Just one comic, and not too many words. Oh, happy 4th of July, I guess. This one’s for all of my American buddies. (It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the 4th of July, if I’m being quite honest.) SHADOWS ON THE GRAVE: "The Clown" by Corben
SHADOWS ON THE GRAVE #4 Art by Richard Corben Written by Richard Corben, Jan Strnad Dark Horse Comics, $3.99 (2017)
Shadows on the Grave (SotG) is a monthly B/W anthology comic featuring a spatter of short terror tales and a thoroughly muscular episode of a comedic barbarian serial. It could have just consisted of short stories revolving around the life cycle of the Scarabaeus sacer and pin-ups of Brian Bendis in a variety of revealing swim suits, as long as Richard Corben was on the job. Because SotG is very much all about Richard Corben. Or his art at least. The thing is, look, the thing about the traditional draw of a comic, the stories, the thing about them in SotG is…well, they often aren’t really stories as such. I mean, they are technically stories, I guess, but they can kind of peter out a bit sometimes. In that sense they are a lot like the old DC “Mystery” books in that all the signifiers of horror are there but the narrative thread comes a poor second. Atmosphere is paramount where shadows drape the grave. Which is okay for me, but maybe not you? I mean, I bought this because it’s Richard Corben doing whatever he wants. And I am all about the Colossi of Comics doing whatever they want. Which is why Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder is an auto-buy wherever it appears; why Walter Simonson’s Ragnarök is the only $4.99 comic I buy without grinding my teeth; why Howard Victor Chaykin’s Divided States of Hysteria is…oops, moving swiftly on… In essence, in much the same way that a Daily Mail reader comes for the sideboob and stays for the archaic right wing frothing which paints every monied white person over 50 as a besieged minority in their own country, I come to SotG for the stories but I stay for the craft.
Stories which are, as I say, mostly exercises in style; attempts at inducing an atmosphere of creeping unease. The opener in this particular pamphlet of pulsating dread, “The Clown”, involves a bloke who does a bad thing at the circus and is gotten by a creepy clown doll. There’s no overt connection between his act of murderous larceny and his fate via macabre marionette. It’s just your stringently judgmental mind at work, Gidget. He could as well been singled out for smoking, or calling the dancing lady a rude word, or just for wearing a roll neck jumper with a jacket. All of which he does, because he’s a proper bad apple. But it’s not really important. What’s really important is seeing how Corben does it. How Corben draws the lady dancer’s boobs floppaloppaling about, managing in just one static panel to suggest more about the interconnectedness of mass and motion via the slightly down-market device of her go-go mammaries than the entire career of, say, Jim Lee ever has. How Corben draws a circus so tattily alive you can practically smell the cheap pot pourri of fried onions, exhaust fumes and cotton candy, almost hear the sharp cry of a freshly slapped child. How Corben captures the shabby glamour of the travelling fair, in short. All that’s the real pleasure.
Next up is “Flex!” which has far more structural integrity story-wise. Which it should well have, since Corben calls on his frequent partner in grime, Jan Strnad. Now Jan Strnad’s name may not be up in lights on the Broadway of your mind but he is an extraordinarily capable writer. Which may sound like faint praise but it’s more praise that I’d give most fan-favourite hawt hold-the-phone-! writers. More comic writers should deserve praise so faint, in short. I enjoyed Strnad’s horror novel Risen (written as J. Knight, Warner Books, 2001, ISBN 978-0759550384, GOOD!) quite a bit. It’s one of those small-town-steamrollered-by-evil things, so comparisons with Gravity’s Rainbow might not be entirely fair. More of a beach read, really; but that’s no great slur. Risen’s prose is efficient and it’s speedily paced but, you know, several times I admit the thought crossed my largely empty mind that it would work really well as a comic drawn by…Richard Corben!. Choke! And, Corben’s art is the star on “Flex”, but Strnad’s script lends the hokey wish-that-is-obviously-going-to-backfire premise enough of a casually raised eyebrow to bring everyone in on the fun. Most of that fun is seeing the outrageous contortions Corben puts human physiology through in the toe curling pay off to this cautionary tale of body builders. Ouch, fair made my eyes water so it did. OOF!
Appropriately enough the hyperbolic muscularity, one of Corben’s key visual motifs, of “Flex” also saturates the episode of “Denaeus” which ends the issue. It’s appropriate because Denaeus is one of Corben’s hyper-muscular barbarian characters a la Den (the two are related in some fashion I’ve forgotten; it’s not important). It’s familiar territory for Corben, as familiar as his horror stuff but, because he is Corben (i.e. because he is awesome), it’s all as fresh as the meat on a newly felled steer. It’s the usual stuff about prophecies, heroes, mysterious mages, maidens and violence, but all enlivened and undercut by Corben’s typically modern approach to the dialogue. That and the fact Corben can’t even make a sand dune look dull. So you can imagine the artistic delights he throws like so much visual tinsel all over the pages during the violent slapstick of the Denaeus vs cyclops centrepiece. There aren’t many comic artists who can bring to the page a giddy blend of creatine, egg whites, Ray Harryhausen movies, Michael Bentine’s Pottytime, Johnson’s baby oil and John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian. In fact there’s only one, Richard Corben. Further, there’s only one Richard Corben. And Shadows on the Grave is what he’s doing right now, and that’s VERY GOOD!
NEXT TIME: Queersploitation, Canadian superheroics, Howard Victor Chaykin’s bizarre foray into Hanna Barbera territory, a crappy slasher movie franchise goes paper, Judge Dredd or, uh, something completely different? Whatever it is, it’s bound to be – COMICS!!! (If you have a preference let me know below the line. I’ll probably ignore it, but you could get lucky!)