Richard Corben: 1940 to 2020

Longtime illustrator and comic book artist Richard Corben passed away on December 2, 2020. He was 80 years old. While I cannot say that I was a huge fan of Corben, I was certainly aware of his work, and I enjoyed it whenever I saw it.

I believe the very first time I saw Corben’s art was on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #33, published in June 1990 by Mirage Studios. In the early 1990s the TMNT series had a number of independent / non-mainstream creators doing story arcs or one-off tales. With hindsight, these probably offered me my first major exposure to creators outside of the Marvel and DC superhero ghetto. “Turtles Take Time” was a wild, entertaining time travel story written by Jan Strnad which Corben did a brilliantly hilarious job illustrating.

By the late 1990s I must have become much more aware of Corben and his work, and I picked up the Heavy Metal Fall Special 1998. Topped by a beautiful yet macabre cover painted by Corben, this special reprinted a number of the stories which he drew for the Creepy and Eerie horror anthologies from Warren Publishing between 1974 and 1977.

The selection of stories collected in the Heavy Metal Fall Special 1998 definitely presented the various aspects of Corben’s work. For example, “You’re A Big Girl Now” from Eerie #81 (February 1977) written by Bruce Jones demonstrated Corben’s aptitude for drawing beautiful women. In this case, to be specific, a very beautiful giant woman.

“Within You… Without You” from Eerie #77 (September 1976), also written by Bruce Jones, showcased Corben’s skill at rendering dinosaurs, fantastical prehistoric landscapes, and high tech sci-fi elements.

Another series that Corben worked on was the five issue Cage miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 2002 under their Marvel Max imprint. It was written by Brian Azzarello, lettered by Wes Abbott and colored by José Villarrubia. I wasn’t all that into the story, but I nevertheless enjoyed Corben’s artwork. Again he demonstrated his versatility by drawing an urban crime / “blaxploitation” type of adventure.

Although Cage was a”mature readers” miniseries apparently set outside regular Marvel continuity, Corben’s redesign of Luke Cage very soon became the default version of the character, and was seen when he appeared soon afterwards in Alias and New Avengers.

All of this is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Corben was a prolific artist whose career stretched across half a century.

Richard Corben was a longtime contributor to Heavy Metal, and the magazine featured an obituary on its website. There is also an insightful 1981 interview with Corben archived there.

Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Remembering Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake

Today would have been the 90th birthday of writer Arnold Drake, who was born on March 1, 1924.  Drake,  with co-writer Leslie Waller and artist Matt Baker, created It Rhymes With Lust, a noir “picture novel” released in 1950 by St. John Publications.  Some historians consider it to be the first American graphic novel.  Long out of print, It Rhymes With Lust was finally republished by Dark Horse in 2007.

Drake was a prolific writer in the comic book field, penning numerous scripts at DC Comics from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s.  Probably the most significant of Drake’s contributions to the DC universe was co-creating the bizarre, offbeat cult classic the Doom Patrol with Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani.  The Doom Patrol made their debut in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963), a sci-fi anthology series.  Drake and Haney co-wrote the DP’s first two stories, after which Drake took over as the sole writer, paired with artist Premiani.  The characters became quite popular, and My Greatest Adventure was officially re-titled The Doom Patrol with issue #86.  The series lasted until issue #121, published in 1968.

My Greatest Adventure Doom Patrol 82 pg 1

Drake deliberately set out to make the members of the Doom Patrol the antithesis of the clean-cut, conventional superheroes DC was publishing.  Drake witnessed the early success that Marvel was already experiencing through the formula of “heroes with problems.”  With Haney and Premiani, he conceived a group of characters who were regarded by so-called normal society as “freaks.”

Cliff Steele, aka Robotman, had his human body completely destroyed in a race car accident, and his still living brain was transplanted into a clunky metal form.  Larry Trainor, aka Negative Man, had his form co-habited by a bizarre energy being which he could control, but which also resulted in him becoming highly radioactive, necessitating he be wrapped up in specially-treated bandages, looking much like a mummy.  Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Girl, was exposed to strange volcanic gasses, which enabled her to dramatically grow or shrink in size.  Although Rita remained an attractive woman, her new abilities also attracted considerable attention & publicity, and she was not happy with her notoriety.  Bringing the group together was Niles Calder, aka The Chief, a wheelchair-bound scientific genius.

(Keep in mind that The Doom Patrol predates X-Men by a few months, and to this day a hotly debated question is whether this was an amazing piece of synchronicity, or if Marvel “borrowed” the concept of Drake’s series.)

The Italian-born Premiani had an understandably European style to his artwork, which was definitely of a very high quality.  I think that this helped to further distinguish The Doom Patrol from much of DC’s other output at the time.  As Drake himself would comment to Premiani, “You draw with an Italian pen.”  Certainly Premiani did a wonderful job rendering the beautiful Elasti-Girl, giving her a look Drake described “as quite European-Mediterranean.”

Drake and Premiani also created a bizarre rogues gallery for the DP.  The centuries old General Immortus sought to maintain his longevity, regain his youth, and conquer the world.  The Brotherhood of Evil was made up of the disembodied Brain, the French-speaking machine gun wielding gorilla Monsieur Mallah, and the shape shifting Madame Rouge.  Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, as his name implies, could transform into weird, gigantic combinations of animals, plants, and rocks.

Doom Patrol 99 pg 4

Later on, in The Doom Patrol #99 (November 1965), the hotheaded green shape-changing teenager Beast Boy was introduced by Drake and artist Bob Brown.  Years later Beast Boy (sometimes also known as Changeling) would become a member of Wolfman & Perez’s ultra-popular New Teen Titans.  I actually acquired a rather beat-up copy of DP #99 at a comic show in Westchester back in the mid-1990s for a whopping nine bucks.  That was a cool find.  I still have that one floating around somewhere.

Also at DC, Drake co-created supernatural hero Deadman with artist Carmine Infantino, and the horror comedy feature Stanley and His Monster with Winslow Mortiner.

After a dispute with DC over better pay rates & benefits in 1968, Drake left that company and headed over to Marvel Comics.  During his brief time there, he worked on several series, including (ironically enough) X-Men, where he introduced Cyclops’ brother Alex Summers, who was shortly after turned into the superhero Havok by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams.  Drake, paired with artist Gene Colan, created the original Guardians of the Galaxy, who made their debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (January 1969).

Marvel Super-Heroes 18 cover

Drake penned numerous stories while at Gold Key in the 1970s.  He was a regular contributor to mystery / horror titles such as Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows.  Having previously penned numerous humor comic books at DC, the versatile Drake also had a lengthy run writing Little Lulu for Gold Key.

One of Drake’s last comic book stories for many years was “G.I. Samurai,” which was published by DC in G.I. Combat #276 (April 1985).  I actually have vivid memories of reading this story when I was nine years old.  Drake told the story of Mike Mabuchi, a Japanese-American soldier struggling to find acceptance among his comrades while fighting in World War II on the European Front.  It was a very thoughtful piece of writing by Drake about the bigotry which was sometimes present on the American side of the conflict.

GI Samurai pg 1

After an 18 year absence from the biz, Drake collaborated with Argentine artist Luis Dominguez on “Tripping Out,” a 13 page story that appeared in the January 2003 edition of Heavy Metal.  Dominguez had previously created a number of beautiful cover paintings at Gold Key in the 1970s (I’m not sure if Drake and Dominguez worked together during this time, since Gold Key sometimes wasn’t good at supplying detailed credits).  Dominguez also painted a recreation of the cover artwork for My Greatest Adventure #80.  This fantastic piece was featured as the cover of Alter Ego #17, published by TwoMorrows in September 2002, which featured an in-depth interview with Drake conducted by Marc Svensson.

Arnold Drake passed away on March 12, 2007, at the age of 83.  I was very fortunate to have met him on a couple of occasions prior to this, at NYC conventions in the early 2000s.  He autographed my copies of The Doom Patrol Archives Volume 1 and Alter Ego #17.  The second time I met Drake, I was able to have a very pleasant chat with him that must have lasted at least 15 minutes.  He immediately impressed me as a sharp, intelligent, insightful man.

Alter Ego 17 cover signed

Drake really was one of those creators who saw the vast potentials of comic books, who wanted to see stories of a diverse selection of genres published in a variety of formats, such as graphic novels.  I definitely regard him as being ahead of his time.  He was involved in the creation of several wonderful, unusual series & concepts, and he helped to lay the groundwork for succeeding writers who sought to push the boundaries of the medium.