The Richard Corben Interview, Part 1

Art © 2001 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!, SidSid Keränen

The Richard Corben Interview, Part 1(3)

by Brad Balfour
Copyright © 1981 Brad Balfour. Here on this web site by courtesy of the author.

Appeared in Heavy Metal #51, June 1981 (vol. V no. 3), pages 6-11,
the Table of Contents, Copyright © 2001 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!, SidSid Keränen.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

The story is classic: quiet introvert creates wondrous worlds of heroism and powerful fantasy. At least, that’s how the facts read on the surface, like something out of Robert E. Howard’s history or the biography of that repressed Victorian H.P. Lovecraft. The archetypal myth of the fantasist (exemplified as well in the lives of Aubrey Beardsley, Edgar Allan Poe, and to a lesser degree, Edgar Rice Burroughs) as the unactualized adventurer resides also in Richard Corben’s history. But his evolution, from spending as isolated rural childhood to being a numbingly quiet persona as an animator at Calvin Studios in Kansas City, Missouri, contains the kernel of something other than mere repetition of the myths. Maybe it was a matter of the sixties pop-culture explosion or McLuhan’s cool media methodology or Andy Warhol’s presicient “In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes”; but Richard Corben wasn’t meant to wallow in cultdom or rest within the cocoon of comfortable obscurity. Nor is Corben doomed to the niche of the mediocre lightweight (as was E.R. Burroughs). Already a visual superstar internationally – and something of a mystery man by virtue of his silence – Corben stands to step further into the limelight through the animated power of the Heavy Metal movie and its version of Corben’s quintessentially heroic tale Den. What has really removed Corben from the vale of mediocrity is a sense of irony. For Corben, crafting the Platonic ideal of hero seemed out of place with the era of his growing up (he was born in 1940) – the post-Hiroshima age. No simple heroic buffoon made of tendon and raw muscle completes the Corben story; the Corben hero’s magnificent musculature is born of a love of the grotesque. And Corben’slush, almost blindingly bright color sense seems to originate in psychedelia, through he has steadfastly maintained a nearly drug-free history. Even his own reality of being a husband, family man, and householder in a Kansas City suburb – all of it a cloak of conventionality – seems almost a self-conscious construct, so that he avoids drifting down the chasm of the modern comic-book-creator myth. Now, at forty, he grows forther away from ever being trapped within the person of the mousy man obsessed by his own heroic creations; through a body-building bench press and his own ambition for further creative outlets Corben continues to grow. Even if he dwells within, or rather, somewhere between, his mythos and his realities, then he’s now willingly open about it.

– B.B.

Sex, Death, and Violence

BRAD BALFOUR: In all the artists I’ve met, there’s this driven quailty – a strong obsessiveness. I see that in you; what’s the source of that obsession?

RICHARD CORBEN: I know I’m obsessed, but I don’t know what the roof of it is.

I think it was Jean-Pierre Dionnet who said in Zoom magazine that you were obsessed by sex, death, and violence.

All humanity is.

I guess. But you confront it more directly than a lot of humanity does.

I’d say with average people it’s on their mind, but it’s hidden way back. They don’t want to think about it. I try and come to terms with it in some way that is not quite so horrible as it could be, or in some way that offers resolution, I would say, in a good way.

Why do you think Richard Corben is so blessed with this power to illuminate, or with something that just sets you off from others and makes you seek judgement directly?

Well, maybe God touched me (that’s a joke).

Exaggeration

Okay…why do you think people are attracted to your work?

I believe it’s the characterizations. I make strong characters and I’m good with figure drawing too. Even though some people think I exaggerate figures and characters both, that’s part of my style. They see it first as a realistic drawing. Then when they see the exaggerations they don’t like it anymore. That’s the point of the drawing, the emphasis that I make.
If you see a person with a long nose, I’ll draw him with a slightly longer nose, to emphasize it. If a hero is muscular, I’ll make him more muscular. I emphasize things that atract me, or the essence of them. I see things vividly and that’s the way I make them. In literature, people may get different images from reading the same story, but in a comic story, it’s concrete – that’s the way it is.

Why do you think people are attracted to comics?

It’s a narrative form, but it’s much easier to read than literature. It’s simple, so it takes less effort; you’re relying on someone else’s vision, so you have to do less work to get through it.

That sounds terrible! But the effect of your work is something more than just that: like that of a superrealist painter it’s so real, it reveals something else, much more than obvious reality. Is it stuff from the inner psyche – things your’re attracted to, maybe? – hidden homosexual or S&M tenderices?

I’m not worried about them. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #1]

What do you think of people who say, “This guy Richard Corben has just got to be real perverse!”?

They’re full of shit!

Look at the way you exaggerate the male figure. Don’t you think there’s a sort of subtle homosexual implication in that?

I just emphasize the primary sexual characteristics, and the same thing with the women.

So now people would say, “This guy has to be awfully perverse. He always draws these women with hugh, enormous breasts!” Why do you do that?

To differentiate them from the men, of course.

Are you fascinated by big breasts? I really want to know for sure.

I was, at a time, and now it’s just another aspect of a stereotype.

When you were a kid, did you masturbate over big breasts?

I wasn’t interested in Playboy or Oui.

Do you think your work is erotic?

Sometimes – maybe sensual.

Would you want to do some work that is purely sensual?

Someday, in the future.

What do you think of somebody masturbating over your work? Do you think that’s a possibility?

What they do by themselves is their business.

I bet you’ve never been asked that question.

No!

Dona Corben

I met your wife. She looks like a nice lady, typical human being. She doesn’t have huge breasts. What does that reveal about your psychosexual interests?

I don’t know. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #2]

So who are you so obsessed with sex?

Because it was repressed in me somehow, I guess.

So what insidious feelings are pent up in there?

I’m a sex maniac.

Oh, yeah? Let’s hear about this!

Well, never mind! That’s much too involved for now.

It’s a curious thing to be a sex maniac as you have described yourself and to have been married for so long.

Obviously I’m talking only on the fantasy level; it’s the impetus for the force in my work, but it’s all mental, not real. Otherwise it would cause me to be self-pitying.

So, in reality, you don’t want to be a sex maniac – or haven’t been.

I just want to be a stud! That’s one of the sources of my popularity, because I believe that all young men and teenagers feel their goal is to be a stud, and that’s sort of visualized for them.

Do you feel you’re a teenager at heart?

Yes. Constantly – always youth! I want to be a youth forever and then die! Once you pass your maturity or you’ve reached the point where you’re fully grown, fully formed, and fully a person, you’re on a downhill slide. Physically, things seem to fall apart. Even in the thirties things start slowing down; you’re not as agile, not as fast, not able to learn as quickly. That’s something you can find out only when you reach that point. You can tell people that, but they don’t believe it until it happens. And then you find out only by pushing yourself after you’re mature.

Do you think your work is adolescent?

There’s a level of it that is, I believe.

Bloodstar, Den and Kath

All of your male characters, no matter how old they are in body, have young faces like you.

Yes. The main characters usually are youthful. As my idols change, as I grow older, perhaps the people I draw will start to change too. We’re all constantly changing, and this inevitably shows in the work. I’m not exactly sure in what ways, though the new Den probably reflects it.

In some ways the original Den and Kath weren’t real, separate characters but were fantasy embodiments of Den/Corben – one seemed the male dream ideal and the other, the desired fantasy ideal. Before, Bloodstar seemed the most realistic of all your characters. Now are the characters more three-dimensional?

When they were created they were pretty artificially done. They were growing in my mind, and it’s reflected in the way the stories are going. They are becoming more rounded. I would say at a certain point it was Bloodstar. But I believe Den has dveleoped to where he is more real. I’ll give you a clue. Den and Kath split. Whenever in a series a main character falls in love and gets married, they have to kill the woman off or something. In this case, Kath doesn’t get killed, she just gets bored.

So Den turns out to be boring.

You see, they have different outlooks on life.

Do you think it reflects a changing Richard Corben?

Probably.

Marriage

I think you’ve been able to grow because your marriage stabilized your sexual energy so that it could be redirected into work.

If I weren’t married, I would probably be a hermit.

I guess finding Donna was in some ways a big help.

The thing about youth is even though they are desperate, there’s always hope!

How old were you when you met Donna?

I was teenager, probably about seventeen, I imagine.

Was she your first girl friend?

I would say she was my first serious girl friend. I had gone out on a few dates but nothing ever came of it.

How old were you when you got married?

I got married when I was around twenty-two or twenty-three. That means we’ve geen married about seventeen years. (That can’t be right!) Donna was still a child when we were married – in her personality. The major stress factors in our marriage occurred because of her growing up and becoming adult. Her goals changed drastically. She wanted to be just a servant at first. She has had to push herself out to be a real person. She has a chip on her shoulder from being repressed.

So, as she developed her independece, getting a job outside the house, leading a life separate from yours, did she resent the female images in your work? How has she reacted to them?

I believe there was a preioid when she resented the images in my work. She doesn’t now. I think she finally has enough self-confidence that they’re not threatening.

Doesn’t she worry that you’ll run around trying to pick up women that look like that?

No, she knows me well enough to know what I don’t really desire these women. It’s just the way I draw.

So it’s a stable marriage. What accounts for that?

Our determination to make it work, I guess. Even though I am sure there were times neither of us thought we were meant for each other, or we lost our romantic notions, we continued on because we felt we had to for our best sake and for a certain lenght of time as well. And there are other times when it’s not bad anyway. I feel a marriage can’t last on romantic love, because human personalities are just too volatile. There has to be a sense of responsibility that holds things together.

Do you ever find a conflict between your fantasies and your life’s realities?

I did at a certain time, until I met with more people and expanded the number of people I knew. I think women are all alike, no matter what they look like.

People’s opinion

What do you think of people accusing you of being sexist?

I don’t care. So I am!

You feel you are?

What is their definition of a sexist?

Well, your females seem to be stereotypes of female archetypes, both physically and as characters. They’re either beutiful, voputuous sex objects or evil bitches.

That’s right, they are. They are, on first appearance. After you read the thing, then the subtleties come through. It works on many levels, broadly, thought it may not be so successful on more esoteric levels.

Symbolism

Well, if a symbolism is there, you don’t try to be particularly subtle about it.

When I use a symbol, I do it on purpose and it’s not subconscious. The audience dosen’t miss it either; it’s obvious. If I make a creature with a very long neck, which could be slightly phallic, when I draw it it’s very phallic.

What do you find are your favourite symbols?

The circle, the moon, women, and the lion. The circle and moon are both female. The lion is a personal symbol – savage, fierce, usually male, and special to me because my name is Richard, like the Lionhearted, so my animal is suppoused to be the lion.

Do you think you’re conscious of creating cretain sex symbols?

No, because I usually work in a medium with implied continuity, wherein one image is not always before the viewer.

What do you think of certain sex symbols?

They’re women and they’re people, but when they’re up on a poster, that has no meaning to me.

Do you ever regret you don’t have more contact with women like your characters?

No, because once you get to know them, they can be just as dumb as ugly ones. I think women who condemn my work because it’s sexist haven’t even read it. They just look at the pictures adn say, “That’s sexist.” Women who proclaim that men and women are the same are stupid. There is a basic difference between men and women. There’s no way you can get around it; there never will be! Creating a society without the difference is completely artificial and is doomed.

Hairless in the Crotch

Are your women strictly sex kittens and your men just big, macho heroes? Or do you feel they are more?

They are to some people, and they are on certain levels. Character is just one small aspect of doing the art. There are many aspects: composition, direction, textures, proportions, and emphasizing characteristics are probably more important to me than to other cartoonists. And, if you see large breasts, you can tell from a great distance if it’s a man or a woman.

Do you think that’s a problem nowadays?

No, but it’s the basis of an emphasis! Like I said earlier, if there is a difference in characters, then I am going to emphasize that difference to the point of absurdity.

Why are some of your women hairless in the crotch?

Because I like drawing the forms, and hair destroys form. A form without hair is simpler and slightly bizarre, too.

What do you like about the grotesque?

I believe that is something basic in humans. They like anything different that holds their interest. The more different and bizarre, the more interesting is.

But look how much people like to conform to society!

They don’t wna to be weird themselves: they want to look at other people who are weird.

Do you ever want to be endowed as your characters are or be somehow like them?

No, beause it’s in the role of a drawing, and there is no balance to a drawing, but there is balance to people. For a real person to be like a character in a drawing would be monstrous: not just in the physique, but in the face or anything if it was actually rendered into flesh and bone. It’s not real – at least the way I draw it. When I emphasize certain characteristics it’s not becase I’m following a style or in reaction to a style, it’s because I feel it’s an emphasis for this particular detail. My idea is to have the fantasy completely realized so that it becomes realistic or so that it would seem real.

By realizing fantasies as completely as you can in this way, you deal with them. You don’t need to seek every big-breasted women in the world. You can, like other redblooded American males, talk of “hot chicks” but not expect to fuck them.

I know that women are more than just to fuck. That’s what they rebel against, being objects, and that’s why I feel that in the long run, you’re just kidding yourself if you use them only that way.

Do you feel your work is cathartic, then?

That word reminds me of an attack an underground cartoonist made against me once. He claimed he was making an attack against me and any other cartoonist who worked in horror and fantasy and science fiction. He claimed funny comics are cathartic; I claimed horror comics and fantasy comics are cathartic.

Expressing Through Art

Your art seems to be an opportunity for you to express repressed tendencies. What do you figure they are? Violent ones, angry…

That’s probably part of it… frustration.

Frustration about what?

I never became the way I really wanted to be. In growing up, I never felt adequate. And then, growing up, I felt it to be very difficult to be a man, and I didn’t know how to be a man.

If you didn’t fit a standard role in this world, especially if you had when you were growing up a macho ideal or some sort of confidence, then you either were thought of as a homosexual or a weirdo, and if you weren’t a homosexual, you didn’t know what place to fit in…

It’s like being a hermit.

Did you feel like hiding away?

I did hide.

What other ways?

I’d say repressed emotions. People would probably find me cold and calculating even though I was not, really.

Do you feel that you express yourself now more than you ever have?

In my artwork, yes.

How about verbally?

When I worked at Calvin, they wanted me to give a workshop speech one year. I took it as a challenge and I did it. But that was probably the worst period of my life, preparing for that speech where I had to get up in front of about eight or nine hundred people and make a speech, and that’s something I don’t care to repeat. It’s still difficult.

Why is it so difficult for you? Why do you think you had to turn to comics to express yourself, and specifically to comics and animation?

This is something that happens at a very early age – a disposition for emphasizing one side of the personality. I had a very hard time as a youngster learning verbal communication, and feel it probably spurred me on to the visual. That’s the only explanation I could find for it.

Farm I Grew Up

Did your parents talk a lot? Was there a lot of talk in the house?

Cerainly not in the early days, when we were on the farm where I grew up. If he was out working and she was there alone with just another child…

Was your father particularly harsh or anithing like that?

When I was a child, I thought he was, but in retrospect, I think I kind of respect him more than I did at the time. I used to think he was a tyrant then. I see he’s not.

You had a lot of conflict with him? Any examples appearing in your work?

I can’t think of any offhand. Things that appear in my stories are so changed, so manipulated that it would probably be hard to recognize when they originally came from; and they’re probably so different in my mind that I don’t even remember where they came from – probably something deep in the id that came out.

Anti-intellectual

Do you think you’re anti-intellectual?

Occasionally. My characters aren’t intellectual. Usually when they resolve a situation it’s not through thinking, it’s through some action.
I admire people who are demonstrative sometimes. The time I felt like I could kill somebody, when my anger was a slow build, I stayed up all night, dreaming, trying to figure out how I could go to New York, kil him, and come back and get away with it. I was even going so far as to try and figure out all the ways in which I could cover myself with alibis.

You feel like talking advantage of such feelings because you’re not habitually a person who expresses his anger. When you realized such feelings are there and can be expressed, the realization changed you?

No, I felt that it was down there all along. It just never came up to the surface. I am capable, and probably every person alive is capable, of killing people under the right circumstances; it’s just a matter of comming to those circumstances. Other thing can lead to aggressive behaviour – like going to karate, getting trained there. There is always tension and an attitude constantly there. And Donna will say that also. My character changed during the period when I went to that karate school. I was generally an easy-going person and slowly got angry. After being there for two years, I could be an instant killer. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #3]

Were you glad that aspect of your personality was revealed?

Yes. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, either, because it’s something for survival. It’s learning more about yourself, knowing that you have it in yourself to turn insanity into something like that.

Conservative Holocaust

This makes me think of Bloodstar – the blend of Robert E. Howard and Richard Corben. Your own Mutant World and other Warren stuff had a similar post-holocaust slant. And Howard was also a weight lifter. Do you feel any kinship with Howard?

I might have been slightly fascinated, but I’m repelled by many of his philosophies. He was a racist as well as being sadomasochistic, and he did use violence for his own sake – for the enjoyment of it. In fact, I wouldn’t say he’s one of my favourite writers. That’s one of the things I felt slightly queasy about – about accepting this job without adapting Valley of the Worm into Bloodstar. None of his characters were human to me. They were just brutes and I felt that if I were to do anything with it, I would have turned them into human beings.

The story ends on a Corben note – a mixture of the tragic and the moral.

I believe a fairy-tale happy ending is a false myth. We can hope for good things, but we can’t hope for that.

Do you believe in innocence? It’s there in characters from your earlier stories.

I don’t believe there’s a pure innocence. A person could be innocent in murdering a person, but he might have thought about it.

You have innocence, and then it gets perverted in certain ways.

I have this painting. It’s a self-portrait. It gets older and older as the years go by, but I don’t! If there’s anything all men deny, that’s their own mortality. We’re all doomed and put on earth for a while, and then that’s it!

But you’re not religious.

No.

Is there a guiding morality to your work?

Yes, in that my heroic characters don’t hurt people needlessly or kill people needlessly; they’re also not thieves.

I think that attitude abounds in your stories: man is alone; man reverts to savagery; the individual will survive in spite of all these things; civilization might even be a veneer.

I feel it’s true. I feel that it’s barely underneath the surface; ther are still savages.

Let’s face it, your work is not inherently optimistic.

The message in my work is that the individuals will survive no matter what. If the modern world destroys itself, there will still be a somebody left to be fully developed and live a full life.

Do you feel that we are verging on a holocaust? Because you deal with that image so much.

I don’t know if it will be an instant holocaust, I believe we are courting disaster in many ways. I don’t know if it will happen in a flash or if it will happen slowly.

I wonder, would you perfer that world to this kind of civilized world, in a certain sense?

It would be simpler in some ways. Still, the post-holocaust world is doomed, with all the residual radioactivity around. It’s not a place where you can live a long life.

People have said you’re a right-winger or that there’s right-wing politics in your work, with your individualists and moralists and the sexist thing.

Many people might think I’m conservative or a right-winger, but then when you talk to somebody who is a right-winger, you would probably thing I’m liberal.

Why would somebody think you’re right-wing?

Because my characters are not rebels and they don’t want chaos; they know that there have to be rules to follow.

Yet you use images that are crazy and violent and disruptive.

You have to be specific – it may be something related to crumbling world.

In certain ways, rampant violence.

It’s something to react against.

Do you portray violence so graphically because there’s something to be said by that imagery?

There’s all kinds of violence I portray. It’s only graphic in a stylized way. To portray the pain is impossible. It takes some imagination on the viewer’s part. It might require more exaggeration, more distortion, more abstractions than I put into the stuff.

Survival stories

What if somebody says your work is violent and pornographic?

That’s their opinion.

It glorifies violence, it degrades the human by dwelling on violence.

My characters are never violent for the sake of being violent. It’s always forced on them or is a means to an important end.

What ends do you think are important?

Surivival and protecting things you love, I imagine.

If your family were in danger, what would you do? How would you react? You’re basically a passive person.

I’d kill them on the spot!

Do you think you’d be able to respond in that way?

Yes. I always knew there was one part of me that could turn like a sword or be violent in an instant.

I can’t imagine you getting into an argument!

The trouble is when I argue, not only am I arguing with the other person, I’m arguing with myself.

Your work appears to be controlled. What gets Richard Corben out of control, out of order? You don’t get high, you don’t drink. What gets you nuts?

I believe I was leading into something like a change of attitude when I was training at karate school. If someone cut me off during that period, I wanted to chase him down. That’s repressed in me, that flying off the handle.

Do you ever fight with your wife?

No, I don’t raise my voice. If I were to raise my voice, I might become violent.

Do you feel your work causes people to become insensitive to violence because it so glories in violence?

There’s something deep in the human id that is both fascinated and repelled by violence. Violence is so much a part of human existence, there’s no getting away from it. Even being born and dying.

Do you think those are violent experiences, being born and dying?

Dying often is. Birth is sometimes violent for the mother and has a lot of discomfort.

Beth Corben

How does Beth, your daughter, react to the violence and sexuality in your work?

I sheltered Beth from the more violent things, the more explicit sexual stuff.

At what age do you think censorship for kids should end?

When they seem mature.

So you don’t have any objection to premarital sex?

No.

Can you see yourself as an advocate of sexual freedom

I’m an advocate of freedom. That might be included in it.

What do you feel about the repression of sex in America?

It’s all right to repress sex among children. It’s not all right in adults. They should be able to look at anything they want, within reason, as long as they’re not hurting anybody.

It’s almost incredible the way people repress sexuality in this country. I think it creates more sexual problems than it solves. It seems criminal how comic books reinforce a repressive mentality.

You can’t fight ’em. You can’t win by logic – it’s not logical. It’s just something you have to put up with, or what you can do is sidestep way…

Now Reagan and all those people have got power and these right-wingers for Christ are saying, “We want a moral country!” You’d be one of those likely to go to the camps, as a sexual outlaw.

I wouldn’t be very happy about that.

What would you do? How would you react?

If I were an outlaw, I would consider going to another country.

Do you feel there’s an outlaw element to your work or that you create outlaw characters? What characteristics align your most significant creations?

They are solitary people, generally introverted, not parts of gangs, not really that sociable; but they are introspective.

Maybe “outlaw” isn’t the right word; maybe the right word is “individualist”.

I think individualists are responsible for all the great discoveries on earth. All the great scientists or artists are great individuals.

Have there been particularly influential individualists in your life?

There are some artists and people: Einstein, Maxfield Parrish – because he painted the way he lived and the way he wanted. I’d say that because he was an illustrator but was so successful at it, he could just go off and do what he wanted.
There’s a fellow who’s a friend of mine who worked at Calvin. He’s about five or six years younger than I am, and I admire him for his drive and the things he’s accomplished, even though I feel I have a greater talent. He has accomplished a lot because he’s more aggressive and outgoing than I am, and I admire him for that.

What political movement or specific issue reflects your individualist slant?

The antinuclear movement. I feel the so-called engineers and scientists have this superior attitude that they know everything. And I feel they don’t know anything. Our environment consists of a very complex formula, and they have many of the items in the formula, but they don’t have all of them, because it’s an inhuman operation. People run the thing but they don’t know what they’re creating. It’s a self-perpetuating monster!

Corben Empire

In earlier work, in the undergrounds, a lot of stories end fatalistically. The bad guys are often corporate people, the capitalists. You definitely have an anticorporate bias.

To me, the individual is everything. Everything that’s important has come from us because we’re individuals as opposed to committee! I was impressed by Walt Disney. He was a great individual. He created an empire and became powerful. His corporation became overpossessive about their properties. They’ve got so much money but they’re worried about cartoonists ripping them off in some way.

Do you aspire to founding the Richard Corben empire?

Just in a small way; I want just a small empire.

What’s your notion of a small empire?

I want a publishing house. I would like to have enough money to do various things that I want to pursue. I want to pursue my sculptures, my movies, paintings, body buidling, and so on.

Will you ever draw a character with small breasts?

Maybe if you twisted my arm. [Mr. Corben’s correction, #4]

Copyright © 2001 Heart-Attack-Series, Ink!
Created: Jan. 22, 2001. Last updated: January 13, 2019 at 20:44 pm

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