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The Jimi Hendrix of comic books...
on October 19, 2012
... or the importance of being Corben.
Long before Richard Corben arrived on the scene, comic books were produced following the following pattern: once the artist finished inking his work (which was done either by brush or pen, and sometimes both), his work was shot and colored, and then coded according to a color chart. Each of the four colors used for printing had three or four variants, which when mixed with each other, would total from 62 to 122 different colors. These colors, however, had to be "seperated" at the printers. The method for doing this was by applying a variant of a chosen color on an acetate (a sort of transparent sheet or film) corresponding to one of the four colors. This was done with an opaque red-brownish color, through which no light could pass through. These acetates where then shot through a coarse dot screen, which when printed gave those tiny dots we see in the old comic books wherever color was printed on. And this was the norm for coloring comic books for many years. Actually this method, or rather the printing, gave artist Roy Lichtenstein an idea for reproducing comic book panels on large canvasses and making a fortune out of it (while comic book artists continued to starve).
During the sixties Corben was working as an artist/animator/cameraman for a Kansas City industrial film company, where he had also experimented with this four color process by using acetates. Wouldn't it be great if instead of applying the brown opaque color on the acetates with a brush, he could use an airbrush instead to obtain a more photo-realistic rendering? At the time, Corben was also moonlighting by selling some of his work to the underground comics, even if he was some sort of anomaly there, as he didn't do drugs, have long hair or was even anti-establishment. Underground comic books, though, gave him total sexual freedom, which he couldn't get from any of the other major companies. And it was around then that he discovered the Warren magazines, which didn't have to adhere to any comics code (though they weren't really as free or extreme as the undergrounds; they were caught somewhere in the middle between underground and major comics, or let's say, were more adult-oriented than your average kiddie superhero comic book). Corben began contributing with black and white work, which were the norm at the Warren magazines. He used every conceivable method to render his work more exciting, from zipatones, craftint, washes, crayons and even some airbrush onto his already inked work. But Corben's dream was to use color, but not as it was normally used, but by working directly on the acetates that were used for the printing. So he asked and pleaded Warren to let him use color, something Warren was hesitant about, as using color meant more expenses for a company he was barely keeping afloat.
Eventually Warren, or someone over there, gave Corben a chance to do a color story. I would have loved seeing their faces when Corben arrived with some brown-toned acetates and told them that was his "color" work. However, once the story was shot and printed, the results were astonishing. The figures seemed to leap off the page, and the rendering was quasi-photographic, making the artwork look as if it came from a slick magazine and not from a cheap four-color comic book. Actually his method proved so revolutionary, that color was added for a while on all the Warren magazines, though none seemed capable of doing it the Corben way (and some of the other colorists' results were rather apalling and ghastly).
Simply put, Corben had completely changed the way comic books should be colored. And his work at Warren didn't go unnoticed. When a bunch of French comic book artists, dissatisfied with working for a youth-oriented magazine, decided to start their own science-fiction adult-oriented magazine, its editor, already a big fan of the Warren magazines, decided to contact Corben. And that's how Corben published his series "Den" (which had actually first started as an animated film) in the ground-breaking magazine Metal Hurlant. The impact it made over in Europe was unbelievable. It seems there couldn't be any adult-oriented comic magazine published over there without having some Corben art inside. After all, hadn't Jean Giraud aka Moebius said at the time that Corben was his favorite artist? Incidently, Toutain, the Spaniard who had started the invasion of Spanish comic book artists at Warren, would be Corben's agent in Europe.
Corben's work would open doors for comic book artists all over the world, artists who could finally see the potential and possibilities of producing comic books with richer and fuller colors. Though few followed Corben's actual intricate coloring method; a lot simply rendered their work directly in full color, using anything from watercolors to oils. Actually many of today's comic books, rendered with a computer, look very similar to Corben's work when he was at Warren and Heavy Metal, though he did everything by hand. That just shows how much the industry owes to Corben, a fact that seems to be ignored nowadays.
Concerning this book, it collects all the work he did for Eerie and Creepy (though missing are the stories he did for another Warren magazine, that is now owned by another publisher). Here you'll see what I've been talking about; from his first black and white stories, to those color pages that seem to have been done with a computer. I have to say, looking at this book now, that some of the colors are quite harsh and sometimes too pale, which I guess was from Corben experimenting with various coloring methods. Many of these Warren stories have become classics, and some of Corben's best were the ones he illustrated from Bruce Jones' scripts, as "In deep" (when I first read that story in the old Warren magazines, I thought they were actually photographs and not drawings), to the time-travelling dinosaur saga (which by the way is reprinted completely uncensored in this book, as opposed to the previous reprint by HM). Also note that the stories have been restored and the reprinting is actually flawless, looking sharper and better than ever before (some actually shot from Corben's original boards). I only wish someone would reprint his Den series, and the other work he did in the eighties, as it was there that Corben really shined and was at his very best, having total control of his coloring method.
For those of you who don't know Corben, or only know him from the inferior work he's doing nowadays for the majors, this book represents a view of a true innovator, who for nearly two decades was considered the best comic book artist in the world. Nevertheless, his work at Warren was only the tip of the iceberg (and by the way, how prolific he was, not taking into account that most of the work he did for Warren was in color).
Though I was partial to Dark Horse doing these offshoots (as I'm buying the Archives already), Corben is one of the few artists who deserves a book devoted solely to his work.
This gets my highest recommendation!