In Memory of Richard Corben
by Stefan Poag
In December 2020, Richard Corben, one of the fantasy illustration greats, died after complications from surgery. With everything else going on in the world at that time, his passing was only briefly noted in the press. But Corben is an artist whose work I have admired for years. Among comic book artists and illustrators, his work, both in terms of subject matter and execution, deserves a top spot in the pantheon of fantasy and science fiction art.
When I was just a young lad, a bookstore near my home sold comic books, magazines and paperbacks. I usually confined myself to the comic book section when I visited the store, but around this time I had also begun reading paperback science fiction and fantasy novels. I discovered that my local bookstore had a section in the back where they sold old paperbacks, so I was digging through the shelves and buying books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague DeCamp and others. One day I found a pile of old Heavy Metal Magazines. Although I was not old enough to buy the Heavy Metal Magazines (technically they were “adult” publications), I could look at them in the bookstore as long as the staff didn’t catch me.
In 1975, a magazine named “Métal Hurlant” was published in France. It featured fantasy and science fiction comics, art and stories that were definitely not “PG 13.” “Métal Hurlant” exposed readers to a lot of nudity, sex and violence, and came to the attention of artists and creatives who were interested in alternatives to the more kid-friendly and tame mainstream comics and magazines. The French magazine featured art and comics by Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Philippe Druillet, Gaetano Liberatore and other European artists and writers. The American version of Métal Hurlant began publication in 1977 and featured work by Richard Corben, Matt Howarth, Stephen R. Bissette, Jim Steranko, Bernie Wrightson and others in addition to the work that had previously appeared in the French version. Those English version “Heavy Metal” magazines where what I happened to find in the back of the bookstore that blew my mind.
The most famous of Corben’s comics featured a young man who transported himself to a mystical land where he became a bald, naked and muscular man named “Den” who went on to have various lurid adventures. Each panel of Den was painted rather than drawn. Corben used acrylic paints instead of ink and Heavy Metal was printed on quality magazine paper rather than the cheap newsprint of 1970s comics. The level of detail and the range of tones from the improved printing methods meant the comics in Heavy Metal could be visually richer than the comics being published by mainstream comics. When I first found Corben’s comics, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.
Corben’s illustrations were amazing, but the content also got my attention. The characters in his Den stories were almost always completely naked. The men usually looked like body builders and the women were all curvy, sexy and naked. Nudity was unapologetically full frontal and the characters engaged in sex acts during the course of the stories. As a young man, I was naturally curious about sex and women and Corben’s comics certainly gave me a lot to look at and think about, but it also stretched the definition of “fantasy” to include fantasies about sex alongside the more socially acceptable violence fantasies. I eagerly paged through all of the Heavy Metal magazines in the stack but the Corben comics are what stuck in my mind. Years later I couldn’t remember the name of the artist but I could still remember the lush illustrations of the muscular hero and his female companion.
Since the store owner wanted to protect my young mind from sexual deviancy, he refused to sell me the Heavy Metal magazines and eventually I visited the shop and found, to my disappointment, the stack of Heavy Metal I had been pawing through and coveting was gone. Years later I found reprints of the comics and “rediscovered” the work of Corben. The Heavy Metal film released in 1981 featured a story about Den (without full-frontal nudity but I guess the studio didn’t want an “X” rating) and my memories of the stack of magazines came flooding back. Corben did a lot of work over the years, including a lot of underground and experimental work in animation, comics, and illustration, all of which I have had the pleasure of rediscovering on my own. But those old Den stories from Heavy Metal will always remain in my memory as a seminal event in my career as a fantasy illustrator.