Master horror comics artist Richard Corben has been adapting Edgar Allan Poe stories in multiple mediums for decades. Jose Villarrubia’s introduction of Dark Horse Comics’ “Creepy Presents: Richard Corben” hardcover published in 2012 cites a quote from comics art historian M. Thomas Inge who says Corben “may well be our most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in visual terms. All of his comic book work has been imbued with the same gothic sensibilities and keen eye for the grotesque that possessed Poe himself.”
A long list of comic book legends would agree with Inge, including Moebius, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, all of who praised Corben both for his style and the breadth of his body of work. In addition to his stature as a Poe adaptor, Corben has also forged a legacy of original work over the decades, never slowing down and outliving many of the names he worked alongside in the 60s and 70s. He was recently honored for his career at 2012’s Comic-Con International where he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame.
Now, Dark Horse is publishing Corben’s latest Poe adaptation, which he both draws and writes. “The Conqueror Worm” one-shot and “The Fall of the House of Usher” #1 & #2 are available now, with Corben’s adaptation of “The Raven” and “The Masque of the Red Death” — combined under the title “The Raven and The Red Death” — releasing on October 30, the day before Halloween. This isn’t the first time Corben has drawn “The Raven” or “Oval Portrait,” having illustrated the tales in 1974’s “Creepy” #67 and 1975’s #69, respectively, both stories adapted by writer Rich Margopoulos.
When Corben revisits “The Raven” this fall, he breaks away from the traditional telling of the tale and joins it with the Poe short “The Masque of the Red Death,” an amalgamation similar to his latest “Usher” adaptation, which seamlessly combined “Usher” with Poe’s “The Oval Portrait.” CBR News spoke with Corben about his latest Poe adaptations with Dark Horse, with the creator illuminating his process and reaffirming his undying reverence for the historic writer.
CBR News: In your latest “The Fall of the House of Usher” adaptation, you combined this well-known story with Poe’s “Oval Portrait” poem. Unexpectedly, the first issue of “Usher” tells “Oval Portrait” in its entirety — your adaptation, however, plants “Portrait’s” leading woman into the confines of the Usher estate. Why take the tale in this direction?
Richard Corben: I have done adaptations of “The Fall of the House of Usher” several times before, including a few non-comic illustrations. This time, I wanted to make the story different from the versions I had done earlier. There are similar elements in the two stories, such as a painter, his lover/model in a remote setting and especially their obsessions about inanimate objects that are living (the house in Usher, the painting in Portrait). In 1928 a French film maker, Jean Epstein, did “La Chute de la Maison Usher” which combined both stories.
In my new comic version, the “Oval Portrait” part seems to be over, but the painting of Madeline still is an important element in the second part, as you probably know by now.
Coming up with Dark Horse, you’ve blended Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” and the poem “The Raven” into one tale. Poe described The Red Death itself as spanning the course of 30 minutes and inciting “sharp pains and sudden dizziness, followed by profuse bleeding at the pores with dissolution.” Do descriptions like this make you want to start drawing on the spot as a horror artist?
Poe’s description of the Red Death plague is pretty nasty, but if you research the real plagues that ravage the world from time to time, it might even seem to be comparatively merciful. After all, what’s worse? Suffering for 30 minutes, then dying, or suffering for several days, then dying. I think Poe had some special fear and distaste for the symptoms he described because they are similar to the effects of tuberculosis which killed several members of his family.
We know the main character of “Red Death” — Prince Prospero — is a jerk. He waits out the plague in the comfort of his hideaway, throwing parties nonetheless, while the common folk die all around him. Isn’t it a bit odd Poe describes him as “sagacious?”
Yes, Prospero is a self centered jerk, and that is the way I portrayed him in my comic adaptation. I suppose he could be said to be “sagacious” in the sense that he thought he was being very smart by locking out the plague and ignoring his peoples suffering, which we realize can be very depressing.
Poe goes into descriptive detail of the layout of Prospero’s refuge: seven interconnected chambers with outside lighting only, and specific colors playing to the mood and significance of each room. Have you taken these descriptions, particularly the usage of color, into account in your adaptation?
Yes, in the special masquerade rooms I have followed Poe’s idea about the colors. Except I don’t think I had seven rooms. I might have shortened the number a bit.
The ebony clock in the 7th room regularly strikes an ominous tone in the story. What is it about clocks — and this one in particular — that makes for such an eerie presence?
The passage of irreversible time can be scary by itself. There’s no going back. Mistakes made are permanent. There’s no control-z (command-z) on a clock. The clock can be a symbol of time wasted, accumulated mistakes and the relentless approach of the end.
A side note: Although Poe talks about minutes and seconds of time, clocks in medieval time had no minute or second hands, just the hour hand.
Do you believe there’s more to Poe’s Red Death than just being a disease? It seems like Poe’s making a sort of commentary on class and the structure of society, especially when referencing the French play “Hernani” in the story.
Critics are divided on whether there is a symbolic meaning to the story. I think there is. I must admit, I had to look up the business about “Hernani.” Apparently, Poe is referring more about the audience’s reception of the Hugo play than the play itself. Attending that play was such an event, where the audience dressed up in strange mismatched costumes and chanted at each other. It reminds me of the phenomena surrounding the midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” during the seventies.
Switching to the other part of your story, Poe’s poem “The Raven” was written late in Poe’s life, in 1845, only four years before his death. Does this piece resonate with you differently now than when you’d read and worked on it earlier in life?
Things you read early in life can be understood with a different meaning when revisited later. This is certainly the case for me with “The Raven.” The first time I read it, I thought, ah, this guy is sad about the loss of his girlfriend. This is certainly true, but I really didn’t understand the devastating depth of his sorrow as I can attempt now. It is not likely that any adaptation by anybody in any form can achieve what the poem does.
What is it about this poem that speaks to so many people in hundreds of different ways?
I do not pretend to be able to analyze the art and beauty of this poem. For me, it expresses a universal emotion in a lovely way.
Did “The Raven” being one of Poe’s most widely known and recognized works influence your choice to blend it with “Masque of the Red Death” in this adaptation?
Like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I have adapted this poem into comics several times, and as on the other story, I wanted to make this version different. Rather than take an outrageous tact of changing the characters or setting, I tried to recreate the events in the poem mainly in images. When the narrator talks about his love Lenore, I have her there with him in an imagined form. When the Raven arrives, she disappears. His conflict with the bird becomes physical in my version, and when he says metaphorically, “Take thy beak from out my heart,” you can probably guess what I illustrated.
Nathaniel Parker Willis of the New York “Evening Mirror” called “The Raven” upon publication, “The most effective single example of ‘fugitive poetry’ ever published in this country.” Can you speak to that?
I can assume he meant poetry with an ethereal quality, that can’t be pinned down through analysis. I guess I can agree with his introduction.
In your “The Conqueror Worm” one-shot, you mention a love for puppets — what’s a significant experience you’ve had with them?
Aside from my love of comics, I’ve been building and playing with puppets all my life. I came from a very small town and there was no one there that shared my interest, so it was a solitary past time. I was amazed and inspired by the puppets I saw on television, from Howdy Doody and Klukla, to the occasional special featuring the Baird puppets. This interest metamorphosed to stop-motion puppets, especially the creatures of Ray Harryhausen. It evolved further with the advent of computer animation. These days I still dabble with this second love by doing little movies that I post on my web page.
Last year, you were inducted into the Will Eisner Awards Hall of Fame at Comic-Con International. What was your reaction upon finding out you were being added to the HoF?
I really don’t put much value in these awards, but I really do appreciate the Hall of Fame award. Although, they probably thought I was about ready to die, so why not? I guess I fooled them.
Finally, is there anything in the world — either real or supernatural — that truly creeps you out?
Many things — some nasty worms. Sometimes images of death can be so shocking and threatening, they haunt my dreams.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven and the Red Death” by Richard Corben goes on sale October 30