Advance Review: Richard Corben's 'The Raven and the Red Death' Makes Zack Say "Evermore"A comic review article by: Zack Davisson
It should come as no big surprise that I loved the latest Edgar Allan Poe adaptation by Richard Corben from Dark Horse. When it comes to Poe and Corben I have a hard time holding back the floodgates of praise—this is just brilliant stuff. And Corben has never been better. His art has matured and perfected to a level unrealized by most comic artists, few of whom have had an active career as long as Richard Corben. At this stage of the game, if you tell me Corben is illustrating the phone book I am interested (do phone books even exist anymore?) But when you pair him with Edgar Allan Poe—one of my all-time favorite authors and whose adaptations Corben is famous for—and well, you have just given me bliss between a handful of paper pages.
See? I told you I have a hard time holding back the floodgates of praise.
So, The Raven and the Red Death. These are two of Poe's most famous creations. Poe has become synonymous with the poem The Raven, and with good reason as it is one of the most perfect things ever written in the English language. The Red Death, or more properly The Masque of the Red Death, is famous in its own right - though almost as much through its connections to The Phantom of the Opera as for its own merits. Of the two, The Red Death is the most socially relevant—the idea of the rich and privileged partying away while the world crumbles outside of their fortresses of wealth never really goes out of style. But it can't match the haunting lingering of The Raven.
Richard Corben takes The Raven and gives us anything but a familiar take on the poem. He does something new with the poem, giving us only a glimpse of the verse and instead manifesting the saintly Lenore as a character—although perhaps not so saintly as imagined in the love-blind mind of the narrator. This raven too is much more than just an errant bird. Under Corben's pen Raven and Lenore are two sides of the narrator's twisted mind: Are they real? Is this a poem of madness instead of longing?
His take on The Red Death delves into madness—the madness of the rich and mighty who have completely lost touch with the idea of human suffering. King Prospero sits on his throne and is told of the miserable suffering of his people outside his castle walls. His response to his visors is to grin from ear to ear and announce "I could throw a party!" Of all of Poe's work, this is perhaps the most socially relevant to modern times as the gap between the rich and the poor widens ever more and more. I'm sure a savvy writer could pull something out here about health are or some other hot button issue, but Corben doesn't go that way. Well, he doesn't go that way completely - there's a beautiful/horrible scene of a brilliant castle rising up from squalor. Instead, he gives us the full madness of luxury, as Prospero's party and his partygoers indulge in every sin possible. They are a visual cacophony of costumes and colors, with the King wearing a purple octopus mask and his guests in whatever Corben could imagine --and believe me, he can imagine quite a lot. Then the Red Death takes the stage, his ominous presence immediately felt.
Oh, and Coben gives a great fairy tale twist to the end of The Red Death. I've read enough folklore to know who the mysterious hooded figure was, but it still brings a nice, familiar full circle to the story.
One of the most amazing things about Richard Corben's Poe adaptations is how they are so innovative and classically-minded at the same time. He doesn't stick to the story—often he just takes the title and makes up his own tale. In normal circumstances, this would annoy me. Poe's stories don't need improving. But Corban can do it. He creates such a perfect, self-contained world that his additions like his horror host Mag the Hag only increase my enjoyment of familiar stories. Corben isn't adapting Poe so much as taking Poe's stories and placing them in Richard Corben's world. This is an approach that only works if you are a master of your craft—like Corben is—and if you are so familiar and in love with the source material that you have moved beyond strict adaptations and allow for something new to emerge.
Poe and Corben are a perfect blend of two near-perfect artists. And these are some of the best comics of Richard Corben's career.