Review: Richard Corben’s The Raven and The Red Death

by Derek Royal

The Raven and The Red Death, by Richard Corben (Dark Horse)

RavenRedDeath1Back in July, I reviewed Richard Corben’s two-issue adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, noting that one of the things that made it stand out from his other Edgar Allan Poe adaptations — and there have been many over the years — is the way that the artist combines two of Poe’s tales, the titular story and “The Oval Portrait,” into a completely revamped narrative. Something similar is going on in the latest Corben offering, at least regarding the second half of the issue. Here, Corben uses a single comic-book issue to present both “The Raven” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” and although he continues  to mash up Poe stories with the later, he takes other kinds of liberties with the famous poem.

As Corben has been doing with many of the recent Poe adaptations he’s been publishing through Dark Horse — “The City in the Sea,” “Berenice,” “The Sleeper,” and “Shadow” in various issues of Dark Horse Presents from last year, the one-shot The Conqueror Worm from 2012, and this year’s two-issue The Fall of the House of Usher — he revisits Poe writings that he had previously adapted. In fact, Corben has represented “The Raven” at least twice before: first, in issue #67 of Creepy (1974, later collected in 2005’s Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Other Tales of Terror), and later in issue #1 of Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allen Poe (2006). This time around, Corben is a little looser in his adaptation. When we first see the protagonist, he appears to be actually with Lenore, holding her in his arms as he hears the “tap, tap, tap” on his chamber door. The embrace soon becomes hot and heavy, and then right after another series of taps, we realize that it is the memory of Lenora that the man now holds, not the actual woman. It would appear that Corben has shifted back to focus of Poe’s original narrative poem, if not for the abrupt change in paneling style four RavenRedDeath2pages from the end. Whereas all of the earlier panels are drawn with straight black lines — including the earlier ones that included the raven — the final pages of the story are comprised of jagged-edged frames. This is the climax of the tale, where the protagonist directly, and violently (another liberty Corben takes with the original), confronts the mysterious bird. Given the story’s earlier shifts in psychological perspective, one isn’t sure if this final confrontation is actually occurring, or if the change in paneling is indicative of yet another state of mind.

In the second half of this issue, Corben turns to “The Masque of the Red Death” — one that I don’t believe he’s ever adapted before — but he does so by way of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The “Red Death” story starts with a shrouded and mysterious figure, one whose identity is revealed at the end, beginning his tale with the words, “In the greenest of our valleys, by good angels tenanted….” Poe aficionados will recognize those as the opening lines of “The Haunted Palace,” the poem that the mentally unbalanced Roderick Usher presents to the unnamed narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The poem can be read as an allegory of insanity, where the state of the palace stands in for the human head/mind. A once “fairly and stately palace” stood “in the monarch Thought’s dominion,” but over time the dwelling falls to “evil things” and soon becomes a desolate region defined by its “encrimsoned window,” “pale door,” and the “rapid ghastly” things appearing inside that move to “a discordant melody.” This reference is how Corben frames his version of “The Masque of the Red Death.” The rest of the story basically follows the plot of the original, but there are slight variations, e.g., the seventh room is presented in red, not black with red illumination, and Prince Prospero does not immediately fall to the red-bespotted figure in the funeral shroud. The latter becomes a key component in Corben’s “Haunted Palace” framing strategy for the story.

Another binding element in this comic is the figure of Mag the Hag. She functions as Corben’s host figure for most of his recent Dark Horse adaptations — reminiscent of EC Comics’ Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper, and Old Witch — and in this issue, not only is she featured prominently on the front cover, but she also RavenRedDeath3has more of a narrative presence. (In fact, I had thought that this figure was a man in the earlier comics — it certainly looks like a shrouded, balding man — but now knowing that the character is called “Mag,” and seeing in this issue what appears to be aged, drooping breasts, I guess the masculine look is indicative of witchdom.) She’s the one who comically introduces “The Raven” segment, alluding to the pretentiousness of the tale being, at first, presented in verse, and then it is her wandering inadvertently into the ill-fated “monarch’s high estate” now assailed by “evil things” that bridges to two Poe narratives. Mag’s final comments at the very end of “Red Death” also bring to mind the humor found in the old EC horror comics and their hosts. Whereas in some of the earlier Dark Horse adaptations Corben had made Mag a more marginal host, here he uses her more strategically, and to greater affect.

It hasn’t been announced yet, as far as I know, but I suspect that Richard Corben is planning on another book of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, one where he will pull together all of the various Poe pieces that he’s been adapting, or re-adapting, over the past couple of years. The frequency of these comics in both the one-shots and in Dark Horse Presents, along with the repeated appearance of Mag the Hag, suggest as much. As with all Corben projects, especially as they relate to Poe and horror, I eagerly await that volume.

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