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.

Comic book reviews: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. # 1-8

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a fan of Italian artist Alberto Ponticelli, who drew the Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths miniseries last year.  As it turns out, Ponticelli is also the artist on one of DC Comics’ New 52 titles.  But I did not find this out until recently.  With that many new series coming out, it fell through the cracks that he was drawing Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  I happened to come across a few of the recent issues on the shelves at the comic shop and saw his name on them.  Fortunately, a trade paperback, War of the Monsters, had been published, collecting the first seven issues.  I purchased that, as well as a copy of issue #8.

Agent Frankenstein is, of course, the immortal creature created by Mary Shelley in the classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein.  For the past century, Agent Frankenstein has been working with S.H.A.D.E., the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive, a government agency that combines science and the supernatural to develop operatives & technologies to combat unearthly menaces.  As the first issue opens, Frankenstein has been on vacation, and returning to work finds that a number of dramatic changes have taken place at S.H.A.D.E.  This is a very clever way for writer Jeff Lemire to introduce the series’ cast, concepts, and settings through the protagonist’s eyes, by having him discover these new developments along with the reader.

The idea for S.H.A.D.E.’s new headquarters is an amazing conceit by Lemire.  The Ant Farm is an entire high-tech city miniaturized to fit within a three inch flying metal globe utilizing the technology of scientist Ray Palmer (who in the old DC continuity was the size-changing Atom), accessible only by teleportation.

Frankenstein makes for a compelling protagonist.  He is an interesting combination of introspective philosopher and violent brawler, a study in contrasts.  One minute he’ll be quoting John Milton’s poetry, the next he’ll be hacking through a horde of demons with a honking big sword.

I liked the new Creature Commandos team designed by Lemire & Ponticelli as Frankenstein’s field team.  They are a truly bizarre lot: a gung-ho werewolf soldier, a vampiric smart-ass, an enigmatic Egyptian mummy, and a fish-woman, the last of whom was the scientist who created the Commandos for S.H.A.D.E.  And there’s also Lady Frankenstein, the gun-toting, four-armed green femme fatale who is the estranged wife of Agent Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. trade paperback

If I had to describe Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. in one sentence, it might be “H.P. Lovecraft meets Arnold Schwarzenegger.”  A succession of disturbing, unnatural menaces is fought off by Agent Frankenstein & the Commandos with a combination of brains and brawn, with plenty of action & violence resulting.

At the same time, Lemire remembers one of the central conceits of Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Frankenstein and his fellow S.H.A.D.E. operatives may appear hideous, but beneath their grotesque exteriors they often are tormented beings with tragic pasts.  In the end, it is often the “normal” human beings who are the real monsters.  This is seen throughout the first eight issues.  Lemire drives home this point quite effectively on a number of occasions.

Ponticelli’s artwork is amazing, gloriously spectacular with its over-the-top monster action sequences.  I really loved the mass-carnage battle sequences on the “monster planet” in issue #4, featuring literally a cast of thousands.  Yet at the same Ponticelli’s work also contains very quiet moments when needed.  Issues #s 6 and 8, in particular, feature some magnificent storytelling that really communicates the emotional, tragic moments.

One of the things about comic book artwork that is often neglected is the contribution of the inker.  I believe this is because for the casual reader, it can be difficult to discern where the penciler’s work ends and the inker’s begins.  Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. provides an excellent opportunity to witness the importance of the inker to the creative process.  On the first six issues, Ponticelli inks his own pencils.  For the next two issues, Walden Wong provides the inks, and you can really see the difference.  In both instances, the penciling is clearly Ponticelli’s, but Wong’s inking gives the art a more polished, less rough finish.  I would not say I prefer one over the other, because both look really good.  I only point it out because it’s a perfect example if you wish to demonstrate just how much of an impact the inker has on the finished artwork.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8 page 15

The cover artwork for the first seven issues is provided by the magnificently talented J.G. Jones.  He does such amazing work.  I believe he works in ink wash.  It’s always a pleasure to see his art gracing the covers of a series, and his seven cover illustrations for Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. are all winners.

(On a side note, Jones is also a writer.  In addition to drawing covers, he penned an exciting story for DC’s Doc Savage series entitled “Raise the Khan.”  Well, that is to say, the first five chapters were great, but I cannot make any judgment about part six, because DC abruptly canceled the book, leaving the final installment unpublished.  I really hope that one of these days it finally makes it into print.  Does DC still have the publishing rights to Doc Savage?  If so, they should release a “Raise the Khan” trade paperback containing the missing chapter.)

With issue #8, Ponticelli & Wong take over as cover artists.  It’s a really striking piece and, as much as I missed Jones, they are such a great art team, so I cannot complain.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the contributions of colorist Jose Villarrubia.  He has to be one of the best colorists currently working in the comic book industry.  His coloring on Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is a perfect match for Ponticelli’s illustrations.  It was especially effective on the emotionally charged issue #8, really contributing to the somber, tragic atmosphere of the story.

It was definitely a pleasant surprise to discover Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  It is without a doubt one of the strongest titles to come out of the New 52 reboot.  I’m really looking forward to picking up the remaining issues that are already out, and then seeing what comes next.  Lemire, Ponticelli, and their collaborators have created such an amazing blending of superheroes and horror with strong characterization.  I highly recommend picking this up.