with Margopoulos years ago when [Jim] Warren was running many Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in his magazines Creepy and Eerie. Rich and I did ”The Raven,” “The Oval Portrait” and “The Shadow” together – and I have done many projects with Axel at Marvel, and before at DC/Vertigo.

What aspects of Poe’s work make it your kind of project?

Much of Poe’s work deals directly with that most basic of all human feelings, fear, and its more extreme state, horror. He speaks directly to me because I am a very fearful guy. And he expresses these feelings in an artful way which to me makes them more palatable.

I think my first contact with Poe’s work was from the loose movie adaptations that Roger Corman did in the sixties. I was doing commercial art at the time… it never occurred to me that I could do horror comics. Then, when the Warren horror comics started appearing I felt I had to get into this somehow.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Poe collection is that you and your co-creators largely chose to use his work as inspiration for your own, sometimes modernized versions of his tales. What led you folks to take that approach?

I think this was an editorial decision. The idea was to have these old stories relate to modern readers. At first I preferred keeping the time period and mood as the author originally wrote it – but now I like them both ways, if the intent and mood is sincere. Margopoulos and Alonso did most of the treatments before I saw them. The only story I wrote for the Poe Haunt of Horror was ”The Raven,” and I kept it roughly in Poe’s time frame.

(Actually, with “The Raven,” I was trying to recapture the mood and feeling I had when I drew the story years before in Eerie magazine, also with Rich Margopoulos. I even drew the same handsome fellow as the lead character. My good friend and fellow comic-book artist Herb Arnold modeled for me in those ancient times.)

It seems like you took a slightly different approach with Lovecraft, not only by handling the scripting yourself, but also by following the original texts more closely. What lead to your taking that approach to adapting Lovecraft’s work?

When the Poe Haunt of Horror was finished we all went on to other projects. Although Axel had mentioned a Lovecraft Haunt of Horror, I doubted that it would happen because of other work. There was also some talk of doing more Poe stories, but that didn’t happen. When I had time I did some conceptual work for the Lovecraft concept. We didn’t want to do the more well-known stories but to adapt some of his interesting poetry. I made a list of stories and poems and brief one-line descriptions of how I would treat them. Based on that, they allowed me to proceed by myself.

ln some ways the stories may seem close to the originals, but many Lovecraft fans have objected to the liberties I took. For instance, Lovecraft may have described some unknown frightening threat without telling what it looked like. I felt I had to give this threat an image. Often taking something from the indefinite to the visually real and definite destroys its power. A viewer might realize that the creature really just looks silly rather than unimaginably horrible.

“A tonal image has an automatic harmony, a single-mindedness of vision related to the short story’s single-mindedness of thought.”

One of the more visually striking things about these books was the choice to present the narrative all in black-and-white and gray tones. What led you to go in that direction?

I was in total agreement of producing the books in black-and-white and tones; I vished to evoke the moods of the old black-and-white horror movies. A tonal image has an automatic harmony, a single-mindedness of vision related to the short story’s single-mindedness of thought. I hoped I could maintain more control over the pages in tones than in color. Some of the editors also wanted to suggest the era of free-spirited underground comix.

Did you make any new discoveries about these two siminal authors or their work while working on these books?

The discoveries I made on these projects were inspired by the other people working with me and seeing their reactions to the material, which were usually quite different than mine. I’ve read the stories many times, but seeing what another person gets from a story can he a revelation.

You’ve been doing this for quite some time now. What keeps you making comics through all these years?

I have been and am in love with the possibility of comics. I feel the comic artist/author has absolutely as much control over his stories as the text writer has over his. Making visual stories is basic to my purpose in life. To me, reading a good comic is like watching a good movie on paper.

What do you hope your audience gets from your work? Is it all about pure entertainment, or might you hope that they take something a little more substantial away with them?

When I’m drawing a comic, I hope for the best. I want the technique to be so correct that it’s invisible. Frivolous entertainment is fine and is a good goal to shoot for; sometimes a story has a few more possibilities and I want to be ready to deliver them. Something about a character, an intriguing plot, an insight to a relationship, about life – you know, heavy stuff.

What’s next for you? Will there be new additions to the Haunt of Horror line, or have you moved on to something new?

Right now l’m working on a fantasy adventure for Marvels [mature-readers] Max line with Daniel Way. Since comic production is dependent on successful business my feelings about a project may not be the deciding factor. I really enjoyed the Haunt of Horror series and would love doing more, but there aren’t any plans for additional series right now.

Anything you’d like to add before we let you get back to work?

Thanks to everyone who has supported my work over the years. I’ll continue to work as hard as I can to make it worthwhile.

For a gallery of classic Corben illustrations, current figure drawings, a checklist of Corben comics, and other projects – from animated movies to special book work – see www.CorbenStudios.com.

Copyright © 2021 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: April 4, 2021. Last updated: April 4, 2021 at 11:35 am

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