Shadows on the Grave
Dark Horse. Jan. 17, 2018. $19,99. 7″x10″. Says, 240 pgs, on DH page, but must be at least 272 pgs. [wdh]
2 pgs: pgs 6-7. Introduction by Mike Shields.
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by Mike Shields
As Richard Corben approaches his fiftieth year in comics, his legendary stature provides him the opportunity to devote time to whatever he wishes. So we might logically ask, why Shadows on the Grave? The answer is at once complicated and simple.
Corben’s affection for EC Comics is perhaps the most obvious factor. Growing up in small town Sunflower, Kansas, Corben was the perfect age when EC turned from educating youngsters to terrifying them. Shadows on the Grave gave Corben another opportunity to demonstrate his admiration for those inspirational comics. The majority of the stories in this book are set in the 1950s, the same as many EC stories. EC Comics are famous at least in part for the horror hosts of the various titles: the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper, and the Old Witch. Corben’s Mag the Hag performs the same function as these EC hosts by providing a common link to disparate stories, as well as some exposition. Many of the stories in this tome also follow the EC model of the villain ultimately getting his or her comeuppance in a creative fashion.
Perhaps a less obvious influence on Shadows on the Grave is the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, which Corben later studied in the 1960s. The early issues featured many of the EC greats, so Corben was naturally an avid fan. While Warren published many stories in the EC vein with its own horror hosts, the magazines also printed single-page vignettes. Corben provided similar one-page terrors in every issue of this comic book, which appear at the end of this book. The contiguous thread from EC to Warren to Corben is quite clear.
Another lifelong favorite of Corban’s is author Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is famous for writing fiction, but less well known as a literary critic. Along with other traits, Poe argued an effective work had to fulfill the following three conditions: First, it had to be short enough to read in “one sitting” to maintain the atmosphere, which is why Poe almost always wrote short stories and poetry. Second, Poe felt the author should first determine the effect he or she wished to have upon the reader and later construct characters and events to achieve that effect. Third, he felt every word in the work should help create that desired effect.
Corben, whether consciously or as a kindred spirit, utilized these rules for Shadows on the Grave. The stories are all short, and even the individual chapters of “Denaeus” are easily read without a break. Because the overall impact is more important than the plot to Corben, horror takes precedence over explication that would merely bog down the tale and break the ambiance he has created. This leaves us to guess explanations, and the ambiguity makes the effect even more unnerving. To help susta in an atmosphere both of the past and of discomfort, Corben carefully selected ornate and sometimes archaic words. Finally, in order to preserve this disturbing quality, Corben insisted Shadows on the Grave be printed in gradients of black and white rather than full color. Like many of Corben’s classic black-and-white Warren and underground stories, this presentation helps rather than hinders his artistic intent. Referencing Poe’s theory, utilizing black and white deepens the already oppressive mood. Color can also flatten the gray tones so brilliantly applied to the line work, a self-defeating act.
The use of color can, at times, distract from deficiencies in artistic ability, but Corben needs no such crutch. While many artists have an often short “peak period,” Corben’s unique artwork has been consistently strong for decades. Corben is constantly innovating and experimenting in multiple disciplines: ink, pencil, acrylics, oil, airbrush, film, maquettes, statues, 3D sculpting, and more. His versatility and prodigious skills allow him to convey complexity and subtlety of emotion with just the right pen strokes, all while focusing us on the most telling aspect of a page or panel. Corben’s artwork is so solid that whatever fantastical image he chooses to present, you believe it. And that is why you feel the horror so strongly.
Within this framework, Shadows on the Grave reveals both strangers and relatives treating each other in the most awful ways imaginable, from robbery to betrayal to murder. As in the EC comics, Corben’s villains usually get their just deserts at the end of the tale. But other stories within this volume have terrible things happening to good people. Corben mixes fiction with ugly facts we read, hear, and experience every day into something much more relatable and disquieting-nothing that “happened for a reason,” and often with no real justification. Corben understands that’s the most horrifying thing of all. But like the ancient Greek tragedies (from which the continuing series “Denaeus” was modeled), reading these stories helps provide a cathartic effect. These stories help us confront negative elements in a safe environment, making real -life terrors easier to process.
To facilitate this paean to the beloved horror comics of his youth, Corben assembled a team to help further his vision. The love of his life, Dona, is the glue who holds everything together at Corben central. Dona’s multiple talents complement Richard’s perfectly, and she is the one performing essential behind-the-scenes functions without which we might not see many Corben comics. Their daughter Beth Corben Reed is a revelation. Not only is she an artist in her own right, as demonstrated by the seamless transition from Corben to Beth in applyi ng the gray tones during the Shadows on the Grave run, she is also the co-writer of two stories. Esteemed Corben collaborator and family friend since the early 1970s, Jan Strnad continues his enduring partnership with stories both old and new. I’m the relative newbie in the group, having known the Corbens for only thirty-plus years. Luckily, I was invited to write a story, allowing me a place in this illustrious group. You couldn’t make horror comics with a nicer group of people.
But I want to be clear-Richard Corben is the maestro who directed and influenced everything in this collection, and he is the reason you are now holding this book in your hands. Corben could have done anything, and he chose to do Shadows on the Grave. The question was “why?”; the complicated answer is detailed above. But the simple answer is love’. With love as a primary motivator, Richard Corben will always be a force, no matter what he chooses to do. I eagerly await his next la bor of love.