Next time I'll talk about someone else, promise.
Den part 3 (1977), page 5 panel 5. Drawn by Richard Corben.
Like any rule, there are exceptions to this one; but by and large, good comics art walks the thin lines between cartoon and realism. Anyone engaging in the medium for more than a paycheck has to face the space between total reality and total abstraction head-on -- it's what they choose to do in that gap that produces whatever interest might be in their work. Caniff, Tezuka, Ware -- guys like those went where they went alone, beating new ink-trails into the cracks separating the recognizable from the simplified from the exaggerated, and only in their wakes did others make the same decisions, only when all the bravery had already been leeched from the paths. And then there are the ones who blaze trails that are theirs alone, that see no followers and become overgrown and wild again; the ones like Richard Corben.
Corben's a pretty anomalous artist in comics history, one of the most prominent bridgers of the disconnect between the mainstream and the alternatives during the time when that gap was smallest. It's an accomplishment that deserves more attention than it's gotten in the years since the two sides of comics made their split into Spiegelman and Shooter factions. Nearly every panel from his 1970s prime -- the above very much included -- displays a sculptor's eye for anatomy wedded to a cartoonist's facility for body distortions, a first-rate pen line pulsing in and out of sumptuously constructed color fields, painterly compositions bolted onto dynamic layouts. I'm getting at something here: there are two sides of Corben. On the one hand there's the Hal Foster/Michelangelo realist with the laser-focused visual imagination that went deeper into the sweep and smash of high fantasy than anyone before him could, submerging readers in legends like they'd never been submerged before. But on the other hand is the satirical, Crumb-influenced cartoon maker who refused to take his genres without a grain of salt and a wry smirk, puffing up his male figures to steroidal inflato-proportions and substituting living blowup dolls for women before throwing the lux perpetua colors of hyper-realism over everything and making us confront how weird it all looks. Corben plays to both sides of the ballpark with equal skill, roping the believers in with his own belief, the skeptics with his ability to come up for air and laugh at himself.
The ridiculous and the sublime in equal measure; certainly one of the ideal modes of art, and worth picking apart a little. The panel above is a fine example of how well Corben grounds his grotesque figures in fully-realized, tangible landscapes -- four distinct planes of depth are marked out by the sorceress at center, the crouched monster man to the extreme left, the wall running across the whole frame, and only then, finally and far away, the sprinting, robustly physical shape of Den himself. There are no dropped backgrounds, no blank dot screens, nothing of comic book artificiality -- but Corben borrows Jim Steranko's minimal, long-shadowed surrealist staging and Kirby's kinetic gestures, making it perfectly clear that though this might not look like normal comics it's certainly spawned from the same press-printed place. The mechanical lettering stamped over the image adds a final, strangely over-literal touch to the bizarre effect of a waking dream, a fantasy more vivid than the brain alone could hope to produce.
Corben does more with his colors than any action cartoonist I can think of. Not for nothing did his best work come on the glossy pages of Heavy Metal; his process, while it took plenty from the traditional four-tone comics procedure, employed a subtlety and grace that went beyond benday dots and newsprint. Working on the acetate overlays typical of pre-digital color comics, he airbushed each single tone over the line art before cranking up the contrast on the photo plates they were printed from. The results, as seen, are impressive. It's all just red and yellow and blue and black like always, but painted instead of slapped on, harmoniously mixed instead of clashing with each other. The tones are brighter, more garish than even the loudest superhero book of the era could manage, and yet the shapes and their interactions are as graceful and full as brushstrokes on canvas. In those aching, glorious pink clouds, Corben's art tugs the reader two familiar directions: toward total belief in the utter realism of the forms and the play of the light, and then again, toward rejection of the dark, brilliant sunlight that carves such absolute shadows on the pure yellow ground. What we end up with is a real world, deeply felt, intensely realized, but nothing like our own. Another place the drawings bring us to, or bring to us. A world on a page, that magical thing that comics do.