Duet On ‘Solo’, Part Two: Richard Corben
Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC's head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC's library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.
Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this first installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the second issue of Solo, created by Richard Corben.
Matt Seneca: Second up on the Solo merry-go-round was Richard Corben, whose name alone is an assurance that this book was headed in the right direction. Tim Sale's a solid enough craftsman that he doesn't seem out of place on the list of people who'd eventually contribute to this anthology, but at the time he was a super-popular superhero artist that DC had recently inked to an exclusive contract, and I remember wondering how long before the Michael Turner issue of Solo came out. (This was before I thought Michael Turner was kind of a baller.) But Corben's career trajectory is another beast entirely, and probably one of the more fascinating ones comics has to offer.
Corben's probably the most prominent cartoonist of the genre-inflected "second wave" underground scene, people who saw all the sex and killing that Crumb was putting out there and got really hyped to do some of their own, minus all the philosophizing and hippie signifiers. After which he became Heavy Metal magazine's most prominent American contributor, putting out mind-blowing airbrushed comics that stood shoulder to shoulder with Moebius, Tardi, and Crepax every month. Then came the conversion to hardcore Christianity, the censoring of his early, raciest and best comics, and a hell of a third act as an illustrator of pulpy mainstream horror comics.
This Solo issue catches Corben right before that current phase -- in kind of a quiet space for a career so rife with activity, actually. The thing about Corben, though -- he pretty much kills it every time out.
Sean Witzke: The release of Solo, at least the first six issues, seems to be designed to pick up whatever strata of the type of reader who'd buy this book. Corben's issue's position seems to exist to belay any critiques that the Sale issue could have brought on. Corben is bulletproof, a seasoned pro who is still working but also someone who is a legend, a contemporary of the best living cartoonists, and on par with the best of the dead ones.
For Corben's issue, he avoids the template laid out by Sale and goes straight for something he knows well, which is the horror anthology format, and simply makes it sing with as little frills as possible.
MS: This is really a new issue of Corben's early '70s horror comic Fantagor as much as it is anything else, right? The obligatory DC hero Corben chooses to include in his issue's final short story is the Spectre -- for those who don't know, he's the superhero who personifies God's wrath and wears nothing but green American Apparel underwear -- everything else could have come out of an EC comic from 60 years ago. Curses in an Egyptian tomb, a few barbarian stories, a grisly Western. Sure, this is formula, but there's a reason you can also call it "classic." Corben searches out the resonant notes in all these tried-and-true content formulations, and emerges with a collection of yarns that may not necessarily stick with you forever, but grip you while you're reading them.
SW: I do like that they probably offered him any superhero he would want and he went for the one that no one's been able to click since the heyday of torture and skin-mutilation of the Golden Age. Along with the other stories, it's great that an artist who could have published it at any point throughout his career didn't feel the need to do anything current, even though this Spectre story is in the weird-ass Gotham Central continuity of the day [where by the Spectre's host was no longer Jim Corrigan, as had been the case for decades of publishing history, but had transferred to Detective Crispus Allen].
MS: Oh man, I didn't even notice that. Which is, of course, perfect: there's no need for explanation, everything you need is there regardless of weird hiccups in the backstory. The Spectre's the superhero who tortures dudes, and he does it because God asked him to. Nothing goes past that!
Corben never really gets enough credit for the shrewd choices he makes with what he draws, but look at it and it's obvious he has a perfect understanding of his own strengths: at Marvel he drew the Hulk, at DC the Spectre, and now he's doing Hellboy. Dark stuff with big muscles, who could ask for more? I also think we have to give at least a token mention to Corben's having chosen the Spectre to work with in light of his zeal for fundamentalist Christianity. The questions it begs are really endless. All his really nasty stories about barbarians slashin' each other's guts out are set in definitively pre-Christian times, and stuff like his western in this issue of Solo exclusively features bad people doing bad things. I wonder if the Spectre, who's basically God's id sent to torture the hell out of dudes here on Earth, is the moral formulation that Corben came up with to make the kind of sickening violence that's so much a part of Corben comics acceptable in a modern setting?
SW: Most interesting is that except for the Spectre (which, ironically, he didn't write) all of these stories occur in a godless universe, morally determined by murder and plague and unconcerned with divinity. It's all meat.
MS: Yeah, but it's meat with some kind of restraint always set in place -- those ridiculously pneumatic women who we never see nude (and never will again since he altered all his old artwork), the violence that always drops out right at the PG-13 border... it's just fascinating how much the guy's own morals seem to clash with his characters'. What I'd really love to see is some Corben book exploring the divine, something completely light and airy. How far could he go in the other direction, you know?
SW: I don't know how much his tastes are clashing with his sensibilities. Corben clearly wants to draw vikings and horror but how he wants to deliver it comes into play. He really understands how his new "bigfoot" style fits a certain kind of superhero action, where the characters have a real weight to their actions -- which is something he's been doing since Den, but now it's kind of boiled down to this economy that fits stuff like Hellboy, even though his style shares almost nothing with Mike Mignola's beyond their taste in what they like to draw. Also, the Spectre story, and a lot of the work here in Solo, shows how much Corben is aware of the various kinds of people he can be drawing. In Tim Sale's issue, there were a lot of white people. With Corben, I think the Spectre story at the end of the issue is the first time you see more than one white face.
MS: True story: back when I was a kid and I had only seen Corben's Cage and the ghetto violence story he did for Batman: Black and White, I just assumed (and this went on for years and years) that Richard Corben was a black man. When I found out he was a white man from Kansas it was a visceral shock. You're right to note the diversity of Corben's characters, though, it really is key to a lot of what he's up to here. It's a sad reflection on the state of comics when nonwhite protagonists are a big sign that something outside the norm is being done, but there you have it.
SW: Like the choice of working toward his strengths, it really shows an awareness of what he's drawing that like 90% of comics just doesn't have. People draw the faces that surround them in most cases, which is lazy and no excuse.
MS: Oh, I think people are always drawing their own faces. Look at any cartoonist, they look like their drawings. Even Corben does, in a weird way.
SW: Corben's characters all kind of have the same facial build, no matter what kind of face he's drawing. Like soft/hard features and age, they're all there and distinctive, but it's the same Corben skull for everyone. And a lot of what I love about this comic is the faces. There's one in the mummy story on page 11, third panel in, is maybe the meanest face I've ever seen on a character. Just utter disdain, every time it makes me stop.
MS: That's a classic Corben face, like half the dudes in his Sinbad comic from the '80s Heavy Metals looked just like that. That mummy story is an interesting one just because there's almost no plot to it at all, it's just people trying to kill each other and grab as much material wealth as they can carry. Here especially, the setting feels most important. Nobody takes a step without leaving their footprint on the orange color filter that codes for stretches of desert sand, and the action is all choreographed around a single, ever so Corbenesque architectural structure. The setting feels extant, like something with weight to it, and the characters are just these little flurries of motion. Even the mummy itself, it seems like he only really gets into drawing it when it turns into what looks like stone. Given Corben's preoccupation with texture, I can see why he'd be attracted to substances that last longer and have more heft to them than skin and bone.
And while we're on the subject, the guy is really drawing the same body over and over again too, isn't he? Well, bodies, one for guys and one for girls -- these parodies of the idealized superheroic "hard body" that mainstream comics exclusively present. It's a shape that comes from Crumb, for sure, the big head/hands/feet and sorta Gumby looking center part. But Corben really puts it into action, swinging and jumping all around. Usually shortly before it gets eviscerated.
I think that constant repetition of faces and bodies, with hardly any differentiation between them no matter which stock genre scenario they're playing out (there are like six or eight that basically constitute Corben's entire career), gets at something interesting about him. I don't think he's ever really cared anything about a character he was working with. Certainly not about the ones in his Solo comic, but his whole career, there's never any real human moments or sense of compassion for the individuals providing the stories he's telling with action. Even when he returned to the barbarian Den, at the time his big breakout property (As Seen In The Heavy Metal Movie, kids!), he basically only did so to make fun of it. The fact that he went back and took the good stuff out of all his old sexy stories is a big indication to me that he never really cared about the content too much. What repeats is the drawing, which contains plenty of evidence for its creator's passion -- and the settings. It's always some vast, fire-lit expanse of ruins and bedraggles settlements and towering monuments. Few artists give such consistent, clear windows into their interior environments.
SW: "Content" is an interesting word there, because I think he does care about the content inasmuch as the drawing and the scenarios -- it's very much the kind of mentality where characters are devices to get to the point of stories, the kind of tradition of short stories with punch that came out of Poe and pulp novels that became the template for horror anthologies. It's storytelling that focuses on concept and setting and the characters are there as mechanisms of delivery, the kind of portmanteau of Creepy and Heavy Metal is in all his stuff, no matter how long a page count. And the drawings, they're always going to be the most important part.
MS: Even though nobody's ever really testified directly to it (at least that I've seen), I think the big connecting thread between the undergrounds and Heavy Metal and the later-period Creepy/Eerie stuff is that it's really "acid comics." The great regard everyone from Moebius to Crumb to Greg Irons to Corben show for their settings, getting details exactly right and creating something so immersive in its otherness, and then kind of just plopping some human forms down to run around in there for a few pages, it's like they're sort of trying to replicate the hallucinogenic experience for their readers while also trying to create kind of a journal of their own psychedelic experimentation. This is why the Corben landscape feels so important to me, I think: it's both inwardly and outwardly directed, and it feels like it carries so much importance to its artist.
SW: Which is a strange fit with this Corben doing Solo because he seems to be relying really hard on story structure as a primary tool. It doesn't feel acidy the way the Heavy Metal stuff does. It feels really strong.
MS: I think the one "Cyclops" story is pretty acidy, but that's entirely because of the visuals. I see what you mean, but I think Corben is so rigid about his use of genre conventions because they're the best way to prop up his visionary quality. His interior world happens to share a lot of features with the stuff laid out by, say, Robert E. Howard, so if he just regurgitates Howard plot and characters, he can draw that one castle or battle fortification or whatever that he's been dreaming about every night for the past three decades. Maybe it's his lack of concern for character, but I never get much sense of a real love for genre from Corben like I get from, say, Howard Chaykin.
SW: "Cyclops" has got a great nasty Heavy Metal ending, doesn't it? No, you're right, it isn't a series of loving genre pastiches, they're arenas for stories to happen in, with established rules he can use or ignore for effect.
MS: "Cyclops" is really just the most basic retread of the classic EC snap ending possible -- "My God, we -- we men -- were really the monsters the whole time!" What elevates it for me isn't Corben's actually squeezing some life out of such a rote set of plot points (but that helps), but the completely crazy visual quality of it. It's about as close as Corben's gotten to his prime '70s airbrush style since he went back to drawing with black ink, but now he's using computer modeling instead of airbrush. What was once an uncomfortably realist style to see Corben's hulking, buxom women and inflatable men rendered in gets upgraded to a completely insane level of psychedelic absurdity: the eye just can't take in the near-total realism of what it's seeing grafted onto giant war-painted, one-eyed monsters, so it just shuts your whole brain right down. Amazing stuff. It's crazy to see something that only made it into Kramers Ergot this year in a DC comic from 2004.
SW: I wonder how much is drawn and how much is the computer. The bio page shows him drawing the second page and there's not much difference, so it's really interesting to see how he's manipulated it. The stuff like the blur effects on the third page are completely new, or at least new in that they don't look like they're from a bad WildStorm comic. It's innovation, even though it's not 100% successful. I mean, it is kind of psychedelic but I think I like even the worst of the other stories more because of the texture he gives to them.
MS: Apples and oranges, I think. Corben's just up to something so different. He's a wonderful mark-maker, but when he gives his grotesque cartooning that ultra-real sheen it's just so utterly discombobulating. I also love that he'll drop in really ugly, obviously computerized little scene-setting stuff around the sides of the action -- the weapons in the story are just little digital rod shapes grafted onto similarly artificial axe-heads and things, and the shot showing us the classically decorated interior of the enlightened Cyclopean society's caves is just full of these bloopy little shapes that look like they're out of Paper Rad or something. It's hilarious stuff; just utterly bizarre. I'd never seen anything like that comic when it came out, and I'm pretty sure I still haven't. That total uniqueness goes a long way for me in a book full of these kinda reconsidered clichés.
SW: It is really exciting to see in between a mummy story and a western story, neither drawn in a particularly different passion. But I think it lacks the payoff of the violence that the other stories have, the figures, they feel plastic instead of made of meat. And every other Corben character seems really fragile in this entire issue.
MS: Fragility isn't a quality I associate with Corben's characters, or maybe with his view of all civilization. These dudes are all f***ing badasses, but human endeavor seems to be little more than one long string of awful decisions to their creator, doesn't it?
SW: Yeah, they're badasses but everyone seems about a single punch away from bleeding like a stuck pig. They are all doomed, even the characters who survive the stories are really doomed. The best thing here for me is The Plague, which is Corben's retelling of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, but in a really clever move, it's not the story but the Roger Corman version of the story, where a figurehead essentially goads his people into getting sick instead of the social class metaphor that Poe was working on. The Corman version is a lot closer to Corben's sensibility, not on the surface level, but a specific character bringing untold retribution on himself and everyone else seems to be a perfect match.
MS: There's some surface level Corman in there. They've got the same taste in girls, for sure. I agree that this is definitely the strongest story in the book -- you know the whole time that things aren't going to end well, but Corben keeps you guessing as to how things will play out until the last page. It's a really impressively crafted horror comic, one that gets by on creeping dread and leaving most of the grotesquerie out of the visuals, which for Corben is an atypical move. But the decadence that gets put on display -- most of the story takes place in a pleasure palace that acts as the final bulwark of defense against the plague -- is really unsettling. It feels more appropriate to see Corben's people smashing each other's heads in than drinking and carousing and ending up in bed with each other. That's where the softness, the roundness of his drawing style starts to feel really perverse and wrong. Which is awesome.
SW: What you see is so effective -- the coloring (by Dave Stewart who we probably should have already mentioned as he's always great) of the chalk-white diseased bodies. The subtle punch of the red eyes in the crowd at the end. The warrior's bashed-out smile. There's real horror in there. The revelry of the characters adds to that, because yeah, it''s weird to see Corben draw a kiss, right? Just like it would be weird to see Aragones do a car chase. It's the kind of thing that normally you would say doesn't occur in his universe.
MS: Is it just me, or is this story also the one in this issue that most looks like other comics you'd have been likely to find on the racks circa 2004? There's a lot of Igor Kordey to it. Where Corben usually surrounds his spotted blacks with hatching to add some texture to them, here it's more expressionistic -- blacks cut into the page, with Corben leaning heavy on Stewart to give some shape to what he's drawing.
SW: I don't know, I always thought Kordey was so based in Corben (and, like everyone, Dave Gibbons) that it's hard to tell who's taking from whom. I have to be honest I can't really place what a comic looked like in 2004, I don't think I was reading much then.
MS: And who could blame you? There weren't enough like this one. Still aren't. You know, when I read a comic like this I'm always pretty forcibly reminded of Kim Thompson's "We Need More Crap" essay (essential reading, kids), where he basically argues that what American comics needs most isn't ten more Chris Wares but a thousand more Richard Corbens, dudes banging out highly competent genre with obvious passion. I think what I really like about that "Cyclops" story is that it's the only thing in here that feels truly transcendent to me, like something that's pushing at boundaries. But the rest is excellently conceived, beautifully drawn horror comics that can get really, really fucking mean, and there's a massive amount of enjoyment to be gotten from that.
SW: Yes, we need a thousand more Corbens, and we need one less Chris Ware. Joking. Kind of. Not really, "Oh no middle class white people feel bad inside part #937." Woody Allen, he was right when he said we need more horror movies and light comedies than any real substantive art because those are what keep people sane. This Solo issue is exactly what you hope a Corben anthology comic could be, and that is so much better than almost anything that it came out and got shelved next to. There's so rarely a comic like this where genre pleasures take on real resonance simply because of how well they're done. It's not just a style thing with Corben, at least at this late stage in the game where it could have been, it feels exceptional and special.