If I had to pick the most stylistically unique artist in comics; I would probably pick Richard Corben. With a style that could best be described (and few would attempt to do so) as a fever dream mash up of Robert Crumb and Boris Vallejo, you’ll never come across a panel from Corben and mistake it for anyone else’s work (even the two I just mentioned). I spent many a night in college reading old issues of Heavy Metal featuring his work along with a few other Corben comics; often while half drunk and blasting Blue Oyster Cult’s Cultosaurus Erectus until someone came in and told me to turn that shit down.Corben’s work is crude, not always pretty, stumpy-looking, and his early work showed some big deficiencies in terms of storytelling, but it’s clear he had developed a style all his own, using shading and hatching to give his figures an almost three-dimensional look that made even the weakest of his work stand out. The cartoony-ness of Corben’s work also gives it an appealing quality that can serve both to keep very grim stories from becoming unbearable, but other times that same quality can heighten the grimness through contrast.
Naturally, this made him a great fit for horror comics.While his album covers and Heavy Metal contributions are what he remains best known for (along with some underwhelming work for Marvel in the early 2000’s), I feel Corben’s horror and sci-fi work for Warren Magazines shows him at his best. And for anyone who feels the same, this volume is a must have (and at only thirty bucks, why not buy two?).
This volume traces Corben’s evolution as an artist, from his early pen and ink stories and experiments with grey tones, to his “paintings in black and white” approach that graces such stories like the nonsensical “Slipped Mickey Click Flip” (a story as weird as it’s title), and then to his more well-known color work (beginning with the very funny werewolf story “Lycanklutz”, which is filled with fun nods to Universal’s 1941 film The Wolf Man like “Baron Talbot”), which combines both pen and ink with painting.
The use of color/paint must have awakened something in Corben, for it’s his color/paint stories that show him at his best, and serves up the volume’s most memorable stories. There’s the moody, narrated in rhyme story “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Noise”, which, despite the comedic title, is an at times genuinely scary little haunted house yarn, and which shows off some of Corben’s soon to be famous psychedelic imagery:
Other highlights include:-“Change into Something Comfortable”, about a werewolf on the run from a freak show who decides to revel in his powers one Halloween night, mauling trick or treaters, street gangs and a country club party. The first two pages really capture the mood of the season:
-An even grimmer holiday tale, but this time for Christmas; the infamous and very influential killer Santa Claus story “Bless us, Father”. It’s a story I’ve discussed before, and it’s one that will never lose its impact.
-“Terror Tomb”, a surprisingly funny story about a mummy that tries to slay a bumbling team of archaeologists. It amusingly spoofs every imaginable mummy movie cliché, from the mummy being slow, to him running across a woman who resembles his lost princess, and ending with a twist that you’d expect from some kids Halloween joke book:
-Two of three Poe adaptations; a truly beautiful version of The Raven, and an adaptation of the lesser-known Shadow (Which, incidentally, is one of the stories I used to read while listening to BOC):
-“In Deep”, in my opinion, one of the 10 greatest horror comics stories of all time. It’s also my favorite of all of Corben’s art jobs, switching from black and white to color to indicate flashbacks. It’s a harrowing tale about two newlyweds whose yacht sinks and then end up surrounded by sharks, followed by the even more horrifying aftermath. It ends with a twist that normally would be fodder for a sick joke in most horror comics, but here is treated as the tragedy it is. A masterpiece.
By no means though are the color stories the only ones worth reading, Corben’s adaptation of another Poe story, The Oval Portrait, is arguably even more beautiful than Shadow and The Raven. “The Mummy’s Victory”, another humorous mummy story, is laugh-out-loud hilarious, although it’s the script by Roger McKenzie that really shines. “The Pest” is also quite good, and may even have inspired a Creepshow segment.
Also in this volume are Corben’s horror stories for Eerie, including the ones he did focusing on continuing characters. The best of these are Child; a three-parter about a Frankenstein Monster who is literally a child (It sounds like a comedic premise, and there is some black comedy, but for the most part, it’s as bleak as they come) and The Butcher; a two-parter that takes a typical pulp hero’s origin story, and turns it into an EC comics-style nightmare by showing the Butcher’s “heroic” deeds through the eyes of the criminals he targets, and in the second part, the police. It feels almost like a precursor to Watchmen in some ways, with how it posits that costumed vigilantes aren’t just warped and psychotic, but ultimately unnecessary.
There are many more gems in this volume. If you’ve never seen Corben’s stuff before, this October is the perfect time to do it, and this volume is a great place to start.