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The Richard Corben Interview, Part 2

The Richard Corben Interview, Part 2(3)

The Richard Corben Interview #2

by Brad Balfour
Copyright © 1981 Brad Balfour. Here on this web site by courtesy of the author.

Appeared in Heavy Metal #52, July 1981 (vol. V no. 4), pages 8-14,
the Table of Contents, Copyright © 2001 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!, SidSid Keränen.


| Part 1(3) | Part 2(3)A Brother and Two Sisters | In Adolescence | Art School, Army & at Calvin’s | Warren & Wolf Man | Dog Man & Mummy | Fantagor, fandom & “Gore” | Bill Griffith, Vaughn Bodé | Metal Hurlant and Oversea’s Bootlegs | Den as Full Feature Story | Vic & Bloodstar | Heavy Metal Magazine and Movie | Part 3(3) | Richard Corben’s Answer for Interviewer |

Maybe the flatness of the Kansas landscape dulls the brain into midwestern mundaneness, but Richard Corben has overcome such environmental hazards. Not even a stolid childhood in Sunflower, Kansas (pop. 800), where his father moved from the farm Richard was born on the work at the ordnance factory during World War II, deterred Corben from becoming one of fantasy illustration’s creative giants. His history – which is not fraught with a particularly tragic childhood like Error Flynn’s or the emotinal fireworks of, say, a Shelley – is that of one who has risen above the terminal ennui to superstardom in the most subdued fashion and done so without having to go much more than fifty miles away from home. He’s not had the desire to work in New York or lounge in LA; Corben’s self-imposed isolation hasn’t really mattered for his success. He had his own internal worlds of grandeur to visit.

– B.B.

A Brother and Two Sisters

BRAD BALFOUR: It seams a lot of science-fiction people have grown up in an isolated setting. Living in a town of 800 people seems to follow suit. Do you feel you were isolated?

RICHARD CORBEN: No, I had a lot of friends and thought my life at the time was just normal.

So, what went awry to make Richard Corben such an extraordinary artist?

I don’t know. What I became is not because of any weird experiences; it’s just the German within me, I think. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #5]

What do you remember reading first?

Comic books, I imagine. I was a superhero fan. I collected Superman, Captain Marvel – they were the only superheroes at the time. Outside of comics, I can’t remember collecting. I had toys, but I don’t remember them as collector’s items, just toys. I had a brother and two sisters, and so everything they got was shared with everybody. My brother is in his early forties; my sisters are two years and four years younger than me. We all fought constantly.

So, that’s where the source of conflict comes into your work – the violence. But you were quite a loner and quiet kid. Did you spend a lot of time by yourself, drawing?

Yes, not so much reading, but mostly drawing. After we moved to Kansas City we had an upstairs apartment that had this cedar linen closet, an oversized closet, that was just adjoining my brother’s bedroom. I sort of moved into this closet and put my desk in there. It was really secluded, and nobody bothered me or anything. So that was my hideaway.

When did you first start to feel a difference, something going on with you as an artist?

Well, my parents encouraged me and they thought I was good at it, but I just thought it was parents – until gradually people at school started noticing I was better in drawing than other students.

I guess it was early grade school. They started having me do posters and things for school, but nothing remains of those. I wanted to draw comics even then and also, after I moved to Kansas City, I had somehow discovered animation. I was making good books and 8mm animation. I could show you some of those but I don’t have an 8mm projector anymore. I have samples of my early films, made when I was eighteen.

What was the first cinematic experience that you remember?

I don’t know, they must have been serials. I was a Tarzan fan, always went to Tarzan movies. Believe I saw Johnny Weissmuller and Tarzan at the time. There were a few serials and there is a Tarzan serial, I believe. I admire Tarzan, but earlier I admired Superman. That fantasy didn’t last with me. It seemed less and less real to me.

In Adolescence

So, how did the young Corben feel about young women as he hit his adolescence? Any early girl friends as you start on from age twelwe?

Well, I was pretty much a loner. I had few friends, but when I was left alone it didn’t bother me. As for girls, I noticed them but was always extremely shy, and so I would have fantasies about them, but that was about it. I didn’t go out with my girls… I guess it was my extreme shyness.

Do you feel it’s every impeded you in any way?

Yeah, constantly. But for that I believe I could have conquered the world at a much earlier age.

You grew up at the time the young Elvis Presley made it. Did you identify with Elvis?

Yes, I did identify with Elvis for a while. I combed my hair like him, wore shirts with the collar up and with suede shoes. I guess it wasn’t Elvis in particular, but some of his contemporaries.

What kind of car did you drive?

I didn’t drive car. That was one of the things that kept me apart from my firends in high scool. Everyone was mobile excpet me. I wasn’t allowed to have a car. I didn’t have a car until I bought one after I was already in my twenties.

Art School, Army & at Calvin’s

When do you feel you first started to come into your own as an artist?

When I went to Kansas City Art Institute – before, I thought I was better than average at drawing. But when I went to art school, I realized I was better than the average art student in drawing. In fact, if I have a superiority complex about any particular thing, it’s about my artwork. I mean, they went off on weird tangents, but I feel I still had the techniques over them. That gave me confidence to pursue things – like getting an art job – whereas I know my father had in the back of his head this was a waste of time. Interestingly, I’d have become a carpenter like him, but I did get an art job at Calvin. That was a relief to him too.

“The kid’s not a bum, for God’s sake!” Let’s see, you went straight from high school into the art school.

Well, a short stint with the army, the reserves; that was about ’58 or ’59.

How do you feel, looking back on having been in army? is it strange to you?

It was a test of endurance.

Do you think there’s an antiwar tendency in your work?

No, I feel war is inevitable when negotiations break down, and if one side can’t get what it wants any other way – well, then it’s war.

Do you remember any stories – anything that affected you profoundly there?

No. After active duty, I came back to Kansas City and started to look for a job; that’s when I panicked! My dad was kind of worried. I didn’t have any immediate acceptance for work; I had to go alone with him. I had gone to Calvin and was interviewed there. They were interested but lost my name and address. Later on, I checked up on them and they hired me. So I worked at Calvin for about eight or nine years doing industrial animation, titles, and backgrounds. By industrial work, I mean lines on maps that grow and bar graphs that grow and cutaways of catepillar tractors and how they work. I feel that if I had stayed there four or five years, it would have been a good experience. I stayed around just because I didn’t pursue my goals very aggressively. Even when I was working there, I wanted to get into something more creative. Then I finally started sending my work to Warren Publications in New York – publishers of Creepy and Eerie. Thus, I began to get jobs from them. I discovered the undergrounds around 1970, I think. I was working on my films too. My other great goal was to become an animator. I’m interested in animation but I don’t want to be employed as an animator. I want to direct animation. Everyone wants to be a director, but nobody want to do the work. I continued the film work after I quit Calvin. It was more difficult, because I didn’t have much equipment or facilities to help me. But I still foreged ahead with my films, a change of quality at this point. I think I have overcome that guilt.

Warren & Wolf Man

What do you think of Jim Warren? He’s got a hell of reputation.

Jim Warren was a fair with me, I know. He gave me a place to display my work when I really needed it. He gave me the color section, which I desperately wanted to expand. Sometimes his attitude pissed me off, but I feel that’s common in presidents of companies.

Sense of humour has seemed to be important to your work, but maybe it isn’t apparent to some people.

I can be taken seriously in some ways and in some way it’s ironic or has amusing aspects to it. When I do a takeoff on some current event without even knowing it, for example, like in writing a script, I will add a phrase or a line by Steve Martin or Belushi and not realize it until after I have written it – and then there it is! It’s sort of tongue-in-cheeck.

What do you think you’re satirizing or characterizing? Comics in general?

Not just comics, but many popular media.

What stories have you done that you feel are sort of a takeoff on the whole very serious gothic-horror business? This is the menace, and then you look back on it now and see it and say, “That’s a horror film? Who would be scared by that?”

Well, the first one I did was for Warren. The first color one was “Lycanklutz,” which is a takeoff on the Wolf Man. It was inspired by the horror movie. That one was sort of half-inspired by the forties Wolf Man series and half by the Hammer Films Wolf Man. I mean, to make it more related to the earlier ones it should have been done in black and white. But it was Warren’s hot-to-be-color desire at the moment. I can do color better than anybody at his office.

You have used other horror figures as well.

To me, the horror figures weren’t really horrific. They’re amusing and interesting to me. I was never really terrified of the Wolf Man. Actually I was terrified of the Wolf Man when I was very young, but I’m not terrified anymore.

Corben as the Dog Man & Mummy

Did you ever want to be one of them?

No, but I identify with the Beast Man, dogs. One of my stories was a dog man [“Rowlf,” HM, Now. ’79, Dec. ’79, Jan. ’80] and looking back to my very first drawn story when I was home. It was based on a pet dog we had and his name was Trail. I still have some Trail comics.

Are you a cat or a dog person?

I’m a dog person, but there are other people in the house who are cat people. I relate to dogs much more than to cats. In fact, that’s why I’ve written many of my stories to dogs and wolves – the “Beast of Wolfton” [HM, Feb.-Apr. ’80] as well as “Rowlf.”

Tell me about the Mummy variation you did for Warren in the seventies.

I was going to mention Bil Stout, who’s a cartoonist in Los Angeles. I met him last summer. He’s got a large collection of weird items, including two Mexican mummy heads and a thinning Egyptian mummy’s hand. He showed it to me and he opened it up. It had kind of a sweet, musky smell. It was treated with some kind of chemical. It was sort of inspiring.

Like, in reaction with that you were saying, “Can’t imagine anybody being caught by the Mummy because of the smell,” and you were saying in your story…

Well, he’s not very fast, either. He sort of shuffles along, and it’s not very likely anybody would be caught unless they just fell down and fainted!

That one was classic Corben; it’s certainly wry and ironic, which is perfect. You take a classic horror thing and instead of doing a whole souped-up, straight horror story, you play on it. And, of course, playing on the Mummy is playing a joke on a joke!

Well, even the title is sort of a takeoff. It was called “Terror Tune,” [actually “Terror Tomb”] which is like saying there are cartoons called “Terry Tunes.”

Fantagor, Fandom & “Gore”

So, Warren bought your first stuff. Ron Turner of Last Gasp Comix in San Fransisco took interest in your work shortly thereafter. This was 1980 – you’ve made these films and so on.

I was also producing Fantagor at just about that time too. Fantagor was my own magazine, with strips by me and a friend, Herb Arnold. It was just a fan project, and we wanted to see if we could publish something and make it break even. It didn’t break even. In fact, if I had been more careful in some ways – like finding the right printer – I might have worked out better financially, but as it was I didn’t even pay the printer’s bill from the cover price!

And now the irony is that it’s worth twenty dollars a copy at conventions! Doesn’t that piss you off?

Stuff like that used to. That’s just natural but I accept it now. It’s the way collectors are. I wanted to become a collector, but I could see, after collecting for a while, you become obsessed by the collection. Other goals take a backseat to your obsession; also, they take up space. Once you collect the things you have to take good care of them, and I decided collecting wasn’t that important to me. I tried to collect stuff I had, and that’s about it. And things I enjoy I collect, but I try not to be a fanatic about it.

How were you exposed to fandom?

I had a pen pal in Texas who was in fandom and he turned me on to fan editors – a fellow named Rudy Franke, in particular, who lived in San Jose, and I started sending him drawings. He published some and then he started showing them to this underground-cartoonist friends. They wrote me and said this is where I should be. I agreed and so I quickly did up a story. It was freedom, seeing my stuff printed at last and then being with kindred spirits of other cartoonists.

The Living Dead, pg 7 by Graham Ingels (Tales from the Crypt #24, 1951)
Bright Eyes!, pg 7 by Richard Corben (Eerie #43, 1972)

Why did you start off with the name “Gore” in the early seventies?

The cartoonists who were working on Skull were inspired by the old E.C. horrors. They said come on our studio and work for us and you can make up your own horror host character. One of my favourite cartoonists from the old E.C. horrors was Graham Ingels, and he never signed his real name; he always used to sign “Ghastly.” So I did a sort of takeoff on him and I decided to use “Gore.” There was another part of me that was a little weary of these weird cartoonists and I was halfway disassociating myself professionally from them.

Your own stuff was being published there and there wasn’t censorship.

Probably. I had enjoyed myself a great deal doing those and I thought it was good training, I was getting good experience, and I was getting a little money for it – around twenty-five dollars a page – but the financial value of the work was that I owned it and I couldn’t foresee how valuable that would be in the future. When I became more popular, the demand for this work became greater.

Bill Griffith Pisses off, Vaughn Bodé Dosen’t

During the sixties, did you sympathize with some of the ethnics or the issues of the counterculture?


But you never really identified with them by growing your hair longer – why?

What difference does the hair make? My hair still isn’t very long, in fact. I may cut it short anyway. There were times in the sixties when I felt like we should burn down the establishment.

Where did you want to start?

With Calvin.

What happened with the undergrounds? Did you have various people make their pilgrimage to Richard Corben’s house?

Some of the underground cartoonists are like nomads, and as they traveled across the country, knowing I was in Kansas City, they would stop by and see me for a while.

Did any of them piss you off? Whose name would you mention?

There was another underground cartoonist who attacked me in print a few years ago. I feel he’s got something coming! [Mr. Corben’s correction, #6]

Who’s that?

Bill Griffith.

Why did Bill Griffith attack you? Do you know him?

The most apparent reason is that he is jealous of my talent and popularity. He attacked me specifically, and other underground cartoonists who did horror or science-fiction stories in general. I would like to meet him face-to-face sometime!

When did the Corben/Bodé collaboration get done?

I had seen Bodé’s work before, so I sort of halfway introduced myself at a convention. When I said who I was he knew me right away. We discussed the possibility of a collaboration then. It took a while to do the collaboration because he was tied up with some other things.

The many ages of Richard Corben
The many ages of Richard Corben (from top left): baby Richard, age 2; Richard Corben in grade school; a cub scout in Sunflower, Kansas; at 17, graduating from high school; age 19, affecting his Elvis look; age 30, a functioning adult working at Calvin Productions.

Metal Hurlant and Oversea’s Bootlegs

We were talking about the undergrounds. When did you cease working with them and why?

I had quit my job at Calvin with the intention of supporting myself and my family through work from the undergrounds. After six months, I found this was going to be impossible. Also, the undergrounds were undergoing problems – like, there were too many of them and people stopped buying them. There was an underground crash. That caused me to work exclusively for Warren. I was working with Warren for several years when I had contact with Jean-Pierre Dionnet, who started running some of my underground stuff in his magazine Metal Hurlant.

It was something that had not existed before – like putting comics in a new perspective.

It wasn’t that new an idea. I had discussed with Vaughn Bodé on several occasions what we needed as creative cartoonists – a magazine with slick paper, reproduction quality, and fair pay rates. But that didn’t exist at the time and all the people I had spoken to did not have the money for it. Then when I finally did get a copy of Metal Hurlant, I said, “This is what I always wanted! Now we got to wait until somebody in the States wants to do it!”

Where did Dionnet first see your work?

That goes back to undergrounds. The undergrounds were distributed freely and a few people from Europe picked up copies, took them over, and published bootleg copies. That’s how he saw them. I had known about these bootlegs but knew there was nothing I could do about it. I just wrote a couple of letters saying, “Quit printing my stuff without permission.” But it did introduce my stuff to the people in Europe, including Dionnet.

What do you think is going to happen to Richard Corben professionally and then personally?

I intend to do several more scripts. I hope to work with my other interests and work on them so that they can become self-supporting.

What would you recommend to a young artist just starting out?

From a business point of view, there are no friends in business – the people who may seem to be friends may act like they’re looking out for your interests. I think the most important thing for an artist to do is to draw constantly and not be afraid of projects that require a lot of work.

Den as the Full Feature Story

So Bloodstar gets done. Where did “Den” come into the picture? Two chapters of “Den” were created for an underground. Was that expected to be continued?

At the time I had intended to continue it in the distant future. But when the fellow said he wanted some more, I didn’t think it would be so soon, and so it’s kind of poorly constructed because it’s so segmented. There are segments written years apart. The first two chapters were written at one period, the third chapter with an outline for a full-length story that was written later on. There were some problems, and I wrote an ending for it in one more chapter, and then these problems worked themselves out so I rewrote it again for the full length.

One thing that does seem to appear in your work a lot is that in the most unstable world you have characters seeking a certain stability – as you do in working hard. Do you think that’s true? Look at Den.

Den is always in a fantastic world; he’s still searching for his other identity. He had amnesia. Though many of my heroic characters don’t have amnesia, they’re still searching for themselves.

Robert Howard and Frazetta, you know, aspired to be the characters that they created, in a certain way. Do you feel that there’s a part of that in what you are doing?

Possibly. But I grew up a different character, whereas Frazetta, he grew up as a character. He was always this kind of character, whereas I forced myself into this mold.

In a way, sort of like Den. In a way, there’s a certain symbolic thing – you were the one character before and now you want to transform yourself into him. But have you been asked that question before?

No. Jan [Strnad] pointed that out. Something he wrote just recently says “Den” has got a lot of me in it. I guess there’s something in what he’s saying.

Well, I want you to elaborate. What do you think about your relationship to Den, and what was the name of that kind?

David Ellis Norman… it’s just contrivance.

David Ellis Norman in normal, and then you’ve got Den – it’s a contraction of it…

Den. I don’t know where I came up with the word “Den” but I made a movie that has Den in it and he also had an alter ego. He’d go in his name “Dan” – so “Dan” changed to “Den.” He was also kind of a tall, thin person. He was played in the movie by my former boss, the art director at Calvin, Ed Thoust. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #7] [Actually, “Dan” was played in the movie by Richard Corben himself. The boss of “Dan” in the movie was played by Corben’s real life former boss, who was misspelled in HM interview! – SidSid]

You had to do something about it to identify with those characters that you drew.

One of fifteen illustrations by Corben for Harlan Ellison’s novel adaptation of his Hugo Award-winning novella “A Boy and His Dog,” entitled Blood’s a Rover, to be published by Ace Books: “Harlan and I were going to do a comic-book version of ‘A Boy and His Dog.’ That’s one of the great projects that never did quite make it. He’s got my breakdown pages still buried on his desk somewhere. So the world has got to wait.”

There is some kind of inner drive that made me want to do something to change things or change myself. I’ve always had a drive to do different things. I just focused it on a different direction from time to time. Most of the time I directed it toward my artwork and refining my skills.

Vic & Bloodstar

Tell me about this Harlan Ellison project and what’s happening there.

He’s got a story called “A Boy and His Dog,” which is written as a sequel to “Egg-Sucker,” and he’s working on another story called “Blood’s Rover” – so they are going to be published all together. I did the cover and about fifteen interior illustrations.

When did your relationship with Eisner begin?

Indirectly – I didn’t know he lived in Kansas City. He was a partner with Gil Kane, who lives in Connecticut. They had some high ideals about doing graphic novels, whereas he was going to do some of them but needed other artists. He got in touch with me first, and I had to think about working on that project. It was after I had agreed to do the job with Gil Kane and I found out that his partner was Armand. Then they moved to Kansas City [Mr. Corben’s correction, #8]. The idea of Bloodstar with the star on his head was Gil Kane’s. I believe at the time I was at the beginning stages of Bloodstar. Armand was still finishing graduate work in southern California.

How long did Bloodstar take?

That took about nine months, and it was done in black and white. I shipped the stuff to Gil Kane, as he was judging everything to make sure it was okay. Bloodstar is my favourite story so far. I felt it was the most organized of my long stories. I guess I liked it because it was long and I put so much of myself into it. The characters are more realized.

I’ll give you a rough breakdown on how it worked. It’s based loosely on a story by Robert E. Howard called “Valley of the Worm.” Gil Kane was acting as producer, and he also got the writer John Jakes to add quite a bit of additional material. I had the short story and the additional material to integrate together, and in doing so I did a final written version and all the breakdowns and designed the characters and practically wrote it from those two other pieces. My writing was rewritten again by one of the publishers – another writer. My version is the most simple, direct, and clear version of the story. The publisher had his own ideas about adding glory and passion to a story that was underwritten a little bit. They hired my services to do the color work. It’s done in my technique but I didn’t actually do the color.

What about having a best-seller? Backtrack a moment. How did it end with Ariel?

At the time when it had only been published, the people at Ariel were looking for properties to exploit – so they bought a license. I agreed to do the full-length book, even though only two chapters had been done. A certain number of pages, ninety-six pages, for a certain page rate based on what I have gotten. Later on, I was forced to proceed to the terms of the license no matter what the circumstances were and no matter how much it hurt.

Heavy Metal Magazine and Movie

When did Heavy Metal come into the picture?

It was three years ago, I guess. Indirectly – Heavy Metal was getting material from Metal Hurlant. “Den” was in Metal Hurlant and they wanted to run “Den.” They found out from the French people that I lived in Kansas City. When Len Mogel called me, I felt this would be a good way to publicize my work. I thought that was a good idea but I couldn’t make a deal; I had to make a deal with these other people and so that’s how it was made – very roundabout. Before I appeared in Heavy Metal, my work appeared mainly in underground comics and in Warren magazines. The people who read underground comics are very small in number compared to people who read comics and magazines in general. So I might have had a very small cult following in the underground. The people who read the Warren magazines are a very young readership, and they’re also a smaller group. When Heavy Metal started publishing my work I had more reaction in a much shorter time than I had ever had before, from people who suddenly discovered me.

Was Arabian Nights proposed to you?

The subject was my idea and it didn’t turn out exactly the way I conceived it. But it came out all right. My original concept of Arabian Nights was based more on the images that Maxfield Parrish had done when he had illustrated The Arabian Nights.

How would that have different?

I had planned to make the Arabian world seem much larger than it was – even though it expands over fantastic worlds, it seems to me that it’s still contained in a small area.

About the Heavy Metal movie: What value do you think the movie will have to your career?

That’s open to conjecture. Everyone is wondering if it’s going to be a good movie, or if it’s going to draw a lot of attention or not. Hopefully it will draw attention, and if it does, it will make Den more popular and make me more popular. It’s good for my work and my future projects.

Why is it that you didn’t participate more directly in the movie?

Because I feel in producing a movie, I would become a very small part of a company, whereas here I’m a creator in control. I don’t particularly want that to happen. It’s not that I have anything against them, it’s just that I used to be an animator and I use to work for a large company. Unless you’re the person in charge, you really don’t have much control over what you do.

What’s your result from this film? Beyond having gotten paid for it… didn’t they buy the rights?

That’s kind of sticky situation there. Armand still has a license to Neverwhere up until September 1981, but that’s about the time when the film will be coming out. So he got a lion’s share of the up-front money, where I’ll be getting all the remaining royalties from it.

So that’s certainly a great bone of contention with you.

That’s something I have to live with.

The Richard Corben Interview, Part 2(3), in Heavy Metal #52, June 1981, by Brad Balfour

| Part 1(3) | Part 2(3)A Brother and Two Sisters | Iin Adolescence | Art School, Army & at Calvin’s | Warren & Wolf Man | Dog Man & Mummy | Fantagor, fandom & “Gore” | Bill Griffithf, Vaughn Bodé | Metal Hurlant and Oversea’s Bootlegs | Den as Full Feature Story | Vic & Bloodstar | Heavy Metal Magazine and Movie | Part 3(3) | Richard Corben’s Answer for Interviewer |

Copyright © 2001 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: Feb. 20, 2001. Last updated: February 7, 2021 at 12:09 pm

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