Although never a regular contributor to the comicbook mainstream, the animator, illustrator, publisher and cartoonist is one of America’s greatest proponents of sequential narrative: an astoundingly accomplished artist with an unmistakable style and vision.
Violent, cathartically graphic and often blackly hilarious, his infamous signature-stylisation always includes oodles of nudity, ultra-extreme explicit violence and impossibly proportioned male and female physiques – but there’s almost none of the latter on show in this intriguing re-issue of his very first comics work: a celebratory new edition sporting a stunning wraparound card cover that was released in 1986.
Born in Anderson, Missouri in 1940, Corben graduated with a Fine Arts degree in 1965 from the Kansas City Art Institute and began working as an animator. At that time, the Underground movement was just stating to revolutionise, reinvigorate and liberate the medium of comics as a motley crew of independent-minded creators across the continent began making and publishing stories that appealed to their rebellious, pharmacologically-enhanced sensibilities and unconventional lifestyles.
Most of them had been reared on and hugely influenced by 1950s EC Comics or Carl Barks’ Duck tales – and usually both.
As can be seen in this intriguiging little tale, which first appeared in Weirdom Illustrated #13 (the “Special Plague issue”) in 1969, Corben started the same way, producing the kind of stories that he would like to read, for a variety of small-press publications including Grim Wit, Slow Death, Skull, Fever Dreams and his own Fantagor, often signed with his affectionate pseudonym “Gore”, and usually introduced by an EC style horror-host or hostess.
As Corben’s style matured and his skills developed, his work began to appear in more professionally produced venues. He began working for Warren Publishing in 1970 with tales in Eerie, Creepy, Vampirella, Comix International and latterly, the aggressively audacious adult science fiction anthology 1984. He also famously re-coloured a number of reprinted Spirit strips for the revival of Will Eisner’s the Spirit magazine.
In 1975 Corben submitted work to the French fantasy phenomenon Métal Hurlant and subsequently became a fixture in the magazine’s American iteration Heavy Metal after which his career really took off. Soon he was producing stunning graphic escapades for a number of companies, making animated movies, painting film posters and producing record covers such as the multi-million-selling Meatloaf album Bat Out of Hell. He never stopped making comics but preferred his own independent projects with collaborators such as Harlan Ellison, Bruce Jones and Jan Strnad.
This oft-reprinted but now regrettably out-of-print collection perfectly shows the artist’s developing style in an acerbic and customarily wry horror yarn set in the English hamlet of “Chelmesford” during the Year of Our Lord 1664, beginning with the last testament of dying Witch Hunter James Hopkins.
His last legal commission had been the arrest and despatch of widow Ann Ashby, a strange and ugly crone dwelling alone on the edge of town. Following the accusation of a neighbour Hopkins investigates and finds her house filled with strange instruments and small animals…
On arrest she is put to The Test (that’s religious speak for tortured) and an eager and happy procession of townsfolk reveal her suspicious acts and the odd things that occur near her: boys have accidents or fall ill, animals become sick and she talks to chickens…
Once her unholy and depraved acts with animals and blood are disclosed it’s but a short hop to the stake, but even after they have watched her death agonies the still-unsated mob are hungry for more and tear her old shack down.
Soon after, many of the fine citizens of Chelmesford begin to sicken, and the remainder of Hopkins’ account details the grisly and ghastly effects of the plague as it devastates the town…
The concluding chapter is taken from scraps of parchment found hidden in Ann Ashby’s cell and reveal a shocking and ironic twist for modern historians. The supposed witch was in fact a far worse monster than Elizabethan society believed…
The well-travelled foreigner was secretly a brilliant thinker who had formulated theories of biology and natural science centuries ahead of her time. With her home-made ocular devices Ashby was on the trail of a cure for the dreadful pestilence – which she had seen ravage Europe and the East – at least until Hopkins and his self-righteous rabble of superstitious fools and jealous liars seized her…
Remarkably engrossing if a touch wordy, this compelling yarn reveals the core of solid draughtsmanship and pen-and-ink technique which underscores all Corben’s work, in a gritty chiller Hammer Films would be proud of.
eBook Tales From The Plague