Interview: Richard Corben

Conducted by Derek Royal

Corben2Let’s be blunt: Richard Corben is a legend. From his early underground comix — in titles such as Slow Death, Skull, and Grim Wit — to his seminal work in Métal Hurlant (and the American Heavy Metal) and the various Warren publications (such as Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella), to his work on Robert E. Howard’s Bloodstar, to his Den saga, to his many adaptations of horror fiction, Corben has left an indelible mark on comics. His style is unique, and anyone looking at his art will know without question that it’s Corben’s. His lush, highly detailed illustrations are dark, seductive, and often unsettling…the perfect combination for the kind of horror and fantastical narratives that have come to define his work. He has brought his voluptuous art to the mainstream, as well, working on both Hellblazer and Cage with Brian Azzarello, on The Punisherwith Garth Ennis, on Ghost Rider with Daniel Way, and his own issue contribution to DC Comics’ Solo. More notable is his work with Mike Mignola on Hellboy, for which he has won two Eisner Awards, one in 2009 for Best Finite Series/Limited Series and another in 2011 for Best Single Issue (or One-Shot). And in 2012, his entire body of work was critically recognized when he was elected to The Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame. Arguably, some of his most outstanding work of the past SpiritsDeadseveral years has been adaptations of classic literary texts, including the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Corben has a long history with Poe’s stories and poetry — various adaptations in Creepy during the 1970s, House of Usher from Pacific Comics in the 1980s, and his Haunt of Horror stories through Marvel in 2006 — and recently he has been returning to his love of Edgar Allan Poe in a series of stories through Dark Horse Comics. Beginning in 2012, Corben began adapting, or re-adapting, various short stories and poems in the pages of Dark Horse Presents, and then later expanded his Poe stories into single-issue and even two-issue installments. His most recent adaptation, Edgar Allan Poe’s Morella and the Murders in the Rue Morgue, just came out from Dark Horse, and in October we’ll be getting the culmination of his recent adaptation work, Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard in the weeks leading up to the publication of Morella and the Murders in the Rue Morgue and in anticipation of the Spirits of the Dead collection. The following conversation took place via e-mail during May and June, 2014.

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Derek Royal: Let’s begin with your current work for Dark Horse Comics, your new adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe¹s fiction and poetry. You¹ve covered Poe’s work many times before. What brought you to these most recent efforts?

Richard Corben: I guess I just can’t get Poe out of my system. Although I had read some of his short stories in high school, when Roger Corman’s movie adaptations came out, I realized there were many possibilities of the material as sources and inspirations for original interpretations. And they didn’t have to be all that faithful to the originals.  So I hung on to that idea and when opportunities came up I went for them. As you said, I’ve done bits based on Poe’s stories many times. In 2010 I felt Dark Horse would be receptive to a Poe pastiche that I wanted to do. I recruited Jan Strnad to help me with the writing and the pitch. As it happened, Jan’s concept didn’t really have too many Poe elements in it, but I liked it anyway, and the result was Ragemoor.  After finishing that project, I decided if I wanted to do Poe the way I wanted, I would have to the adaptations myself as well as the art.  So I went ahead and started doing eight-page comic interpretations of some of my favorite poems and stories, somehow confident they would find a publisher. “The Sleeper” was the first.

DR: It’s funny that you should mention Ragemoor, because I had wanted to ask you about that miniseries and its links to your recent work on Poe. When I read it, I immediately thought of your previous Poe adaptations for Marvel and the old Warren publications. If someone didn’t know Poe’s body of work, Ragemoorthey would probably mistake Ragemoor for another one of your adaptations. So would you consider that project a motivating factor behind your new Poe comics?

RC: Most definitely. I told Jan I wanted a Poesque series. He also drew from Lovecraft with some Jack Kirby added, but mostly using his own mood and themes.  I say Jack Kirby because of the anthromorphic giants in a punch-out struggle. The only thing missing is the swimmer’s briefs.  I agreed, but I didn’t want to have any of the giant stone men on the covers. But that’s exactly what was called for.  I was out voted by Jan and Scott Allie, the editor. From the reception, I guess I was the only one to object. Dark Horse also wanted the book in color, but I stood my ground on this. From the sales, I don’t think it mattered whether it was black and white or color.

DR: You mentioned “The Sleeper” as one of the first new adaptations. I noticed that that piece, “The City in the Sea,” “Berenice,” and “Shadow” all came out in Dark Horse Presents. Why did you originally begin this series in the anthology?

RC: Most of Poe’s stories are short and many could be easily adapted into eight-page comic stories. Scott, again the editor, suggested that the short ones, eight pages and under, could be used in Dark Horse Presents, and the longer ones could first be issued as one shots.  I think this was done to give the material some exposure and would allow Dark Horse to pay me for the preliminary use. That way, I would at least see a small income during the year or more it took to complete the project.

DR: But you also had contributed other work to Dark Horse Presents when they first brought it back in 2011, right?

RC: Yes, they ran bits of my black-and-white sword adventure story, “Murky World.”

DR: But then in fall of 2012 you began coming out with full comic-book issues — and in the case of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” two issues — of the Poe adaptations. How was it transitioning from short anthology pieces to full-length installments?

RC: I was having a good time doing the eight-pagers, but when it came to adapting slightly longer ones that filled a comic book or more, I felt a change in my attitude. The work was still enjoyable, but it seemed now it was time to get serious about the project. It was a point of no return, and I would see it through to the end. Poe discusses story length in one of his essays: basically, that the story, especially a horror story that depends on achieving and maintaining a consistent mood, should be no longer than can be read in one sitting. I certainly agree with this. There are some technical issues to be dealt with as a story gets longer. Mainly for me, it means the plot can be slightly more complicated, or a character can be developed a little more.

DR: The first of these longer stories was an adaptation of “The Conqueror Worm.” What were some of the technical issues, as you just alluded to, in making this a longer comic-bookConquerorWorm2 length piece? And why did you choose to base your first one-shot on a poem and not a short story?

RC: “The Conqueror Worm” had several interesting and attractive images to draw from, but not much of a story. It suggests “much of Madness, and more of Sin, / And Horror the soul of the plot.” I took this to be my direction, and to include a theatre, a play, puppets, condor wings (I substituted turkey vulture wings), and of course the nasty conqueror worm. I had decided to do this adaptation before I knew how long it should be. There were a few scenes I wanted to include, and this indicated more than eight pages. From these elements the story was constructed. Usually this is how I write: first decide basic idea and how I want to treat it, then create the scenes I really want to do, then add “have to” scenes (as few as possible), then link the scenes together with some dialogue and narration. As far as the order of the stories, I roughly tried to do them in the order that they were originally published in Poe’s time.

DR: In some of your new Poe adaptations you combine more than one tale. So in your two-issue The Fall of the House of Usher, we have a mash up of “Usher” and “The Oval Portrait,” and your adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death” begins with the “Haunted Palace” section of “Usher.” Your earlier Poe adaptations were more straightforward, so why did you choose this kind of strategy for the recent comics?

RC: I think Poe’s material has great depth, with many possibilities for adaptations.  Several takes occur to me as I’m rereading the text. If I’m doing one that inspired me in one direction earlier, I wanted to take a fresh look at the work and not repeat myself too much in a new one. The mixing of “The Oval Portrait” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is not original with me. A French filmmaker, Jean Epstein, and his film writer Luis Buñuel took this stance in La Chute de la Maison Usher in 1928. So in a way, my version is actually a re-adaptation of that earlier silent film.  There are some references in my comic version to Epstein’s film, as well as references to another silent film adaptation, The Fall of the House of Usher by American filmmaker James Watson and Melville Webber.

In the case of “Masque of the Red Death” which is a very short story, I wanted to expand the scenario a bit. Some business with one narrator talking or singing to another was perfect for my purposes. I could have written some expositional dialogue, but it occurred to me that some other Poe material would be more appropriate. The events described in “The Haunted Palace” seemed to fit quite well, so I had the second narrator sing some of the lines.

DR: I’m also curious about your decision to re-adapt poems or stories that you had originally adapted years ago. Is it that your reading of them has changed, or do you just want to interpret the originals in an entirely different manner to see how they translate? Or both?

RC: My first reading of the classics like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are probably inviolate in that I don’t think I have the creative power to really render them, the deep feelings they gave me, into any form other than what they are. All of my comic adaptations are more or less contrived imitations of those feelings. That may sound odd coming from me. I believe this is true for virtually any adaptation of Poe ever made by anybody. I work hard at my job, but I must admit these adaptations are simplified and distorted in order to make a good comic story.  It’s not that they are bad. They just don’t portray the same particular feeling of the text original.

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If I return to stories I’ve already adapted it’s because I’m still drawn to them. And yes, I do want to interpret them with a different viewpoint. I’m reminded of a quote of Alberto Breccia about his attitude of doing adaptations: “Adapting a narration into comic 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!” I sincerely hope not.  And maybe another related quote by Graham Chapman (Monty Python): “I love animals, that’s why I like to kill ’em.”

DR: This is interesting, your feelings about adapting Poe, that they are “contrived imitations,” that can’t get to the heart or the complexities of the originals. Do you feel that way about the other authors you’ve adapted, such as H. P. Lovecraft?

RC: Yes, because I believe that the images I make are inspired by a body of words, but never quite portray the word images exactly.  It’s like the new images have a mind of their own and want to exert their own identity. The discipline of an artist is sometimes a bit flexible, even ethereal, and I want to see where these new images take me.

DR: Do you ever feel a reverence toward the works of literature that may limit your images and your story, perhaps feeling constrained by a kind of faithfulness to the original?

RC: Years ago, I would have said yes. But now, I get so excited about my own interpretations, I just charge ahead, trying one variation after another. I now feel — and I hope my reader, viewer, or reviewer will be — interested or intrigued enough by what I’ve done to go back and read or reread the original. It should be apparent to them what originality I’ve brought to my version. This might be a risky proposition, if the reader feels I’ve messed up a good story.

DR: Is there a limit you set yourself, perhaps more felt or instinctual than anything, in deviating too far from the original? Or to ask more broadly: do you think that when adapting a work of literature, an artist can spin things too far from its origin to make it unrecognizable and perhaps do a disservice to the story or poem?

HauntHorrorPoeRC: Generally, yes. I might add a character or scene that could help illustrate something that in the text was part of an internal exposition, or description.  In some more extreme cases I have changed the personalities of characters, but usually the overall theme is true to the original. I don’t think I’ve taken such liberties as some movie producers who use only the original title and nothing else. One thing I am guilty of is to reinterpret a character’s reaction to a situation, or ask the question: “What would happen if the author had written another page?” Or, “Would the story end differently if the characters had more modern attitudes?”

DR: You actually did adopt a more modern attitude in many of the pieces for your Marvel miniseries, Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe. At least some of the settings and props — such as the inflatable sex doll in “Eulalie” or gangsta rappers in “Izrafel” — smacked of present day. Did you plan for your Marvel adaptations to strike a more contemporary tone, at least compared to your earlier Creepy comics?

RC: The Marvel Haunt of Horror: Poe project wasn’t really under my control. Richard Margopolous, who had done considerable writing for Warren and did the adaptations for all of Warren’s Poe stories, did most of the scripts for the Marvel version. Although I was consulted, the main thrust and direction of the scripts was worked out between Margopolous and editor Axel Alonso. I think it was their idea to put the stories in contemporary settings to appeal to a modern audience. For my current series of Poe stories, I wanted to keep them all in the nineteenth century even though I had the characters talk and think like modern people.

DR: Have you ever had the inclination to modernize completely any works of literature that you’ve adapted, Poe or otherwise?

RC: I would probably be interested in reading Poe adaptations set in modern times, but I don’t have any desire to do any myself. The period clothing and other time-related elements are part of the fun for me.

DR: I would guess that the elaborateness of those time-period comics can be a big draw…sort of like what you were shooting for with Ragemoor, or even your Hellboy work.

RC: Well, it is a draw for me to a project. But as for drawing readers to buy a comic, I don’t think most of them care whether a comic story is set in a certain time period or not.

DR: Let’s talk about your Hellboy work. It’s not a period title, but it does thrive on the kind of gothic, and even arabesque, qualities that define your art. How did you come to work on that series?

RC: I was nearing the end of “Starr, the Slayer” for Marvel when I got emails from Mike Mignola and Scott Allie inviting me to do a Hellboy collaboration. Hellboy was, and is, one of the few comics I collect, and I was very proud to get such an invitation, although I advised them that I couldn’t possibly draw in Mike’s sophisticated line style. They had already taken that fact into account before asking. With some trepidation about being accepted by the readers, I accepted. Since I was going to be working on a story where I would be doing Hellboy as told by another narrator, a different viewpoint, having a different artist might work out well. Apparently it did okay, and I did several other Hellboy books.

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DR: What is it about Mignola’s Hellboy that fascinates you, not only as an artist, but as a reader/fan?

RC: First and foremost is the graphic art style. He composes his pages and panels in intriguingly appealing flat design of patterns. He uses devises that date back to the beginnings of comics and beyond, such as using a zigzag edge of a shape to denote a graduated blending into the adjoining shape. It never really works in that way, but it certainly adds a certain character to the style. Once I started collecting Hellboy for the art, I discovered that Mike is one of the best writers in comics. Even though he sets up a fantastic situation, he makes it seem plausible with fully believable characters. I’ve learned a lot from Mike, and I continue to do so.

DR: What other creators do you find yourself gravitating toward? And not necessarily in any influential way, or even in a sense of a shared style, but also you as a reader appreciating another’s work?

RC: I really don’t follow anyone else these days. Going back to my youth, there are many I could mention. These are mainly cartoonists and artists I’ve enjoyed, and learned from: V. T. Hamlin, the creator of the Alley Oop strip, Jesse Marsh of Tarzan, Wally Wood, “Ghastly” Graham Ingles, Al Feldstein, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta, and Harvey Kurtzman of the E.C. gang. Then there’s “Moebius” Jean Giraud of France, Alberto Breccia of Argentina, Victor De La Fuente and Sanjulian of Spain, and Zdzislaw Beksinski of Poland. Also, Jeff Jones, the covers of Adam Hughs, the poster art of Maxfield Parish, and the appealing, but surrealist comics of Edward Gorey. A rather diverse group, I loved all their work.

Métal HurlantDR: Some of your early comics were published in Métal Hurlant, so in a way you got to work with Moebius. How do you see your work in the undergrounds — like Slow Death and Skull — and in Métal Hurlant informing the kind of art you do today, especially as it relates to your gothic stories?

RC: The underground comix were for me an opportunity to have some fun with comics. To do just what I wanted and not worry if it followed any script or made any sense. Aside from being, or wanting to be, a comic book artist, I had very little in common with the majority of the other underground cartoonists. It was different, in that I think most of them were rejecting the established business of comic production and goals, where I was actually trying to break into the “establishment.” But doing the undergrounds and tasting their freedom probably changed me permanently. I went on to work for the big mainstream publishers, but I could never forget that freedom. Strangely enough, having the credentials of being an “underground cartoonist” was actually a benefit in some cases.  As you suggested, being an underground cartoonist got me into Métal Hurlant. I think they wanted to emulate the outrageous attitude of the underground comix community, but produced by extremely talented professionals with top quality production values, such as full process color and slick paper.

DR: I want to come back to your recent Poe adaptations. In most of the stories you use the figure, Mag the Hag, as a framing device, similar to how you used Uncle Deadgar in your Marvel comics. What do you get out of a frame narrator in your adaptations, perhaps that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

MagHagRC: In an anthology series, normally the stories are all different, so they start at zero with no point of reference or apparent expectations. For me, a narrator is an element of familiarity. So there is a sense of friendly continuity between stories and books. Also, it is a way of distancing the reader from feeling he is dealing with uncomfortable concepts. In some cases the host character separates the reader too much from the emotion of the story. You might think they are just there for clever dialogue, or worse, to make fun of the plight of the other characters. I’ve tried to have some restraint here. Occasionally I put Mag as a minor character in the actual plot, so apparently she has a stake in the outcome.

DR: We’ve just recently seen your latest Poe adaptations, Morella and the Murders in the Rue Morgue. What about those two stories inspired you to bring them together in one comic book?

RC: I’m afraid putting those two stories together wasn’t exactly planned. When I started the Poe project, I thought I might do them in the order that they were originally published. This idea quickly fell by the wayside because of problems with page count.  “Morella” was done early in Poe’s works while “Murders” came about the middle to late part. I wasn’t sure I would do an adaptation of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” at all, as it might be viewed more as a pre-runner of the detective story, instead of a horror story, although it certainly has its share of horror elements.

I’d like to say as we finish, that I enjoyed doing this series more than any other in my career. In fact, I didn’t want it to end. There are several more stories and poems that I wanted to adapt. But all good things (at least for me) must come to an end, as they say.  And there are a few more projects I want to do before I’m done completely.

DR: Will we see any additional or new material in Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead, stories or illustrations that weren’t included in Dark Horse Presents or the recent single issues?

RC: Well if I told about all that I had planned to include, there would be quite a lot.  But after several discussions with the editor, it became apparent that it would be wiser to use just a few things I had created previous to this project. There will be a new cover and several small spot illustrations.  I also did some decorative initials, but I don’t know if they made it into the final layout. Some of the panels had nude versions which probably won’t be included.

DR: What Poe stories would you have wanted to include, but didn’t have the space to do so? Or perhaps another way of asking this question: what other Poe adaptations might we see from you in the future?

RC: Of course the big ones: “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” And a few others like “Ligeia,” “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” “Eldorado,” and “Annabel Lee.” Maybe even a few Poe pastiches. That would probably guarantee his coming out of the grave to teach me a lesson.

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